Urgently Calling

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Before I became a priest, I worked closely with a man who was a full-time evangelist, promoting the Catholic faith across and beyond the British Isles. His voicemail messages were unmistakable. “Mr Leyshon – I need to talk to you! Please call me urgently!”

I soon learned that for my friend, “urgent” was his default setting. From anyone else, such a phone call would foreshadow a dying daughter or a blazing building. For this man, it just meant we needed to put a date in a diary. It’s easy to over-use the word “urgent”. And yet… today’s Bible readings are steeped in a sense of urgency.

Despite hiding for three days in the belly of a whale-sized fish, Jonah finally carried out God’s command and preached that Nineveh would be destroyed. Amazingly – perhaps hinting that this is more story than history – the people respond immediately and wholeheartedly, mending their ways, and keeping a fast. When Our Lord walks up to Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, they immediately down tools and follow his footsteps. The Bible doesn’t record what Zebedee thought when his sons abandoned him on the spot – and in that culture, respect for a parent counted for a great deal! There must have been something about the person of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, which was overwhelmingly attractive, even when he hadn’t yet worked miracles or gathered a band of followers with him.

Last Wednesday was the feast day of St Anthony of the Desert. 300 years after Christ, he heard the Bible being read: Jesus invited a rich young man to sell everything and follow him. These words struck Anthony so powerfully that he did just that, moving into the Egyptian desert, first as a hermit, then as Abbot over the community of monks inspired to join him.

But what about us? There may be someone here today who is free to choose a new path in life, who can join a monastery or a convent, become a hermit or enter seminary to try for the priesthood. If you know that God’s voice is whispering to you right now, stop struggling against it, and have a chat with me (or another person you trust), about taking the next step. Whatever you’re waiting for, it won’t get better if you don’t do something about it!

For most of us, though, we’ve made the big decisions already. We’ve chosen to start a family – or not – and many of us have chosen a career in which we’ve invested a great deal of time and training. Yet within our chosen lifestyle, God does not stop calling us. And this can be irritating! If we take God’s presence in our lives seriously, we’ll find ourselves asking deep questions: How can I know what God wants ME to do? I wish I could be sure I’m on the right track…

Finding out might not be as hard as you think! Hasidic Jews tell the story of Rabbi Zusya, who said this: At the end of this life, when I am judged, the question I will be asked is not “Why were you not Moses?” but – “Why were you not Zusya?” The Rabbi understood that everyone has a call. God wants you to be yourself! And to be truly yourself, that means making the most of the gifts and talents God has given you. Blessed John Henry Newman understood this too, in his famous poem “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another… He knows what he is about!”

Sometimes we need a bit of help to see just what our gifts and talents are. You may have undertaken exercises in your workplace to find out what your Meyers-Briggs personality type is, or to work out your role in a team according to the Belbin model – and there are many similar tests. These results tell you something about yourself as a person – what do they suggest about the role that would be right for you in your parish community? I can’t give you all a test right now, but I can suggest some simple questions:

  • With unlimited resources, what would you do for God?
  • What is it, that you love to do?
  • How can you combine talents and passions to achieve your calling?

In a recent survey, 53% of Americans did not strongly agree “that in my parish, I have an opportunity to do what I do best”. Often we get drafted to help with a project because a parish is a small community where “somebody has to do it”. Church can be like one of those military movies where the captain asks for a volunteer and everyone else in the ranks take one step backwards! But in the best church communities, everyone offers their services and then there’s no need for anyone to be a square peg in a round hole – there’s enough slack for everyone to find a way in the parish to do what you do best.

Perhaps, in the past, managers have encouraged you to do something about “addressing your weaknesses” but surely it’s better to develop your strengths? We can acquire skills and knowledge, but perform best when these enhance our innate talents – and every single one of us has some set of natural talents. That doesn’t mean just sports or arts – “talents” are anything we’re wired to do well. We are not called to be “well rounded” – God didn’t make us that way, and a ball won’t stay put where it’s meant to be. God made each one of us with a unique set of things that we do do well, and God is calling is, urgently, to use them for the work of Christ – to love our neighbour and to bring everyone on Earth under the Reign of God.

St Paul’s strange advice about not laughing or mourning came from his belief that Christ was about to return and bring the world to an end. We know now that didn’t happen, so we face a different challenge – how do we use the gifts we’ve been given to live “in the world but not of the world”, following Christ? One way of doing that is being sure that when offered a choice of jobs, choose the one which plays to your strengths, not the one which one has most prestige. The happiness of getting higher rank will fade when you become used to it, but the joy of doing something you shine at will be renewed every day you work! And what’s true of the world is also true of the church. If you are already volunteering, are you in the right role? Perhaps there’s something that you and other parishioners can agree you’d be better at doing instead, and there’s no shame in asking for a change. In fact, if it helps you become the best version of yourself, God might be asking you to follow him by making that change right now. Urgently!

With thanks to inspiration from Mgr Bill Hanson, quoted in the Catholic Edition of Living Your Strengths, and other ideas from the authors.


No Preferential Option for the Poor? Shame on You!

In the last week or so, two global news stories have forced us to think about the values we hold.

A Google employee wrote a memo suggesting that women might have different innate skills to men, and so it might be wrong to aspire to have equal numbers of women and men coding. He was fired.

Right wing extremists rioted in the USA, and one person in the crowd of counter-demonstrators was killed, but President Trump only called for “restraint on all sides” without clearly condemning extreme right wing views. Many politicians condemned this omission.

I get most of my news from the BBC. Now, is the BBC being neutral about these stories and merely commenting that many politicians are talking about these matters – or is there an editorial stance which assumes that the “balanced” position is to assume absolute equality for women and condemnation of neo-Nazi views? Of course, if you click the two links above, you will find the BBC offering views both for and against in each case – but the very decision to give these stories a high place in the headlines is itself a judgment that these are important questions, and therefore there is strong reason for viewers and listeners to think that the Google engineer and President Trump made the wrong call.

As a Catholic, I don’t believe in equality. With our bishops, I do believe in a “preferential option for the poor” which seeks to give an explicit advantage to those who are oppressed. I also believe that when it comes to women in the workplace, society should ensure that those who wish to work full time are able to do so, and those who wish to be homemakers are supported economically. This was the stance of St John Paul II (see paragraph 4 of his Letter to Women) and has been reaffirmed by Pope Francis (see also paragraph 173 of Amoris Letitia).

So, gentle reader, do you believe that 50% of the technical employees at Google should be women?

If you do, that position has consequences.

If you believe in full employment, it follows that you believe no mother should stay at home to look after her children, and social policies should seek to continue recruiting women until no stay-at-home mothers are left.

Or perhaps you believe that men should play an equal part in the life of the home. In that case, will you promote policies which encourage fathers to spend more time at home, have flexible working, and be affirmed as homemakers?

I believe that women are, on average, different to men – and there is legitimate debate among psychologists about what that difference looks like. I don’t find it surprising that many women feel called to be homemakers. I applaud efforts to get more women coding and to coach them to have every advantage when entering fair contests for technical jobs. I think Google’s target should be much higher than the 20% of women currently in technical roles, but nowhere near 50%. If an I.T. company has 30-40% of women in technical roles, I would judge it to be doing rather well. If it also has more than 15% of its male employees exercising flexitime and parental leave for family reasons, I will be delighted. But when we state aspirations for women in the workplace, we should also state aspirations for how many women we expect to spend part of their working lives as part-time or full-time homemakers. Nor should these policies push any individual woman in one direction or the other – in an ideal liberal economy, it should be equally viable to make either choice.

As for President Trump, in the far-right extremists I do not see an oppressed minority who require a “preferential option” but a once-privileged group angry about losing ground. Might it be possible that one day, white men will become an oppressed minority in the USA? Nothing is unthinkable, and should that day come, I will stand up for them. But it is an act of hostility to single out an enemy by name, and I will not do that to any enemy until I have personally tried and failed to build a bridge of trust.

Even the Catholic Bishops of the USA have stopped short of naming particular groups. The official statement by Cardinal DiNardo says “On behalf of the bishops of the United States, I join leaders from around the nation in condemning the violence and hatred that have now led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia… The bishops stand with all who are oppressed by evil ideology.”

Ultimately, we are called to “love others as ourselves” and to go even further “laying down our lives in the service of others”. I abhor what far-right groups stand for because they always represent groups of people who seek to put themselves first, and that stands in blatant contradiction to the Gospel. For that reason, I say to these far-right groups – but also to any group which seeks their own advantage without securing at least the equal rights of others – shame on you.