The Things We Haven’t Done

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.

Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?

“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”

“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”

Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!

Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.

The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!

The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.

At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.

Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.

At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.

There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.

None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!

Scarred Not Scared (But Sacred!)

Homily at the Céilí Community Mission to the Drumraney and Ballymore Parishes

Eucharistic Healing Service – Acts 9:31-35 and Matthew 25:14-30

We’ve just heard the very familiar Parable of the Talents, about three servants – but I’d like to share with you a lost page from the Bible which tells of a fourth servant. Like the others, the Master entrusted this one with some wealth, in this case three talents. And this fourth servant knew very well that the Master expected a return on his investment, so he set out for the marketplace with a plan in mind.

On the way to the market, this servant saw a poor beggar at the side of the road. He was moved with compassion and thought: “I have three talents. I can afford to give one away and invest the rest.” And so he reached into his bag of treasures and drew out one talent and gave it to the beggar with a smile.

When he reached the market, he went to the stall of his friend Reuben, who traded in fine spices, and asked if there was any coming venture in which he might invest. Indeed, said Reuben, he was about to sail a ship to India and the servant would be welcome to invest and share in any return on the spices brought back. This seemed like a good investment, but the servant was cautious, so he drew out just one talent from his bag of treasures, and invested this in Reuben’s trading trip. The third talent he took down to the bankers, and deposited it so it would earn some guaranteed interest.

In due course, word came that the Master had come back from abroad and was looking for a return on his investments. Our fourth servant hastened to the bank, and withdrew his deposit. Enough time had passed that he had doubled his money, so he now had two talents in his bag of treasures. Then he hurried on to the marketplace… only to find all the traders dressed in mourning and wearing long faces. One of them drew him aside. “Have you not heard the bad news? A messenger came this morning. Reuben’s ship has sunk in the Mediterranean, and all hands were lost.”

The servant’s heart sank. His friend had perished – and there would be no return on his investment. He had started with three talents – and now he had only two to show for his troubles. Nevertheless, he was an honest man and he knew the Master would demand an account of what had been entrusted to him, so with a heavy heart he started back up the long road to the Master’s house.

Worse was to come. As he made his way along the road, bandits attacked him, and grabbed his bag of treasures, stealing away the two talents he had left. By the time the poor servant had picked himself up, battered and bruised, and completed the weary walk to the Master’s house, the Master had practically finished dealing with the other servants. From the far side of the door, our servant heard the third servant having his one talent taken away and given to the one who had been most successful – and then being cast out into the dark.

Our servant was nervous. What punishment would await him when he came before the Master, empty-handed? It took him ages to pluck up the courage to open the door – so long, in fact, that they’d finished writing the Gospel story and that’s why you haven’t heard about this servant before. But he was a man of integrity and he knew he had to do the right thing, so he took a deep breath, presented himself before the Master, and poured out his tale of woe just as I have shared it with you.

To his great surprise, as he finished his tale, the Master looked at him and smiled. “O good and faithful servant,” he said, “thank you for your great efforts. I can see that you have genuinely tried to do your best with the gifts I have given you. There is no fault in being generous with what you have. Indeed –“ and he reached into his own treasure bag to draw something out – “I am most grateful for the one talent which you gave to me when I was sitting beside the road, begging. Now take it back and have another go.”

As we go through life, we become victims. Things happen to us which are beyond our control. Our loved ones meet with tragedies which cost them their health, their relationships, or life itself. And sometimes things happen to us precisely because we have stepped forwards and offered our services to the church or some other good cause. Somewhere in the Bible it says “I received these wounds in the house of my friends.” As we journey through Lent and celebrate the Stations of the Cross, we retell the story of how Jesus came among us to do good and was wounded with a crown of thorns, a journey of pain and a cross of wood.

Earlier this week, Mgr Pat reminded us that Jesus will always bear his wounds. How will we recognise the Risen Christ in heaven? His hands, his feet, his side, bear his wounds which are now glorious trophies of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. As you look at the beautiful stained glass windows in the churches of your parishes, how many symbols of Christ’s wounds can you find? The spear, the nails, the pillar where he was scourged… the list is almost endless!

A few years ago, a friend of mine, Canon Matthew, was visiting Ireland for his summer holidays when he had an accident – he fell down some stairs and broke his ankle rather badly. As he recovered from surgery, he realised there was a difference between his two feet. One had needed surgery, and there had been a wound where the operation had taken place – now that wound had become a scar. Although he would always be marked by that scar, a scar is a sign of a wound that was healed, and it wasn’t giving him any more trouble.

On Canon Matthew’s other foot, however, he now had an ulcer – a weeping wound which wouldn’t close. That was causing him a lot more trouble; a nurse had to come regularly and dress it. Sometimes we won’t let our own wounds heal – we go back and pick at them and cause more damage. I was 19 when I had chicken pox and it took huge willpower not to pick at the crusts but let them heal in the course of time. If I hadn’t left those wounds well alone, my face might now be visibly scarred.

All of us are wounded. Sometimes we have inflicted wounds on ourselves by our own stupidity or stubbornness. Other wounds are inflicted upon us. Being a follower of Jesus does not make us bulletproof; indeed he promised his friends that the world would persecute them, too. “Rejoice and be glad!” he told them “for this will surely take place.”

Each one of us is honoured with the name of “Christian” – a word which means “a little Christ”. A terrible thing has happened in the English language where sometimes we talk about “Catholics and Christians” instead of “Catholics and Protestants”. No! Any Catholic who is not a Christian is not a true Catholic at all. Being a Catholic doesn’t mean, first and foremost, belonging to a parish – it means being a member of the Body of Christ. It is because we are members of the Body of Christ through baptism – and fed with the Body of Christ in Holy Communion – that we share also in the dying and rising of Christ. None of us will escape being wounded. But what is on offer to us is the power of the Resurrection – the power for our wounds to become scars, healed wounds reminding us of spiritual battles where we have won victory over evil.

We don’t need to be afraid of showing our scars. We have all been wounded by life. The world around us pressures us to look perfect; we need the courage to be ourselves and not hide our wounds – they don’t need to be in control of us. Last summer, when Princess Eugenie got married at Windsor Castle, she had the courage to wear a dress which revealed a scar from a major surgery on her back. Fashion models, too, are beginning to say “We don’t need to hide who we are” – you can find their stories online by searching for #ScarredNotScared. And we don’t need to hide our wounds from the Lord. Whatever life has thrown on us – whatever wounds we may have inflicted on ourselves – like a loving mother, Jesus is less interested in chiding us for getting into trouble and more interested in tending to our wounds – but first, we must ask him for help. So are you battered by life? Wounded by choices that didn’t work out so well, or forces beyond your control? Come to Jesus, the wounded healer whose scars have been made sacred by his Sacrifice upon the Cross.

Tonight is a service of prayer for healing. We are invited to stretch out our hand in faith. In one of the Gospels, we read that a woman suffering a haemorrhage of blood pushed her way through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment. The moment she succeeded, two things happened: she was physically healed, and Jesus felt power go out from him. He knew that he had not merely been touched – but that someone had reached out to him with an act of faith. This woman knew that Jesus had the power within him to heal her wound. She daren’t come to him and ask; in Jewish Law, her condition made her unclean. She ought not to have touched anyone in the crowd, let alone a rabbi. But she came anyway – and far from making anyone unclean, God’s power at work in Jesus made her clean in body and in soul.

Tonight we will place the Body of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament, upon this altar, and you too will have the opportunity to come before Jesus, the Great Healer. You can even touch the “hem of his garment” as the sacred cloths are draped at the foot of the monstrance. This is not a mere ritual of good luck, but an opportunity for you, like the woman with the flow of blood, to come and make an act of faith in Jesus, your Saviour.

When I was an undergraduate, I was commissioned as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. At the University Chapel, we had a large multipurpose hall, where Sunday Mass was celebrated, and a small dedicated chapel for daily Mass. I remember the last Sunday of the academic year: it was my turn to take what was left of the Blessed Sacrament from the main hall to the tabernacle in that little chapel. And for me, that year had been a very difficult one. I had suffered for months from tension headaches. I had fallen in love for the first time in my life, and suffered a double trauma – not only did the girl already have a boyfriend, but she was also in the process of giving up on her Catholic faith. I’d suffered a wobble in my own faith during the year too, but recommitted myself to Jesus after Easter. Now, on that last Sunday of the year, as I placed the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, I knelt down for a moment before I locked the door. “Lord Jesus,” I said, “I offer you all the joys and pains of this past year. I believe that you can take my sufferings and use them for good. I give you all that I am and all that I’ve done.” And as I prayed that prayer, it seemed that Jesus, in the tabernacle, spoke one word to me – not a word out loud, but a word straight into my heart, which resonated through me. And that word was – “Accepted.”

During that difficult year, I had had to make some important spiritual decisions. I had to choose not to cling to a relationship that I couldn’t have – and that “not clinging” also meant making sure that it didn’t dominate my prayer life. For a few months, my only prayer had been that the Lord would restore the faith of the friend that I loved – but he didn’t do it then, and I’m still in touch with her so I know he hasn’t done it yet, either. I do still pray for her, but not in the obsessive way I did back then.

I also had to make the spiritual decision to forgive. Note that I don’t say “forgive and forget”. Jesus doesn’t ask us to forgive and to forget. Our scars remain with us. But if we don’t forgive, our wounds become not scars but weeping ulcers. We forgive not because we have been asked for forgiveness, but because Christ asks us to be people of forgiveness. Only by choosing to forgive do we choose to stop picking at our wounds, whether the one who inflicted them has said sorry or not.

That year was a pivotal year in my life – it was the year I developed a closer relationship with God, and stopped saying “No” to the priesthood. It was the year that I offered up my wounds to Christ, so they could become scars – and those scars have shaped who I am today. Jesus is the Master of taking the wounds that life inflicts on us and turning them to the good. Indeed, my favourite verse in the Bible is from Romans – God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus.

“Get up and roll up your mat” cried St Peter to Aenas, the man bedridden for eight years. Note he didn’t just say “Get up.” For eight years, that mat had been his place of pity. “Look at me. I’m a cripple. No one is helping me. I’m going to be a professional victim.” Peter didn’t want Aenas to fall back into that place. So he declares healing, and moves him on – take away the place of pity, and let your wounds become scars.

We are an Easter people! In this earthly life, we are living through Lent, but we look forward to the reign of God, when there will be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears. Our Lord sometimes heals us in body during this life as a sign of the world to come; he also offers healing to our minds. Our wounds become scars, and on Easter night, when your priest blesses the new Easter Candle, he will mark it with a cross, declaring “By His holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us!”

Tonight is an early Easter! Tonight the power of Christ is at hand, to heal and to make us whole. Tonight is the night when we can choose to forgive those who have harmed us – not because they have said sorry, but because we choose not to give them any more power to bind us. Tonight is the night when we stop picking at our open wounds and allow them to become glorious scars. Tonight, all of us are called to come before the Lord, no longer scared but willing to be scarred. Hope brings healing. Jesus brings joy. Be scarred, not scared, and your wounds too will become sacred trophies of Christ’s healing power. Come. Come now. Come to the Lord.

Faith is when you trust your Father

Sermon at St Austin, Wakefield, as part of a Sion Community Parish Mission.

“Our God is a great big God and He holds us in His hands!”

If you came to our family service yesterday, you’ll remember the closing song. The same idea was in our opening hymn tonight:

Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hand he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes.

I wonder what the word “God” means to you? For some people, “God” refers to a lofty philosophical idea – the ground of all being, the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. There’s truth in all these ideas, but such a God can seem remote, abstract, distant.

For others, the very idea of God is mysterious. One day a Mum asked her daughter what she was drawing.

“It’s a picture of God, Mummy!”

“But, darling, no one knows what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

For Jesus, it was very simple. God was his Father. Abba. Daddy. When Jesus prayed, it was to his “Abba” – a word Arab children use addressing their fathers even today. When the disciples asked to be taught how to pray, Jesus taught them to say “Our Father”. Anyone who follows me, said Jesus, would be His brother or sister – we share one Father in heaven.

St Paul understood this as well. We hear this in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He’s praying that they’ll come to understand what it means to have God as Our Father. Something of his letter gets lost in translation – the Greek word Paul uses for ‘family’ or ‘clan’ here is patria. Since the word for Father is pater, to be part of God’s family is to be part of his patriarchy, belonging to his patrimony, under his paternity.

What Paul wants for the Ephesians, he wants for us too. Do we know that God is our loving Father? Do we feel secure as members of God’s family? We can be slow to appreciate the gift that we’re offered. The Old Testament prophet, Hosea, expressed God’s frustration with his beloved people: “I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love.”

Some of us have had a really good experience of a Dad on earth who loved and cherished us like that. It’s not hard to imagine a heavenly Father who is the same, only better.

Others of us haven’t had such a good experience. Perhaps our Dad wasn’t there when we needed him – or he drank too much – or was violent towards us our our mother. But even then, we might have a positive sense of God as our Heavenly Father.

There again, some of us really struggle with the idea that God loves us, cares for us, or is looking out for us. If that’s you, I have a story to share with you. It’s not my story – it’s belongs to two remarkable young people called Henry and Clare.

This young couple met on a pilgrimage in 2002; each immediately intuited that the other was ‘the One’. Five months later, they shared their first kiss. Four years later they quarrelled badly and realised they could not live together peacefully; so Claire went away for a few day’s retreat.

On her return home, a message from Henry demanded the return of the exercise weights he had left in her house; what he didn’t expect was that she’d return them in person. They talked; and slowly, they began to rebuild their relationship. The following spring they broke up again, and turned to their spiritual director, an Italian priest.

Together, they began to understand that choosing marriage means taking responsibility for one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings. A relationship which is not lived with this depth is not the vocation of marriage – but merely accompanying another person until death. The vocation of marriage must realise that only God, not your beloved spouse, will be the ultimate source of your happiness and fulfilment. Quickly, Henry and Claire understood what they needed to do, became engaged, and were married the same autumn.

The path God had chosen for them was indeed a hard one. In 2009 – indeed, nine years ago this month – Claire gave birth to their first child, a child with a terrible deformity of the skull. They had known this day was coming, and a scan had warned them that the child would not live long after birth; their devout faith meant there was no question of choosing abortion. Yet at the funeral of Mary Grace Joy (Maria Grazia Lutetia), her parents were found not in the front pew for family mourners, but seated among the choir, leading songs of praise that their firstborn had already joined the saints in heaven.

Further joys and sorrows followed. Clare quickly conceived again… but the following June, they celebrated the funeral of their second child, David John (Davide Giovanni), born with a totally unrelated birth defect. This time, the funeral found Claire leading bidding prayers for all mothers and future mothers.

Six years ago this week, Claire herself lay on her deathbed. She had been diagnosed with cancer at the same time as becoming pregnant with a healthy child. She postponed treatment for cancer so her third child, Francesco, could be born safely; but the cancer was not treatable, and Clare passed into God’s hands on June 13th, after 28 years of life and four of marriage.

Clare and Henry’s story sounds like a tragedy, but everyone who knew Clare spoke of her great joy. There was no question of doubting God’s love and goodness. When her children died soon after birth, they were assuredly becoming saints in heaven. When God allowed her to be diagnosed with an agressive cancer, they filled an aeroplane with family and friends to make one last pilgrimage to be with them in a holy place.

Last year, five years after Clare’s death, Henry was interviewed and shared these words:

Faith, like life, is a journey, and if you want to die happy like Clare, you need to walk that path. During this voyage, God sends you things you must embrace, because He knows He can ask them of you; He wants what is good for you, and doesn’t give you a cross to crush you, but rather, to make you open to something else, to something you have not even imagined. We had no doubt that was the case here. We were in a relationship with God, and therefore we knew that what He was asking of us was good for us, because it had been that way so many other times. All our difficulties helped us have a new encounter with Him.

Faith and courage are not the same. The opposite of fear isn’t bravery, but faith. When you have faith, your strength comes from Someone else; when you are brave, you are the one who makes the effort alone. She had Someone else’s strength.

God’s leading strings of love often lead us where we do not want to go. King David wrote in his psalm of having to walk in the “valley of the shadow of death”. The Risen Jesus forgave St Peter for his denials, but said he would one day be led captive. The history of the Catholic Church is filled with people who have experienced miraculous cures and divine protection, but also those, like the English Martyrs, who paid with their lives for their faithfulness to God and His Church.

Every one of us here tonight will have experienced joys and sorrows in our life. Most of us will have buried our parents, or know that sooner or later that duty will come to us. Some of us will have known disability or long-term illness. But we will also have known the joy of a first kiss, a lasting relationship, a solid friendship, a breathtaking view, or a transcedent piece of music capable of transporting us to another place.

Have we thanked God for the joys which have come our way?

Have we rushed to blame God for the sorrows which we could not avoid?

When we were young,  it seemed that our parents could wish away the ills of the world by kissing our grazed knees and holding us close. As adults we know that life holds its challenges. As members of God’s family we are invited to be Christians, literally other-Christs. St Paul calls us co-heirs with Christ, sharing his suffering so as to share in his glory. 

It would be nice to believe in a world where God could prevent all wars, all diseases and all tragedies. Indeed God has designed such a world – it is called the world to come, and it is waiting for us. But here and now, God has no greater dignity for us than to be like His Firstborn Son. In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares with great confidence that “God turns all things to good for those who love Christ Jesus”. When the Cross comes our way, we have the choice of embracing it or rejecting it. But if we reject the Cross, we reject the Ressurrection.

In order to know God’s love, some of us might first need to forgive God. Of course, God cannot do anything evil – but God can fail to meet our expectations. ‘Forgiveness’ simply means making a decision not to penalise someone who hasn’t met our expectations. God might have not fixed your problems the way you hoped he would.

In the 11 years I’ve been a priest, I’ve read much of the Bible time and time again. But I am yet to find a passage where God promises to protect his friends from the sorrows of life on earth. Rather, Jesus prayed that his followers would be “in the world and not of the world”. If we know our identity with God as our Father, we know that we belong to an eternal family and the best is yet to come.

Clare and Henry – or to give them their proper Italian names, Enrico Petrillo and Chiara Corbella – knew the agony and ecstasy of having God as a Father who was preparing them for heaven. Chiara had the joy of knowing her children were safely in Heaven and we have little reason to doubt that she too, as one who laid down her life for the sake of her child, will be there, and may soon be recognised by the Church as a saint. Only God can grant us the gift of the joy which makes us radiant in the face of such trials. This is a Divine Gift. But we know that God loves to bestow gifts on his children, and tonight we can ask him to touch our hearts with a deeper knowledge of his love and of his Fatherhood. Let’s do that now.

A Meditation on Marriage

Homily at St Philip Evans on the 9th Wednesday of Year 2, with couples invited for a meal with local representatives of Marriage Encounter.

“To whom shall she be married when the dead are raised on the last day?”

A deep question, and to answer it we must understand what marriage is in God’s eyes.

The very word, ‘marriage’, has changed its meaning greatly in both civil society and among religious believers. In Great Britain today, a marriage is a legal partnership between two adults, which gives each rights over the other’s property and finances, until such time as one partner dies or a court cancels the arrangement by a decree of divorce. Whatever fine words are spoken on marriage day declaring only “death do us part”, they are not honoured by the State in practice.

In Jewish practice, for centuries before and during the time of Christ, divorce was easily available, and in many places polygamy was practiced too – indeed, many of the great heroes of the Hebrew Bible had more than one wife. So a man could have many wives, in series or at the same time, and this was not regarded as a problem – even on the day when the dead would be raised. But the Jewish law also required a man to marry his dead brother’s widow so she could be protected in society, and if she was childless, to give her children to continue his brother’s name. The Jews could imagine a man being blessed with a harem of wives on the Last Day, but not a woman with multiple husbands!

Today our culture has a different romantic ideal – finding The One. Is there one perfect partner out there, pre-selected by the Almighty as your soul-mate? Or should we simply try enough different partners until we find one better than all the previous models? In fact the truth lies somewhere in between: marriage is a vocation – it is a calling from God. And it requires work, because however suitable the partner you pick, you must still work at perfecting the relationship.

Take the story of Henry and Claire (Enrico Petrillo and Chiara Corbella). They met on a pilgrimage in 2002; each immediately intuited that the other was ‘the One’. Five months later, they shared their first kiss. Four years later they quarrelled badly and realised they could not live together peacefully; so Claire went away for a few day’s retreat. On her return home, a message from Henry demanded the return of the exercise weights he had left in her house; what he did not expect was that she would return them in person. They talked; and slowly, they began to rebuild their relationship. The following spring they broke up again, and turned to their spiritual director, an Italian priest.

Together, they began to understand that choosing marriage means giving of oneself first without asking anything of the other, the radical gift of oneself. In any close relationship, each partner will experience the ugliness of their own faults – instead of blaming their beloved for exposing their weakness, each partner must take responsibility. A relationship which is not lived with this depth is not the vocation of marriage – but merely accompanying another person until death. This vocation must realise that only God, not your beloved spouse, will be the ultimate source of your happiness and fulfilment.

Quickly, Henry and Claire understood what they needed to do, became engaged, and were married the same autumn. The path God had chosen for them was indeed a hard one. In 2009 – indeed, nine years ago to the week – Claire gave birth to their first child, a child with a terrible deformity of the skull. They had known this day was coming, and that the child would not live long after birth; their devout faith admitted no possibility of an abortion. Yet at the funeral of Mary Grace Joy (Maria Grazia Lutetia), her parents were found not in the front pew for family mourners, but seated among the choir, leading songs of praise that their firstborn had already joined the saints in heaven. The following June, they celebrated the funeral of their second child, David John (Davide Giovanni), born with a totally unrelated birth defect, with Claire leading bidding prayers for all mothers and future mothers. Six years ago this week, Claire herself lay on her deathbed. She had postponed treatment for cancer so her third child, Francesco, could be born safely; she passed into God’s hands on June 13th, after 28 years of life and four of marriage.

We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. We know that both infants, baptised in the short hours between birth and death, will be numbered among the saints on the Day of Ressurrection. We have little reason to doubt that Claire too, as one who laid down her life for the sake of others in purple martyrdom, will be there, and may soon be recognised by the Church as a saint.

Whose wife she will be on the Day of Ressurrection? She will be wife to Jesus Christ, who called and sustained her throughout her life on earth. The same Lord Jesus will be spouse to Mary Grace Joy and to David John, who will be raised fully mature on that day. The same Lord Jesus will, we hope and pray, be spouse to Henry, whose life on earth continues at this time.

On the Day of Resurrection, the love we enjoyed with any spouse will be brought to perfection; no ugliness will be left. But to that will be added a perfect love for Jesus Christ and all the brothers and sisters caught up with us. An eternity of relationships awaits us – of perfect love without jealousy! Don’t settle for a mundane vision of heaven as living with your spouse purified and renewed. God has so much more in store!

And how does God wish to prepare our souls for this eternity of love without jealousy? For many of us, our apprenticeship is called Holy Matrimony.

The first Christians understood from Christ that they were called to a radically deeper form of marriage. As followers of Christ, they were not free to marry multiple partners; they were not free to separate and marry another while their Christian spouse still lived. “God’s plan from the beginning”, Jesus quoted from Genesis, “was that a man should leave his father’s house and cleave to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” Was this because God was calling them to a pairing that would last for eternity? Not in the sense that the exclusive marriage would continue for ever in heaven. The vocation of marriage is for this earthly life, when each faithful couple is called to be an icon of Christ’s faithfulness to the church. The greater burden, indeed, falls on the Christian husband who is called to be an icon of the Sinless One; the wife is the icon of the Church, at once justified and yet composed of sinners!

The true vocation of marriage is to find one’s fulfilment in Christ, while living out our earthly call to be faithful to one person of the opposite sex, despite all their imperfections and annoying habits, and weathering all the storms which life sends in their direction. So to those of you who are married, and to those of you who support married couples in your families and in our community, I echo these words of St Paul: bear your share of hardship for the Gospel
with the strength that comes from God, who saved us and called us to a holy life, according to his own design
and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began. In this way you can join Clare and Henry on the path to heaven.

Children of God

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B Vocation Sunday

A true Christian lays down his – or her – life in the service of others.

Many of us do this as parents. Once children come along, any caring parent is committed to dozens, nay, hundreds of sleepless or disturbed nights, and endless worry, which doesn’t stop when your offspring embark on teenage adventures or leave home. The bank of Mum & Dad – or the parental taxi service – are the way many parents lavish their love on their children. It’s normal. It’s natural. In fact, we are wired to go to extreme lengths for the sake of our children – and to worry about them ceaselessly!

What’s more remarkable is that some of us go to similar extremes for the sake of members of our church family.

Blessed_Marie-Anne_BlondinTake Blessed Marie-Anne Blondin. She lived 200 years ago in Canada – at a time when there was a church rule that parishes couldn’t run mixed-sex schools. Parishes usually couldn’t afford to run two schools! But she lobbied for the rule to be lifted and eventually formed a congregation of religious women to teach in mixed-sex schools. She was extremely successful – until a manipulative priest moved in, wrested control from her, and eventually had her forbidden from being re-elected as Mother Superior.

Sr Marie could have fought – but she chose not to. Her congregation had already grown and flourished, and she had a strong sense of God guiding her through the harsh decisions now being imposed upon her. First she was moved away to be headmistress at a distant school; then she was recalled to the Motherhouse, where she was kept to domestic chores, mostly in the laundry and ironing room. She wrote: “As for me, my Lord, I bless Divine Providence a thousand times for the maternal care she shows me in making me walk the way of tribulations and crosses”. To a novice who asked her one day why she, the Foundress, was kept aside in such lowly work, she simply replied with kindness: “The deeper a tree sinks its roots into the soil, the greater are its chances of growing and producing fruit”.

Prevented from being called “Mother” by those in authority, Mother Marie-Anne did not jealously hold on to her title of Foundress; rather she chose annihilation, just like Jesus, “her crucified Love”, so that her Community might live. However, she didn’t renounce her mission of spiritual mother of her Community. She offered herself to God for the sins which were committed in the Community” and she daily prayed to Saint Anne for her spiritual daughters. Like any prophet charged with a mission of salvation, Mother Marie-Anne lived persecution by forgiving without restriction, convinced that “there is more happiness in forgiving than in revenge”.

The story I have just shared with you is not that of a weakling, but that of a powerful woman strong enough to sacrifice herself in imitation of Christ. She sensed when God was calling her to stand up in the face of bishops and challenge the status quo; she also sensed when God was calling her to an act of great humility.

The Church needs women like Sr Marie-Anne, women who see the new needs of the church in the present age and dedicate their whole life to working for it, choosing to deploy the weapons of humility and boldness as appropriate.

The Church also needs priests who are men after God’s own heart. We need men who can do better than the bishops and priests Blessed Marie-Anne encountered.

Where do these priests and sisters come from? They come from among us.

Parents, are you praying that any of your children or godchildren should receive a calling? I know this can feel like a threat. You do not want your children to suffer hardship or make the sacrifices which priesthood or religious life demands. So I will offer you some advice to put your minds at rest. It is the realisation I came to when I stopped saying “no” to God.

Do you believe that Jesus is wiser than you are? He is the Great Teacher, the Lord of the Universe. Can you trust that he knows better than you do what will be best for each of your children?

Do you believe that Jesus loves each one of your children more than you could ever imagine? He laid down his life on the Cross for each one of them, after all! And surely if he loves them so much, he will not choose anything that causes needless harm to them!

Do you want Jesus to be Lord of your life, and that of your children? It is very easy to live with Jesus as your spiritual advisor. He makes suggestions; you make decisions. If you only do what Jesus suggests when you like His ideas, he is not your Lord. But if you give up your power of veto and allow him to make all the decisions, then you have climbed into the passenger seat and given him the wheel.

The beautiful second reading today speaks of our status as God’s children – and promises that we will be “like him”. The challenge to parents is that if you cling to your own children, you are really hoping they will be “like you” – it’s only when you allow them to be God’s children that you give them permission to be “like God”!

So pray with me, if you dare, the following prayer. Please ONLY repeat each line after me if you are comfortable saying it:

Dear Jesus, I give you each one of my children – my grandchildren – my godchildren.

Thank you for loving them, for dying on the Cross so each one of them could enter heaven.

Thank you for allowing each one to be adopted into God’s family.

Now I entrust each child to God.

Heavenly Father, call each child to that path in life which is truly best.

Lord Jesus Christ, I trust in you.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Callings

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A Vocation Sunday

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

In recent years, six young men connected with South Wales have sensed the voice of the Shepherd, asking them to consider being priests for our diocese. They are now at different stages of training in seminary or in parishes. One, Jonathan Stogdon, will soon be spending a year with us at St Philip Evans.

Training a priest is not a quick exercise. I can speak from experience when I say that it is both measured and wide-ranging. The time it takes to train a priest – typically 4 to 6 years – is less about the amount of information to be learned, more about the time needed to form a mature human personality. The classes are small, and the attention is personal. But that doesn’t come cheap. Between the board and lodge, and the salaries of full-time staff and part-time experts, it can cost £20,000 per year, per student, to train a priest.

For several years, Cardiff had no seminarians. Now we have six – but this is an expensive blessing! Today the Archbishop is inviting you to contribute to these training costs through a special collection. [Explain practicalities.]

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

In our own parish, we are blessed that many young people have sensed the voice of the Shepherd inviting them to assist at the altar. Of all the parishes I have worked in, none has had as many regular servers as St Philip Evans. Today we enrol some of our servers in the Guild of Saint Stephen, a recognition of their commitment to serve. Also this weekend we award silver medals to two of our servers, Caru King and Cathy MacGillivray, in recognition of 10 years of loyal service.

The strength of our parish depends on what we contribute – as readers, cleaners, helping in ways behind the scenes or more visible. If you wish to be a reader, or an altar server, or serve in any other way, please don’t wait to be asked. It is easy to contact the right person – every week there is a list on the back page of the parish newsletter!

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

30 years ago, there was a shepherd who called the people of Llanedeyrn to form a new parish. His name was John Maguire. Some of you here were part of that founding community, meeting in the school hall before this church was built. [Invite show of hands.] Thanks to his work as pastor – which means shepherd – we have both a parish and a church.

A church building is a blessing, a trap, and a big responsibility. It is a blessing because we have our own place to worship and to pray. It is a trap because with a building, we can forget the church is really built of living stones. Jesus said his flock would go in and out; each week we gather and disperse again. It’s what we do together as members of church that makes our community strong. Finally, this church building is a responsibility because like all public buildings, it must be maintained and kept safe and secure – and that doesn’t come cheap.

At the end of today’s Mass, our parish finance officer, Bernie Nolan*, will ask us to consider being involved in running the social life of our parish, and how we contribute to the parish’s running costs. At the moment we are breaking even as a  parish. The student coming to us next year is a blessing – but will also mean that our council tax and household bills will go up. I will ask the diocese to make a contribution from the priest training fund, but we will get a direct benefit from the work of the student, and it is only fair we contribute something as a parish to his keep.

The Good Shepherd calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

Jesus promised us “life to the full”. How do we access that life? First, we take seriously our parish prayer, “Here I am Lord, use me as you will.” If this prayer is merely words that we echo each Sunday, it will not bear fruit. But if we pray it seriously, genuinely asking God what we are to do to serve him, we will begin to sense the call of the shepherd. God’s call may challenge us, but is never beyond what we can achieve, with divine help. It’s only when we accept this challenge that we can know the deep satisfaction, the fullness of life: such fulfilment only comes from knowing that we have generously responded to God’s call to the best of our ability.

The shepherd asks different things of different people – preparing food, erecting gazebos, serving on committees, reading at Mass, serving at the altar, joining a religious order or even devoting one’s entire life to the priesthood. He know best!

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice. What is he asking of you?

* No, she’s not the Bernie Nolan you may be thinking of.

Worship? Follow? Avoid?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year CWorld Day of Prayer for Vocations

23 years ago last Sunday, I became a Catholic. It was a significant step – but not the biggest decision I have made in my relationship with God. It was part of a journey – I’d wanted to become a Catholic for several years, attended Mass for a year-and-a-half, attended RCIA for 6 months, and made my First Confession the previous week. 14 April 1990 was the day when I made my First Communion and was Confirmed – and then the journey continued.

6 years ago next month, I was ordained as a Catholic Priest. It was a significant step – but not the biggest decision I have made in my relationship with God. It came only after 7 years of study in seminary and of training in pastoral placements. As another new priest once said to me, on ordination day, it’s as if a tap is turned around – instead of having a lot of stuff poured into you, you immediately have to start pouring out to others.

39 years ago, I was baptised, in an Anglican church. It was a significant step – but since I was only 9 months old at the time, it doesn’t count as any kind of decision in my relationship with God.

What, then WAS the biggest decision I have made in my relationship with God?

20 years ago, I said YES.

Yes to what?

Yes to everything.

If you use a computer, think of those dangerous moments where the computer asks you if it can move 289 files to the trashcan and you either have to check them all individually, or do the risky thing and click “Yes to everything!”

If you have ever written out a blank cheque, lent your car-keys to a teenager, or done a house-swap leaving near strangers with the run of your family home for a week, you’ll know the kind of thing I mean.

It’s that kind of open-ended commitment where you hope everything is going to turn out OK, but there’s that nagging doubt in the back of your mind…

In August, 1993, I was on a Youth Retreat being run by Youth 2000, the same group – though now run by different young people – which is coming to St David’s Sixth Form College next weekend. I was also two years into my undergraduate degree and beginning to wonder what to do next.

I was young.

I was male.

I was single.

I was Catholic.

So…

What about the priesthood?

No.

NO.

Definitely not!

The thing is, although I knew I was saying no, I didn’t know WHY I was saying no. What was I afraid of?

I think, looking back, I was afraid that Jesus was going to ask me to do something I probably wouldn’t like. I’d have to do it, because he was God. And once I said yes, I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life.

During that retreat, one of the speakers invited us to take a silent hour in the afternoon, so I found myself a secluded spot on a riverbank and began to ponder.

I believed that Jesus, as God, was the smartest being in existence.

I believed that Jesus, as God, was the most loving being in existence, and couldn’t possibly want anything for me that would be bad for me.

I called Jesus, Lord. If I really meant that he was my Lord, that would mean I was saying I wanted him to be the person in charge of my life.

So… if Jesus is smarter than me, if Jesus will never choose anything which is not in my best interests, and if the Bible encourages me to call Jesus, “Lord”, I was faced with only one inexorable, inescapable, and incontrovertible conclusion: YES to everything.

So I prayed. And my prayer went something like this: “Jesus, I believe you are who the Bible says you are. I believe you love me and have my best interests at heart. From today onwards I will go where you ask me to go, do what you ask me to do. Whatever you ask – if you make it clear what you want, I will do it – even if it is the “priest thing”.

Well, back then it wasn’t the “priest thing”. I ended up in working in Nottingham on a gap year and then at Cardiff University for my PhD. But in 1997, the Lord showed me that it was time for the “priest thing” and here I am today, as your parish priest at St John Lloyd.

No two priests lead a parish in the same way. Each priest brings different gifts to the task. Some have a listening ear and are brilliant at binding up the broken-hearted. Others are community organisers, mobilising the masses to build parish halls and run grand social events. And me? My gift to you is that I am excited about making disciples, helping people to understand the teaching of Jesus, to follow him in their daily lives, and worship Him in their prayer lives. You will understand that a man who once stood in God’s presence and said “YES to everything!” might get a bit excited about this.

One or two of you here today will have made the same journey quite consciously and said to God, “Yes to everything”.

Quite a few of you have made this journey without realising it, and your heart has already said “Yes to everything” without putting it into quite those words.

But there will be those among us who are still afraid of what Jesus might ask of us, who say to God, “Yes, but only to the bits I feel comfortable with”. I was there once – for three years after becoming a Catholic, until I realised what God was really asking.

Listen to the words of Jesus:

‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life.’

The Good Shepherd offers each one of us the security of eternal life, but this comes with a condition: we must listen to the voice of Jesus, and we must follow.

It is always a struggle to say Yes to God. There is a special struggle in the hearts of those who are being called to ordained ministry and to the religious life, and I would like to invite you now to join me in praying a prayer, using the words of Blessed John Paul II, for those young people who are caught up in this struggle at this time:

Lord, Jesus, Christ, Good Shepherd of our souls, you who know your sheep and know how to reach the human heart.

Stir the hearts of those young people who would follow you, but who cannot overcome doubts and fears, and who in the end follow other voices and other paths which lead nowhere.

You who are the Word of the Father, the Word which enlightens and sustains hearts, conquer with your Spirit the resistance and delays of indecisive hearts; arouse in those whom you call the courage of love’s answer: “Here I am, send me!”