For the Children

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Paul’s.

“I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t be standing up here talking to you. There are other people much more capable. In fact, I’m not sure why they ever picked me for this job…”

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone mad. I’m just trying to give you a flavour of what’s going on in the head of a person suffering from chronic anxiety or what the psychologists call “impostor syndrome”.

Lots of famous people suffer from just these kind of feelings. TV presenter and model Alexa Chung recently told the BBC that she did. Although she’d been commissioned to write for Vogue fashion magazine, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was about to be “found out” as a fraud.

This week, Claire Foy – who played the young Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown admitted to similar feelings of anxiety.

Have you ever felt underqualified for the tasks you have to take on regularly? It’s a very common reaction. Sometimes we have a false sense of Christian modesty, that we shouldn’t receive compliments at all. But Jesus said the “truth would set us free” and there are times we need to learn to accept the praise given to us.  Not long ago I met a member from a Christian community which had a rule about accepting compliments – when someone praised you, you were only allowed to give one of three answers. “Amen!” – “Praise God” – or “I receive that!”

Picture those 70 elders invited to go up the mountain with Moses. This story from the Hebrew Bible comes after Moses has spent some time alone with God in the mists atop a mountain… in fact someone on Facebook pointed out to me that Moses was the very first person to download information to a tablet from a cloud! But now the invitation comes down to the camp – the same God who has been speaking face-to-face with Moses now wants to speak directly to the elders of the people – they were to meet with God too! I wonder how many of them felt they had been wrongly picked for this privilege? But if God chose to show himself to them… that puts things in a new light. Does God make mistakes about things like that?

At first sight, the 12 apostles had no trouble accepting their exalted position. Last Sunday, we heard them arguing about who was the greatest! This week, they’re trying to stop someone who’s not a member of the inner circle from doing God’s work. But I wonder, deep down, were they motivated by pride in being the “chosen ones” – or were they, too, insecure about being chosen, and trying to keep rivals at arm’s length?

It’s very easy to find reasons to not do things for the parish we belong to.

Perhaps we feel unworthy.

Perhaps we expect a put-down from others in positions of authority.

Perhaps we’re afraid of criticism or that the work will go horribly wrong.

Or perhaps we’re afraid of being sucked in to a place where we can’t say no.

These fears are real. But God is love, and perfect love casts out all fear.

Jesus made it clear time and time again that God has high expectations of us. The steward entrusted with talents is expected to return with a profit. The “sheep” who do good receive a reward in heaven; the goats, who do nothing, are sent to eternal damnation.

He told parables about a master returning to check on the state of his vineyard, or a servant who only received a small punishment because he didn’t understand what his master expected of him. Among all the false fears we face, there is only one real fear we should cling on to – that at the end of our life we will meet God, and have to explain why we didn’t use our gifts to bless God’s people.

And what exactly does God expect us to do? Love our enemy – be willing to forgive. Love our neighbour – help the people whose needs are most obvious to us. Love God with all our heart – giving time to personal prayer and church services. But also – “Go into the world, teach them to obey everything I taught you,” says Jesus. Today he is teaching us that many volunteers are needed, and we should not be put off by the objections of others or a false sense of our own shortcomings.

Successful churches ask people to build on their strengths. Maybe at school you were told to focus on things you did badly, to get better – or at least less bad. But when we are older, we have a good sense of our true strengths and weaknesses. I’ve got news for you – whatever your strengths are, God gave them to you so you could bless the Church and help other people.

So ask yourself: What gifts have I been given? What’s stopping me from using them here?

Today, Christ warns us not to be an obstacle to children who have faith. It’s easy to blame flawed bishops and abusive priests for setting an appalling example, and yes, each church leader will one day answer to Christ for the choices they have made. But who are the greater obstacles to our young people? Prelates in faraway place they will never meet? Or those of us here today who allow doubts and fears to stop us from offering to serve our young people? If we don’t give our children the experience of church which will best help them grow in faith, what thanks can we expect from God?

In every parish, there is a great need for volunteers to work with children – First Communion, Confirmation and Children’s Liturgy of the Word. For all the reasons I’ve talked about this morning, we might be hesitant to volunteer. But if we allow our fears to defeat us before we begin, we will never become the Church God is calling us to be.

Now is the time. God can take your small offering and do great things with it. And remember – professionals built the Titanic, but Noah’s Ark was built by an amateur!

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.

Keep on Giving

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, 2018.

The wise men went to a great deal of effort to offer their gifts to the infant King. I wonder what motivated them?

There are all sorts of reasons we might give gifts. It can be a sign of friendship. Or we might be doing so out of duty because the office has organised a “secret Santa”. There again, we might give gifts because we expect to receive something in return. Were the wise men hoping to have places of honour in the court of the new-born King? Or was it a pure act of love? Whatever their motivation, they were willing not only to give expensive gifts but to expend a lot of time and trouble doing so.

The gifts we should think about today are not gifts of money or material things, but the time and talents which God has entrusted to us. The Bible leaves us in no doubt that God has high expectations of what we should do with such gifts. Is God saying: “work as my slaves, or I will punish you”? No! But God is reminding us that actions have consequences. As the philosophy tutor at my seminary once said, “If you consume too much of the blood of Christ, you will get drunk and you should be breathalysed!” If you’ve eaten too many Christmas puddings, you will have gained weight – that’s not a punishment for overeating, it’s just the way the universe works. Our eternal home is heaven, a place of pure self-giving love, and we can only enter heaven when we are a good fit for this – as St John of the Cross once said, “at the evening of  life, we shall be judged on our love”.

The Catholic Church’s job is to invite each one of us to become a saint, and to train us how to live saintly lives. Our church’s task is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold, or people with good intentions; our mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue. People like St Teresa of Kolkata, who “give until it hurts” and keep on giving. People like the wise men, willing to go to extreme lengths to offer their gifts to God. The trouble is, we behave more like football fans than saints. Fans are proud of their team, they turn up every weekend, sing their team songs and feel the joy and the pain when their team wins or loses. But they don’t get involved on the pitch. And then what happens? The Catholic Church has been likened to a soccer game, with 22 people running round doing all the work and another 22,000 cheering them on from the stands. But Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers, people willing to do his work on earth.

In my first parish, I preached many sermons where the message was “get involved”, and one day a parishioner came up to me and said “If you preach one more sermon about ‘getting involved’, I’m leaving this church.” Now he was a man with a disability. Maybe he felt that  he couldn’t do any of the practical things I was inviting people to do. I hope he realised that those of us unable to get involved with our hands can still get involved by our prayers. But those of us who can do more, should do more.

We  have barely enough catechists for our future needs to pass on the Catholic faith to adults and children. Later this month there’s a 2-year course beginning called the “Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies“. It’s a good course for anyone who is a catechist now or wants to be one in future. Could you study now, so you are ready to volunteer in the parish in two years’ time? We would gladly pay your course fees and even help with transport costs if that’s a deal-breaker for you.

More immediately, we need Welcomers. Did you know that most people decide whether they “like” a church based on their first impressions after they have been inside for a couple of minutes? If you regularly arrive at Mass more than 5 minutes early, what’s stopping you taking a turn at smiling at those who follow you through the door and helping hand our hymnbooks or newsletters? It’s a great opportunity for whole families, children can help too alongside parents. In two weeks’ time, I want to meet all our current welcomers after Mass, and I’d like to train some new welcomers at the same time. That could be you.

Today, we re-commission those who do serve in our community. Many of you will stand up in the next few minutes to renew your willingness to serve. I want to thank you for your service – but remember, you are not doing it for me, your parish priest, as a favour. You are doing it for Christ, as a follower, and to help your fellow parishioners become saints. But some of us will not be commissioned today. So I put to you: are you a fan or a follower? If you have a serious illness, or have your hands full with a small child, the parish expects nothing of you except your prayers. For the rest of you, imagine what would happen if you stepped forward to help our parish flourish? How much stronger would we be with your gifts?

There are good works we can do in the local community, as part of organisations which aren’t explicitly Christian. But today, I invite you to focus on your parish – because in your parish, there is no hiding place. No-one else is going to take communion to your sick brothers and sisters. No-one else is here today who can act as a welcomer, usher, collector, reader or minister of Holy Communion at this Holy Mass. If you have the gifts to do any of these things, God expects you to say “yes”. And if you are a visitor here today, and you’re not already volunteering for something in your home parish, I charge you to go to your parish priest next time at your home Mass and ask: “What can I do to help?” Don’t wait to be asked. Those who are truly wise already know that our King deserves our very best.

So arise, shine out, people of St Philip Evans! Become what God has gifted you to be, and you will set Wales on fire!

 

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.

Take Care of Your Local Parish!

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 5 of 5 in our current series, Knowing and Following Jesus.
Jesus stands in the distance, waving. Bemused listeners hold survey slips saying

[This is the version for Sunday morning Mass.]

When Jesus had a task which needed doing, he did not ask for volunteers.

He looked at those who were following him, and appointed 72 of them to do the work.

There are more than 72 of us here this morning – probably about 120.

We represent 50% of the active Catholics in Trowbridge and St Mellons.

If God has work for his Catholic people to do in our parish, we represent half the workforce.

More than that, ONLY those of us who are here this morning, can make this morning’s gathering what God wants it to be. We represent 100% of the people God has called to this morning’s Mass, and nearly 100% of the people who regularly come here on Sunday mornings.

Our goal is to make this Mass the best place to be in Trowbridge on a Sunday morning. It should be a place where people want to come – where people want to stay. If it is going to be easy for parents with small children to attend, it is because we, here and now, are providing Children’s Liturgy and kindergarten facilities. If it is a welcoming environment, it is because we are the welcomers and ministers of the environment. If there were refreshments afterwards, it would be us who were providing them.

Now, I don’t know which 72 of you to appoint, because I am not yet familiar with all our gifts and talents. So for the next few minutes I am going to invite you to fill in a questionnaire. It’s in two parts, a white sheet about ways you might assist our parish community, and a blue sheet – which will not have your name on it – to help me take the spiritual temperature of our parish. I am asking each one of you to be generous in your answers on the white form. Some of the questions are about things that are done apart from Mass, and require a bit of your time. But many roles take place during this Mass, and need little extra time, only a willingness to help. For instance – it would make it much easier for parents with small children to attend this Mass if we could offer a Children’s Liturgy or a kindergarten every week. But the only people who could make this happen tonight are here sitting on the pews right now. As Parish Priest, I can make training and moral support available – but only you can provide the hands to do the work.

Did you notice in the Gospel that immediately after telling his followers to “pray for labourers for the harvest”, Jesus said, “By the way, you are the answer to your own prayer?”

Dear friends in St John Lloyd, because you love this parish, because this is your church, please fill in these forms as honestly and generously as you can. I would like each person present aged 10 or above to fill in their own form, because each one of us has something to offer. When we take the collection, the collectors will also gather the responses which you offer, as your personal gift to building up this parish. There will be separate baskets for the blue and the white forms, so you can be confident that the blue form is truly anonymous. The harvest of St John Lloyd in the years to come depends on the seed you will plant today.