Glimpses of Immortality

Homily at St Philip Evans, for All Souls’ Day, 2017.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

Each of the readings we’ve just heard offers us a glimpse of immortality.

God whispers to the prophet Daniel that the dead will rise again.

St Paul, who was caught up into heaven and allowed to see long-hidden things, speaks confidently about a day when the dead will be raised and the living caught up into the air with them.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus and the 11 gathered in the Upper Room rejoiced when they met Jesus risen from the dead.

What do these three scriptures have in common? They are glimpses not of heaven, but of the resurrection of the body. We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

When we pray the creed, we profess our belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come”.

When we lose someone we love, is our first instinct to rejoice in their resurrection or hope they are in heaven? And how much is our picture of heaven shaped by Hollywood and popular culture, rather than what God shows us through his Word?

Perhaps it’s true that God allows many people a foretaste of heaven, either through mystical experiences – such as the paintings of child prodigy Akiane Kramarik – or near-death experiences. Two recent films have been based on children who have claimed to have been on the brink of death and returned after meeting Jesus – Heaven is for Real a few years ago, and last year, with an all-star cast, Miracles from Heaven. There are also many adults who have had near death experiences and returned with remarkable stories – such as Stanley Villavicencio, a Filipino man who sat bolt upright after three days in a coma, with a message of meeting Jesus as depicted in the image of Divine Mercy.

These stories are interesting, even encouraging – but they are not God’s word.

There are also stories of souls visiting earth to ask for our prayers. In Rome there is even a small museum of purgatory – a display case holds a dozen artefacts, each with the story of a soul in need of prayers appearing to a living relative to ask for prayers and leaving some kind of mark on an everyday object. An Austrian woman, Maria Simma – who died in 2004 – claimed to have a special gift of being visited by many souls in needs of prayer and wrote about her experiences in a book called Get Me Out of Here!

Again, these claims are interesting – but they are not God’s word.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

The passages from the Bible we have heard today point us not to heaven, but to our own immortality. What happens after we rise again – whether we spent eternity in happiness with God or in agony, forever separated from perfect love – depends entirely on whether we accept God’s gracious offer of salvation during our life on Earth. For those of us who hear the Gospel it’s about whether we turn to Jesus in prayer and ask Him to save us. For those people who never heard the Gospel, it’s about how they follow their consciences. But today isn’t about whether we spend eternity with God or apart from him. It’s about what happens before that.

Today is the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. Today exists on our calendar because we understand that souls who have died are in need of our prayers. The Bible never says this directly, but drops hints. The Second Book of Maccabees notes in passing that it is “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins”. Jesus told a parable about a sinner who was put in prison “until he could pay the last penny” – surely having no money in prison, the debt could only be paid by those who loved him. Other Bible passages also hint at the reality of Purgatory, a final purification before some souls enter heaven – a state that only exists for souls who die before the Second Coming. When the day comes that we’ve just heard St Paul talking about – the day when the living and the dead are raised together – there will be no more Purgatory.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again. But we haven’t yet reached our destiny. So as an act of love, while we still live in these mortal bodies, we pray for the Faithful Departed who have gone before us and await the day when they will be raised anew and caught up with those still alive.

Let’s stand and pray for these souls. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Destination: Heaven

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Imagine that you’re minding your own business, walking down a street in Cardiff, when a stranger approaches you and introduces themself to you. Very quickly the stranger asks you a direct question: “If you were to die tonight, do you know, without a shadow of a doubt, whether you would go to heaven?”A

Actually, that might have happened to some of us. Is there anyone in church today who has had such a conversation?

At the start of July this year, there were teams of Christians all over Cardiff asking that very question as part of a Mission to Wales.* The Mission will continue in future months, so if you haven’t been stopped yet, there’s a chance it might happen in the near future. But what answer would you give?

Now as Catholics, we believe in Purgatory – that for many souls, some purification may be needed before we can enter heaven. If the stranger asks you whether you would go “STRAIGHT to heaven”, you might say no, expecting to spend time in Purgatory first. But I don’t want to spend time today talking about Purgatory, or how to avoid it. I want to talk about our final destination. We know that all souls will either end up in Heaven or in Hell.**

Do you know what you have to do to make sure that you will end up in Heaven, not in Hell? I’ve tried asking lots of Catholics the question “will you go to heaven when you die”, and many of us don’t seem too sure about it! But we can be certain! St Paul seems pretty confident in today’s Second Reading that if he died, he would go to be with Jesus. Our Lord came to show us the way and tell us what we need to do. So here is your 5-minute guide on “How to Get to Heaven”.

Step One: Get Baptised.

Baptism wipes away all our past sins. When an adult – or a child old enough to understand – chooses baptism, they’re asking God to wash away everything bad from the past. Someone who dies just after baptism will surely go straight to Heaven.

Step Two: Avoid Mortal Sin.

Remember that a Mortal Sin is committed when we choose to do, or neglect, something which is serious in God’s eyes, in full knowledge of the situation, and with moral freedom to choose our course of action. It’s not possible to commit a Mortal Sin by accident – it’s because we’ve made a deliberate and free choice of something bad that the sin becomes mortal.

Step Three: If you do commit Mortal Sin, go to confession.

And if you aren’t sure whether your sin is mortal or not, go to confession. What you can be sure of, is that any sin sincerely confessed to a priest will be forgiven.


Imagine that some terrible explosion destroyed all our bodies in the next sixty seconds. If you know that you’ve been baptised, and you’ve confessed any mortal sins committed since your baptism, you can rest assured in the knowledge that your final destination is Heaven.

On the other hand, if you’ve been avoiding baptism, or avoiding confessing the serious sins on your conscience, then start worrying, because your final destination would be the Other Place, and you don’t want to go there!

Of course, we can always try to pick this simple teaching apart with clever “What-If” scenarios. What if someone dies waiting for their scheduled baptism or on the way to confession? But God knows our hearts, and will not punish us for failing to do something we were genuinely trying to do.

Some of you might find a worrying word stirring in your consciousness at this moment, the word presumption. Weren’t we once taught as Catholics that we should avoid presuming we would go to heaven?

Not exactly, no.

What the Church says*** we can’t presume is that, if we don’t bother to repent of our sins, God will admit us to heaven anyway. No – the first message of Jesus is that we must repent! While Jesus does sometimes talk about good works – the sheep who feed the hungry and visit the prisoners are welcomed into heaven – we have to put all his teachings together to get the full picture, and Jesus spoke many times to warn us that our sins can send us to Hell if we don’t change our ways. So in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he is still to be found! Turn back to God, who is rich in forgiving!”

Our Church also says that we can’t presume that our good deeds will “earn” our entry to Heaven. That’s what today’s parable is all about. Heaven is not a reward for doing a full lifetime’s work on earth. Rather, the deal God offers us is this: “If you’re working for me on the day you die, you’ll receive the reward in heaven.” On the other hand, if you’ve been labouring for a whole day, but you can’t look the master in the eye when it’s time to receive your wages, you will not receive your reward after all.

It’s very simple. Get baptised. Avoid sin. Confess the sins you can’t avoid committing. Never turn away from the deal God offers, that you must work for him on earth, and when you die, by the free gift God is offering, you will certainly go to heaven!

So next time someone stops you on the street to ask “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?” you should know exactly what answer you should give. And if that answer is not an unambiguous YES, I strongly urge you to do something about it!

* Full disclosure: CatholicPreacher led a team of 12 Catholics on the streets of Cardiff as contributors to the Mission.

** OK, this is an over-simplification for preaching purposes. Heaven and Hell are the long-term destinations pending the Second Coming. It’s possible a soul could be in Purgatory until the Last Judgment. And for a soul which has been in Heaven, or waiting in Purgatory for the Last Judgment, the ultimate destination is “the new heavens and the new earth” which the Bible promises. I’m using “ending up in Heaven” as shorthand for this. Souls in Hell receive their eternal body at the Last Judgment and then return to Hell.

*** The Council of Trent (Chapter XII of the Sixth Session) taught that no person could rashly presume to be predestined to eternal life “for without special revelation it is impossible to know whom God has chosen for himself”. However, this is a teaching about final perseverance (“If I don’t die right now, can I be sure I won’t commit a mortal sin between now and the moment I die”) rather than a teaching saying we can’t know the state of grace we’re in right now. Rather, because baptism and sacramental confession are objective acts, and Mortal Sin requires a conscious knowledge of one’s own action, I can make a very clear statement about whether I am in a “state of grace” right now. Baptism attains that state; mortal sin loses it; a genuine intent to confess the sin with a firm purpose of amendment regains it, sealed by actually making confession insofar as that is possible.


Save Us From the Fires of Hell

Homily at Christ the King for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

“Pray and make sacrifices, because so many souls go to Hell…”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to St Jacinta Martos and her cousin, Lucia dos Santos.

One hundred years ago this weekend, these children, with Jacinta’s brother, St Francisco, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary while they were tending sheep outside the village of Fatima, in Portugal. It was to be the first of six visions spread over six months. In the course of those visions, Our Lady of Fatima showed the children a vision of Hell and promised to take them to Heaven. She warned that many souls were in danger of going to Hell because they were not leading the right kind of life. She asked the children to offer up sacrifices so that God would give to those souls the grace of conversion – enough grace to carry them all the way to Heaven.Grey statutes of the Fatima children, Jacinta (seated) and Francisco (standing_

The Gospel we’ve heard today is very familiar – it’s the one most commonly chosen for Catholic funerals. There’s a very positive message: Jesus has prepared a room in heaven for each person on earth. But that doesn’t guarantee that every soul will arrive in the place prepared for them. We never claim the soul of any person, other than an infant, goes directly to heaven until that person has been canonised – so we rejoice that the Church has canonised St Jacinta and St Francisco this weekend. At a funeral, we presume the soul is on the way to heaven, but may benefit from our prayers to help the soul pass through Purgatory more swiftly. The message of Fatima challenges us to pray another kind of prayer, a prayer which saves souls alive on earth today from going to Hell.

There are deep mysteries here. First of all, why does God need us to pray for sinners to be converted? Why doesn’t God just convert them?

Last weekend we marked Good Shepherd Sunday, a day to remember that Jesus called us to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to the harvest. The “labourers” can mean priests, but can also mean any Christian souls willing to invite other people to become members of the Church.

God has so much respect for us, as members of the body of Christ, that He invites us to be part of His great plan – His plan for more shepherds, and His plan for the sheep.

The second mystery is whether it can really be true that souls are in so much danger of going to Hell? Didn’t Jesus say in today’s Gospel that he had gone ahead of us to prepare the way to Heaven? Indeed he did – and he explained to St Thomas that the way to get there is to follow him!

Among people who are not church members, many today believe that this life on earth is all we’ve got, so we should make the most of it while we still can. We have a message for them – God has so much more in store!

Within the church, we have a bigger problem. Two whole generations of Catholics have grown up with the impression that God is a kindly grandpa who looks the other way when we choose to sin, and throws open the gates of heaven when we die. That’s false! That’s cherry-picking some bits of the Gospels. Yes, the Father of the prodigal son ran to meet him, but not until the son had come to his senses and resolved to go and apologise to his father!

Third, why does God need our sufferings? Today’s Scripture says we are a holy priesthood offering sacrifices to God, and that by doing so we build up God’s house. The greatest sacrifice of all was Jesus dying on the Cross – but because baptism makes us members of Christ’s body, we can offer own little sacrifices as our contribution to this work. This is the priestly work that ALL members of the church are called to undertake.

How do we do this? The children of Fatima were taught a prayer that they could say whenever they voluntarily accepted any hardship, rather than choosing to complain: “Oh my Jesus, it is for love of you and in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Daily life will send us plenty of material for sacrifice. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice our pride to let well-meaning people help us. Sometimes we have to go the extra mile to do a favour which is not onerous but certainly inconvenient, helping a family member, friend, or stranger. Sometimes, life sends us physical aches and pains – these too can be material for sacrifice rather than complaint

Each of the three children of Fatima had a different calling. Lucia is not yet canonized. She lived until 2005, and her case is still being investigated: she remained on earth as a witness. Her two cousins both died in the Spanish ‘Flu which swept Europe before 1920. Our Lady said that she would take Jacinta to Heaven – and Francisco, who saw the vision but did not hear the words – would go to Heaven too, but first he would have to pray “many rosaries”!

So, my dear friends in Christ, let us not take Heaven for granted. We rejoice today that Jesus has opened the way – but to get there we must follow Him, and for others to get there, they must follow Him too. Let us not forget to pray that many people will indeed choose to start following Jesus on earth, and so find the way to their home in heaven. If we add daily sacrifices to our prayer, we will be doing something most pleasing to Our Lady – but we will only find out what great fruit our prayers bring when we reach that heavenly home prepared for us.

St Jacinta – pray for us!

St Francisco – pray for us!

Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

Who do you think you are?

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.A tree with six logos as fruit - think-bubble, hand, heart, pound sign, envelope, cross

Who do you think you are?

There’s a television programme by that name, which helps celebrities trace their family trees. This can be a risky business! Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent discovered that he was a descendent of King Edward the First! But consumer rights campaigner Esther Rantzen discovered that her great grandfather became a fugitive, accused of serious fraud!

The good news is that our family tree doesn’t define who we are. In the words of Jesus we hear today, we are told that we are “salt for the earth and light for the world”. If we read further in the New Testament, we find other passages which speak about who we are in Christ.

This is Good News! Jesus wants to give us our identity, our security, and our authority.

Did you stop for a moment as you entered this church to bless yourself with Holy Water? If you did, you reminded yourself that you were baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. By baptism, you were made a member of the Body of Christ and adopted as a son in God’s family – yes ladies, that includes you too! You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (I Cor 12:27): your baptism gives you your identity in Christ.

As members of Christ’s body, we are invited to receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Just before we come forward for communion, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We ask for our “daily bread”. But what are we asking for? One meaning is “give us what we need for life today”. Jesus told us not to be anxious about the basics of life because our Heavenly Father knows all our needs (Mt 6:24-34). But the word we translate as “daily” has two meanings in Greek, and St Jerome – who made the first great translation of the Bible into Latin – couldn’t decide which one was meant. In his version of St Matthew’s Gospel he chose the other possible translation – give us today our supernatural bread, the bread which has come down from heaven. We believe that every time we receive Holy Communion, our venial sins are forgiven and we are re-connected to Heaven, receiving the Bread of Life which we must eat to inherit eternal life (Jn 6:36-69). Receiving Holy Communion gives you your security in Christ.

To be a full member of the Catholic Church, you must receive three sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. Here in the West, we usually wait until the age of about 13 for confirmation. But in Kerala, where it is called the “sacrament of anointing”, it is given to babies when they are baptised. In both East and West, the minister declares that this is a “seal” of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient word a seal was used in the way we use an identity card or passport today. But it’s not our own identity card – it’s God’s! And when we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, God promises us power to be his representative in the church and in the world. It was that power St Paul was writing about in his letter today. Being anointed with Chrism gives you your authority in Christ.

So who do you think you are?

Jesus thinks you are the salt of the earth. You have the power to make the world around you a better place, just as salt can cure meat and grit treacherous paths.

Jesus thinks you are the light of the world. That’s high praise, coming from Him! In St John’s Gospel (8:12) He called Himself the Light of the World, and said that if we followed him, we would make it to Heaven. Wow! That’s a challenge! Jesus says you must be the kind of person that if other people imitate your behaviour, they will go to heaven!

What kind of actions is God looking for? The First Reading instructs us to support the hungry and the poor; we do this through our taxes and through giving to charity, in the form of money or the foodbank and clothesbank we have here. We’ll have an opportunity to help some very special people at the end of today’s Mass, when we take a collection to help handicapped children visit Lourdes this Easter.The Bible suggests that for people who don’t know about Jesus, such good works will be enough to get them to heaven (Rom 2:12-16).

Now, it’s also true that Jesus warned us not to show off our good deeds in front of other people – in fact that’s in the very next chapter of the same Gospel (Mt 6:1). He’s concerned that we don’t get proud about our good deeds. But as long as our motivation isn’t to show off, we’re not to hide our Christian actions either – because otherwise we can’t inspire other people to follow us to heaven.

Is it enough to only do good works to help the poor? NO! You are forgetting your identity in Christ.

We are God’s family. We know the family secret, that to have life to the full, we must receive the Bread of Heaven. The example that God wants us to set for others is the example of being people who come every week to receive our supernatural bread! By doing this, we can help people who follow our example find their security in Christ. Remember, Jesus Himself said that if we do not eat of his flesh we will not have life within us! (Jn 6:53)

So who do you think you are?

If you think you’re a good person who doesn’t know Jesus, being kind to needy people will probably get you into heaven.

But if you’re a Catholic and know you’re a member of God’s family, God expects more of you! You are the salt of the earth! You have your identity, your security and your authority from being a brother or sister of Christ our King! But if you lose your saltiness, look out – even God’s identity card won’t get you through the gates of heaven if you claim to be like Jesus but turn out to be a fraud!


A New Hope

ChristmasWrapperFrontHomily at St Philip Evans for Christmas Day 2015.

A long time ago, 
in a village far far away...

a child was born –  a child who was the subject of ancient prophecy. He was born at a time when a great Empire ruled over much of the known world. In a small province, one tribe resisted the imperial demands to worship their Emperor – the Jewish people. The Jewish child born at Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, would be the one, not to ‘bring balance to the Force’, but to deliver the ultimate triumph of light over darkness.

We remember certain films we’ve seen because they tell epic stories. The original Star Wars movie took a simple farm boy and showed how he succeeded in destroying a powerful enemy. In the sequels, Luke Skywalker set out to rescue his friends and even made a strong attempt to persuade his archenemy to abandon evil. As for a certain film released a week ago – no, no spoilers from me. But it’s no secret that the new film is called The Force Awakens.

We human beings tell three kinds of story to explain the way things are. Each story is an epic, but only one can be correct.

In the West, we’ve grown used to the epic story called Science. We study the world around us, and discover the rules by which it operates. Science is good, as far as it goes – I was a research scientist myself before I became a priest – but if science is all there is, this epic is a lonely story indeed. We humans are the only creatures on this planet – and perhaps the entire universe – capable of understanding and controlling the world around us. This story says: we’re on our own, we’re free to create our own moral values, and when our bodies turn to dust we live on only in the memories of our friends.

In the East, the great cultures of Asia have long told a different kind of story. Many believe there is a ‘force’, a ‘life-force’, known by many names – prana, ki, chi, bioenergy, a force which balances good and bad, light and dark, yin and yang. Healing practices such as Chinese medicine, reflexology, acupuncture and reiki all draw on these beliefs. No doubt George Lucas had some of these ideas in mind when he imagined ‘The Force’ in Star Wars.

Lucas’s Force can be used for good or for ill. What distinguishes the ‘Dark Side’ from the Jedi way? The evil Empire seeks to control its citizens, but those who walk in the light respect the freedom of others.

The third epic story is the one we celebrate tonight. It tells how the ultimate power in the Universe is not a Force but a person, the one we call God. Jews, Christians and Muslims all speak of a God who is Good, and though there are dark forces in God’s creation, they are not equal to God in power.

What we celebrate on this Christmas Night is the awakening of a person, a newborn child. The Bible calls him the “Word of God”. When God, the Father of Mercy, wanted to speak to us, his beloved people, he sent part of His own being among us. God knows that we understand the language of stories, so God became part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Our Christmas story is full of drama. Would the pregnant Virgin Mary be rejected by St Joseph? Would the wicked King Herod find and destroy the new-born child? At every stage, God-made-flesh is in mortal danger. A chorus of angels fills the sky, but then a small family sets out on a lonely journey to become refugees in Egypt. And what we celebrate at Christmas is only the first reel. In a few months we’ll be invited to two sequels – on Good Friday, The Devil Strikes Back, followed on Easter Sunday by The Return of Jesus.

Our Christian story is indeed epic – but what’s the moral of the tale? To help us grasp the message, Pope Francis has declared the year now beginning a Year of Mercy. Outside every Catholic Church in Cardiff you will see a banner, ‘No-one is excluded from God’s mercy’. Because God’s light comes into the world, says the prophet Isaiah, our boodstained battlegear will be burned. When the light of Christ shines in our human hearts, we let go of old resentments and become ready to make peace. We open the door so that others can find mercy.

Some of us here tonight will feel that we are not worthy of God’s love because who we are, or something we’ve done in our life, doesn’t deserve it. Foolish we are, if that we believe! Rather, listen to these words from the Letter of St Paul to Titus:

When the kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed, it was not because he was concerned with any righteous actions we might have done ourselves; it was for no reason except his own compassion that he saved us.

This is God’s gift to you this Christmas. Hear these words: You are loved.

God loved you so much that he sent part of his own being to walk among us, and to die an agonising death on a Cross of wood, to show what he was willing to endure for you.

Yet if the God of the Universe is all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much trouble in our world? We have already glimpsed the answer – if the hallmark of the Dark Side is that it seeks to control others, those who walk in the light must be free to choose for themselves – free to choose even to turn the darkness, or to turn away from it.

The God who respects our freedom asked the Virgin Mary if she would consent to bear His Son into our world. She said yes.

The God who respects our freedom allowed Jesus to choose whether to give his life for us. He sweated tears of blood in his agony at Gethsemane, but he said yes.

The God who respects our freedom sent out disciples into all the world, to tell the epic story of the Christ Child who came among us, to invite us not only to follow his teachings but to become members of God’s family through baptism and know God through prayer. Pope Francis continues this same work by inviting you to baptism, to confession, and to walk through a door which is open for you – and you will find these invitations on the card which you hold in your hands.

Tonight, then, decide which story you will believe. Is there nothing more than human ingenuity? Is there a Force we can use for dark or noble purposes? Or did a loving God who respects our freedom live among us as a new born baby?

In a galaxy far far away, the children of light wish each other well by crying, “The Force be with you!” But those who are wise to the message of the Star of Bethlehem will understand the deep meaning of an ancient Christian greeting: The Lord be with you!

(And with your spirit!)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit! Amen.


Dementia, Faith, and Friendship with Christ

In a Facebook response to a recent homily, a friend posted:

People with dementia forget the relationships they have with people, eventually even close family members they have known for decades and meet regularly. Presumably a relationship with God is not exempt from this? What does this mean? I know that God will never blame me for something that is not my fault, and dementia isn’t anyone’s fault. How does faith fit into it all?

The short answer is that a person in friendship with Christ before the onset of dementia will not lose that friendship because of dementia, and a person who never knew Christ while they were of sound mind is in a similar category to an infant.

The long answer goes like this:

The importance of living in friendship with Christ, is that it is the key to spending eternity in happiness with God (a.k.a. “Going to Heaven”). We can’t earn heaven (Jesus did that on the Cross) and we can’t even make the first step towards accepting the offer of heaven (this needs God’s grace, though Pelagius didn’t think so). Yet some response on our part is needed when we are prompted. So what do we have to do to accept God’s offer of heaven? Different texts in the Bible point to different answers.

Matthew 25:31-46 (“The Sheep and the Goats”) implies that it all depends on whether or not you helped your neighbour when they were in need.

John 6:53-58 (“The Bread of Life”) suggests that only those who take Holy Communion will attain heaven.

John 3:3-5 (“Be Born Again”) says we must be “born again” of water and the Spirit. Some interpret this to mean baptism, though the Catholic tradition allows for the “baptism of desire” of anyone who had planned to receive water baptism but died before it was possible. Others interpret it as experiencing a personal infilling with the Holy Spirit (a.k.a. Baptism in the Holy Spirit).

Romans 10:9-13 (“Speak and Be Saved”) says that you must believe in your heart and profess with your lips that Jesus is Lord.

It would be wrong to rest everything on one passage alone, for God has given us the whole of the Bible that we may know His message. The Romans passage is key, for if we believe and profess that Jesus is Lord, we will become his disciples, and keep all the commands he has given us. We will seek water baptism, if we are not already baptised. We will receive Holy Communion regularly, because he commanded us to do so in memory of him. We will do our utmost to help our needy neighbours. If we fail to do this things, we will not be professing Jesus as Lord.

But two things are necessary foundations for any of this to take place. One is that the person hears the message of Jesus. The other is that they are of sound mind, at least sound enough to understand and respond.

Concerning those who never heard the message, St Paul says they can be saved by doing good according to their own conscience – “the law in their hearts”. This is why the Catholic Church has never said that all human beings automatically go to heaven (those who knowingly turn away from God’s law or who are of persistent ill-will may not), nor that only baptised Catholics go to heaven.

Concerning those who died before ever attaining the use of reason, the Catholic church is confident that baptised infants go to heaven and cautiously optimistic that all who die in childhood are welcomed by Christ, who affirmed children on earth.

What of those who, having lived an adult life, lose their use of reason? Here I am not aware of any formal doctrinal statements, so I will do my best to extrapolate what the Church does teach to cover this situation.

We understand that a person, of sound mind, cannot repent and choose Christ after bodily death. If a sudden and unexpected death befalls a thinking adult – as could happen to any one of us at any time – we receive a particular judgement based on our earthly decisions up to that point. It seems reasonable to say that we also lose our ability to repent and choose Christ if dementia reaches a severe degree, and this is no more unfair than the consequences of sudden death.

If a practicing Catholic is afflicted with dementia, they are only morally responsible for their personal actions to the extent that they understand what they are doing. Once extreme dementia totally removes personal responsibility, it is no longer possible for that person to sin. And since a practicing Catholic can receive the Sacrament of Anointing even though they have lost the use of reason, those sins can be forgiven. Canon Law also requires the priest to give the benefit of the doubt to an unconscious Catholic, so unless it is fairly certain that Catholic would have refused anointing, they must be given the Sacrament. This sacrament forgives sins. It is not uncommon for a priest to be called to the deathbed of a long-lapsed Catholic, and to confer Anointing, even if the person cannot communicate; the lapsed Catholic therefore receives God’s forgiveness before death. This echoes the paralysed man having his sins forgiven on the strength of the faith of the friends who brought him to Jesus (Mark 2:3-5).

I was once called to the bedside of a woman on a life-support machine and was asked, by her teenage children, to baptise her. They insisted that she had never been baptised but was a Christian, watched religious TV programmes with them, sang along with the hymns, and had had her daughters baptised. Now it looked like she would never regain consciousness before the life-support machine was turned off. Nothing in the Catholic rulebook for baptism explicitly covered this scenario. I could only baptise an adult if they explicitly professed faith, but this woman was now in the state of a disabled person who might permanently lack capacity to profess faith – and if she had been a child, could have been baptised on the say-so of her parents. I decided to go ahead with the baptism, giving strict instructions that were she to recover, religious instruction would be needed on how to live as a Catholic.

Coming back to my friend’s original question, how does faith fit into it all? In the Gospels, healing comes by faith. Often it is the faith of the sick person who approaches Jesus. Sometimes it is the faith of another – the friends of the paralytic, or a parent whose child is dying. Sometimes the Lord himself takes the initiative, raising a dead child or casting out a demon.

During our earthly life, that faith can only be expressed within the limitations of our flesh. Clearly, our immortal soul’s capacity to communicate is limited by being in flesh, and more so when there is some illness or deformity affecting the brain. When we die, our soul will meet Christ without the fetters of this earthly life. We can trust that God will be a just judge and will not expect more of any soul than was possible for its own individual circumstances. And yet in some way we will receive the reward of our faithful actions; there will be a greater kind of happiness for those who walked in obedient friendship with Christ, praying and receiving the sacraments, than for those who simply followed their conscience.

It is possible for God to overcome mental illness and brain damage, and communicate Himself to a soul in any way he chooses. But experience tells us that God will not often do this (at least in a way with external consequences), and so people of faith have the painful experience of seeing their loved one with dementia lose touch with their religious identity.

Ultimately, a key mystery of the Christian faith is that Jesus asks us to make disciples of all nations, scattering our seed on the thorny, stony, and barren soil. Only a few seeds bear fruit in abundance; yet the Lord’s work for us is to sow anyway. God chooses which souls are born in places and times which can hear the Gospel proclaimed. God chooses which souls should receive extraordinary calls to conversion (such as St Paul on the road to Damascus). Even those of sound mind can experience a ‘long dark night of the soul’ when God withdraws a conscious sense of his presence – this happened to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. God’s plan also allows those cases where the good soil loses its fertility through dementia, and personal awareness of God is lost until the soul awakens into eternity. This may seem like a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, but if God is the kind of God proclaimed by the Catholic faith, it is the only one consistent with the reality of the world around us.

I Don’t Want To Go!

Homily at Nazareth House on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Letting go is hard, but enables grace.

“I don’t want to go!”

David Tennant played the Tenth Doctor in “Doctor Who”. In his final episode, he was slowly dying from the effects of radiation. He knew that this was about to cause his body to regenerate into a new personality, but faced with what he was about to lose, he was frightened. It was one of the hardest lines for Tennant to play just right – the Doctor had to be truly afraid, yet not totally lacking in confidence. It took four takes to get the message just right – “I don’t want to go!”

Letting go of a life is not easy. This week, many of us bade farewell to Harri Pritchard-Jones. All of us have lost loved ones – parents, brothers and sisters, friends. Some of us have nursed them through their final months, living with that terrible tension of not wanting them to leave us, but not wanting their agony to be long, either. Sometimes, the most loving thing we can do is to make our peace with the person we love and give them permission, by a word or a sign, that they are free to leave us and go to God.

Today, Jesus senses that the time of His Passion is drawing near.  Is he to flee from it or embrace it? He knows that his death will be both meaningful and powerful. He is the wheat-grain which must die if the harvest is to be born. The letter to the Hebrews recognises that Jesus first feared his own death, then embraced it. If God’s own Son is not spared a painful death, then perhaps we can resist the temptation to blame God for the suffering we see in the world. Why doesn’t God do something about it? God has done the most important thing possible, opening the gates for us to an eternal life free of all pain, suffering and tears.

Jesus is the source of eternal life. In just two weeks, we will gather here to celebrate his own triumph over death. Before that, on Holy Thursday, we will remember the night he accepted death, and on Good Friday, the day on which he breathed his last. Our weekly celebration of Mass is our perpetual act of thanksgiving for what Jesus did. As Christians, we are secure in the knowledge that because we follow Jesus, our place in heaven is assured. But heaven is not guaranteed for everyone. Part of our duty as Christians is to spread the message that there is only one secure path to eternal life, following Jesus, forgiving our enemies, pouring out our lives in service of others.

The Tenth Doctor was afraid of losing his identity. Jesus promises that the only way we can secure our identity is to ‘lose our life’ by putting others first. Great saints have always understood that they can pass securely into God’s hands, from the elderly Simeon in the Jewish Temple to St Maximilian Kolbe, offering his life for a Jewish father in Auschwitz. Christ suffered great pain and humiliation before entering into eternal life; our loved ones too, might suffer not only pain but also the humiliations of incontinence, dementia and bodily decay. If it was necessary for God’s own Son to be made perfect through suffering, we must trust that these indignities in some way purify our loved ones and prepare them for heaven, too.

On Thursday night, Jesus Himself was tempted to cry, “I don’t want to go.” But by Friday afternoon, after walking the Way of the Cross, he had overcome his trial. No longer afraid of what he was to lose, confident of what he was to gain for himself and for those he loved, he cried out: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Let us pray for the grace that we, and our loved ones, will be able to do the same when our Father calls us home.

If you are still painfully aware of a bereavement, you may wish to find support from Cruse.