FATHER ALF'S HOMILIES
21.02.21 ~ 1st SUNDAY IN LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Did you ever wonder what was going through Abraham’s head, as he made the long journey to Mount Moriah, to sacrifice his son Isaac? Was he still in a daze, still trying to make sense of God’s intervention in his life? At the age of 90, childless and with a wife past the age of child-bearing, he had received the call to leave his secure life, in Ur of the Chaldees, for a land he’d never heard of. Then came the miraculous birth of his son Isaac, and now, this unbelievably cruel command to kill that very son, the son of the promise, a promise soon to be shattered. But, in complete obedience to God, he was all set to do it. Abraham was an amazing man. No wonder he is called ‘our father in faith’. As for Isaac, in this particular story, trusting in his father Abraham, and carrying his own wood for the sacrifice, he is a type of Christ trusting in God, his Father, and carrying his own cross.
To have absolute faith in God is something Christ asks of all of us. We may never be put to the kind of test Abraham was, or be called to martyrdom, but there’s no doubt we will have our battles. Today’s reading from Romans was used at Margaret Cuffe’s funeral on Friday. In my homily I recalled how, in the first half of the 20th century, she would have been brought up in the Church Militant, to wage war against the Devil, the World and the Flesh, from behind the battlements of Fortress Church, against which the gates of Hell would never prevail. In the 60s, however, Pope John XXIII looked over the battlements and saw no-one was attacking. In fact, people seemed more interested in the white heat of technology, putting a man on the moon and the defeat of communist ideology. So, he called the 2nd Vatican Council, which instead of issuing decrees, would lower the drawbridge, and make its way into the market place, to engage and dialogue with the world outside.
After a long period of stagnation, Pope Francis is now revitalising Vatican II, encouraging everyone, especially the Laity, to go out to the world, to smell the sheep. Sadly, there are reactionaries, even at the highest level of the Church, trying to stifle his initiatives. They think the solution to our problems is to try to put things back to how they were in the glory days of the 50s. Imagine if we could get all those people back to Mass. Imagine if the seminaries began to fill up again. Imagine if the Church’s status was restored. We could rebuild the battlements, strong enough to withstand any siege. It was that mentality of self-preservation, and concern for the Church’s reputation, which led to the cover-up of recent scandals, with disastrous results. Going back to how things were is not going to happen. The world has moved on and, looking at the signs of the times, so must we. We still have a lot to offer the world in the service of the gospel, but it’s clear we have to be Church in a different way.
Firstly, let’s avoid looking inwards, thinking only of the parish. We are a small ‘Faith Community’ part of a bigger community full of people of all faiths or none. As some of my fellow drivers will tell you, taking food out to complete strangers, whom we might once have just passed in the street, has enabled us to stop, chat, see if they’re ok, talk to their kids, give helpful information or just listen to their troubles. On leaving I always say ‘God Bless’, to which many reply ‘God Bless you too’. By lowering the drawbridge and going out to them, rather than waiting for them to come to us, we have discovered that many have a spirituality. What we are doing may not put more bums on seats, but it is showing the face of Christ to those who have little experience of church. The nourishment we get from regular attendance at Mass, gives us the strength and impetus to share his life with others, remembering his words “You received without charge: give without charge”.
Isaiah once said “Do not consider the things of old. Behold I am about to do a new thing”. In the gospel, the apostles’ vision is of what Jesus would be like after the resurrection, not resuscitated, but transformed, a new sphere of existence. I believe God is doing a new thing in our time too, not resuscitating, but transforming his Church. With Pope Francis, let’s embrace the transfiguration of our faith community, with powerful trust in God like Abraham, and utter conviction like Paul.
21.02.21 ~ 1st SUNDAY IN LENT
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT 2021
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF 20/21 FEBRUARY 2021 (or shared in whatever way is possible, bearing in mind how few will be at Mass to hear it)
My dear people,
I send you my greetings as we begin the Holy Season of Lent, aware that we remain in some ways a scattered flock, still doing battle with the pandemic. Reflecting on Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, it could be said we are engaged in battle with the pan-demonic. It is a time of temptation. I was sorely tempted to re-issue last year’s Lenten Pastoral, partly to see how many notice, partly out of idleness and partly because I thought it was rather good . . . and there’s another temptation; pride!
St Mark’s account of our Blessed Lord’s time in the wilderness is astoundingly brief. Perhaps a Lenten Pastoral should follow suit, stating the stark essentials we must follow to make Lent fruitful. According to tradition, this Letter will be read in all churches and chapels of the Diocese at every public Mass on the First Sunday of Lent. However, many parishes are not holding public worship, and those that are have greatly reduced congregations. Added to that, our Liturgies must be short, reducing the time we are socially gathered. Is the pandemic a cure for lengthy sermons? If so, may we live to see if the cure lasts.
So, our religious practice is reduced to stark essentials, just as our Lord found Himself without the freedom and comforts one grows used to when ordinary circumstances prevail. Where the Master is, there the willing disciple must be found too. It is a time of intense on-going formation for both the individual and for the Church. Three life-lines are given us; prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
Prayer. Christ promised to remain with us, and here we find Him an example of prayer. More than that, we are taken into His prayer through His conversation with the Father, His obedience to the Father’s will and His union with the Father. This is more than asking God for favours or help with the things we can’t manage. It is a desire for the Life of heaven.It is also an experience here on earth of the Life of heaven. Fasting. Christ accepted less of this world’s pleasures and ease even though on other occasions He would accept them and enjoy them. But here He deliberately puts them aside, knowing that they do not last. He acknowledges another order of delights, the delights that will last. Fasting is a discipline and an act of trust in the promise of a loving God. He knows our needs before we ask.
Almsgiving. Christ shows us that the fundamental motive for almsgiving is compassion for others. Later He instructed His disciples to ‘Go out to the whole world’. Material-giving remains an essential expression of obeying that command, showing solidarity with our neighbour. It saves us from living a selfish life. Sharing our time also gains us ‘credit’. In this unfair world some are privileged and some are obviously disadvantaged. In these times more will be asked of some than of others. Needy causes are easy to find, overwhelmingly and exhaustingly easy. We do well to recall who it is telling us to persevere in charity even to the point of our own exhaustion and our own diminishing. He is the guarantee that we will not go short. His love will grow in us. ‘Give, and gifts will be given to you.’
And what of Mary’s place in her Son’s Lent? Did He speak with her before He left for the wilderness? Did she know where He was, what He was facing? Did He recall the blessing of a mother’s worry? May Our Lady be with us in our prayer, fasting and almsgiving this Lent.
Much more could be said, but, following the example of St. Mark, this will do for now. May this Lenten message open doors of hope for you, bringing in the clean air of the wilderness, and with it, a reassuring experience of Christ’s closeness. He has overcome all evil.
With my prayers for each of you, and my blessing,
Paul Swarbrick, Bishop of Lancaster
14.02.21 ~ 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Imagine yourself walking down Lord Street wearing torn jeans and a Boris Johnson haircut. Quite probably nobody would turn a head; you’re just making a fashion statement. If, however, because you also had the coronavirus, you were required to ring a bell, and shout a warning to everybody that you were diseased, and then see people recoiling from you with horror, cursing you and swearing at you to get out of town, how do you think you’d feel? Is there anything worse than being cast out?
Over this last year, many of us have had first-hand experience of what self-isolation means, and how it has prevented people from being with their dying relatives, but for all that sadness we also know that a cure for Covid 19 is on the way, bringing us hope. This was not the case for a leper in Jesus’ time. Leprosy was incurable and infectious, and with no hospitals or clinics, meant not only wearing torn clothes and unkempt hair, shielding your upper lip and crying “Unclean”, but also isolation from your family, community and synagogue for life. Although total isolation was undoubtedly effective in preventing the spread of disease, for the outcast leper it was devastating. Loneliness and rejection made him, in fact, a dead man walking. So, knowing all this, it’s quite amazing that this particular leper broke all the rules in coming so close to Jesus. Maybe he had heard of his concern for other wretches like himself, or was so desperate that he was willing to clutch at any straws available. I think that’s why he says “If you want to, you can cure me”. He’s anticipating yet another rejection.
Nobody, least of all the leper, could have been prepared for what happened next. Jesus stretched out his hand and actually touched him. “Of course I want to. Be cured.” It was a stunning and momentous gesture, and, no doubt caused great scandal to those watching, even I suspect, the apostles. You just do not touch a leper! The interesting thing is Jesus didn’t need to touch him. Remember the Centurion’s request “Say but the word and my servant will be healed”. So, why did he touch him? It was a sign of compassion, of Jesus’ acceptance of the leper as a fellow human being, with the same needs of all of us to belong, be accepted and loved. To be ‘unclean’ meant that you were unworthy to be part of God’s holy people and to take your place with them in worship. So, in touching him, Jesus showed that he didn’t believe a man’s condition cut him off from God, which, I think, has great relevance for all those people who think that, because of some irregular lifestyle, or situation they’ve ended up in, they are somehow cut off or excluded from God’s love and mercy. They’re not.
Ironically, according to Leviticus, by touching the leper Jesus made himself ritually unclean, and because the leper ignored his command to keep the cure quiet, and started telling the story everywhere, Jesus himself became a sort of outcast, and had to stay outside towns, in places nobody lived. Nevertheless, people from all around came looking for him, eager to learn more about God’s openness to sinners and outcasts.
It is still possible to be a leper today, without having leprosy. Outcasts come in many forms, from starving refugees abroad, to people forced to leave home and live on the streets, here in our own country. Many are devoid of love or affection, at the mercy of the elements, and the ever-present danger of ‘Sickos’. If Christ’s healing touch is to continue to be felt today by the wretched and poor, it will be because we stretch out our hands to heal what we can heal. We can’t do everything, but we can do something to restore a person’s dignity. For a follower of Christ, there can be no outcasts.
07.02.21 ~ 5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
The other day I was having a chat about how Freddie Mercury, back in 1985, stole the show at Live Aid, a 16 hour non-stop concert featuring 75 of the world’s greatest bands and watched by over 1.5 billion fans world-wide. Bob Geldof wrote a book about it called “Is that it?” The title came about because, when it was finally over, Bob was sitting by the side of the stage, mentally and physically exhausted, having a cup of tea, when a kid came up to him and said, “Is that it?” The message of Live Aid, pumped out continuously throughout the concert, was that millions of people in Ethiopia were dying of famine, so we needed to feed them. It was an immense success and a fabulous thing for an ordinary bloke like Bod Geldof to achieve, and gave an incentive to others to do what they could, albeit on a more modest scale, to help their fellow man. However, for some people, like that kid, the message was lost in the sheer excitement and enjoyment of the greatest free concert of all time.
Another ordinary bloke who achieved something fabulous was, of course, Capt Sir Tom Moore who has just died. Like Bob Geldof, he saw a huge problem and decided to do something about it, in his case the NHS, which was under severe strain trying to deal with the pandemic. As you know, he set himself to raise a few pounds to buy them some PPE, and ended up raising over £33 million. He too, whether he realised it or not, was sending out the same message: people are in distress and we need to help. Since then, quite a few people have been inspired by him, to do something similar, including a 5yr old boy who, at age 3, was near fatally abused by his birth parents and had to have both legs amputated to save his life. This little guy has raised over £1m for the children’s hospital which saved his life, by walking 10 km on his newly acquired prosthetic legs. However, I’ve heard that Sir Tom has been trolled on social media for allegedly spending some of the money on a holiday to Florida, although quite how he would have managed that during lockdown is hard to fathom.
Getting people to see beyond the wondrous and spectacular to the reality of the message behind it is not always easy. Some people just drift through life, marvelling at the wondrous things we see, and gasping at people’s achievements like a perpetual spectator who never engages. One of the first questions the Alpha course asks of people in the street is, “Is there more to life than this?” And it’s amazing how many say they’ve never thought about it. Without having a vision or a purpose in life it would be so easy to look at all the horrible things going on in our time, like the shameful treatment of the Uyghurs and Rohingyas, the relentless lobbying for abortion on demand up to birth, the gradual destruction of our eco-system, accept it all and just say, “What a mess! Somebody should sort it out”. Meanwhile, I must get on with my life. But, if we all said that, life would soon be over. I suspect Bob Geldorf and Sir Tom had no idea, when they started, of the life-changing effects their actions would have on the world. What did Greta Thunberg think she would achieve the first day she sat down alone in the rain outside the Swedish Parliament to protest against Climate change?
Getting people to engage with the reality of the message is the dilemma Jesus has in today’s gospel. We see him rising very early in the morning, long before dawn, to go off to a lonely place to pray. It’s a reality check, to evaluate the effects of the exhausting evening he’d just spent, curing many people suffering from diseases of one kind or another, with the whole town crowding round his door. It’s obvious they had come for the miracles not for what he had to say, just as the people he fed with loaves and fish came looking for more food, rather than for himself, the bread of life. He, however, did not, however, want to be seen as a simple healer, but to be recognised as the Messiah, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy, who would make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk again etc. Miracles were really just the testimonial letters of the messenger, to give authenticity to his preaching, the reason, he says, why he came. It’s his message that counts – and the message is we are all here to serve, not to be served, no matter how old you are, like Sir Tom, or how young you are, like Greta Thunberg, or how “sweetly”, like Bob Geldof, you ask people to give you their money for the poor.
31.01.21 ~ 4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Some years ago, a young lieutenant from an Irish Regiment I lived with was travelling back from an exercise in Southern Germany with a platoon of soldiers. At one stage he got a bit nervous when he thought they might be on the wrong train, so he asked if any of the soldiers spoke German, one of whom said he did. He then told him to ask the ticket collector what the next station was, which he did in a very loud voice: “Vot is der next station?" "Sit down, you so and so idiot! I thought you said you could speak German?" "That is German, Sir - isn’t it?" Sometimes it’s tough being a leader of men!
Moses was a great leader, most famous for leading the Israelites out of slavery. But what a tough job he had with them during their 40 years in the wilderness, a lot of which time they spent whingeing. Nevertheless, like every good leader, he used his God-given authority to bring them safely through to where, in today’s reading, we see him preparing them for entry into the Promised Land. Remembering their fickleness and worship of the golden calf, he knows that they will struggle to keep the Covenant, in a land of many different pagan cultures and gods. They will still need to listen to God in order to be guided and inspired by him. That’s why he says “God will raise up for you a prophet like myself”. In today’s gospel we see the prophecy come true. Jesus is the new Moses, the great leader, not just of the Chosen People, but of everyone.
What stands out in his leadership is the way he exercised his authority to teach with no reference to any other authority, and backed it up with action. And, how did he teach? In my studies for the priesthood we had many lectures in all sorts of subjects. Some of the Profs, although highly qualified, simply read from a commentary or gave us sheafs of notes, which wasn’t very inspiring. Others, however, had clearly absorbed their subject and taught it in their own words with style and conviction. Naturally, the response from the students was better, eg I knew very little of the Old Testament, but our OT Prof was brilliant, and I always looked forward to his lectures. Jesus had a similar effect on those listening in the synagogue at Capernaum. The Scribes were certainly knowledgeable about commentaries previous great teachers had put on the Law of Moses; they knew a lot about God but Jesus knew God himself and it showed.
To teach with authority is an art, whether you are a parent, a teacher, or someone with soldiers under command, but is only ever effective, if it’s done with conviction. St John Bosco, whose feast is today, founded the Salesian Order to teach street kids who were poor and often unruly. He could have flogged them, as they did in Dicken’s tales of Victorian England, to keep order and discipline. Instead he advised the brothers: “Be careful not to give the impression, by a look of contempt, or by using hurtful words, that you are acting under the impulse of anger and asserting your authority. Christ’s attitude to sinners was of kindness and friendship. This astonished and scandalised some people. But, it gave others the confidence to ask for forgiveness”.
By the very fact that we are Christian, we have the authority to teach the faith. Some people exercise that authority by pointing out where everyone else is going wrong, but contribute very little to building up the community, whereas everyone knows faith is best taught by conviction and example. Faith is caught, we say, not taught. If we accept that in the end all authority comes from God, we'll realise that, as with all God's gifts, we must exercise it for the benefit of others, not to their disadvantage.
24.01.21 ~ 3rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Thursday I delivered some food to a lady I’d not been to before. As I was unloading, she asked could I take the bananas back. ‘I can’t stand the smell of them!’ ‘I love bananas’ I said. However, there was a time when I too may have been put off them. Many years ago when I lived with Fr Gerry in Carlisle, his mum used to give him bananas every time he visited, so we soon had a stockpile. Apart from eating them fresh, we had them fried, in sandwiches and all sorts of other ways, but we always had plenty left over. Then One Saturday night, Fr Gerry said, “Have you ever tried alcoholic bananas?” “No” I wide-eyedly replied. So we boiled them up, added sugar and several spirits, and made some custard. But when we dished them up they were absolutely gopping, so we strained the bananas out and just drank the ‘gravy’. I don’t remember much after that – it was probably 100% proof! Getting back to the lady, how can anybody not like the smell of bananas? I can understand not liking the smell of garlic or really strong cheese, both of which I love by the way, but bananas!
The point of my story is to illustrate how different we all are, not just in our personal tastes, but in our characters and the way we look at life. Today’s scripture readings give examples of characters, all different, and not ideally suited, you would think, for the kind of work God wanted them to do. Jonah, we are told “Set out in obedience to the word of the Lord”, but in actual fact, far from obeying God’s word, shot off in the opposite direction, until God arranged his return, via the whale. Paul started out by persecuting anyone who wanted to be a follower of Christ. The apostles, all of whom, except John, although they responded immediately to Christ’s call, ran away and abandoned him to his fate on Good Friday. What was God thinking about when he made his selection?
Looking more closely at these characters, it’s easy to see why they reacted in the way they did. They were human. Imagine you are a modern day Jonah, ordered by God to march into the very heart of one of today’s corrupt Major Powers, known for cruelty and oppression of its people, like Nineveh, to tell them that unless they repent their Nation will be destroyed in 40 days. No wonder he ran away. Paul was so fiercely zealous that his human reaction to opposition was to destroy it. For the apostles their time with Jesus was a long, slow learning curve to understand that God’s ways are not man’s ways. They frequently misunderstood the purpose of his mission and refused to believe the means by which it would be achieved. No wonder they ran away when the soldiers came for Jesus.
God who knows all things, knew, of course, what he was dealing with, but he also knew what can be achieved when someone hears and answers his call, putting themselves entirely in his hands. Jonah’s preaching, in spite of his reluctance, saved thousands from destruction. As a Christian missionary, Paul lost nothing of his zeal, but gradually surrendered his self-sufficiency, realising that his phenomenal achievements were not down to him, but God’s Spirit working in him. In his early days he was very obstinate about the imminent second coming of Christ, wanting everyone to be ready. “Our time is growing short Brothers. The world as we know it is passing away”. Later in life he writes that as no-one knows when Christ will come again, we need to get on with spreading the Good News of Christ’s love, and what the power of love can do. Later in that letter, he will spell out exactly what real love is, a reading which is by far the most popular choice at weddings. For the apostles too, so often confused and unreliable, everything changes at Pentecost. Filled with the Holy Spirit and no longer afraid of what they are to say or do, they burst into life and bring Christ’s work to fruition.
An apostle is someone who is sent to proclaim the Good News, and because we have the same apostolic faith coursing through our veins we too are sent. Jonah, Paul and the fishermen were called to share in God’s work. They all stayed true to character, but had to let go of their own ideas to allow themselves to learn God’s ways, and let him work in and through them. In doing so, they achieved far more than they could have dreamt of, or believed they were capable of. And so can we.
17.01.21 ~ 2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
As you know, I studied for the priesthood at the Real Colegio de los Ingleses, Valladolid.
Spain is now a very modern country, with high-speed trains and well connected motorways, unlike my time of 50 years ago. Then, the train we called the ‘Shanghai Express’, took nearly two days to travel from La Coruna to Barcelona. Most of it was on single track railway, with passing places. People would emerge from the pueblos en route, and flag it down like a bus, then clamber on board, and maybe hang a couple of live chickens from the coat hooks. Apart from the Costa Brava, tourists were rare in the Spanish Interior, so we were something of a curiosity. In five minutes they would know all about you, where you came from, what you did, and, before long, goatskins of wine, hunks of cheese and chorizo would be shared round the carriage. For a ‘Swinging 60s’ kid, who was used to silence on English trains, in the days before mobile phones enabled people to bellow their one-sided conversation throughout the carriage, the camaraderie was wonderful. The only drawback was that if you left your wooden seat to go to the toilet, you’d have lost it by the time you got back.
Today, we see two of John the Baptist’s disciples directed by him to Jesus. Clearly excited by the prospect of meeting him, but (unlike my friends on the Shanghai Express) too shy to approach him, they sheepishly trail behind. When he asks them what they want, they become tongue-tied, not knowing what to say, like that fan, so starstruck at meeting Victoria Wood, who blurted out, "What’s it like being married to Lenny Henry?" (Lenny Henry was married to Dawn French at the time). Forgetting all the things they would really like to ask, they just say "Where do you live?" Jesus senses their awkwardness, so invites them to spend some time with him, and no doubt over the next few hours they relax and become more themselves, while at the same time getting to know him better. The next day, they can’t wait to tell their friends, and invite them to meet him. "We have found the Messiah. Come and see."
In that little vignette of the calling of the first Apostles, and how they passed it on, we see how God’s call works, and that it’s the same for all of us. A) we need to be open and disposed to hear the call when it comes, which means seeking God with a sincere heart – ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening’. B) when the call comes we need to respond, to go and see where he lives and learn from him, even if it means making changes to our lifestyle. C) We have to tell others what we have learnt and found, so that they too can hear God’s call through us. This is the process by which you and I, the majority of us anyway, came to faith. Somebody, our parents, the teachers at the school we went to, a stranger we had a religious discussion with in a pub, a person who did us an extraordinary kindness when we were desperate - somebody, whoever it was, passed the faith on to us by telling us what they knew about Jesus.
Rarely does God’s call come in a sudden loud shout to wake us up from sleep, as it did for Samuel, or up front as it did for Peter, and later Matthew the tax collector. More often it comes in whispers and quiet ways, often in the still of the night when you can’t sleep. It comes in a million different ways, and is often very subtle, so we should take Eli’s advice to Samuel, to listen for it. If, like the two disciples, we want to know where Jesus lives, he’s here in the quietness of our hearts when we meditate on his Word in scripture, receive him in Holy Communion, or slip into an empty church to spend a little time with him in the Blessed Sacrament. We also know we’ll find him when we are doing his work for our fellow human beings, particularly when they are homeless, in need, lying in a hospital bed, hungry, cold or without a friend. That’s where he lives for sure, and from where his call comes. How we respond is a very personal thing, but a lot depends on the strength of our relationship with him. If there’s real love at the centre it needs to be shared by introducing our friend to others.
10.01.21 ~ FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
In the first reading we have a beautiful passage from Isaiah, telling us “Come to the water, all who are thirsty”. In making this call, Isaiah is acutely aware that all is not well with his people. Although he was writing to them 800 years before Christ, his words still resonate today. Just a few days ago, as you know, an angry mob stormed the Capitol in Washington because they disapproved of the result of the recent Presidential election. They were the latest in a long line of groups of people throughout history, who have tried to force their will on other people by dominance and aggression.
So, when John the Baptist echoes Isaiah’s call for thirsty people to come to the water, he’s not talking about physical thirst, but the thirst we all have for righteousness and peace and the desire to live in harmony. He offers them a new way to resolve conflict, not blaming everyone else for what’s going wrong, but facing up to our own faults and failings. He calls on everyone to repent of their sins and undergo baptism as a sign of cleansing, making a new start, and many did. However, no-one was more surprised than John, when Jesus, the sinless one, appeared before him for baptism. But Jesus insisted, because he knew that to have any hope of redeeming mankind, he had to identify totally with it, go through the same temptations, trials and tribulations we all do, share our life, our food and hospitality, pain and sorrow while, at the same time, inviting us to share the life of peace, mercy and love he had come to bring, in an attempt to set humanity back on its true course to the Father.
His baptism, ratified by the Father and the Holy Spirit, was like a formal commissioning service at the start of his public ministry of dispensing love, mercy and forgiveness, the work he was born into our world for. Three years on, he would ask his followers to do the same: “A new commandment I give you; love one another as I have loved you”. As you notice, that commandment is directly opposed to anything which advocates harming or destroying our fellow human beings. St Paul tells us, “We were baptised into Jesus’ death, so that we may live a new life”. Our baptism, then, means that we too were commissioned to a life of service, in imitation of him, seeking out the good in our neighbour, rather than his destruction. Not everybody, however, sees Baptism as a commitment of any sort.
Some years ago, I went with my friend Pete and his family on a canal boat holiday. It was brilliant, although our seamanship left a little to be desired, accidently ramming another barge at top speed (4 mph) causing an outraged elderly couple to spill their gins and tonic. We had to negotiate quite a few locks, which meant closing the gates in the lower level, then opening the sluice gates in order to ascend to the higher level and so proceed. Getting baptised is a rite of initiation. It’s like entering the lower lock. There’s enough water to float the boat, but not enough to take it to the next level. What every baptised person needs, to rise to the next level of faith, is a regular top-up of sanctifying grace.
Sadly, most of the children we baptise stay in the lower lock, because their parents do not open the sluice gates which allow the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, otherwise known as the Water of Life, to flow in and take them to the higher level of life with Jesus. Without the follow-through from Baptism to full participation in the Mass and the sacraments, the chances are that their underdeveloped faith will have little influence on the major decisions of their adult life, or that our Lord’s new commandment ‘to love one another as I have loved you’, will be their default solution for resolving conflict. More likely their views on life will be influenced by likes and dislikes on twitter, the cancellation culture which bans free speech or, in the worse-case scenario, mob violence, which, as we have just seen, can happen anywhere, even in one of the world’s leading democracies.
For those who think it may be too difficult to commit, remember that Christ has been there before you and negotiated the locks, so knows well the sort of difficulties you will have to face. Remember too that he will be with you every step of the way. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.
06.01.21 ~ FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
03.01.21 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
I don’t know if you ever saw the film, ‘Catch me if you can’? It’s a true story of a confidence trickster called Frank Abagnale, who before he was 19, passed himself off as, amongst other things, an airline pilot with Pan Am, a surgeon, and a prosecutor, living the high life and making lots of money. He was eventually caught and now works for the FBI Fraud Office. The secret of his success, was to blend in perfectly with each organisation. This week I met two mothers in the supermarket, whose daughters have joined the Armed Forces, both as Medics. I also met a young guy home on leave from the Army. I’ve known all three from their primary school days, so was very interested to know how they are getting on. It appears they are all happy, enjoying service life, and have blended in well. Unlike Frank Abagnale, they have blended in for legitimate reasons.
When you join an organisation like the Army, or any job for which you have no experience, it can be quite daunting, so it’s vital to make yourself used to living in a strange environment. You don’t have to lose your individuality or personality, but to belong, you have to become part of it, or you’ll never fit in or be accepted. It’s called incardination. When Jesus, the son of God, was born of a woman, he was incarnated into the human race, so, like everyone else, had to make himself used to living in a new environment, which he did by choosing to live and move and have his being as the rest of men.
St John’s gospel is different from the other three which simply record what Jesus said and did. John, as an old man looking back, is more concerned about what the Incarnation has meant for the world. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us”. The literal translation of ’He dwelt among us’ is ‘He pitched his tent among us’, which links up with that line from Ecclesiasticus - “Pitch your tent in Jacob, make Israel your inheritance”. This refers to the Israelites’ nomadic life in the desert, during the Exodus, when every time they stopped, they pitched a tent over the Ark of the Covenant, God’s presence among them, the ‘Wisdom which speaks its own praises’. In John, the place where God dwells is no longer tied to the people and geography of the Holy Land. He now dwells everywhere in the person of Jesus, Wisdom personified. John’s Prologue sets the theme for the whole of his gospel. Jesus is the “Light which enlightens all men” and, as such, will replace the feats and traditions of Israel in his own person. ‘Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days’. He is the new temple, the incarnate Word of God, forever present among us, even in such a bad year as 2020.
Although 2020 will be universally remembered for Covid, social distancing, self-isolating and national lockdown, we may also look back on our personal lives with all its joys and sorrows, and possibly regret promises not kept and opportunities wasted. If we do feel that way, we should remember the opening words of today’s gospel - “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God”. God is the Lord of all time, for whom a day is as a 1000 years and a 1000 years as a day. He is always making all things new. So, because we are people of hope, new beginnings are always possible. For example, this time last year I received a letter from a 30yr old, whom I knew as a lively, very clever little girl of 7, who used to chatter away to me while her mum was preparing the altar for Mass. I hadn’t heard from her in all that time, so was intrigued to find out how she was doing. I was very surprised, given the bright, full-of-life little girl I remembered, to see that she felt she had largely wasted her life. However, her letter was also jam-packed with hope. She had already made great strides, and 2020 was to be a year full of new beginnings. I await this year’s letter with interest.
Why did God become man and pitch his tent among us? For no other reason than that he loves us, wants each of us to live in an intimate relationship of love with him here on earth, and then to join him for eternity, completely fulfilled and all that we were ever meant to be. St John says, “To all who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God” thus making us who believe adopted sisters and brothers of his beloved son. “Indeed, from his fullness we have, all of us, received“.
27.12.20 ~ FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER
FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE HOLY FAMILY 2020
My dear people, This Solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity is kept holy as we recognise Christ, the Light in our darkness, Christ, our Saviour. It falls at a particular time in our calendar but is relevant for the whole year. Christmas falls on 25th December but its gift should be opened each day of the year.
Over these past ten months we have been made aware of our frailty and our strength both as individuals and as a society. We know that the pandemic has landed more heavily on some than on others. We know that certain individuals can cope better under this pressure than others. We have been asked repeatedly to be considerate of others, especially the most vulnerable and those whose occupations or circumstances put them in the front line of this battle.
When a care worker, medic or teacher finishes their shift or their work for the day, what do they do? They go home. Home to what? For the vast majority, they go home to family, spouse, children, news of elderly parents, washing, shopping, cleaning, preparing meals, medical appointments, bills and hopefully time to relax. All this – and more - is what it means to live in this world.
There are others who, unfortunately, have lost jobs, and now are faced with the crisis of knowing how to pay their bills, even how to stay in their rented home. Other families are even less fortunate as they find themselves homeless. I imagine the distress of young parents who find themselves with children they struggle to provide with basic essentials due to the cruelty of fate, economics or ‘luck’. I can imagine that darkness is sometimes welcomed because it helps to hide their plight, and yet, in this darkness they easily fall prey to anxieties that never take time off, robbing them of precious sleep and that most essential quality of human life, hope.
The Light that is Christ does not respect sin. He seeks out the darkest places knowing that these are the very places where He will find those for whom He has come, those who need Him most. The Church carries His light. The Church allows His light to shine through Faith and Charity. Prayer is something we can and must do in every time and every situation. With courage, prayer enables us to enter into the darkness of people’s lives so that the Light of Christ can shine both for us and for those we find there.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis has recently given us a beautiful Apostolic Letter, Patris corde, to mark the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of Saint Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church. It is something I ask your clergy to help make available in our parishes and schools. It speaks to us of the love of a father’s heart and will help to bring us the light of hope at a time when it is greatly needed.
God the Father knows all too well that bringing light into our darkness is wonderful but not in itself enough. Beyond prayer, beyond belief there must be active Charity. This, too, is the vocation of the Church and of every Christian. We must overcome the darkness through our love of others. Too often we can be paralysed by the sheer enormity of the problems we face and the desperate difficulties faced by those around us. St.Joseph shows us what is still possible. A single individual can be given the gift of overcoming what others see as insurmountable problems.
The world is a big place, and the number of those struggling can be overwhelming. Where do I start? Start with those closest to you, your family. Start at home. I invite you to take this opportunity to renew your personal Faith, particularly if you are experiencing severe difficulties. Be aware of the light you were entrusted with at your baptism. It was given to you for your own salvation and also for the good of others. Your vocation is to carry that Light in these days even though they are days we would not have chosen. This is where Christ wants you to carry His love.
At Christmas people want to be generous to others. Many families actually go into debt in order to ’make’ Christmas for their loved ones. Sadly, the most important element is missed; they ignore the reality of the Word made flesh in favour of joys that will not last. For us, Christmas is about a debt, a debt of love we owe to the God who has paid our debt owed due to sin. Note the difference; one household is plunged into debt by their Christmas whilst the faithful household is lifted out of debt by the Saviour.
As we begin the new year we pray above all for holiness. The Holy Family was not spared difficulties, and neither will we be spared. An abiding trust in the Father’s love will enable us to overcome any darkness. With the prayers of Our Blessed Lady, Mother of the Redeemer, and of Saint Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, may you be given a peace, joy and encouragement that only the Lord’s coming can give.
With my blessing on you all,
+Paul Swarbrick Bishop of Lancaster.
25.12.20 ~ CHRISTMAS DAY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Dad joke – I was gutted this afternoon when my wife told me my 5 year old son wasn’t actually mine. She then said I ought to pay more attention when I go to pick him up from school. Dads eh? As I said last Sunday in my homily, Christmas is real life drama, not fairy-tale sentimentality. These things really happened and this Advent, with most of the commercial hassle subdued by coronavirus, we’ve had more time to dwell on the liturgy, seeing its great Messianic prophecies being fulfilled in the build up to the birth of Christ, especially in the persons of John the Baptist and Mary. But today, I want to say something about a person, who was never mentioned in any of those prophecies, but ended up playing a very significant role in the greatest story ever told – Joseph, foster dad to Jesus.
A long time ago, I sat on the end of a soldier’s bed in hospital while he poured his heart out to me, because his wife and children had left him and gone back to England, and he couldn’t understand why. I knew the wife, and she told me she left because he kept volunteering for every job going, in order to get promotion and more money. The final straw was when he came home from work one day and said, “We’re moving”. She didn’t want to move, and she didn’t want more money. All she wanted was for him to be a proper dad. His mistake was that he didn’t consult her; just presumed she would go with it – that’s not how a partnership works. It’s easy to volunteer, but to be successful you’re going to need back-up from people who buy in to what you’re trying to achieve.
When it’s obvious to Joseph that Mary is pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father, he decides to quietly divorce her, but receives a direct order from God to accept Jesus as his legitimate son, who will then be recognised as coming from David’s line, as all the prophecies say he will. From that moment Joseph is a key player. There’s no way Mary could have carried through God’s plan without him. He is the quintessential back-up, the solid, reliable, dependable type of guy who, although always in the background, is essential for the success of any great venture. Through his work as a carpenter, he provided for and protected his family, as every good husband and father does, allowing Jesus to live as normal a life as possible during the hidden years of his life in Nazareth.
Not everybody can be, would want to be, or needs to be, front of house, but everybody can be a Joseph. More than ever now, when the situation with vocations to the priesthood is dire, every parish needs that kind of back-up. One of the biggest parishes in Preston, Our Lady and St Edward, will have no resident priest from January. In our own parish we’re blessed with lots of Josephs, male and female, thank God, and I pray that will always be the case, to ensure the survival and prospering of the parish when I am no longer with you. Hopefully, even more will be inspired by the Holy Spirit to use their gifts and talents to support our mission to make Christ known and loved. Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands or feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good”.
This week many headlines have screamed out ‘Christmas Cancelled’. Well, the social side of has certainly been cancelled, but not Christmas itself, a time when our concern for others always goes hand in hand with the celebration of Christ’s birth. For example, one of the best Christmases I had was in Northern Germany. I had broken down on the Hamburg autobahn after my last Mass – wasn’t rescued till about 5pm – no mobile phones in those days – I arrived about 7pm where I was to have lunch, to find they had not touched a morsel of food. They had decided to wait for my safe return. That waiting for me was the true meaning of Christmas put into practice – the giving of ourselves in the service of others. (Mind you, they were all legless!) So, even though we cannot celebrate in the usual way, Christmas Day is still a day of joy. Joy is the true gift of Christmas, not expensive presents that demand time and money. It is a day for us to receive the joy of Christ and share it with others, as St Joseph did in that very first Christmas Day.
20.12.20 ~ 4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On my message board in the kitchen, I have a piece of newspaper, written almost ten years ago now, with the headline ‘Too old to be told’. It refers to an article from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, saying that over 65’s should be screened for alcohol abuse. Well, as you can imagine there are quite a few comments from over 65’s, not all complimentary to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Some are funny, others just musing on life. One lady wrote: ‘Last time I was in the town centre on a Saturday night, I don’t recall seeing 75 year olds tottering drunk and half naked on their stilettos. How things must have changed’. But my favourite, and that’s why I’ve kept the article, is “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting: “What a ride!” I like that because it sees life as an adventure, something I’ve always believed in, for, as the man said, ‘you’ll be long enough dead’!
Every adventure has to start with the word ‘Yes’ before the first step of the journey can be taken. If someone asks you to join them on an adventure, after the initial excitement, most people would want to ask questions, usually about the risks involved. There are lots of incidences in the Bible of God choosing fairly insignificant people for a divine purpose, and most of them, it’s fair to say, are surprised. Some want proof, like Gideon. He wanted the dew at dawn to fall only on the fleeces he laid out, which it did. Not content with that, he asked God to make the dew next day fall only on the ground, not the fleeces. Even their greatest leader Moses, expressed doubt about God’s ability to bring freedom for his people and guarantee their safety. Mary was different. There were many ways she could have reacted, including the response, ‘Not me Lord’, given her fear of being found to be pregnant before marriage. What about the awesome reality of hearing from Gabriel that, of all the women that ever lived, you have been singled out by God, if you’re just a simple village girl, going about your chores, with no illusions of grandeur. Amazingly, and no doubt under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she responds by saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your Word”. No asking for proof, guarantees or explanations, just a simple ‘Yes’.
So began Our Lady’s great adventure. She is the first Christian to engage in the adventure of faith, and what an adventure it turned out to be: fraught with danger from the very beginning, when, to avoid the murder of her child, she became a refugee in a foreign country: that heart-stopping moment of every parent’s life when her young son went missing in the big city. The horror of seeing the man she had given life to, fed and nourished for 30 years, tortured and put to death in the most excruciating way known to man. Finally the triumph of witnessing his resurrection and being present at the birth of his church, when the Holy Spirit came down upon her, and the apostles at Pentecost.
The lovely thing is that her adventure did not finish with being assumed body and soul into heaven. As you know, from the cross, Jesus gave her to us to be our mother too, a role which she continues to play as, like any mother, she watches over us and encourages us in our life’s adventure. And for us, because she’s our mother, we have no problem asking her to intercede for us, especially when we are struggling. ‘Pray for us sinners now” we say “and at the hour of our death”, just as, no doubt, you prayed for your son at the hour of his death.
Christmas is just around the corner, so we should try to immerse ourselves in the human drama surrounding the birth of Jesus, and see God’s coming into our world as his great adventure, in which he works, moves and shows himself in ways our dreams, and well thought-out plans, could not imagine. Who but God could have thought of a virgin birth? Who but God could make his promise to build David a house, that would extend into the future and last forever, come to fulfilment in a dusty little room, in an obscure little village, by relying on the words of a young girl, who described herself as lowly and humble of heart, but whom, from that day forward, “All Nations now call Blessed?
13.12.20 ~ 3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
As you know, Diego Maradona died recently at the relatively tender age of 60, and there were many programmes in tribute to him. One that I watched referred to his godlike status in Argentina, so much so that his body lay in state at the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, an honour usually reserved for great statesmen, not footballers. There is also a Church of Maradona, where its adherents have an altar on which they worship his image, with many religious style paintings of him adorned with a halo. In Italy, when visiting Naples, we were amazed to see statues of him, with candles and votive offerings, in a niche on the corner of houses, where presumably statues of Our Lady used to be. Before he went to Italy, Napoli had won only two trophies in 61 years, and had never won the League title, but in his third year thy won both the League and the Cup, and went on to have unprecedented success. Napoli became the impoverished Southern David, triumphing over the rich Northern Goliaths of Milan and Turin, a bit like unfashionable Nottingham Forest’s European Cup glory under Brian Clough. On the day Maradona arrived to sign for Napoli, 80,000 fans turned out to welcome him, as he walked into the stadium under a banner that read ‘Maradona the god’. They had waited so long for a saviour and he had arrived.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s about joy, excitement and anticipation, and, in some ways, though nowhere near the level of hype generated by celebrities today, the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene, in today’s gospel, has similarities. During Advent, we have many readings from the prophet Isaiah, written when the Israelites were suffering in exile, because of their failure to stay faithful to God’s commandments. He tells them God has not forgotten them, or his promises, and that they will return to their homeland. It’s called the Book of Consolation, and is full of joy and hope for the future, and indeed, they did eventually return to Jerusalem. Now, many centuries on, they are in the doldrums again, this time, still in their own country, but under Roman occupation, with nobody to tell them what to do. There has been no prophet or messenger from God for 300 years.
Then, the word goes round Jerusalem that up north, there’s a guy causing quite a stir by the river Jordan. His clothing, his preaching, calling people to repent and have their sins washed away by baptism, all seem to suggest that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Excitement is building. Could he be the One, the Saviour destined to make Israel great again? The Jews send a delegation of priests and Levites to find out. But John makes it clear in no uncertain words that he is not. The big difference between modern day celebrities and John, is that he doesn’t believe his own publicity. He is no god to be idolised. He’s merely the warm-up man for the true Messiah, whose sandal straps he says he’s unworthy to undo. “I’m just a voice in the wilderness, sent to prepare his way. I must decrease, he must increase”. Can you imagine Donald Trump ever saying that about Joe Biden?
Perhaps the most important message from John, apart from what true humility is, are his words, “There stands among you – unknown to you –the One”. These words must have caused tremendous confusion among the delegates, who, like most people, imagined that the Messiah would arrive in majesty and power. John shows us that God’s plan is to start slowly and build up. The ‘One to come’ will not begin his public life in Jerusalem, the centre of power, but out in the sticks, in Galilee. He will come in poverty not power, weak and vulnerable not strong and mighty, to serve not to be served. In other words, he chose to be among us, not above us, but you need to be switched on to know his presence. To do that you need to look at the evidence. When John, languishing in Herod’s dungeon, sent a message asking for reassurance that he was the one, Jesus replied “Look at the evidence – the blind see, the lame walk the poor are fed etc”. So with us. We can’t force people to believe in God or accept Christ as their Saviour. We can only prepare the way of the Lord. If we live the gospel works of love and mercy, the evidence is there for all to see, that he is still here living and working among us. At the end of the day, we, like John, are merely the warm-up act for the main attraction.
06.12.20 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER
For the Second Sunday of Advent 6th December 2020
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
My Dear People, A single desire lies in our hearts and is beautifully captured by the simple cry, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’ It is spoken with greater intensity in this short season of Advent, but it Is a cry we utter in every season of the year and every season of our lives. Made in the image and likeness of God, we long to see the face of God our creator.
This Pastoral message, following the tradition set by my predecessors, carries a dual purpose. Firstly, to build the unity of the Diocese as it is shared across our parishes and homes. Secondly, it will give a focus for our lives, encouraging us to reflect above all on the second coming of our Saviour.
Our lives seem currently to be dominated by at least three massive uncertainties; the effects of Covid-19, the effects of Brexit, and the effects of damaged ecology. As Christians, we can counterbalance these uncertainties with the certainty of Our Lord’s victory achieved by His love. This is more than clever words. He achieved it by acts. He achieved it by taking flesh, by His ministry, by His Passion and Glorious Resurrection. This is what our lives are dominated by, above and beyond all uncertainties. But our Faith can be weak, and our witness can fail, and we can become scared, and even those who lead us can cause us to question.
St. John the Baptist is a key figure in the life of Our Lord. Even in the womb he responded to Christ’s presence.
He prepared the way for the Lord, and baptised Him. He encouraged his own disciples to leave him and follow Christ. We hear the Baptist in today’s Gospel, ‘at the top of his game’, as it were.
In lockdown and its subsequent tiers we look for ways of coping, remaining strong for others, doing what we can to lift those who have fallen. NHS staff, teachers, carers and many other professionals have done outstanding work.
I commend Clergy, Religious and Lay Faithful for ensuring that people have access to the Blessed Sacrament for prayer in spite of the severe restrictions imposed. I thank those who have written to MPs expressing concern that churches have suffered too severe a lockdown. I commend those who look after families, especially the young, elderly and vulnerable.
I think of St. John the Baptist later in his life in lockdown, having been arrested for his outspoken criticism of Herod. Even strong people have their limits, and St. John reached a point of doubt. He sent a message to Jesus asking,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?’ The answer he received did not change his circumstances, but it did give him new heart.
Christmas can be a point of convergence for three aspects of our lives; past, present and future. From the past we draw memories and lessons, knowing we can’t go back. The future is shrouded in questions, a feast for the imagination. A variety of futures lie before us, depending on how we make choices, and how events beyond our control affect us. So, what of the present, the ‘here and now’?
‘Christianity is not an ideal to be aimed for but a reality to be shared.’ What we have been given matters. What have we been given in our many forms of lockdown? A verse from Psalm 18 is worth remembering; ‘He brought me forth into freedom. He saved me because He loved me.’ We desire freedom, but some little thought leads us to realise that what matters most is that He loves us. Freedom without His love is no freedom; to know He loves us assures our most desired freedom.
In previous Advents I have encouraged us all to have a crib at the centre of decorations in our homes, and perhaps even in our places of work. This year I encourage the same. This year I also encourage you to make every effort to attend and celebrate Mass, but this will be difficult for some. So I encourage you to get to Mass within the Octave (eight days) of Christmas. I also encourage you to keep Christmas going, even up to 2nd February, the beautiful Feast of Candlemas, when Christmastide concludes. Carry the light and hope of our ultimate freedom into the New Year. Carry it joyfully through all the restrictions, trials and uncertainties of this life, knowing the utter certainty of victory through Christ’s love.
With my blessing on you all, especially on those who are experiencing particular hardships.
Bishop of Lancaster
29.11.20 ~ 1st SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
When I was at the Cathedral, I received, from one of the big hotels in town, a poster which they asked me to put on our notice board, asking the parishioners to book early for Christmas dinner. Nothing unusual about that, you might say. But this was in July!! I wrote back congratulating them on their exceptional forward planning. I also enclosed a list of Christmas Mass times, which I asked them to display on their notice board. I didn’t get a reply!
When faced with all the early preparations, and relentless advertising for the commercial Christmas, it’s easy to get cynical, but actually, we Christians don’t live in isolation from the world, so are bound to get caught up in the hustle and bustle, which is no bad thing, if you believe Christ’s birthday is a time of joy, worth having a party for. The difference is that our forward planning, over the four weeks of Advent, must include keeping the spiritual meaning of Christmas in view, but under pressure to shop till you drop, it can be difficult to do so.
However, this year, because, due to coronavirus, most of us have decided on a more low-key approach, to the material side of Christmas, we do have a unique opportunity to prepare spiritually, in a way often denied to us in the past. More time spent at home and less time tearing round the shops, may provide space for quiet prayer and reflection, not only on the meaning of Christmas but on life in general. Throughout Advent the scriptures unfold the drama of Jesus’ first coming, look forward to his second, but also remind us of his continued presence among us every day, in our personal lives. They remind us of our goal, destiny and purpose, which is to be with God and share the joys of heaven with all those we’ve loved and lost. These are the realities we hope and pray for and which, one day, will be ours.
We all know this, of course, but, over the years, as in every generation, some of us may have either forgotten, fallen asleep, got a bit careless or actually chosen to ignore the fact that Christ will come again, in a sort of “OK I believe Jesus is the Son of God and came into our world, but I need to get on with my life – work, mortgages, children etc”. So, that’s why Advent starts by reminding us to keep watch, be vigilant. To the apostles ‘Stay awake’ meant be ready when the master returns ie the second coming, but to us it means stay awake to what Christ’s presence among us here and now is all about. Be alert like a doorkeeper. How many re-runs of James Bond have we seen, where our hero gets into a megalomaniac’s lair because the doorkeeper has fallen asleep? He then usually causes mayhem and blows the evil lair to pieces. A doorkeeper is the first line of safety, but only if he stays awake. Our job is not so much to open the door as to keep it open, not just so that we can let Jesus into our lives, but so that through us, he can enter the world in which we live, commercial Christmas and all.
As people of faith, alert to Our Lord’s teaching and awake to the needs of the world, we have a lot to offer, in spite of our own faults and failings. We don’t generally commit serious crime, or behave anti-socially. People recognise that our behaviour is influenced by our faith.
Non-Catholics often choose Catholic schools for their faith ethos. Pope Francis is seen by the world in general, not just Catholics, as a light in the darkness in his concern for refugees, the poor of the world and the pursuit of justice, mercy and forgiveness. Catholic Social Teaching is often borrowed from by Governments trying to make life better for their people.
Advent, then, is a gift to help us to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the secular. We should be awake to what people are really looking for in life, especially those seeking God with a sincere heart. Christmas could be the perfect start for them. So, it’s most important to be up front about our faith, and to give a good example of how to balance the two ways of preparing for Christ’s birthday. Enjoy, as always, what’s going on around, but also make sure to include some time each day for prayer. When deciding what to spend on ourselves, don’t forget the poor. Most of all, let’s use the time wisely to take stock of our relationship with God and where our priorities lie. If we can do all or some of these things during Advent, we will certainly stay awake, and will prepare the way of the Lord just as he has asked us to.
22.11.20 ~ FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Like some other adults I go into school to listen to some of the children read, and I always let them choose their favourite book. With the boys it is mainly about monsters or superheroes. It got me thinking about the stories we had at their age: the lazy boy too tired to carry a needle, so slipped it into a haystack then couldn’t find it, the silly boy who carried butter home on his head, but the sun melted it. Then there was the ‘little red hen’, who repeatedly asked for help with all the housework but didn’t get any. “Then I’ll do it myself”, said the little red hen. At the end of the story everybody wants to eat the beautiful cake she has made, but “Oh, no! I’ll eat it myself” said the little red hen.
It’s a story of idleness, selfishness and couldn’t-be-botheredness, and in a way echoes the attitude of the bad shepherds, (mainly the kings of Israel) in our first scripture reading, who had not protected their people, or looked after them; leaving them scattered like sheep, all over the place, exiled in Babylon. So, because they failed in their duty of care, God, like the little red hen, says “Then, I’ll do it myself. I am going to look after my flock. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness, bring back the lost, bandage the wounded, and make the weak strong. I will raise up a new David to lead my flock in the ways of justice and love”. The new David is, of course, Christ, the good shepherd and servant King. His whole ministry on earth was the care of the weak, the poor, the marginalised, and the exercise of the corporal works of mercy, many examples of which, he gives in today’s parable of the last judgement. The sheep on the right are those who showed mercy, so are blessed and take their place in the kingdom, as promised by Jesus in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who show mercy, they shall have mercy shown them”.
The word mercy could easily conjure up a picture of a very grand gesture by someone with great power, such as an emperor granting the life of a gladiator, or the Duke of Wellington sparing the life of a soldier caught stealing a pig, but more often than not, mercy is exercised in a thousand little ways, and simply means an act of kindness or thoughtfulness. For example, recently we delivered a quite heavy food parcel to a middle-aged lady. Because of Covid we have to drop parcels at the door. Her teenage daughter remained stretched out on the sofa, leaving her mum to carry in all the stuff by herself, which I pointed out, but her mum said, oh, she’s always like that. An opportunity to show mercy was obviously missed by the girl, but was an opportunity for good shepherding also missed by the mum? Good shepherding, especially to young people, means passing on life skills which benefit,
such as facing up to the reality that you can’t expect to have everything done for you. It also means keeping the flock in view in order to rescue them from danger. One of the great dangers for young people today is that many of them drift away from real life, and get scattered into the mist and darkness of social media, so good shepherding means keeping an eye on their use of it only for good.
Like Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, this parable is addressed to all peoples, but it has a special resonance for communities of faith, such as ours. Working for and praying for Christ’s kingdom to come, means bridging the gap between our values and beliefs, and the secular world of sovereignty, authority and power in which we live and move, and have our being. In the long run, our parish, and the Church in general, is a success if, despite many failures and wrong turnings, we really have tried to set up a community of love, where people can grow in freedom and responsibility, where forgiveness is a reality, and where care and concern reaches out to those in need - in short, where, by how we behave to our neighbour, in whom Jesus is mysteriously present, human beings can get a glimpse of what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
And as for the last judgement, we need have no fear if, like Saint John of the Cross, who had quite a tough life, even being locked up in prison by his own community, we believe that “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love”.
15.11.20 ~ 33rd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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What do you think of the domestic goddess in the first reading? Perhaps some wives are smiling to themselves thinking, ‘that’s me they’re talking about’, while their husbands are thinking ‘lucky sod whoever gets her’. Whenever I hear that reading, I always think of the Fairy liquid advert – a little girl sitting in a beautifully kept house, asking her immaculattely coiffured mother, ’Mummy why are your hands always so soft?’ And I always want her to say ‘Because your daddy does the washing up, dear’.
It would be easy to look at that reading as the gold standard of perfection for women, but, as always in scripture, there’s a lot more to the story than meets the eye. The Book of Proverbs forms part of the Wisdom literature in the OT, and Wisdom is always referred to as ‘She’, the feminine side of God, if you like. So, far from being about a subservient wife, the perfect wife, with her endless busyness, is really about God’s ceaseless, creative and loving work for us his children in our daily life.
The parable of the talents builds on that theme by including us in the work of God. We are made partners in his enterprise, entrusted with his property, until he comes again. As I said last week, the scripture readings, as we approach the end of the liturgical year, during these dark and short days of November, are always about the second coming of Christ as universal king. We say in the creed “He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”. His first coming was at Christmas and ended with the Ascension into heaven when, like the man in the story, he left them to go abroad, having promised that they would receive the wherewithal, to carry out what he wanted them to do, each according to their ability. That was the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The property he entrusted to us was the spread of the gospel, and, as we know, they and their successors did a pretty fine job. But not all of them. Over time, some early Christian communities went off the boil, so Matthew, in recalling this parable, 40 years later, applies it to any community which lacks enthusiasm and rests on its laurels, just doing the minimum required. Like the third man In effect that community has buried its talent, for which, he says, the punishment will be severe. Why did they go off the boil? Perhaps they thought the return of Christ was imminent, so saw no point in getting stuck in. Even St Paul, in his early days, thought the same, but later came to realise that whatever God’s plan was, it was daft us trying to tie him down to a programme. “Don’t expect me to write anything about times and seasons. He’ll come when he’s ready, like a thief in the night. In the meantime, there’s work to be done” – stay awake and sober so as not to be caught off guard”.
The message that Jesus has entrusted to us is “God is love, and the one who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him” a message that has to be taken out to the world. Love cannot be contained within itself. The essence of love is that it must diffuse itself, otherwise it’s not love. Love is the most powerful gift we can give to someone, so, we have to use the talents we’ve been given with flair, imagination and creativity, to increase its reach and power. Sometimes, love in action comes from the most unexpected quarters. Look at Marcus Rashford, blessed with silky football skills which have taken him from poverty to great wealth. He could have guarded that talent for himself alone, to make himself even richer. Instead he has used his fame to make the lives of poor children better. Nor is he resting on his laurels. Like the men in the story who were rewarded for doing well, by being given even more work to do, the good work he did last year has led to even more this year. In this week’s Tablet, an article about David Attenborough’s mission to save the Planet, says that, ironically,
his many films of what’s happening to our world, is having the unintended consequence of people just tut tutting, marking time as it were, instead of getting out and doing something about it. If there’s a message to take from today’s liturgy, it could well be, don’t sleep walk through life. Be adventurous: take risks with whatever talent you’re blessed with, so that one day we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant – come and join your Master’s happiness”?
08.11.20 ~ 32nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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One of our parishioners, Eileen Wright, reminded me recently of a lovely story I heard many years ago, about a little old nun undergoing end of life care in the convent, where the other sisters tried to make her as comfortable as possible. She couldn’t eat much, so they kept her going with milk. As she started to deteriorate, unbeknown to her, they added a little drop of whisky to the milk, which seemed to perk her up, and she lasted much longer than expected. When her time finally came, they asked “Have you any last words of advice to give us, Sister, before you go to your eternal reward?” “Yes, don’t sell the cow!”
November is traditionally a time of remembrance and prayer for the souls of all those who have died and gone before us. But it’s also a time for each of us to reflect on the inevitability of our own death, and how we should prepare for it. Catholics of a certain age may remember being encouraged to ask St Joseph, patron saint of a happy death, to preserve us from a sudden and unprovided death. To be honest, sudden death is not a lot we can do anything about, but nor is it something to be afraid of, if we have been faithful to the gospel. An ‘unprovided’ death, which means not being prepared for it, however, is something we can, and definitely should, do something about.
We sometimes talk about death as sleeping, which, for a Christian, is not a bad metaphor, because after sleeping we wake up at some stage, which is precisely what we believe about the resurrection. In todays’ parable all the bridesmaids grew drowsy and fell asleep, but some of them were wise enough to have fuel in reserve, so that when the Master came, they’d be ready for him. In the same way, all people will die, but only those who have provided for death by having what is needed, when Christ the bridegroom awakes them, will be allowed into the wedding feast. Entry to the kingdom of heaven cannot be taken for granted if we have not been firm in faith and loving in deeds.
The first reading from Wisdom, marries up very nicely with the gospel, because it says “Watch for her early and you will have no trouble – be on the alert for her and anxiety will quickly leave you”. Apply that to today’s gospel and you see Wisdom is just another name for Christ. Like Wisdom in the OT, Christ comes to meet those who seek him, and enlightens those who wait for him in faith. We’re used to the idea of wisdom, and exercise it all the time. Everyday wisdom tells us to provide for the future, build up reserves, save for a rainy day, take out life insurance. If you’re running for High Office during a national pandemic, when movement is restricted, it may be wise to advise supporters to vote by post, rather than attempt to turn up on the day. But, hey! what do I know?
The Wisdom Jesus refers to is all that but much more. He says “Stay awake because you do not know either the day or the hour”. He means stay alert to what is essential and to the dangers which could knock you off course, and make sure we have the reserves we need to sustain us on our journey to meet him, whether our death be sudden or protracted. In the Army, during the Troubles, we used to have signs all over the place saying “Stay alert, stay alive”. Now, its commonplace to see similar warnings in airports about unattended baggage. We all know it makes sense to be alert and ready.
In the story the girls have no idea when the bridegroom will come. Unless we are terminally ill, or about to be executed, nor do we. Like them we too get drowsy and lose concentration, or feel it’s too much of a fag to go to the shop, ie church, to fill up with the spiritual oil which keeps the flame of faith alive in my heart. Like them, we may think the master won’t be coming for yonks, that my death is years away yet, so I’ll take my chances and live with just the small amount of oil I got years ago at primary school. The parable warns us that that is a very risky and not well thought-out strategy. Imagine finding the doors closed, being shut outside, and hearing those heart-breaking words, “I tell you solemnly I do not know you”. I would wish to spare anyone from that, so urge everyone, at whatever stage of their life, to take seriously the message of Christ’s parable today.
01.11.20 ~ FEAST OF ALL SAINTS
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Today is the feast of All Saints. For most people, I suspect, the first image of a saint that comes to mind is someone like that missionary, leaving the security and comfort of home, maybe sacrificing everything, in order to preach the gospel, with single-minded dedication, someone like the great St Paul perhaps, or our own 40 English martyrs. It’s true that in this wonderful Christian family we belong to, we do have loads of great saints, who in every era of our history have done outstanding things for God. But, as we see in the Apocalypse, there is a ‘huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language’, gathered round the throne of God in heaven too. Today’s feast reminds us that one day, all being well, we’re gonna be in that number when they go marching in. The secret to joining them, is not to blow the many chances God’s grace gives us to carry out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, being a peacemaker, caring for the sick, etc, outlined by Jesus in the Beatitudes in today’s gospel. But in order to be motivated enough to do those wonderful things, we have to understand why we’re doing them.
I saw a little story last week in a missionary magazine, about an American Baptist minister, many years ago, preaching to African villagers, and doing pretty well. He, of course, believed in total immersion, so at the end of his sermon, declared “Come now to the river of life, be baptised, and you will be born again!” But nobody came. He was terribly disappointed. What he didn’t know, but they did, was that there were crocodiles in the river! Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted!
In St John’s letter today he says, “Think of the love the Father has ‘lavished’ on us by letting us be called his children”. At the heart of being a saint, then, is to be loved by God and to be able to love in return, which carries the promise that “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is” (ie the beatific vision, or heaven). Being a saint is being caught up in the life and love of God. We can see something of what that means, in a child who responds to parents’ love and takes pleasure in the life you share together as a family. You are blessed, because, for all his human failings, your child is a saint, unlike the child of whom it is said, “He’s very good to his parents – he never goes home!”
Responding to God’s love makes sainthood possible for everyone, but it needs further exploration. I’m reading a pamphlet on the Holy Spirit at the moment, which talks about a very familiar image of the Holy Spirit - that of living water - used by Jesus when he says, “Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him”. Using that image, the author compares us to a glass. A glass is made for the specific purpose of holding water, but you would never offer someone a dirty one to drink from. It would need to be washed clean first. We, he says, were made for the specific purpose of holding God, but his great plan for the human race went horribly wrong when sin entered the world. By failing to appreciate the tremendous gift we had been given, we allowed ourselves to become unclean, so needed to be cleansed of our sins, before we could hold God in the way he created us for. Thankfully that cleansing has been done by Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, and, through our baptism, we are able to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
But whether we get filled or not depends on how we communicate with God. For example, you can meet someone you’re not keen on, but out of politeness, you stop and just talk about the weather, or Covid - a fleeting encounter with no substance. If, however, you meet someone you like, you may actually talk about the same things, but something deeper is taking place between you. You have opened yourself inwardly, and so has the other person, and as you go on your way you feel good. So too, we can have either just a nodding acquaintance with God, or a deep personal relationship, which leaves us filled with God’s love and glad to return it, full of the joy of sharing his life and love. If you have that you are already a saint, and being a saint frees you up to be a channel of his life and love here on earth, living the beatitudes for the good of the whole of creation.
On Thursday I had a call from someone in another part of the country, asking if she could have her 10 year old baptised here. Like so many, she hadn’t kept her faith up since High School, but had fond memories of going to church with her grandma. Although from Fleetwood, she had lived a long time in the Army, and we’d had a mutual posting in Northern Ireland. We had a really friendly chat, and I ended up telling her that she was not far away from a full return to the faith. I asked her to contact her local priest and have a good heart to heart, which she said she would really like to do. So, say a wee prayer for her. By the way, it was interesting the effect her grandma’s faith had on her. For many, like her, you grandparents are the one constant example of faith in their lives. I hope you all appreciate what a precious influence your love for the faith has when other models are often lacking.
25.10.20 ~ 30th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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That posting in Belfast reminded me of an amusing incident I had in a lift after visiting a soldier in the RVH. When I got in on the 5th floor, the only occupant was a little boy of about 7. I noticed that all 12 buttons had been pressed, but when we arrived at the next floor there was no-one there; then again at the next floor. I looked at the little boy who had gone bright red, and he said “Some wee boy has pressed all the buttons, so he has”. ‘Some’ wee boy? There wasn’t another child for miles! He’d obviously had an attack of guilt, and as we were on the Falls Road, it was probably Catholic guilt.
It was Billy Connolly who coined the phrase, “I went to a Catholic school and got an A level in guilt” but, in actual fact, Catholics probably feel no more guilt than other folk. The difference is that it’s our tradition to humbly admit it, seek forgiveness in Confession and, with the help of God’s grace, to try not to sin again. At least, that’s how it was when I was a boy. When I made my first confession, we were even trained to say exactly how many times we’d sworn, told lies and been mean to our sister, which was often a severe test of memory, with a tendency to exaggerate, hoping to shock the priest into realising this was no softy 7 yr old he was dealing with, but a hardened criminal. It sounds a bit quaint now, but what it did do was give us a sense of sin, and of its potential to harm both ourselves and others, the very opposite of what Jesus is teaching in the gospel today. It allowed us to grow up with a moral compass, knowing that sinful behaviour is always wrong, and to be avoided.
Today’s gospel provides the battleground where the real war against sin should be fought. The Old Testament distinguished between the two great commandments – they are found in different places – but Jesus makes the two into one, the single commandment of the New Testament. The love we profess for God should be the same love we have for our neighbour because, fundamentally, we all come from God, have been redeemed by Christ, and are destined, if we choose to follow him, to be with God for eternity. Because we all have a soul which is the spark of God’s life in us, the part of us which can never die, it’s logical and essential to recognise that spark of God’s life in everyone else. We call the Church, the Body of Christ – he the head, we the members. Because we’re all still here, alive and functioning, that means Christ is here with us too. Christ’s head hasn’t disappeared into space, decapitated – it’s still connected to his body, us. That’s why great spiritual writers talk about seeing Christ in others. It is Christ who lives in slum conditions, with no proper roof or water supply. It is Christ who suffers in hospitals, has cancer or is crippled and blind. It is Christ who is old and lonely with no friends and little money. It is Christ who lives in under developed countries, who is homeless, hungry and naked, and it’s for us to reach out to him. Loving your neighbour is not necessarily about liking them. It is an act of the will, even if feelings and emotions dictate otherwise.
As for guilt, the only guilt worth its name, is looking back and realising you did little for the plight of your neighbour in need when you had the chance, and if that guilt brings you to confession and forgiveness, it has served its purpose. When, one day, I stand and look into the eyes of Christ, I wonder if they will be the eyes of the beggar I passed by, or the neighbour I tried to love as myself??
18.10.20 ~ 29th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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After a rather disappointing rainy Monday this week, when no golf could be played, Tuesday started rather well I thought, until the post arrived. In it was my tax return. Imagine my surprise to find that I owed the Government £42.000. Normally it’s about £200. Turns out an extra digit was added to my State Pension saying that I’d received £86,000 – no wonder people think we Baby Boomers have the life of Reilly! Tax returns can be a pain, but they remind us of our duty to the State or, as Our Lord puts it, our duty to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
In today’s gospel, not for the first time, Jesus finds himself in a tricky position, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one side there are the wealthy supporters of King Herod, who have done quite well out of the Roman occupation. On the other side are the Pharisees, aware that Romans believe Caesar is divine, whereas for Jews, there can be only one God. “Thou shalt love the Lord your God and him alone”. If Jesus answers ‘No’ the Herodians will report him to the Romans for inciting rebellion. If he says ‘Yes’ the Pharisees will be able to show that he is not the Messiah, since he approves of paying to support a pagan god, the irony being they probably all had Roman coins in their pockets, like everyone else.
Instead of answering the question, however, Jesus throws back to them a challenge, to work out for themselves what should be the proper interplay between political and religious loyalty. It’s a challenge that faces us too, as it has Christians throughout the ages. In the early days, refusing to offer incense to the Emperor’s statue cost many Christians their life. Here in England while most of the country apostatised during the reign of Henry VIII, St Thomas More lost his life with the words, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”. Even today Christians are still losing their lives for standing firm in faith against oppressive Regimes.
Here at home, we are not overtly persecuted in that way, but there are many other ways we are encouraged to conform to what the State says is good for us, when deep inside, we know it’s not what God wants. We are Christians trying to live the gospel in an increasingly non-Christian world, in which the Law does not always respect objective morality, favouring instead, a pick and mix variety to suit the individual taste. This has made many things socially acceptable, which were once seen as antisocial and thereby opposed to the common good.
So, how do we reconcile our conscience with what the State does in our name, if we don’t agree or believe in it, like a war we consider to be unjust? Borrowing from philosophical methodology, we know God has endowed everyone with reason; we can think and use logic in order to judge and choose a course of action. Other faculties like imagination and memory also help us to arrive at a decision. Will power enables us to give or withhold consent to what our reason has proposed. That’s the same for everyone, believer or non-believer alike. What’s different for us, is that we also have the gift of the Holy Spirit, who informs our conscience, through the clarity of gospel and Church teaching, as to what is morally right or wrong, thus helping us to make the right choice in rendering to Caesar what is his and to God what is his.
Never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit. Eg, if you go to Ephesus, you’ll see a large beautiful city full of ruined pagan temple, so, on paper, Paul never had a chance in his attempt to establish Christianity there. Nevertheless, he preached that “Jesus Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven, far above all power and dominion or any other force that could be named. God has set him above all things as head of the church which is his body”. So, being the body of Christ, and thereby animated by the Holy Spirit, the church in Ephesus became one of the most important in early Christianity. The remains of the first basilica, in which the Council of Ephesus proclaimed the dogma of ‘Theotokos’, the official teaching of the church that Mary is the mother of God, are still there, and on a hill in the distance is a huge cross looking down on the city. No paganism there now.
So, seeing what the power of the Holy Spirt can and has achieved over the centuries, why would we think that in our time it should be any different? The Holy Spirit and his power is with us still. You can see that in Pope Francis, whose latest encyclicals to the whole world, on the environment as our common home, and the fact that everyone is a brother or sister to everyone else, the Holy Spirit is working to change hearts and minds about narrow-minded nationalism, and the fact that we’re all in this together. On a personal level, like Jesus, we too can find ourselves in tricky positions, and there may well be a conflict of loyalties. But we also know from today’s gospel, that if we truly believe something is immoral or against our faith, we cannot simply go with the flow and conform to the prevailing ethos. God must always have first place in our lives.
11.10.20 ~ 28th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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After Mass on Thursday, Paul Latus said to me, “You know Father about the group of six? Well last weekend Liverpool let in seven!” I laughed of course, but I shouldn’t have really, knowing that the day before United were thrashed 6-1. But I did! Talking of groups of 6, this week we got another set of rules from our Bishops for what the Government calls “life-cycle events”. So, for weddings we’re allowed 15 maximum for both the service and the reception. Baptism outside of Mass just 6, while funerals stay the same. A far cry from the way we normally celebrate such important milestones, and a world away from the sumptuous feast described in the first reading from Isaiah today. Two things to notice are a) it takes place in the open air – “On this mountain I will prepare a banquet” – and b) that it’s “for all people”. No shielding, lockdown or social distancing here!
You will, of course, be very familiar with this reading, because it is often chosen for funerals with its invitation to the joy of heaven, once death is destroyed and there are no more tears to be shed. But, as with all scripture, it is a living word, and therefore relevant to us while we’re here on earth too. From a mountain top, you can see forever, but to have that vision you first have to climb it. Unlike me, who always takes the easy way up by ski lift, anyone who has climbed a mountain will tell you it’s not easy. But boy, is it worth it! A panorama of sumptuous views of the beauty of creation.
The interesting thing, I think, is that today’s gospel story is about a royal wedding, something we in England are very familiar with, and which is announced publicly a year or more before it takes place, so that the whole country knows. With all that time to prepare, re-arrange diaries, buy new outfits and all the other things guests have to do, there’s no excuse, barring illness, for not turning up. As in last week’s gospel, Jesus is talking directly to the chief priests and elders of the people, and inviting them to climb the mountain of the new covenant he is bringing from God. But they reject his invitation, reacting like the farmers and businessmen in the story, with indifference or outright hostility, for which they have no real excuse, since they’ve known it was coming for centuries.
Many Christians have a similar attitude to Our Lord’s invitation today. For example, it’s that time of the year when I get parents, most of whom I have not seen since the child was baptised 10 years ago, asking for a copy of their child’s baptism for entry to our Catholic High School, Cardinal Allen. It’s fairly soul destroying, but very much in line with what Jesus is describing in the gospel today. All have been invited to the Eucharistic feast, but all have found an excuse not to come. I just pray that Christ our King will be more lenient than the king in the story. Many are called but few are chosen.
A person who is Christian in name only, often has a sense of self-righteousness, believing that simply being baptised, entitles you to a place at the Lord’s table in heaven, yet, as we see, without wearing the proper garment, you’re out. If you accept the invitation to the wedding feast (which is a sign of the Eucharistic feast), there is a condition. You must be clothed appropriately with works of faith. What really counts is living as a baptised person, not the certificate. Baptism without faith is useless.
Practicing your faith as you make your ascent to God’s mountain is not always easy, but St Paul gives us a pointer as to how to tackle the climb. “There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the one who gives me strength. I’m ready for anything, full stomach or empty, poverty or plenty”. The one who gives him, and us, strength is the Holy Spirit. He it is who invites everyone to the Messianic banquet. He is the one we receive in Baptism, the one promised by Jesus, to be our comforter and guide, when he said he would be with us all days till the end of the world. St Paul climbed a bigger mountain than we will ever have to do, suffered more than most - shipwrecks, floggings, hunger and hostility over many years, yet kept the faith, ran the race to the end, and achieved the crown of glory at the Messianic banquet in heaven. The Holy Spirit did it for him, and he’ll do it for us, if we let him.
04.10.20 ~ 27th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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From time to time you come across a tragic story of someone who has built a beautiful house and home for his beloved, putting his whole heart and soul into it, only to have the beloved leave him for someone else. In imitation of his broken heart, he destroys every reminder of the work he had lavished his love on, using a bulldozer to crush it to the ground. When we hear stories like that, it gives us an inkling of how God felt about the House of Israel, the bride he had lavished his love on, by building a vineyard so brilliant, that all his beloved had to do was walk in and take possession. He even provided her with a winepress for the harvest. “What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not done?” he asks, and yet she walks away.
In the gospel Jesus picks up on this theme of the unproductive vineyard and accuses the chief priests and elders, sitting in front of him, of doing exactly the same as the leaders of Israel in Isaiah’s time. Their fathers rejected the messengers God sent to them, ignoring or killing them, but this crowd will do worse. They intend to kill the Son too. With him out of the way they will be free to do as they like, with no reference to the law of God, and therefore no restrictions. Sound familiar? In our own time, Jesus has been metaphorically put to death again, or at least thrown out of the vineyard. He no longer attracts the multitudes as he used to do on the shores of Lake Galilee. We are now down to a small number of people, the faithful remnant, doing our best to keep the faith alive. But these lean times for living out the faith have happened before: they seem to go in cycles of boom (the 1950s) or bust (now). But don’t forget that after they killed Christ he rose again, and we have every reason to believe that he will rise triumphant again in our time, or perhaps a little further down the line, because he always does. Boom times usually come when we’ve got our backs to the wall, like Solidarnos in Poland, while bust seems to come in times of prosperity, when we can afford every kind of distraction away from practising our faith. But those distractions are not always good for us.
As an example, we are already seeing what an uncontrollable monster social media has become. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its beneficial uses, but even the creative minds behind Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc now gaze with horror on the monster they have created. In an article I read this week, it says “They can all describe the results of the problem – addiction, the engendering of tribalism, misinformation, the commodification of human lives, perpetual surveillance, and continual distraction, but none of them can put their finger on the problem itself. The inventor of the ‘Like’ button thought he was just adding another fun tool. He never imagined it becoming a tool of social approval, which has led to the horrifically steep rise of suicides and self-harming in pre-teens and teenagers, posting pictures of themselves, digitally altered, in search of a 1000 heart-shaped likes”.
But, Hope springs eternal. You could compare the darkest days of the lock-down to being in the dark of the soil, closed down, dormant, sleeping almost. But not quite! As we know from what always looks like an unproductive winter, with nothing happening and no growth to be seen, deep down in the depth of the soil things are stirring, so that when the warmth of Spring gives the signal, new life begins to emerge, as sure as night follows day. During the pandemic we’ve seen a huge surge in care and thoughtfulness for people in difficulties, from every sector of society. In our own parish two young mums told me that far from being fraught with having the children home all day when schools were closed, they’ve loved the opportunity to just enjoy being a family. I know of a man who makes time for a friend with mental health issues and a woman who phones someone with a dangerous illness every night, to make sure they’re alright. Little green shoots of selflessness breaking through the “me time” culture. So maybe, now, after decades of excess and consumerism, which have failed to satisfy that deep-down innate desire we all have, for meaning and purpose, this enforced stillness may cause people to look at what life’s all about and what really matters. Perhaps a new Pentecost is on the way. It would do no harm to pray for one. “Come Holy Spirit, renew the face of the earth”.
27.09.20 ~ 26th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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You may have seen the news this week that the National Trust has discovered that a high proportion of its properties were built on the proceeds of the slave trade, but, unlike their owners’ statues, I suspect those buildings will not be torn down. There’s no doubt that, in some respects, like all Empires throughout history, we have had a terrible colonial past, but we can’t undo that. What we can do, to turn our reputation completely around, like the first son in the gospel, is to champion the marginalised and poor, the voiceless and exploited, by not just saying ‘Yes’ to reducing carbon emissions, to not selling arms to powerful nations for use against smaller ones, to increasing our Foreign Aid budget, but with a sense of corporate responsibility, to actually carry these things out. Everyone knows actions speak louder than words.
Corporate responsibility is something the people of Israel believed in, especially when things went wrong, arguing that everyone suffered from the sins of those in authority. But, as we see, the prophet Ezekiel rejects that argument and, for the first time in their history, introduces the notion of individual responsibility. From now on, it can no longer be denied that we each have a personal responsibility to do the right thing. In the last century, the Nuremburg trials showed that the claim, “I was just obeying orders” was not accepted as a plea of innocence, from people who knew those orders were evil. In a similar way, personal responsibility means that all those good things I mentioned, that our Nation can do to bring about justice and peace, are never going to happen, unless enough individuals embrace a lifestyle to make them happen.
In telling the story of the two sons to the chief priests and elders, Jesus knew he was taking on a corporate body of ‘Yes’ men who made all the right religious noises, but who were deaf to John the Baptist’s call for everyone to acknowledge their own sins. He points out to them that the untouchables, who lived lives apparently rejecting God’s commands, did listen to John’s message, repented and are now making their way into the kingdom of God. The success of John’s message on such unlikely material, should have alerted the leaders to recognise that here was something of God who, through John, had touched those who initially said, “I will not go” but thought better of it and went. By rejecting John the religious leaders showed themselves to be like the second son, mouthing the words, but failing in true obedience of the heart.
The alternative to accepting personal responsibility is, like the Israelites, to put the blame for one’s own shortcomings on the Authorities. In the current crisis it would be so easy to blame the government for the state we’re in but, as is being clearly shown, this problem is never going to be solved either by government edict or policing, but only by individuals making a personal decision to co-operate with the advice given.
Moving away from national and international issues, to our personal spiritual lives, it’s clear from Ezekiel that God doesn’t dwell on the faults of our past. People are not forever damned by what they’ve done, if like the first son, they think better and obey God’s word. In literature redemption is everywhere like Sydney Carton in a Tale of Two Cities, a lifelong lazy, alcoholic lawyer who cares for nothing and for no-one, but sacrifices his life to save another man’s life “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done”. In real life it’s there too, like Jonathan Aitken, the MP jailed for perjury, who is now a vicar and advocate for Prison reform. With God’s grace, and obedience to his word by action not just lip-service, anyone can turn their life around.
20.09.20 ~ 25th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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“The heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above yours – says the Lord” and, boy, is that true! I watched the programme “Extinction” the other night, which made it quite clear that we are on the Titanic, heading for the iceberg at full speed, the difference being that this time we know it’s there, so why aren’t we slowing down to save ourselves and the planet? God’s ways, were for us to steward and take care of his creation not destroy it. Man’s way, it would appear, is to be so obsessed with maximising profit, that he’s unlikely to stop, to reflect on the environmental damage he will leave behind for future generations? We really need to have a serious look at the way God does things. Today’s gospel gives us a good start.
How many of you share the grumbles of the early workers? At first, it does seem unfair to give the latecomers and early starters the same wage. But that depends on whether or not you are a person of vision, someone who can see beyond the obvious. Some footballers, like Paul Scholes, are described as having great vision. That doesn’t mean they can see a spectator high up in the stands, eating a meat pie, but that they are aware of what is going on all over the pitch. Without vision, our world can become very small, with me at its centre.
The early workers knew they were very lucky to be hired and were satisfied they had a fair deal. They probably never gave a thought to the fears and anxiety of those who were not chosen. For the workers left in the market place, there was nothing to look forward to, and no hope of earning anything that day to feed their family. Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, their luck changes. Not only some work, but a full day’s pay too. At the end of the day, literally, there was good news for everyone. But, without the vision to see beyond their own interest to the fact that everybody had been blessed by the landowner’s generosity, envy and meanness crept in to the early workers, and what they had agreed as a fair wage was forgotten.
When Jesus tells this story, he is aware that his Jewish audience know they are the Chosen People, the early workers whom God called at the dawn of salvation. Now, he’s telling them that we, non-Jews, the latecomers and, even worse, sinners, are also welcome in God’s kingdom, and will be treated exactly the same. No wonder they grumbled. Similarly, in the Church, some of us are lucky enough to have been called by God at a very early age, through the loving care of our families who brought us up in the faith, and we’ve kept it all our lives. Others have come to Christ late in life. Some who have been lapsed for many years, have now found their way home. Others again have turned to Christ on their death-bed. It could seem that such latecomers are getting special treatment, compared to those of us who have never strayed, and that God is being too soft on them. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that they now share what we have always had, so we should be happy for them, and applaud God’s generosity and love for all his children, saints and sinners alike.
Another important thing to take from this gospel is the need, like the landowner, to go into the market place to call others to work in God’s vineyard. It’s obvious that the people in the story want to work. That’s why they’re there. It might not be quite so obvious that people outside the Church would like to be in it, but if we were to ask the question “Why are you standing here idle?” the answer might well be, “Because no-one invited us”. ‘Standing here idle’ is like a paralysis of the soul for those outside the kingdom. Without Christ their souls are cut off from the source of true life. “I am the Vine – you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing”. That paralysis can, of course, be reversed by the invitation to join in his saving work, which, as we see in the parable, comes with the promise of the same pay as those who have laboured their whole life in the Lord. But if a person is to change he needs to know it is for something better, and it’s our task to show how wonderful a relationship with Christ is.
During lock-down there has been very little opportunity to invite people to anything, but in these quieter than usual times, maybe the Holy Spirit has been inspiring many of you to think of new ways of doing so when this is all over. God doesn’t stop working, and nor should we.
13.09.20 ~ 24th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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Mgr Paddy O’Dea, a priest from our Diocese, used to tell a story of a priest waxing lyrical about a man whose funeral he was conducting, saying what a wonderful man he was, a pillar of the church, a devoted husband and father, renowned for his good temper, and a friend to all in need, at which point, his widow said to one of the children, “Get you up there, and check the name on that coffin”.
It’s a good story, but more often than not, it’s the relatives who say how wonderful the deceased was – “He never did anybody harm, she would do anything for anyone, she was perfect” when deep down we all know that nobody is perfect, and that we all need forgiveness for something. St John says, “If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar”. It’s tantamount to saying, “Ok, so Jesus died to take away the sins of the world, but he didn’t need to do it for me. I’m perfect”. That’s why in the Catholic Church, a Requiem Mass is primarily to ask God’s forgiveness so that the dead person may rest in peace. It’s not a memorial service or a celebration of the life of. That comes later in the pub, or at the reception, when he lives again in the stories we all tell about him.
On Friday I left church after Mass singing a song to myself. I thought I had switched the mike off, but I hadn’t, as Viv pointed out. When I checked, the green light was still on, but in full daylight was very hard to see. Different lights give off different powers in the dark, but in daylight, comparisons are meaningless. Similarly, in the shady dealings of the world we may look, to ourselves, pretty good, shining lights even, compared to others, but when we stand in the brilliance of God’s light, our imperfections become a bit more obvious, so that comparison with others becomes irrelevant.
As I said, we all need forgiveness from God, but as the scriptures demand today, it’s very clear that we must also bestow forgiveness. However, if you have been badly hurt, or suffered huge injustice from someone, that’s not so easy to do. Part of the trouble is, that from a human perspective, God’s forgiveness is extravagant to the point of being ridiculous. Today’s parable shows the unforgiving servant owing the equivalent of the 800 million euros you’d need to buy Lionel Messi, which he could never pay back. What does God do? Ask him to pay in instalments, give him more time? Neither. He simply writes off the whole debt. Unbelievable! How could I ever forgive like that?
There’s a clue in the opening words to the parable, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Jesus is preparing his followers to live by God’s rules, not man’s. Peter has just been given power to forgive sins, and trying to appear magnanimous, asks how often he should forgive: would up to 7 times be reasonable? But, Jesus makes it clear that God never stops loving the sinner and offers as many fresh starts as needed, even 70 x 7. The danger is that people might think that if he’s going to forgive me anyway, the rules don’t matter. It’s a bit like today’s situation, that if our Government gets away with breaking international Law, and there’s no penalty for Donald Cummings breaking the lockdown, why should we ordinary citizens keep the law? To think that, though, would be to miss the point. Forgiveness, unlike expediency, implies a fresh start, not a license to do what we like.
When we look back over our life, well, when I look back over my life, I know there are things I have done, or failed to do, when I had the chance, which I regret, but I can’t undo them. The key is to see myself as a forgiven person, to accept that our debts really are cancelled, wiped out as if they never existed, by the blood of Christ, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. By realising that, and seeing how God continues to put his faith in me, forever giving me a fresh start, I might just learn to look at the people who have hurt me, in a different way, to understand that they have their problems too, and to pray for the grace to forgive them. It may be hard to forget the hurt, but forgiveness is not so much about forgetting, as about ‘remembering without bitterness’, which causes a change of heart very much in line with today’s psalm: “The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger, rich in mercy.”
06.09.20 ~ 23rd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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Have you ever been in a room when someone walks in and says, “That blankety-blank Fred has done it again – upset everyone, and caused chaos. Someone ought to tell him he’s gone too far this time!” Everyone agrees, but no-one wants to do it, so instead, Fred’s wrongs will probably be posted all over social media, leaving it open to anyone interested, to assume the role of judge and jury on his transgressions, but this is not likely, I imagine, to get someone to change his ways.
It’s not easy to correct people, especially when you are aware of your own faults, but if there’s going to be any peace, it has to be done. So what’s the best way? Ezekiel was charged with warning the wicked to change their ways or die, and that if he didn’t warn them, he would be held responsible for their death. Jesus, however, gives us a graduated response to dealing with someone who has done something wrong, not necessarily to me personally, but against the good of the community. The first and best way is to have a chat in private. Failing that, to enlist the help of a couple of friends, and if that doesn’t work, to bring in others of the community who have the best interests of everyone at heart. Don’t forget, the aim is not to condemn our brother, but to win him back, and there are many ways of doing that. As Frank Carson used to say, “It’s the way I tell ‘em”.
A very good friend of mine, after he left the Army, made his living teaching integrity to Captains of Industry. This was during the Yuppie Era, when Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said there is no such thing as Society. Every individual was encouraged to make tons of money, the theory being that it would trickle down to the poor. In practice, it did no such thing – the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, and look where we are today, still one of the richest countries in the world, but where thousands of our citizens rely on Food Banks to feed their children. Technically, my friend was a Management Consultant, but instead of showing these up-and-coming bosses how to drive their business simply to make more money, he taught them that their greatest asset was their employees and their first and most important job was to take care of them. “Get the man right, you get the Firm right”. He knew that if the rich and powerful have only their own good, and not the common good at heart, then the Church’s prophetic role is to warn them – after that it becomes their responsibility.
More recently, you may have seen on the news the sentencing of an Australian white supremacist, who had murdered over 60 Muslims in three New Zealand mosques. Listening to the Victims' impact statements, he showed not a flicker of emotion, except when one lady said, and then repeated, “I forgive you – because I refuse to allow myself to hate in the way you do”. It was then he bowed his head. That Muslim lady was the living embodiment of St Paul’s words “If you love your fellow man, you have carried out all your obligations and kept all the commandments”. Who can say if what she did may not, one day, cause the killer to repent of what he did, change his ways, and save his soul?
Actions speak louder than words. The test is always love for our neighbour. Closer to home, you’ll know that we take out hundreds of crates of food every week to people in need, people whom Jesus identifies with, the lost, the lonely, the unloved, the poor, but even they sometimes need correction. For example, there are quite a few homes we go to where people are not in, or do not answer their phone, even though they know we come on the same day at the same time every week. By not being in or letting us know, they are demonstrating an irresponsibility which could have long-term consequences for themselves and their children. Our response has been to have that initial one-to-one conversation, rather than just accept as inevitable a ‘brother doing something wrong’ as Jesus puts it. In some cases, we have won back our brother or sister, in others no, but, like Ezekiel, we are sentries, and, in the spirit of what the gospel tells us today, it would do more harm than good not to warn them of the need to play their part for the common good. This is real-life, into which we must show how the living word of the gospel can not only change lives, but in some cases save them.
30.08.20 ~ 22nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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When I looked at today’s scripture readings, for some reason the first thought that came into my head was a line from a song about the battle of the Alamo. The Alamo was a mission station in San Antonio, defended by 180 Texans fighting for their independence against a Mexican Army of 1500. Before the battle, General Travis draws a line in the sand with his sword. He then tells the men that they are free to go, especially those who are married, and that nobody will hold it against them if they do, or they can cross the line and stay. “Over the line stepped a hundred and seventy nine”
In today’s gospel, Jesus, like Travis, pulls no punches about what horror lies ahead. As there’s no chance of a misunderstanding, Peter can’t believe what he has just heard. It’s only a day or two since he was praised by Jesus for acknowledging him as “The Christ, Son of the living God”. Now he is savagely rebuked for saying “This must not happen to you”. The phrase ‘Get behind me Satan, you are an obstacle in my path’ has two meanings. Firstly, it addresses the Devil who had tried to tempt him in the desert away from his mission, and is trying to do the same again, this time using the love and affection of his friends. Secondly, it’s also meant to put Peter, and indeed every would-be follower of Christ, in his proper place, ie behind him. A true disciple does not confront his master, but follows behind. It’s then that Jesus draws his line in the sand, which those who would follow him must step over. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me”.
It’s a tough call which can cause us to question the way God does things, as Jeremiah did. Chosen as a very young man to speak God’s word to the people, all older and more experienced than him, he probably felt pretty excited. However, he is rejected and mocked by those very people. So upset is he, that he rails at God, and wants to give up. “Lord, you have reduced me to a laughing stock. Your word has meant for me insults and derision all day long. I used to say I will not think about him or speak in his name anymore”. But, God never promised it would be easy, that there would be no pain: only that he would be with him through it all, which he felt “as a fire burning in my heart that I could not resist”. He couldn’t bring himself to walk away.
In a world where, for many, individualism “because you are worth it” trumps all other demands, the idea of accepting the “Cross” does not sit easily, and is to be avoided at all costs. That’s why St Paul tells us that we must worship as thinking beings, and not be modelled on the behaviour of the world around us. Christ’s followers cannot be comfortable in a world of poverty, inequality, deceit and oppression. “What does it profit a man to win the whole world but to lose his soul”?
As thinking beings, we have to work out what carrying the cross means. It certainly means getting to grips with the nitty-gritty of the Gospel, for example, marrying up the reality of recognising Christ in Holy Communion, with the reality of recognising Christ in the beggar who asks for something to eat. It means speaking out and campaigning against injustice. In many parts of the world it literally means losing your life for Christ. Back here at home, it may simply mean continuing to practise our faith among people who scorn our beliefs, or ridicule us, being, as St Paul puts it, “Fools for Christ’s sake”. This is God’s way not man’s. “The one who loses his life for my sake will find it”. The line in the sand is there in the gospel for all to see. Have I got what it takes to step over it, shoulder the cross and follow behind the Master?
23.08.20 ~ 21st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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I was in a shop the other day, waiting my turn at the till while another customer was
chatting with the sales assistant, a fairly loud but friendly type, whose reply to what
the customer said was “Christ Almighty!” As it wasn’t the first time I had heard the
assistant use Our Lord’s name in that way, I had a quiet word in private, explaining
how much the name of Jesus means to us, and how it’s not nice to hear it used as a
swear word. It was clear that the assistant was genuinely surprised to hear it was a
swear word and said “That’s just the way I was brought up”.
It made me wonder that, if we were to ask today the same question Jesus asked the
apostles, ‘Who do people say I am?’ what sort of answers we might get. Perhaps, in a
post Christian era, for many Jesus is just a name, so it doesn’t matter how you use it.
For others he may be, at best, an important historical figure, but not relevant to the Hi-
tech scientific world of today. However, the story of Jesus, just as in his own time
when he asked that question, lies not in the past but in today and into the future.
When Christ asked “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” the apostles seem at a
loss. They try to pigeon-hole him, by comparison with other people from the past with
similar qualities. In effect, they were all saying, and this is after nearly two years
together, “We’re not really sure, we don’t know!” All of them, that is, except Peter. “I
do” he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”.
If this is true, as Peter, inspired by the Father himself, declares, then Jesus is the
Christ, the Son of the living God, not just for that moment, but for every generation,
and to the whole world, for ever. This response of Peter does not come from what
Jesus calls ‘flesh and blood’ the limited understanding of human opinion, but is
revealed to him by the Father. So, faith comes from God – it’s a gift. As St Paul says,
“Who could ever give or lend him anything? All that exists comes from him”. But to
benefit from the gift, we have to root it personally in Christ his Son.
Once Peter had made that personal declaration of faith in Christ, things began to
happen to him. His name was changed to ‘Rock’ symbolising that he was being given
a mission, just as other famous Biblical leaders were. Peter was of little significance
before Christ came into his life. At best he was a useful fisherman, presumably good
husband and father, who would leave no mark when he died. We know he was weak,
impetuous and headstrong, but Christ knew that fundamentally he was a good man,
that his faults did not come from badness but from human frailty. It was just the kind
of material that He could work with. Christ released massive power in him so that he
became of great importance to the world, as our own Pope Francis is today.
As we saw in the gospel, faith in Christ is not something dreamed up by man-made
opinion, or a sentimental attachment to the idea of the ‘perfect man’ from the past, but
means acknowledging Jesus as the Son of the living God and, like Peter, accepting the
mission to make him known and loved. If we, who do have such faith, show, by our
intimacy with Christ, in daily prayer, the sacraments, and in the way we live out the
gospel, that he is truly alive in us, here and now, perhaps others may be given the
grace to see that Jesus is not a relic from the past, or just a name to express anger or
frustration. Remember you and I are the only Church many people will ever see, the
only Gospel they will ever read, the only reflection of Christ they will ever know.
16.08.20 ~ THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY.
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During the week I had a couple of days away playing golf with some fellow priests. I won‘t dwell on the golf as, in my case, it was, as Mark Twain so accurately put it, a good walk spoiled. I was awful – couldn’t put two shots together. However, compensation came at the 19th hole when some good stories were told. One of the guys told us how he once asked a boy in class what the Assumption of our Lady meant. His reply was, “It means we assume Mary is in heaven”, which must rank, I think, with that other great schoolboy howler, “Our Lady had an immaculate contraption”.
The boy was right in one respect. We can certainly assume Mary is in heaven, but today’s feast is concerned with what that means for the rest of us. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the dogma that Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven”. People wondered why the Pope felt the need to make such a declaration 1900 years later, when, from earliest times, Christians had always believed that about Mary. In fact, in the catacombs there is a 2nd century wall painting of Our Lady rising to heaven and being crowned by her son. The proclamation of the Dogma at that particular time, was a response to the rise of nationalism and the desire for domination, which had already led to the unprecedented suffering of two world wars. To a world of extraordinary brutalism, Pope Pius was proposing an antidote to violence, the triumph of tenderness, gentleness and love, which is at the heart of Christianity, as seen in, practised by and fulfilled in Mary, the lowly handmaid.
As a bit of background, all three scripture readings are about liberation. At the time St John wrote the Apocalypse, the Church was leaving the Jewish world and broadening its horizons, intent on winning over the Nations, starting with the mighty Roman Empire. As we know, that took nearly 300 years, during which the Church suffered regular persecution. John’s story of the woman is symbolic of attempts to destroy the Church in its infancy, but she escapes and gives birth to the child who is to be the ruler of all nations. That vision of a mother with her child, people with no rights or power, triumphing over the 7 headed monster, is the fulfilment of God’s first promise, after the Fall of Adam and Eve, when the devil was told his head will be crushed by the heel of the woman’s offspring.
Written in the midst of those very persecutions, we have St Paul’s letter in which an earlier chapter, often chosen at weddings, defines what real love is, and how love conquers all. Christ himself is love personified, and so is guaranteed the final triumph. ”Then the end will come when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father, after having destroyed every rule, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death”.
In the gospel we have the Magnificat, Mary’s wonderful canticle of the triumph of humility. Mary, so unobtrusive in the gospels, except perhaps for her intervention at the Marriage feast of Cana, is the one chosen to proclaim that the historical revolution, which mankind has waited 2000 years for, since the call of Abraham, is about to start with the birth of the Saviour, even though she herself can’t quite understand why God has looked upon her in her lowliness. The whole of her song is about the wonder of God who pulls down the mighty from their thrones, scatters the proud-hearted and raises the lowly, showing that he remembers the mercy he promised to our fathers.
The essential message of today’s feast is that Christ has won the victory and the final triumph is not in question. Mary’s assumption body and soul to heaven fulfils Jesus’ promise, that he was going to prepare a place for us and that he would return to take us with him. In Mary we see that the process of salvation for all people has begun, and that ‘those who belong to him will be brought to life in Christ’. The
Magnificat tells us what God’s mercy has done, is doing now, and will do, all of which has already been accomplished in Mary, but will also be fulfilled ‘from age to age in those who fear him’
09.08.20 ~ 19th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
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Every golfer’s dream is to play St Andrew’s. On the one and only time I’ve played it, we started at 6am in fog. Because we were unable to see anything, we were guided by a compulsory hired caddie. As the morning wore on, the fog cleared and I actually played quite well until I landed up against the vertical face of a huge bunker. The Caddie asked me if I thought I could get out of it. To me that sounded like a challenge so I said I’d give it a go, but it took me three shots to get out. He reminded me of what he’d asked, then added that if I had said “No”, he would have told me that I could have declared it an unplayable lie, and taken a penalty drop, which might have saved me a shot. I didn’t know that. Sometimes, when counting the cost, it’s wise to listen carefully to an expert’s advice.
For some, counting the cost often comes too late as a result of having done something daft by acting on impulse, without first thinking it through. Today’s gospel contains the classic example of just that. Here you have the apostles battling with a heavy sea, being tossed all over the place, perhaps even fearing for their lives, and Peter, with absolutely no experience of walking on water, asking Jesus if he can hop across the waves to join him. It’s like the first time I strapped on a pair of skis without taking lessons. Nothing to this, I thought – I’ve watched Ski Sunday - until the skis started moving so fast that I was soon out of control yelling for Jesus, Mary and Joseph to save me, and for everyone to get out of the way. What was Peter thinking of? No wonder he began to sink when reality kicked in!
This incident tells us so much about Peter, who, as we have seen on several occasions, is given to acting on impulse, without thinking of what he was doing, or counting the cost. Because he acted on impulse, he often failed and came to grief. Remember him professing eternal, unshakeable loyalty to Jesus – “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you”, then at his trial denying he ever knew him. Somehow he missed, or didn’t listen carefully to, Our Lord’s insistence that if anyone wants to be his follower, he must count the cost of what that involves, and make an honest assessment of his ability to carry it through.
Peter’s trouble, or maybe weakness, which I personally think is his most endearing character, was that he was ruled by his heart. No matter how often he failed, his heart was always in the right place – he clearly loved Jesus very much and, in his often ham-fisted way, was never frightened to show it. I suppose his most redeeming feature was that in the moment of failure, his natural instinct was to reach out for Christ, as we see here when he begins to sink. Like Judas, he betrayed Christ, but unlike Judas he stayed for Christ’s forgiveness. Each time he fell, he rose again, and maybe those falls brought him closer than ever to Jesus whom he knew would forgive, not 7 times but 77x7 times. From Peter, we learn that a saint is not someone who never falls, but someone who gets up after every fall. Like him, there’s hope for us all, if we reach out for Christ’s helping hand.
Getting back to the Sea of Galilee, it’s significant, I think that when Jesus gets into the boat the wind drops and all is calm again. Many commentators see that as an image of where the Church is today, although for me, I think it’s where the Church has always been; tossed by the various storms that rise every so often in our history, leaving many people, Christians among them, torn between belief and doubt. Perhaps they have forgotten another occasion, this time on the shore of Lake Galilee, when Jesus gave to Peter, the rock on which he built his Church, a guarantee that the gates of Hell will never prevail against it. In the time of Elijah, the Jewish faith seemed dead in Israel. Discouraged and depressed by it, he made a pilgrimage back to its source, the mountain where God had made his covenant with Moses. There he found God not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the still small voice of calm. It gave him the confidence to return to proclaim God’s word. So, in our own time, in spite of rumours of our faith being dead, and lots of turmoil in the church, Jesus’ words to Peter still apply “Man of little faith, why did you doubt”? We need to stay calm - He’s here in the boat with us.
02.08.20 ~ 18th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
If you are a film fan, as I am, you will all be familiar with the words of the song, “You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, the fundamental things of life apply, as time goes by”. It was sung during a scene at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca, involving Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, two sad people reflecting on how things could have been, had she not gone off and married someone else. There’s a poignancy in the words, ‘as time goes by’ because they imply the remorseless march of time, as we look back sighing for missed opportunities.
In today’s gospel there’s a hint of that poignancy. Jesus has withdrawn with the apostles to be by themselves, because his personal life was in turmoil. He had just had word of the execution of his cousin John the Baptist. Clearly, he is frightened by the news and the realisation that he will almost certainly be next. We are seeing a very different Jesus here, a long way from the strong, confident, razor-sharp, intelligent man we’re used to. To see him like this puts things into perspective. His life wasn’t all high profile miracles and battles with the authorities, nor was it all long and loving conversations with his disciples. In private he experienced the mental stress we all have after a major setback. Christ wasn’t a robot without feelings. We saw that in the Garden of Gethsemane. He needed to get away, and he needed time to think.
That time was denied him by the crowds who are waiting for him when the boat arrives. He could have sailed on, but took pity on them, spending most of the day, I suspect, healing their sick, and then feeding them – all 5000 of them, to say nothing of women and children. In the midst of this huge crowd, he must have felt terribly lonely as the time went by, but the fundamental things of life still applied; opportunities to do good are not to be missed. When the apostles say “This is a lonely place – send the people away to buy food for themselves”, there’s another opportunity – this time to teach them an important lesson. Their reaction was the world’s logic: everyone must take care of themselves. ‘America first’. Jesus’ logic is: sharing means everybody gets fed. As Pope Francis says, “A provident Father will not allow the world to go without food, but we have to learn to share it with our brothers and sisters”, something lots of you have been doing throughout this pandemic to make sure no-one here goes hungry.
Of course, there is a lot deeper meaning to this incident. Before the distribution of the bread two things happen. The words and actions of Jesus are identical to what he will do with the bread at the Last Supper - take, bless, break and give it. So, the feeding of the 5000 is a forerunner to his ultimate act of sharing, giving his body totally, broken and bleeding, to redeem the whole world. The second thing is that this is the only miracle that the apostles are directly involved in. Normally they just look on, but here Jesus tells them to feed the people. This is a forerunner to their function in the Church which is entrusted with the task of feeding the multitudes of the world with the Word of God and the Bread of life, which it has done ever since.
Thinking back to how Jesus coped on that day, perhaps we can remember a time of great sadness in our own life, when, in spite of how we were feeling, we still took the opportunity to do some good for others. If so, it was a very Christ-like thing to do. Although we must live with our memories, we mustn’t dwell on the sadness we have known. There are people to feed, people who need us, people who would be glad to have the little help we have to offer. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.
POST SCRIPT - Following Mass, Fr Alf was sent this audio file, by Anne Nolan, of 'As Time Goes By'. This is how it should be sung!!
26.07.20 ~ 17th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
In Steve’s parish quiz the other night there was a section on the names of characters from TV soap operas. Needless to say I got about three out of ten. One I did get was Delboy, famous for his catchphrase “One day, Rodders, we’re going to be millionaires”? My favourite dodgy deal of his was when bottled water became trendy. He began selling ‘Peckham Spring’ which came straight from the tap in his council flat kitchen. After years of such get-rich-quick schemes, he finally found the pearl of great price, an antique watch in their own lock-up which made them millionaires. Another popular programme is Cash in the Attic. An attic is a place where people put things they don’t need any more but don’t want to throw out, in case they might come in handy one day. Then, the next generation comes along, has a clear out, and finds that an old vase which granny used to put her flowers in is, in fact, a priceless one from the Ming Dynasty. It’s just like finding hidden treasure in a field. Both these examples are about the discovery of immense riches, one by a lifelong search, the other by chance, but the discoverers are not likely to have to sell everything they own in order to obtain them. In contrast, both parables raise the question of how far we would be prepared to go, and how much we would be willing to give up, to obtain the greatest treasure of all - eternal life.
The third parable is about how important it is to have balance in our lives. Like a dragnet we haul all sorts of things into our lives. Some are brilliant – some are rubbish, and we need to sort them out. ”Every disciple of the kingdom of heaven” Jesus says, “knows to bring out from his storeroom, things both new and old”. To help us to do this, we need to know the true value of what we are bringing out from our storeroom. For example, you are probably aware that there are factions within the Church at loggerheads with Pope Francis, accusing him of heresy and riding roughshod over traditional teaching. Of course, he is doing no such thing. What he is doing, is bringing out from the Church’s storeroom what is old, but essential, from our Sacred Tradition, which is one of the twin sources of revelation, while at the same time, encouraging all that is good in new ways of spreading the gospel, which don’t always conform to the rigid interpretation his detractors would like. He is not changing one iota of Church doctrine, but balancing its weight with God’s all-consuming mercy. Jesus himself said “I have not come to destroy the Law, but to bring it to perfection”. He wanted us to reach a stage in our life where we would not need to be told what to do, because the love of God we have in our heart would do it for us. It’s what Pope Francis means by ‘The Joy of the Gospel’
The Sacred Tradition of the Church is 2000 years old and has never changed. In Catholicism something is either true or not true – you can’t have a vote on it. But, in every age, we also have to be aware of the signs of the times and how they affect what we hold to be objective truth for the common good. Unfortunately, in our time, subjective individualism, pre-Covid 19, undoubtedly held sway. But, things may be changing. Over the past four months I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard how kind, thoughtful and helpful people have been. Maybe we won’t go back to how it was before.
In every era, including our own, we must know when to bring out old and new, individually, of course, but also collectively, so perhaps this quote from Ian Linden in the recent issue of PAX Christi, the International Catholic Movement for Peace, is particularly relevant for the signs of our times: “The impact of Covid19 was a stark revelation of the gross inequality in our nations. We face choices. We can cling to little England nationalism, or be inspired by scientists who promote a global vision, based on international co-operation. We can pay our key workers a respectful living wage, or just applaud them on Thursday evenings. We can root our economy in the shifting sands of financial services, and promote arms sales, or invest in the sustainability of a high tech manufacturing economy which reduces emissions. In short, post Coronavirus, we can either continue with unfettered competition and growing inequality, or we can rebuild our societies based on care for creation, justice, human dignity, and building peace”.
19.07.20 ~ 16th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On the radio the other day there was a lively debate about whether we should be trimming grass verges on our roads or cutting our lawns, because so many other species of wild plant life are destroyed in the process. It’s a dilemma, because we all love to see a beautifully kept garden, but at the same time, we are becoming more and more eco-conscious in the battle to save the planet.
Like last Sunday, the theme of the parable this week is growth, and once again, Our Lord uses an example from Nature to illustrate his point. When the workers discover that thorns are growing alongside his precious wheat, they report it to the farmer as a disaster and say action must be taken immediately to root them out. But, as we see, he takes the long view, and decides to let Nature take its course. He disagrees with the servants because he wants to give the wheat every possible chance. In spite of the thorns, he knows there’ll still be a good crop. When Jesus explains the parable to the apostles, he’s obviously talking of the last judgement when the devil’s subjects will be separated from the subjects of the kingdom and each will be assigned their fate. But, as always, there’s more to Our Lord’s parables than meets the eye, so this one is not just about the final judgement.
Like the argument about the grass verges, Our Lord is pointing out that there are a lot more species of people out there than just the good ones we know, some of them very bad, but, like the farmer, he wants to give them every possible chance. The workers’ desire to root out and throw away the darnel highlights the difference between the way God and man deal with evil. The Tabloid Press thrives on painting public figures as hypocrites, or splashing their sexual misadventures across the front page. Rarely do we feel sorry for a politician or celebrity, like Ghislain Maxwell, when their fall from grace is exposed to the gaze of the rude and scoffing multitude. It’s a rather disturbing trait that we all have to play the judge. Some fundamentalists may also subconsciously think, if God is supposed to be all loving, good and powerful why doesn’t he get rid of the dross, and allow the good guys to flourish in what would then be an ideal world? But what does God think about that?
For the answer, we need to refer back to the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. “There is no other god to whom you have to prove that you have never judged unjustly. You are all powerful and your sovereign power is unquestioned”. It’s precisely because God is all powerful, that nothing can disturb his equilibrium; nothing has the power to change him from being an all-loving God to every person he has created, even those who have chosen evil. And, here’s the good bit: “Your sovereignty over all makes you lenient to all; disposing of such strength, you are mild in judgement”. Who wouldn’t want to be judged by someone whose prime concern is to show mercy? He is the embodiment of the phrase ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner’. By acting this way he has taught us the lesson that the virtuous man must be kindly to his fellow man.
You could call the world we live in a field full of ambiguities and complexities, in which good and evil co-exist and, therefore, needing the art of discernment. Even the Church, as we know so well, is made up of saints and sinners, those who live exemplary lives, and those who certainly do not. We are a mixed bag, that’s for sure, but Christ died for each and every one of us, and the Father loves each and every one of his children, and will never stop trying to seek them out, watching the road for his prodigal son’s return.
The key thing to remember, is that God has all the time in the world, and he’s prepared to wait as long as it takes for someone to turn back to him. At all times he gives the opportunity for repentance no matter what we’ve done. At the heart of the parable’s message is leave all judgement to God, and refrain from judging others harshly, because we can never know what is in their hearts, or what they may be going through. To know all is to forgive all, and there but for the grace of God go I.