Sunday, 12 November 2017

Catacombs & Resurrection, Remembrance Sunday, 32nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year A

1 Thess 4:13-18
Today our nation keeps Remembrance Sunday, when we remember all those who died in the great wars of the last century.
I would like to share with you, in particular, what it means for us AS CHRISTIANS, to remember the dead, and to do so by commenting on what we saw in our recent youth pilgrimage to Rome when we visited the catacombs.

In our second reading we heard St Paul speak about those who have died in Jesus. He spoke also about grieving, and he said that he didn’t want them to grieve in the way that “those who have no hope” grieve. This is an important distinction: both Christians and unbelievers both grieve, both are sad at their separation from their departed loved ones:
but the Christian grieves “with hope” -and this makes a colossal difference.
St Paul would have seen this difference between the pagans of his day and the Christians, and that difference is also something that we can see visibly manifested in the ancient catacombs of Rome.

The catacombs, as our pilgrimage group saw, were underground tunnels specifically dug to be places to bury the Christian dead. There were a great many such catacombs in Rome but the one we saw, of St Callistus, compromised 12 miles of tunnels, carefully dug in 4 levels, more than 20m deep. The catacombs were dug to be a sacred and dignified place to bury the dead, and the walls and slabs sealing the graves were decorated with many symbols that expressed what the Christians believed about life after death.

But the most basic and important symbol expressed was the reverence shown to the dead body itself. This contrasted with the rather confused and conflicting notions that the different pagans held about what happens after death.
Some, held a very physical but limited view of the afterlife, they left food and coins to be used by the dead after death, and would pour oil and food into holes in graves -thinking that the dead somehow needed such sustenance.
Others, like Plato, said the body was a thing to be escaped from in death -all that mattered was the soul. This was expressed by the practice of burning the body in cremation and scattering ashes.
Christians, however, held that the body is a good thing, and that there will be a resurrection of the body. Thus they reverenced the body in burial.
But they believed the resurrected body would be transfigured and glorified and thus did not need to be buried with trinkets, coins, food etc.
The vast catacombs thus testify to the greatness of the faith of those Christians that the body would rise again.

As a pilgrimage group we celebrated Mass in one of the underground chapels in the catacombs.
In doing that we joined in the practice of the ancient Christians who offered Mass in those chapels to pray for those who had died.
It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone who has died UNLESS you have HOPE that there is something more that lies ahead for him or her. The Bible makes in point in the 2nd book of Maccabees, where it comments on Jewish temple sacrifices that were offered for those who had died, and notes that we only pray for the dead because we believe they will rise again (2 Macc 12:44).
We today, and especially in the month of November, likewise pray for those who have died:
We pray that God will have mercy on them in the judgment;
We pray that God will comfort them as they pass through the purifications of purgatory;
And we pray that God will sped and hasten that purification for them.

To bring that to a conclusion: How do we remember the dead?
As a memory or the past? Or, as those who have a future, a resurrected future symbolised by the respect we show their bodies?
How we remember them with affect whether we grieve like pagans, or grieve like those “who have hope”.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

He Practiced what He Preached, 31st Sunday Ordinary Time Yr A

Mt 23:1-12
Today I’d like us to consider WHO it was that truly “practiced what He preached”.
The phrase, “to practice what you preach”, is one is one of those that everyone still knows today, even though they have forgotten the Jesus who first coined the phrase.
My point to you, today, however, is that the Lord Jesus truly DID practice what He preached, and I’d like us to consider just a few examples of that.

He taught that we should pray.
And the Gospels record that He prayed: waking early before His disciples and ascending the hill to pray; going to the Temple and the synagogue to pray.

He taught that we should hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt 5:6).
And He hungered for it so much that He reached down from heaven, became one of us us, and sought out the lost (Lk 19:10).

St Thomas Aquinas remarks that we see this especially upon the Cross -the Cross is the model of every virtue:

He taught that we should forgive our brother when he offends us (Mt 18:22).
And He forgave as He hung upon the Cross (Lk 23:34).

He taught that we should be meek and humble of heart (Mt 11:29).
And He humbled Himself to die upon the Cross (Phil 2:5-8).

He reaffirmed the 4th commandment to honour our mother and father (Mk 10:19).
And as He hung upon the Cross He cared for His mother by entrusting her to St John (Jn 19:26).

He taught that we should trust our Heavenly Father, who cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky, and much more for us (Mt 6:26).
And as He hung upon the Cross He entrusted Himself to the Heavenly Father saying, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”(Lk 23:46).

He taught that we should turn the other cheek when we are struck (Mt 5:39), and when Annas’s soldier struck him He simply took it (Jn 18:22).

He taught that, “Greater love has no man than that He lay down his life for his friends”(Jn 15:13), and He DID lay down His life for us -even without us having proved ourselves worthy of being called His “friends”.

How might we sum up everything He did?
We might remember that the crowds said of Him, “He has done all things well”(Mk 7:37).

How might we sum up the effect of His teaching?
We might recall that the first time soldiers were sent to arrest Him they returned empty-handed, they returned to their masters and said simply, “No one has ever spoken like this man”(Jn 7:46).

Why did His teaching have such an effect on the people? Because He practiced what He preached.
And He calls on us to do the same: To preach what He preached; and, to live as He lived.

To conclude, He is thus the ultimate teacher, the ultimate “rabbi”.
And though the Church has never taken the second half of today's Gospel literally: we call our earthly teachers, “teacher”, and our earthly dads and priests, “father”, nonetheless, none deserve these titles as purely as Christ did -which is what the Lord is indicating in this text.
He practiced what He preached.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Fallen Idols & Vomitoriums, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

1 Thess 1:5-10
This week, as I think most of you know, was the parish youth pilgrimage to Rome. We saw a great many things, and on their behalf I’d like to thank you all for your generosity in subsidising it with your donations.
Today I want to to illustrate our second reading by referring to some of what we saw in Rome.

As Catholics we associate Rome with the Pope, but this wasn’t the original Rome. Ancient Rome was pagan, worshipping almost countless numbers of pagan idols.
Pagan Rome did not welcome the early Christians. Two things about Christianity threatened pagan Rome:
First, the absoluteness of Christ’s claim: there is only ONE god, not many; that He is “THE way, the truth and the life”(Jan 14:6), not just one way among many. In contrast the Romans had lots of little competing gods.
Second, the LIFESTYLE of Christians repudiated that of the Romans. The Ancient Romans lived a life of self indulgence and debauchery. The rich banqueted with vomitoriums in their halls, so they could empty their stomachs and continue to practice yet more gluttony. Sexual orgies were likewise a major part of their culture, with contraception, abortion, and leaving unwanted infants to die on the hillsides.
The Christians came with a new way of life. Early records, from the pagan Roman themselves, state that it was the lifestyle of the Christians that converted many. The Christians rescued unwanted infants left to die, fed the poor, cared for the elderly. They did not serve the idols of food, sex, or wealth, or the statues of the pages gods associated with them. As we heard St Paul refer in our second reading, “you broke with idolatry when you were converted to God and became servants of the real, living God”(1 Thess 1:9).

Such a contrast was not welcomed by the imperial powers of Rome. Nero burnt the Christians at the stake, Diocletian fed them to the lions, and this pattern continued for centuries. Our youth group saw the site of the huge Circus Maximus where most of those Christians died, the awesome spectacle of the Colosseum where many others were put to death, and saw the remains of the mighty pagan temples on the Via Sacra.
The might of Ancient Rome bore down hard on the early Church.
And yet more and more of them converted to Christ.
And the might of pagan Rome fell. Circus Maximus is just grassland now. The marble of the Colosseum and the pillars of those temples now adorn the churches of the living God.

There is a painting we saw in Rome that symbolises this change. On the ceiling of the Constantine room in the Vatican Museum is a painting that shows a pedestal that had held a mighty pagan idol. The idol is smashed and discarded on the floor, and in its place stands a humble image of Christ, Christ on the Cross. The truth that is Him, and “the sort of life”(1 Thess 1:5) He teaches us, swept aside all that went before Him AND all that has come after.

The Church is the oldest institution in human history. It has seen empires come and seen them go. Napoleon invaded Rome, and he is gone.
Stalin mocked “the divisions” of the Pope, and the Soviet Empire is likewise no more.

The Church is the Body of Christ.
The Church endures because what Christ offers is ETERNALLY significant.
Let me close by noting, however, that the clash between the idols of the world and the God shown in Christ, the humble other-worldly values shown on the Cross, that clash against the idols of self-indulgence, of food and sex and comfort, that clash is alive again in our era today.

The Church will endure because Christ promised it, “until the end of time”(Mt 28:20).
But whether you and I endure with it, whether England endures with it, is a choice we need to be a part of.
Do the words of St Paul to the Thessalonians also apply to us? “You have been converted from idolatry to serve the living God”(1 Thess 1:9).

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Render Unto God, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Mt 22:15-21
Today I’d like us all to consider a rather direct question: Do you try to fit your life around God, or, do we try to squeeze God into the spare unoccupied bits of our life?

In our modern world it can seem much more difficult to do this than it used to be. There is, quite simply, and ever-increasing sense that there is too much to do already, and where does God fit in?

The TV fills evenings that once had, naturally, more space, and thus more space for God.
Email demands replies in a way and frequency that letters did only much more slowly.
Mobile text messages also never let us stop.
Transport in cars means that there is an expectation that we travel and DO more than we would have been considered thinkable in previous generations.
Those with children find that there is an ever-increasing number of activities on offer for them.
While many of you who are retired can say how life seems more full after retirement than it did before.
There is just this sense that there is never a moment when our world isn’t already fully occupied.

So many things we feel expected to do.
So many conflicting priorities.
Where does GOD fit in that list of priorities?
Where SHOULD He fit?

Let’s try and answer that question with what the eldest among us would recognize as the first question in the Penny Catechism:
Who made you? God made you.
Who made this world and cosmos? God did.
Why did He make you? The answer to that question is NOT:
He made you so that you should rarely think of Him,
He made you so that He should be the lowest item on your priority list,
He made you so that you should plan everything else in your week and only THEN think whether you have time to pray, time for Sunday Mass, time for HIM.

The way we plan and prioritise in our lives shows what is truly important to us.
Where does something as supposedly simply as Sunday Mass get planned and prioritised?
Is it the most important and fixed part of our week?
Do we treat “the Lord’s Day” as just that -that’s how HE described it (Rev 1:10),
or, do we treat it like a day that, at best, gets Sunday Mass squeezed in so that we get on with the real priorities in our lives?

Our Catholic Faith teaches us that Sunday Mass is a non-negotiable in life.
Sunday comes only once a week.
The Mass is THE prayer Christ established, “Do THIS in memory of me…”(Lk 22:19).
It’s a serious sin to miss Mass on Sunday (CCC 2181).

What about prayer?
If God is our creator, if God is the most important thing in the universe and in our own lives, then where does our planning and prioritising put time and place for praying?

And if we don't make time for these things, how can we possibly have the spiritual clarity to see the other things we need to render unto God?

I raise these questions today because in today’s Gospel we heard the Lord say we must “Render unto God the things that are God’s”(Mt 22:21).
It’s a concept that, in our modern over-filled world, it can we easily lose sight of.

According to the Lord Jesus, the FIRST and GREATEST commandment is Mt 22:38):
“You shall love the Lord your God”(Lk 10:27)
and, not just love Him, but:
“with all your heart and strength and soul and mind”.
If someone else looked at our week, would they think that was true of us?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Evangelisation, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Mt 22:1-14; Isa 25:6-10
I’d like us to consider where we fit in today’s parable. The Lord Jesus just described “the kingdom of heaven” and there were a number of characters in that parable. I would like us to start by noting the “servants” of the king:
Those servants were SENT out, sent with invitations to the banquet.
I would like to point out that this role is exactly what Pope Francis and the recent popes before have said is OUR role:
You and I have been SENT out to the society we live in to invite people to the banquet of the Lord.

The “wedding banquet” is a common image in the Scriptures.
Being a “wedding”, it symbolises the love between God and His people.
Being a “banquet”, it symbolises something desirable & satisfying, something we should WANT to attend.
In particular, being “the Kingdom of Heaven”, it offers:
the fulfilment of all desires in Heaven,
the meaning and purpose of life on earth,
and the joy of being with the Lord who loves us -a joy we can know both in this world and the next, as much as we are open to it.
The “wedding banquet” invitation is an invitation to “marry” God -and there is nothing greater that one might wish for.

My point to you today, is that the Lord’s parable indicates that there are those “sent” to “invite” others.
Someone has the task of communicating that invitation.
And that someone is you and me.
The word we use of this task is “evangelisation”: making known the Good News about Jesus Christ.

Before saying anything more I want to dispel a certain image of “evangelisation”, namely, the image of the man standing on a soap box shouting out passages of the Bible to random strangers as they walk by. There is a place for this, but it’s not the primary or even most common form of evangelisation.
Such a type of evangelisation requires specialised training, but Pope Francis makes the point that actually communicating this message is a task we ALL have -evangelisation is NOT a job for specialists (EG 120-121).

The people we are to communicate this “invitation” to is everyone.
That means it is primarily to the people we meet most frequently. This, of course, is what can make it so difficult. In many ways its easier to talk about God to a stranger than to someone in our own family.
But if we love our family members more than we love the stranger then we should WANT to tell them about the Lord.

This brings me to my last and final point:
What IS evangelisation? What is the “invitation” we are communicating?
At its heart, it means telling someone about the Lord Jesus.
Evangelisation happens when someone “encounters”(c.f. Evangelii Gaudium 7) the Lord Jesus,
and someone can only meet the Lord Jesus if someone INTRODUCES them to the Lord,
and introducing someone to the Lord means TALKING to them about Him.

In a week and a half we’re going to re-launch our Parish Evangelisation Team (because it took a break over the summer). Everyone in the parish is invited to these meetings. All we do in them in go around in a circle and each share one single attempt we’ve made in the past month to talk to someone about the Lord. It’s a simple methodology to enable us all to learn from each other how to do this simple but difficult thing:
to talk to another person about God;
to invite another person to the fulfilment of all their desires, the “wedding banquet” of the Lord.
Like the servants in today’s parable, it’s an invitation we’ve all been sent to spread.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Fatima Centenary, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Isa 5:1-7; Mt 21:33-43
People often wonder if God still does anything, still works miracles, is still active in people's lives.
We read in the Bible of Him doing great things. But what does He do today?
We heard, for example, in our first reading and Gospel text of God’s care for His chosen “vineyard”. That vineyard, in the Old Testament, was His chosen people Israel. In the New Covenant, in Christ, that is the body of believers, the Church. But we sometimes hear the concern expressed: Does God still care for His Church? Is He still active today?

This week marks an important milestone that can focus us on that issue, namely, the one hundredth anniversary of Our Lady appearing to 3 shepherd children in Fatima, in the year 1917.
You may recall that Pope Francis went to Fatima earlier this year and canonised two of the visionaries, Jacinta and Francesco.
You might also recall that Pope Francis consecrated the entire world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, before the statue of our Lady of Fatima, a statue he's had specially brought to Rome from the sanctuary in Portugal. You may recall, too, that just after he was elected Pope, he had his papacy dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima by the bishop there.
Fatima is one of those many places where God has manifested His power in a mighty fashion, and here, as in similarly many occasions, here He manifested that power through the hand of our Blessed Mother & His.

In the year 1917 three shepherd children, Lucia, Jacinta, and Francesco, aged 10, 9, and 8, in the remote village of Fatima in Portugal claimed to have seen a vision of Our Lady. For a long time their families called them liars, the parish priest doubted them, the local mayor (in a violently anti-Catholic government) arrested them and threatened to boil them in oil unless they denied it. But on the 13th day of six consecutive months ever-increasing crowds came to see the children as they had their visions. The apparition promised that on the 13th of October, the anniversary of which is this week, a miracle would be worked in public. 70,000 people came that day, most believers, but many came to scoff, and secular journalists came to report what they presumed would be a disappointed crowd. Yet, it is those journalists who give us some of most dramatic accounts of what they all saw, 'the miracle of the sun', which is described in more detail in the parish newsletter, and even more detail at Some people today have tried to claim this was just a mass-hallucination, yet never in human history has there been such a well-documented miracle, and never have such a mixture of unbelievers and believers had the same "hallucination".

To me, however, the real miracle of Fatima was not the sun, or the healings of the sick and crippled, but the prophecies that Our Lady gave, prophecies of the horrors that would be unleashed on the world during the 20th Century. We think of the two world wars. But we are less likely to be aware of the 27 million Christians martyrs killed last century, more than twice the number in all the previous 19 centuries put together, whose accounts Saint John Paul II documented at the end of that century. All that human and Christian suffering was foretold in those visions at Fatima.
But, and this is the point, it was not foretold in some passive unavoidable way, but as a warning, with a remedy that, if followed, could have prevented much if not all of it. That remedy was prayer (especially daily Rosary), penance, and to entrust ourselves to her Immaculate Heart. That remedy was followed by many, and Pope John Paul II, as indicated in the parish newsletter insert, attributed his being spared in the assassination attempt of 1981, to Our Lady. Her hand guided the bullet and spared his life, he said.
And the point is this, as Cardinal Ratzinger is quoted in the newsletter saying: prayer changes the course of history.
And it can change the course of my life, and your life.

To conclude:
Is God still active today? Does He act to care for His vineyard the Church, today?
Fatima gives us a powerful example of the fact that, yes, He is.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Others before Himself, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Phil 2:1-11
I’d like us to consider one aspect of what it FELT like to MEET the Lord Jesus.
We know that the Lord made quite an impression on people as He travelled, and talked, and met people. Today, I want to reflect on an aspect of what we heard St Paul speak of in our second reading (Phil 2:1-11).

Let me start with a more general observation: When we meet someone, do we experience that person as thinking more about himself or more about YOU?
I think we’ve all had the experience of meeting someone who is so self-absorbed he doesn’t really see you. He might not be unpleasant or bad, but he’s so absorbed in something else that he fails to see your situation, fails to bring you a cup of tea, or a chair.
Or, if he does these things he’s someone done them for himself before he’s done them for you.

My point is that it was the other way around with the Lord:
When we read the Gospels we repeatedly read about someone who is focussed on the “other”, focussed on YOU, not focussed on Himself.
And when we recall that He was the Lord God almighty, its pretty amazing that He should be so focussed on us rather than on His own majesty.

To think of just two examples:
We might recall the occasion when He and His apostles were so exhausted with preaching and healing all day that He took them across the lake to a lonely place to rest awhile. But when they got there they found a whole new crowd waiting for Him. Did the Lord get exasperated and say, “Look, I just need some space right now! Leave me alone!” No, the Gospels tell us that He looked at the crowds and “felt compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd”(Mk 6:34; Mt 9:36).
He thought of them before Himself.
We might also recall a similar scene when He met the Samaritan woman by the well. Again, He was tired and resting in the heat. Yet, He thought of her needs and her salvation first, and spoke to her at length and offered her the water that will forever satisfy. (Jn 4:4-26)
Again, He thought of others ahead of Himself.

In our second reading we heard St Paul telling us that this is exactly what a Christian should be doing:
Putting other people’s interests ahead of his own (Phil 2:4).
And St Paul says a Christian should do this because Christ did this.

St Paul goes on to spell out the definitive PLACE where Christ did this: on the Cross.
On the Cross, the Lord didn’t work for His own good but for OUR good.
On the Cross, the Lord put us ahead of Himself.
This is why the Cross is the definitive sign of what the Lord has done, and still does, for us.
This, ALSO, is why the Cross is the definitive sign of what we must do if we would FOLLOW Him.
If we are focussed on ourselves, and on our own needs, then we can’t truly love others.
If we are focussed on ourselves, and on our own needs, then we can’t truly be following Christ.
To love means to die to self, just as Christ died on the Cross.
This, to repeat what is said earlier this year, is why the Church calls for an image of “Christ crucified” (GIRM n.308) that is “clearly visible to the assembled congregation” (c.f. GIRM 117, 122, 306).
An image of Christ crucified shows you what the Lord does for you,
and shows you what you need to do to follow Him.

To close where I began, what did it feel like to meet the Lord Jesus?
To meet the Lord was to meet someone who was interested in you, who was focussed on you.
Just as, in His fullest expression, He was focussed on you as He died on the Cross for you.