The Gift of Life

This week, Pope Francis has declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new kind of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’ (oblatio vitae). There is no surprise in learning that this is a true pattern of holiness! Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. What is surprising is that until now, the prayers the church uses to honour saints have not recognised this.

Open an official Catholic prayer book – the Missal used for Mass, or the Liturgy of the Hours which priests and religious order members use for their daily prayers – and you will find many ‘Commons’ for honouring different categories of saint.
Among the martyrs there are special prayers for those killed for defending their virginity. Among the ‘confessors’ (or ‘holy men and women’) there are subcategories for those who worked for education or in service of the poor. There are ‘virgins’, ‘pastors’ (ordained to at least the rank of priest) and ‘apostles’ (a closed category, though last year St Mary Magdalen’s feast day was upgraded to recognise her as ‘apostle to the apostles’.)

Statue of Maximilian KolbeYet no existing category quite fits in the case of a holy person who makes a deliberate choice to lay down their life for another. This problem came to the fore in the case of St Maximilian Mary Kolbe, founder of Franciscan friaries and a prolific evangelist through his expert use of the printing press. At the end of a life already remarkable for its holiness, Kolbe was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and stepped forward to offer his life in place of a Jewish man, a father of children, who was chosen to be executed. Kolbe proved difficult to starve, and eventually died by lethal injection; the man he offered his life for lived to be liberated at the end of the war.

When Blessed Kolbe was proposed for canonisation, Pope John Paul II faced intense lobbying from Germany and Poland to declare him a martyr. But was he a martyr? Had he been killed specifically because of anyone’s hatred of Christian faith? There was no evidence that the camp guards had targeted his beliefs – they had simply accepted his offer to lay down his life for someone else. John Paul II commissioned two officials to consider the matter, whose opinion was that Kolbe was not a martyr – but ultimately the Pope overruled them and canonised St Maximilian while wearing red vestments.

Gianna Molla holding two babiesA similar question can be asked in the case of the ‘martyr of life’ St Gianna Beretta Molla. An Italian physician, she was diagnosed with a serious condition while pregnant. She faced a choice between one kind of surgery almost certain to save her, but with a high chance of triggering a miscarriage; or another kind which was safe for the baby but less sure to resolve her condition. She chose the latter, gave birth safely, but died of complications soon after. She, too, would seem to fit this category of laying down one’s life for another.

It will be interesting to see what steps follow the announcement of this new category. Are such saints to be celebrated using red vestments, or using white? Will there be new Commons to add to the Missal and Divine Office? Will existing saints like Maximilian Kollbe and Gianna Molla be assigned to the new category?

Overall, this does seem like a necessary addition to the way the church classifies her saints and honours them in prayer. Perhaps once this is tidied up, some other missing categories can be filled out – men honoured specifically for their virginal purity, and women who, though not ordained pastors, are recognised as Doctors of the Church. Meanwhile, Holy Saints offering the Gift of Life – pray for us!

Psst. Mercy!

Homily at The Immaculate Conception, Tredegar, for the Vigil of Saints Peter & Paul, 2016.

This is the logo for the Holy Year of Mercy, which opens Dec. 8 and runs until Nov. 20, 2016. (CNS/courtesy of Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization) Christ carries a sinner over his shoulders as a shepherd would carry a sheep.

Psst! Have you heard the gossip?

There’s a man who’s been trying to destroy the Church from the outside.

First he shouted encouragement when they stoned that deacon, Stephen.

Then he asked for permission to go to Damascus and round up all the Christians there.

They say he was utterly merciless in the way he treated them.

 

Psst! Have you heard the gossip?

There’s a man who nearly destroyed the Church from the inside.

Jesus told him he had to forgive people who sinned against him. He tried to negotiate a limit of seven times. Jesus insisted on seventy times that!

He promised he would never abandon Jesus, but the night the Lord was arrested, he denied him three times.

They say he’s going back to his old career as a fisherman.

 

Psst! Have you heard the Gospel?

That Saul the Merciless, riding on the road to Damascus, had a vision. Jesus spoke to him.

They say he’s become an Apostle, teaching people about the love and mercy of Jesus!

Jesus changed his name to Paul, the little one.

Paul travelled all over the Mediterranean, starting churches and writing letters.

Little Paul was arrested, appealed to the Emperor, and was beheaded in Rome.

 

Psst! Have you heard the Gospel?

That Simon the Fisherman, the Rock who couldn’t hold firm, had a visit. Jesus took him for a walk on the beach. Three times he asked “Do you love me?” and Simon struggled to reply.

Jesus, the great forgiver, offered him another chance. This time Peter, the Rock, would lead the 12 disciples. Next time, Peter would not turn away, but would stand up for Jesus.

Simon Peter, first Pope and Fisher of Men, was crucified upside down in Rome.

 

Psst! Have you heard the Gospel?

That there’s someone in this Church, this evening, who doesn’t believe Jesus will really forgive them for something they’ve done wrong in their life?

But Jesus says: I forgave Paul, who persecuted the members of my body. I forgave Peter, who denied me three times. They both became leaders in my church, and great saints in heaven.

What kind of sinner are you, that you deserve forgiveness less than Peter or Paul?

 

My friends, I want to apologise to you. Our church is not always good at communicating what we stand for. Often we present ourselves as the Church of “Don’t Get Into Trouble”. It’s true that part of my job, and the task of every preacher, is to stand up and talk about right and wrong, because God wants us to choose good and keep away from evil. But we are also called to be the church of “Lord, Have Mercy”. The Church isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people who mess up and need to know they can make a new start. In the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, doubt no longer but believe. The one who had mercy on Peter and mercy on Paul offers you no less mercy.

Once Paul realised that Jesus was real, there was no stopping him; and as for Peter, when Jesus looked at him and saw a man who would be willing to say sorry, ask help, and start again every time he messed up, what did he say? On this rock I will build my Church.

Champions of Team Heaven

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Solemnity of the Assumption, 2014

To win the Tour de FranceYellow Jersey with Blue Bar you need three things: the right kind of body, arduous training and a good team behind you.

Only one person can win the race and take the coveted yellow jersey.

If you had the misfortune to be born with the wrong kind of body, you might yet become a reasonable cyclist, but you won’t become the champion.

If you do have the right kind of body, but you don’t train hard, you still won’t become the champion.

Even talent and training together are not enough; winning also requires teamwork. Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome last year each became Tour de France champions because they were part of Team Sky – they were backed by other riders whose actions gave them the opportunity to break away for the lead at crucial stages of the race. These other team members, like Welsh rider Geraint Thomas, know that they’ll never have the glory of the yellow jersey – yet victory for their team-mate is victory for the whole team.

Today’s celebration is like the final stage of the Tour de France. Most of the competition is already settled; the winner, clad in a golden robe, cycles up to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the adulation of the cheering crowd. The Bible also speaks of the task of getting to heaven as a race, and today we celebrate the greatest champion ever to have been born of a human father, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Just as a champion racer is born with innate talent and body-structure, so Blessed Mary from her mother’s womb was preserved free from sin and its effects by the miracle we call the Immaculate Conception.

Just as a champion racer trains hard each day, so Blessed Mary had to decide each day to do God’s will. At certain seasons of her life, this wasn’t so easy: consider the months when people thought she was an adulterous woman; the years she spent in exile in Egypt; the weeks when she fretted over the strange reports of the things her Son was saying and doing; and the final hours spent at the foot of the Cross. Through all of this, Mary proclaimed, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done according to God’s will.”

Just as a champion racer relies on the support of their team, so Mary didn’t succeed alone. When Jesus was an infant, she was supported by Joseph; during the Lord’s adult ministry she was accompanied by other women who accepted his message; before He died on the cross, he entrusted her to the care of St John.

Today, we celebrate the triumphal entry of our Blessed Mother into the halls of heaven. It is a lap of honour; the woman clothed with the sun takes her place amid the cheering of throngs of saints. It’s a moment of pure glory, and worth our turning out today for a celebration. But in celebrating Mary, we’re celebrating all the members of Team Heaven – it is not for nothing that the final mystery of the rosary is the Coronation of Mary, Queen of Heaven AND the glory of all the saints.

We will not finish the race in first place. Not one of us will displace Blessed Mary from her unique achievement. But this is about glory for the team. With Mary, we can triumph! She is on our team, praying for us, inspiring us to endure difficulties and aspire to greater things.

A champion is made from the gifts they have been given. Not one of us is conceived without sin, but all of us who have been baptised and confirmed have been filled by the Holy Spirit; each one of us have gifts which God has given us to use in the service of the parish and the wider community. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: how are we using our gifts?

A champion is made by a daily routine of training. In the Christian life, we call these, virtues, the good habits and attitudes which we get better at, the more we practice them. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: what kind of person do I want to be in God’s sight?

A champion is made in a disciplined team. As members of a parish, we are called to give moral support and practical help to encourage one another in the race to heaven. Everyone who crosses the line is a winner, but the greatest prizes are reserved for those who help others along the way. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: how am I blessing the other members of this parish?

This is our feast! This is our victory celebration for all members of Team Heaven. Let us rejoice in Mary’s glory, for where she leads, we shall also follow. All we have to do is choose, each day, to keep riding with the team!

O Mary, Champion of Team Heaven – pray for us!

Legacy Issues – What You Leave Behind

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Episode 4 of 4 in our current series, The Teachings of Jesus.

“Legacy! Legacy!” says the politician. It’s all about legacy!

Here we are, a year on from the 2012 Olympic Games, and everyone in the media seems to be talking about the Olympic Legacy. The games were meant to achieve so much – to give a boost to our economy and tourist trade, to get more people involved in sport, to make world-class buildings available to a deprived area of London… what we built were not bigger barns but better stadiums, and now the wrangling continues about who gets the benefit, and how much the taxpayer has had to subsidise commercial interests.

According to Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament preacher, it’s a terrible thing to work hard and have someone else enjoy the benefits. That’s called vanity.

According to our modern politicians, it’s a wonderful thing to work hard and have someone else enjoy the benefits. That’s called legacy.

But behind the rosy glow of “legacy” we might yet see the darker side of the human heart at work.

What motivates the politician who wants to leave a legacy?

Could it be a desire for prestige, for having achieved a landmark project?

Could it be sheer pragmatism – “We can’t afford all this healthcare, so we need to encourage our population to get fit?”

Could it be a genuine care and concern to make the community a better place? Yes, it could – for we must resist cynicism and find goodness even in the hearts of our politicians; but we recognise that few hearts act from pure motives and in every heart, we will find caring and kudos in competition.

Not all of us are Politicians with a capital P, but each one of us lives among other human beings, with a natural concern about what others might think of us. The way we use our wealth communicates something to those around us. The man in today’s parable did not need to build bigger barns to secure himself and his family; rather, it was an act of pride, “Look at how successful I am!”

He was trying to impress his neighbours; he failed to impress God.

If we wish to impress God, St Paul offers us a hard recipe: kill everything within ourselves that falls short of God’s standards. We are to put an end to lying – which is the desire for a reputation we have not earned; we are to put an end to greed – which tempts us to consume more than is good for our bodies and souls; and we are to put an end to indulging any desires for sexual relationships other than with the husband or wife to whom God has called us in holy matrimony.

The testimony of an ordinary saint – an everyday saint like you or me – therefore, runs something like this:

I spoke the truth, even when it did not paint me in the best light.

I chose to live simply and consume no more than is good for me. (I have to admit – I’m still working hard on this one. So no chocolate for Christmas this year, please!)

I asked God to show me the husband or wife I should wed, I waited until God blessed our relationship, and I have been faithful ever since.

A further hallmark of an everyday saint is that they see the good things of the world as a gift, not as a right. Jesus is most unimpressed at the heart of the man who considers himself entitled to a share of his brother’s inheritance. So many families in our society are torn apart by dashed expectations of inheritance! Only a humble attitude can preserve the peace!

If that man had said: “My brother’s inheritance is an undeserved gift, and I have no right to any of it,” peace would have been prevailed. And if this was important in the Lord’s day, it is even more important in today’s economy when senior citizens spend their golden years SKI-ing – that is, “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance” – or are forced to convert the value of their home into the cost of care.

Those who have little, impress God by treating what they do receive as a generous and undeserved gift. Grown-up children who expect nothing from their parents can never be disappointed, only delighted.

Those who have much, impress God by giving generously of what they have received. Parents with the ability to do so should give fairly to their children, but remember also the needs of the poor.

Over the last four weeks, we have examined some of the most challenging teachings given to us by Our Lord. The Gospels we hear at Mass, and the sermons proclaimed, are only of value to us if we take these teachings on board and change our lives accordingly.

We have been challenged to love our enemies. Have we prayed for them and reconciled with them?

We have been challenged to spend time listening to Jesus. Have we set aside a daily or weekly slot to open the Bible or practice silent meditation?

We have been challenged to be persistent in prayer. Do we have a strong sense of what we need from the Lord, and a determination to pray until we receive it?

And today, we have been challenged to use our wealth in a way which impresses heaven above us rather than the world around us. What changes do we need to make in our lives accordingly?

“Legacy! Legacy! It’s all about legacy!”

The legacy I would like to leave is this: “He reminded his people of the difficult teachings which Jesus gave us, so we could all become saints. Slowly the people of the parish took these difficult teachings on board. When they saw a part of their life in which change was needed, they went to confession, and so obtained God’s special help to live their life in a new and better way. And by taking small steps towards becoming saints, the people of St John Lloyd shone with the image of Jesus living within them, transformed the world around them, and made themselves rich in the sight of God.”

We can do this! So let the favour of the Lord be upon us: give success to the work of our hands!

Marvel!

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad!

But before the marvels took place, there came a time of testing and a step of faith.

Today’s first reading and psalm remind us of a time when people looked at Israel and said – “Here is a people God has truly blessed.” God’s intent is that people look at our Catholic Church and say the same.

Last week, the pope canonized seven new saints. Behind each canonization is not only the story of a human being who suffered martyrdom or poured out a life in service of others, but also the testimony of someone who suffered from severe illness being healed through that saint’s prayer to Jesus. Earlier this month, the authorities at Lourdes announced the recognition of the 68th healing for which there is sufficient medical evidence to declare a miracle. The Catholic Church is the place where God’s healing power is at work! These testimonies point to faith – the faith to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the faith to call upon a candidate for sainthood, the faith that Jesus can work powerfully in today’s world, if only we can make the right connection with him.

The story of Bartimeus is a story of faith at many levels.

First, Bartimaeus had heard about Jesus. There’d be no story to tell if Bartimaeus was unaware of who Jesus was, and what he was reputed to be able to do. Jesus could have been just another noisy passer-by as far as Bart was concerned – but no. Bart believed that Jesus had the power to do something for him – and he could only know that if someone had already told him!

Next, Bartimeus takes his first step of faith. He believes that Jesus can help him, so he cries out. Being blind, he can’t make a beeline for Jesus, but he can try to attract his attention. This isn’t a popular move with the crowd! The more the crowd tells him not to reach out for what he believes in, the louder Bart shouts. “Hey! Jesus! Over here! I need you!”

Suddenly, Bart’s role changes. He’s no longer the troublesome protester  but instantly becomes Best Supporting Man – all the eyes of the crowd turn in his direction because Jesus has picked him out!

Now, another step of faith is called for. Jesus has noticed him – but isn’t going to come to him. No, says Jesus, “Come to me!”

What a mix of emotions Bart must have felt at that moment! Excitement. Fear. Adrenalin pumping. What’s going to happen next?

We are told he casts aside his cloak. A blind man abandons his cloak in the middle of a crowd! It’s the only thing he’s got to keep him warm at night. Perhaps it’s also spread out to receive the alms, the gifts of money, that compassionate travellers have quietly placed there for him. Cloak, money and security go flying and Bartimaeus shoots up like a rocket, guided by the gentle hands of the crowd. He has traded his only earthly security for an encounter with Jesus.

Now he stands before the Lord. “What do you want?” asks Jesus. The miracle isn’t going to happen without an explicit request – and it’s played out in front of an audience. The whole crowd hears Bartimaeus ask to be healed of his blindness – and Jesus obliges, with the words: “YOUR FAITH HAS SAVED YOU.” By faith, Bartimaeus cried out. By faith, Bartimaeus abandoned his cloak and came to Jesus. By faith, Bartimaeus put into words his heart’s desire to be healed. And now, by faith, Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus.

Two weeks ago, we heard a rich young man, someone important in the eyes of the world, being challenged to leave everything, and follow Jesus. He faltered. Today, a blind man, a worthless beggar in the eyes of his community, casts aside his security and follows Jesus on a road which will lead to Jerusalem and the Cross. St Mark wants us to hear both stories and draw our own conclusions.

But there is more that we can learn, especially as we begin this Year of Faith.

Faith comes by hearing. Someone told Bart about Jesus and his power to heal. We also must tell people about Jesus. The new saints, the miracle at Lourdes – these are stories worth telling!

Do we still believe that Jesus has power to heal? True, not every prayer is answered positively, not every sick Catholic is healed. But Bartimaeus had to ask for his healing, and at least part of the reason that we don’t see more healings in our  community is that we do not ask persistently and specifically in prayer. It is right that we have a list of names in our bidding prayers which we commend to God. But the prayer of faith is strongest when the sufferer or their close family make a pilgrimage, or call upon their priest and members of their community to come to pray alongide them, saying: “Lord, that I may see! That I may walk! That I may be cured!” – and not as a one-off, but as a persistent knock on heaven’s door.

We don’t do faith alone. True faith requires trust in God and trust in members of the community.  Bartimaeus  trusted the crowd to lead him in the right direction, and he had enough confidence in Christ to cast aside his security blanket. At the recent Paralympics, we saw how blind athletes worked with guide runners and bicycle pilots so that both could achieve medals. Blind swimmers placed huge trust in their tappers, assistants with long poles who tap them on the shoulders near the end of the pool so they can swim at full pelt until warned of the wall where they need to turn round.

Blind Bartimaeus could see something the crowd could not: he could see that Jesus was the true Messiah, the long-awaited Son of David, the One in whom he could place all his trust. Through Bartimaeus, the whole crowd learns something about who Jesus is. And in a way, Bartimaeus becomes a tapper for this crowd: though sighted, they need to be warned to slow down and turn around their lives. From their froth of excitement, they slow down to watch the spotlight fall on Bart’s encounter with Jesus. Those willing to see what is really happening notice that Bartimeus’s healing required courage and an openness to following Jesus. Bartimaeus has turned around and become Christ’s follower – will the crowd do the same?

Our Lord does not promise us a life free of suffering; he is the great high priest who has endured the same trials as ourselves. The new  saints suffered martyrdom – among them the Filipino Pedro Calungsod – or toiled among the sick – Sr Marianne Cope among lepers in Hawai’i. But we should expect answers to prayer often enough to keep on asking with the persistence of a Bartimaeus.

So let’s make the right connection! Let us pray with persistence, with expectation, and above all, with other members of our community. The more we pray, the more answered prayer we will experience, and we will have own personal reasons to proclaim: “What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad!”

The Church of “Let’s Sort Out This Mess”

Homily at Cardinal Newman School for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, 2012

Although today celebrates Saint Peter and Saint Paul, I’d like to start by talking about James and Fiona.

Earlier this week, I conducted the funeral of a man called James McCann. For many years he had been a homeless gentlemen, travelling from one town to another, asking for food and company at the doors of many churches. Two years ago, I helped him to get a council flat near Porth. Now, often, when James rang my doorbell, he was both drunk and rank – by which I mean he had a rather large B.O. problem. Occasionally, if I didn’t lock the outer door of my back porch at night, I would find him sleeping there the following morning. And sometimes that meant I would have to clean the floor of the porch because he had – and I am going to use a polite word – made a mess there.

James couldn’t help himself. And yet, when he had sobered up, he was always sorry. Often, he would be back within a day or two clutching a small bunch of flowers, a little gesture of apology. I think James was always genuinely regretful, but he was never willing to make the next step – never able to ask for help to change his life.

At the end of his funeral, we walked him out of church with a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace. It brought a tear to my eye when I thought of the words – that God’s grace has “saved a wretch like me”. Yes, that’s what our faith is all about – when we mess up big time, God wants to be there to catch us. Whatever we have done wrong, God can forgive us and help us make a fresh start. James is now in God’s hands, and because he was always  genuinely sorry for what he did wrong, I believe that he is now on the way to heaven, where at last he is free from all temptation and the power of alcohol.

Then there’s Fiona. Fiona was a student at the University of Glamorgan, who became pregnant, panicked, and had an abortion. Then she was racked with guilt and found herself sitting in the confession box at St Dyfrig’s. Of course, I can’t tell you about anyone’s actual confession, so I am using a false name. I meet one or two Fionas every year. Each time, I first re-assure them that although they have done something very serious in taking away the life of their unborn child, it is not too big a thing for God to forgive. Next, I ask if they ever thought of coming to the Church for help before they had the abortion – and they always say NO. I remind each Fiona that what God wants for them, is that they wait until they are married before they do anything that could make a baby – but if they slip up again and find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, the church is here to help.

In 1997, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Winning, shocked Britain by a powerful speech:

Today I issue an open invitation to any woman, any family, any couple who may be facing the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy… to come to the Archdiocese of Glasgow for assistance.

Whatever worries or cares you may have … we will help you.

If you need financial assistance, or help with equipment for your baby and feel financial pressures will force you to have an abortion … we will help you.

If you cannot face your family, or if pressure in your local area is making you consider abortion, come to us, we will help find you somewhere to have your baby surrounded by support and encouragement. We will help you.

I’ve only quoted a few of the things Cardinal Winning said – but you get the message: the Church wants to help you out of the mess that you are in. And Cardinal Winning’s charity still helps women who are in that difficult situation.

My friends, I want to apologise to you. Our church is not always good at communicating what we stand for. Often we present ourselves as the Church of “Don’t Get Into Trouble”. It’s true that part of my job, and the task of every preacher, is to stand up and talk about right and wrong, because God wants us to choose good and keep away from evil. But we are also called to be the church of “Let’s Help Each Other Out Of This Mess”. The Church isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people who mess up and need to know they can make a new start.

Two of those people were called Peter and Paul. St Paul went round murdering Christians before he realised that Jesus was real. St Peter was a coward who talked big talk but ran away when Jesus was arrested. They were both man enough to admit that they got it wrong.

They became saints because they had the courage not only to admit they were in the wrong, but they were willing to choose to live their life differently. The couldn’t do it on their own, but they asked God for help. The Bible stories we have just heard tell us that God rescued them time and time again – God sent an earthquake to bust Peter out of jail, and Paul had so many narrow escapes he could write to Timothy that “the Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom”.

Friends, do you want to be like James and Fiona, or like Peter and Paul? James and Fiona were willing to say sorry, but not ask for help; and because of God’s amazing grace, they can just squeeze into heaven. Once Paul realised that Jesus was real, there was no stopping him; and as for Peter, when Jesus looked at him and saw a man who would be willing to say sorry, ask help, and start again every time he messed up, what did he say? On this rock I will build my Church.