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.