Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Sunday

Col 3:1-4 (first option for second reading)
Today we recall an event that changed the lives of the men and women who came to be called Christians. And if we recall its meaning, it can change our lives too.

That Easter Sunday morning they found the tomb empty. They weren't expecting it. No earthly explanation was sufficient.
Not only was the tomb empty, but Jesus Christ, the same one who had been crucified on the Friday, appeared in a new glorified state, in His resurrected body. He appeared not only to his followers, like Peter, but to his enemies, like Paul.

These two facts (the empty tomb and the witnesses who saw Him after His resurrection) testify to the beginning of a NEW CREATION that had been worked in His own flesh.
We live in a world of limitations, sufferings, difficulties. The Lord Jesus came from heaven and united Himself to all those problems we know in life, most particularly, He united Himself with them in His suffering on the Cross.
But what we recall today is that “Good” Friday was not the end, rather, it was a new beginning. It led to His resurrection, the act of new creation by which He began to “make all things new” (Rev 21:5) –as He declares in the book of Revelation.

His first followers realised that the existence of this “NEW creation” meant that they should no longer continue to live lives based on the “old” creation.
Lives based on the “old” creation are lives based merely on this material order we see around: money, property, food, etc. Those things are real, but they do not last, and any life we live based on them will not last. They will fade and die and rot in corruption. We can, if so so choose, cling to them, but if we do we cling to things that have no future, and barely have a present –there is no deep meaning in a materialistic life, no inner purpose.

The alternative is what was put before us in our second reading, from St. Paul to the Colossians. The Lord’s first followers knew that by being united to Christ they had both died and risen WITH Him. And, as Colossians put it, “Since you have been brought back to true life in Christ, you must look for the things that are in HEAVEN, where Christ is… Let your thoughts then be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God”(Col 3:1-3).

To live a life based on the things of heaven rather than on the things of earth is to live a life of HOPE, a life that looks forward, a life that realises that there is something MORE and GREATER that lies ahead.
Yes, I need to eat while I am on earth, and I can ENJOY eating on earth. And I can enjoy a house, and car, and money.
BUT I need to enjoy these things realising that the inner purpose of life lies BEYOND them, lies in what I am reaching for in heaven.
I need to relate to my money, and USE my money, in a way that reaches for heaven. In a way that loves as our loving Lord in heaven loves, in a way that thinks of others and not just of myself.

And the point about the resurrection is this: the Lord’s triumph over the sufferings of this world, the Lord beginning the new creation in the transformation of His own flesh, this is what enables me to look beyond all that I see around me. This is what enables me to live this new life of the new creation, even while I live amidst the things of the “old”.
He has triumphed. He is in heaven, with His transfigured resurrected body.
And if I live a life that looks towards that goal, then, to finish by quoting Colossians again, then “when Christ is revealed [at the end of time] and He is your life –you too will be revealed in all your glory with Him”(Col 3:4).

Friday, 25 March 2016

Good Friday, Glory in Weak Flesh

Jn 18:1-19:42
As we hear the horror of the event of Good Friday, there are two extremes that are put before us by St John’s account of the passion: the extreme of the kingship and glory of Christ, and the extreme physicality of the suffering to which He chose to lower Himself for our sakes. These two themes run throughout John, and they tell us something incredibly important for how we can find the Lord in our own experiences of being low and weak in our fleshy existence and suffering.

At the start of St John’s gospel He says of the Lord Jesus, that God “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father”(Jn 1:14).
“The flesh” is something that St John notes repeatedly about the Lord. And his account of the Passion includes many small physical details that the other Gospel writers pass over:
He records that the Lord is not only insulted and mocked, but that He is physically “slapped” in the face.
He records not only that the Lord was led out to be crucified, but that He physically “carried his own cross”.
He records not only that the Lord was crucified, but he explicitly refers to the “nails” that went through His hands (Jn 20:25, noted after His resurrection).
He records not only that He hung on the cross, but the physical detail that He cried out, “I thirst”.
He records not only that He died, but that the physical detail of His side being pierced by the spear, showing His death by blood and water flowing from His side, with “not one bone of His broken”.

When St John tell us that God has taken “flesh” we are left in no doubt that this includes all the physical reality that our own flesh can suffer and experience.
However, at the same time, St John is also clear about the “GLORY” of the Lord being manifested in all of this.
The glory of the Lord is not just something to shown in blots of lightening, in fire on Mount Sinai, or in the parting of the Red Sea waters. Rather, the glory of the Lord is shown in how He has chosen to accept our weakness, chosen to take our flesh.
It is His ‘glory’ to be manifested not in worldly splendour but in manifesting Himself as intimately involved in our weakness, our lowliness, our flesh. He is not a God distant from us, but a God who is manifested and glorified in our weakness.

“Glory” in weakness –now this might seem a contradiction.
What enables His being weak to be a manifesting of His ‘glory’ is the fact that He freely CHOOSES it, that He uses His POWER to enter into our weakness.
To turn, again, to the details that we hear recorded in St John’s account, his account notes details that point out very explicitly the fact that He is in charge, that He CHOOSES to lower Himself for us:
He notes not only that soldiers came to arrest Him, but that they first fall to the ground when they meet Him -they only arrest Him when He allows it.
He notes that, before Pilate, He declared Himself a “king” -though not of “this world”.
He is dressed in a purple kingly robe, though only to be mocked by it.
He is crowned with thorns, though, again, only as a form of mockery.
He repeatedly declared a King by Pilate: before the crowd, and by the inscription written above Him on the cross.
And His final recorded words before He “gave up His spirit” were words indicating it had all been a work He was wishing to fulfil: “it is accomplished”.

He is king. He is in charge.
But, He uses His kingly power to lower Himself and share the weakness of our flesh.
What this means, for you and for me, is that in our weakness, in our experience of the “flesh”, He is with us.
When I am insulted and undignified, He has granted me dignity, the Almighty is with me.
When I am weak and defeated, He offers me strength to be my victory.
“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”(Jn 1:14)

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Requiem Mass Giancarlo Colombelli RIP

Lk 23:44-46.50.52-53;24:1-6
Giancarlo, as we all know, had a good sense of humour. In thinking of him, it is very easy and natural to remember him with a smile on his face.
Giancarlo, as we also know, liked England and admired the English. In fact, I can remember him during the parish youth pilgrimage to Rome that he organized, when the punctuality of the Roman buses was very far from being English punctuality, and we waited an hour and half for a bus that came “every 15 minutes” -but it was the Italian Giancarlo that was complaining about the Italians, not the English pilgrims!
So, we might feel it is fitting that he is being laid to rest here in England, not back in Italy.

But, the point I wish to remind you of today, is that the homeland that we think of for Giancarlo has to be a thought of a homeland that is neither Italy nor England, but heaven;
And our thoughts of Giancarlo have to reach beyond a smile, a sense of humour, or a happiness that is merely earthly, to the blessedness, the happiness that only heaven can bring.

It can often feel like there is never a good time to die, and with Giancarlo we might well feel that his departure from us was sudden -I think it was just two weeks ago that he was standing here at Mass, seeming in good health.
And yet, there are many ways in which this is a good time to mourn, namely, now as we are approaching Easter. Because the events of Easter are what give us hope, and hope for Giancarlo.

The Lord Jesus, as we heard in that Gospel text, died.
He came from His glorious heavenly throne, He who was life eternal.
He took human flesh.
And He allowed Himself to die. He hung on the Cross, as we heard, for three hours, and then breathed forth His spirit.
But that was not the end.
Three days later the tomb was found to be empty.
No one found His body, despite the Romans and Jews wanting to know where it was.
No one had motive for hiding His body -His followers were weak cowards, yet despite torture they never yielded in their affirmation that something that had never happened before in the history of the human race had happened in Christ:
He rose from the dead.
He was seen by both His followers, like Peter, and His enemies, like Paul.
The one who had said He could give “eternal life”(Jn 10:28) had shown in His own rising from death that He had the power to give what He promised.
THIS is what we hope now for Giancarlo. That, as Jesus said, “he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”(Jn 11:25).

The Resurrection of Jesus gives us reason to believe He has the power to fulfill His promise.
While the death of Jesus is important for us to recall too. On one hand, to recall, as we will do shortly in our offertory hymn, that He did all this, suffered all this, out of LOVE for us -out of love for Giancarlo.
And, on the other hand, to see that as death was not the end for the Lord we have reason to hope that it is not the end for Giancarlo either.

Let us recall another thing, however, that gives us hope for Giancarlo, namely, the prayers of his family.
Our Catholic faith teaches us, following the pattern of the Jews of our Lord’s own time and the practice of the Church from its earliest days, that we should pray for the dead. And we pray for three things for Giancarlo:
for mercy in the judgment, when he meets the Lord;
for strength and consolation, to aid him in the purifications of purgatory;
and for speed, to help him reach the final goal.
Giancarlo is fortunate that he is able to depend on the assistance of his family to help him in this regard;
that he is able to count on their support to help him.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a family that will pray for them;
Giancarlo can truly be called blessed.

Before closing, let me note something for ourselves.
I have spoken about what we hope and pray for Giancarlo, but let us not forget about the Lord’s compassion for us who remain.
The Gospels record many times that the Lord Jesus wept, not least at the death of His own friend Lazarus. He came from heaven to earth to share our pain, to join us in our grief, and He is with you today, with you in your grief.
So, pray for Giancarlo. But also remember to pray for yourselves, and for each other, that the Lord will be with you and support you -He has experienced the tears you know.

To sum that up, Giancarlo had a smile and a sense of humour; and he had two homelands on earth, Italy and England.
But the homeland of heaven gives an even greater smile, a deeper joy.
And the reality of the Lord’s death and resurrection, that we recall at Easter,
with the assistance of our prayers,
is what gives us hope for Giancarlo, even as we weep to say goodbye.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Mercy and Confession, 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C

Jn 8:1-11
I want to speak today of the importance of coming to ENCOUNTER the mercy of God in this “Year of Mercy” that Pope Francis has given us.

We heard a powerful example of encountering the mercy of the Lord in the Gospel text that was just read to us. Let us consider, for a moment, what that experience was like for that woman. She had, presumably only shortly beforehand, been “caught in the very act of committing adultery”(Jn 8:4). She was then brought before the Lord to be judged. Let us think of the immense power that the Lord had over her at that moment. The Lord had it in His power to condemn or to acquit her. He could have had her stoned. Instead, He not only persuaded the crowd to not condemn her, He then Himself declared, “neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more”(Jn 8:11).
What must that experience have been like for the woman? To experience the mercy of the Lord when she encountered Him!
The Gospels record many experiences of sinners meeting the Lord, and experiencing His mercy.

Pope Francis has dedicated this year as a “Year of Mercy”, and he has done so because he wants more people to meet, to encounter this mercy, and to do so especially in confession.
This coming week, for Lent, there will be three different times when there will be priests here to hear your confessions.

Mercy is not a long or complicated thing.
People sometimes are surprised at how brief the priest’s words of forgiveness can be in confession.
The words of Jesus to that woman were very brief.
But mercy is a powerful and important thing, even if it can be brief.
Though, to appreciate the importance of those words we need to bring the right inner attitude to the experience.

What then is the right inner attitude we need?.
Pope Francis, when he was asked what advice he would give a penitent in order to help him or her make a good confession, he said that the penitent needs “to FEEL like a sinner, so that he can be amazed by God. In order to be filled with his gift of infinite mercy, we need to recognise our need, our emptiness, our wretchedness”(Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, p.41).
The Pope went on to note, with sadness, that often people don't recognise their sins. They see some good things in their lives, they mistakenly think that they are “OK”, and they don't “feel like a sinner”.
And, if you don't feel like a sinner you can't be sorry for your sins.
And, if you don't feel like a sinner you can't resolve to turn away from those sins, to follow the words that our Lord spoke to that woman, “go, and sin no more”(Jn 8:11).

What then am I to do if I don't really “feel” like I am a sinner?
Well, I can read through an examination of conscience, like the one inside your newsletter, and try to honestly compare my life to the questions being asked.
And, as Pope Francis advises, if someone doesn't feel like he is a sinner, “I would advise him to ask for the grace of feeling like one!” Because “even recognising oneself as a sinner is a grace”(p.30), is a gift from God, so we should ask Him for this gift.

So, if at the end of a day, you pause to make an examination of your conscience in your night prayers, and you can't think of any sins that day, then turn to Pope Francis’s advise.
First, ask God for the gift of seeing your sins.
Be confident that there is SOMETHING in this day to repent of. You are not yet “perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”(Mt 5:48) –ask the Lord to show it to you.
Second, think of the different parts of your life in your day, think the different people, think of the different possible sins: Laziness, selfishness, greed, gluttony, lust, neglect of the needs of others, critical and judgmental thoughts of others, judgemental words etc.
And, in humility, ask the Lord to help you see. Make the prayer of the blind man your own prayer, “Lord, that I may see!”(Lk 18:41)

So, to sum that up. Pope Francis is making a renewed call to us to come and encounter the Lord in mercy, in confession.
He is inviting us to reexamine our hearts so that we can see our sins, and to pray to God for the gift to be able to see our sins, and seeing them to be sorry for them.
And, having seen our sins, to approach confession with confidence. The Lord has shown what He is like, and He is mercy.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

4th Sunday of Lent, Year C

Lk 15:1-3.11-32
Today, in reflecting on the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son, I'd like to draw something new from it by focussing on on one thing: the distance of the son from the father, note the comparison between that and ourselves, and linking it with some comments from Pope Francis in his book interview for the Year of Mercy.

So, the distance of the son from the father. Let me note the stage when he has taken his father’s money and gone off to a distant land, to spend it all on “debauchery”(Lk 15:13) and “women”(Lk 15:30).
Let us note that the son, at this stage, seemed quite oblivious to the fact that he was DISTANT from his father. There is no indication that he disliked his father, or resented him, rather, simply that he wanted to be elsewhere. His relationship with his father seems to have been of no concern to him.

I was thinking of this when I read some words of Pope Francis in his interview on the Year of Mercy, when Pope Francis commented that it was characteristic of the 20th Century, and commented on by Popes Pius XII onwards, that our modern world has lost its “sense of sin”.
It has lost the sense that what we DO with our lives affects our relationship with our Heavenly Father.
It has become rare for people to feel that their deeds offend God, rare for people to think that their deeds separate them from God.
It seems, to me, that this describes a scenario like the prodigal son, who is distant from his father, but seems to have no real awareness that this is the case, or that this is a problem.
In a Year of Mercy, sadly, mercy cannot reach those who do not know their need of mercy.

There is another phase in the parable. The son runs out of money, he is starving and desperate enough to eat the husks the pigs feed on.
Now, finally, he remembers his father.
He remembers the food his father’s servants eat.
He finally realises that he is distant from his father.
The question now is: what will the son will do? Does he think it is possible to return to his father?
Pope Francis ponders this dilemma when he notes that in the 21st Century, moving on from having merely denied the reality of sin in the 20th Century, it's seems characteristic of our own era to deny to possibility of salvation, to deny the reality of mercy.

We live in an era when our media and films and literature is almost entirely nihilistic, it believes in “nothing”.
Yes, it believes we've made a mess of our world. Yes, it believes that global warming will destroy it.
But little in the modern mindset has a belief in a “something” that gives reason for hope.
Pope Francis, in this Year of Mercy, notes that this is a denial of the reality of Mercy, a denial of what God has offered us in Christ.
In the parable, the Prodigal Son knew that he could go back to his father. We might note that he didn't realise the extent to which the father would accept him.
And God, our loving Father, wishes to accept us back, to offer His mercy, in just this manner.

To sum that up. I have pointed to two stages in the parable and noted the son’s distance from the father. Let us consider, for ourselves, how much each of those apply to ourselves.
In what ways am I like the son when he was left his father and gone to a foreign land, caring nothing for the fact that he has left his father behind?
In what parts of my life do I deny my sin? In what parts of my life do I not realise that I am far from my Father?
And, in what parts of my life am I hungry and alone amidst the pigs in their pen?
In what parts of my life do I see the mess I have made, but fail to recognise that there is a path to go back?
The mercy of God is real, it calls to us especially in Lent. Let us return to the Father.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Sermon at Requiem Mass for Admiral Sir William O’Brien

1 Jn 3:1-2; Mt 11:25-30

Introduction to the Mass:
It is good to see so many here to pay our last respects to the Admiral,
and to offer our support to his children: Tim, Susan, and Louise, and their wider family.

On their behalf I’d like to acknowledge and thank those who are here representing:
Her majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh,
The Duke of York,
The Princess Royal,
And the Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra,
your presence here is a fitting acknowledgment of the greatness of the man who we are here today to pray for and remember.

This was the church where Bill worshipped for more than a decade in the last part of his life.
He was a devout and pious Catholic, regular in his prayers, attending Holy Mass here not just on Sundays but on weekdays -something he was able to do until just the last month or so of his life, when frailty prevented it.
He prayed here often, and though we may be tightly squeezed in, it is fitting that we are gathered HERE today to offer our prayers for him.
The Catholic faith he professed holds that a funeral is not just an occasion to remember the past, but to look to the future:
we gather here in hope of the hereafter -a hope that is solidly founded, because the Lord promised that He would prepare a place for those who believe and trust in Him,
and that same Lord showed He has the power to fulfill His promises by His own rising from the dead;
and we gather here also to pray for Bill, to pray that the Lord will grant that what we hope for Bill will be brought to completion.


Admiral Sir William O’Brien, or ‘Bill’, was referred to by everyone in this parish as ‘the Admiral’. We don’t live in an era when people’s titles and positions stand for much any more, and yet, the combination of humility and dignity that Bill possessed made it just seem natural for everyone to refer to him as ‘the Admiral’ in a very unaffected manner, and I think it says much good about him.

There will be people today who will be recalling his great naval career, and it is fitting that people should. I, however, wish to share with you another aspect of him, namely, that he was a man of faith, and a man of Catholic faith at that. That’s how he was primarily observed here in this parish, and if we recall some of the religious truths he believed and sought to live, they should also give us comfort and hope today as we say farewell to him.

One concern that the Admiral often voiced to me was that young men, teenage boys in the parish, need to see the connection between their manhood and the Catholic faith. It is common in our culture today to think of religion as weak and womanly. The truth, however, is that the Catholic faith gives a man a deeper vision of manhood than the one that contemporary society offers. Christian manhood is modeled on Christ Himself: on self-giving, on self-sacrifice, on endurance through suffering, on perseverance on the Cross, on running the race to the finish. Christian manhood is modeled on Christ as the “Son” of God, as one who has the dignity of “a first-born son”. To be a Christian is to be aware of your dignity, to be aware of the fact that you were called and chosen to share in the sonship of the Son. And, being aware of that dignity, to live the demands of such a high calling.

The Admiral manifested this dignity. Not in pomp, which as those who know him will know he found rather tiresome. He manifested it, rather, in a quiet and very dignified manner. He stood and walked with dignity, and genuflected with military precision even at the age of 99, back perfectly straight. Part of that manifested the extent to which his naval lifestyle was imbued into his manners, but, and this is my point: He saw the connection between this dignity and the dignity of a son of God. A supernatural dignity that managed both to complement and exceed the natural dignity of a naval career.
We heard in our second reading about how God calls us His children. But that reading also spoke of something that has not YET been revealed, namely, the glory of our life in heaven. It will be glorious, that reading said, because “we shall be like Him”(1 Jn 3:2), like Christ. The Admiral had a manner that displayed something of that glory on earth, but it pales before the glory and dignity we hope for him now in heaven.

Having noted the Admiral’s dignity, and noted the importance of CHRISTIAN dignity, not worldly pomp, let me now say a word about his humility.
There are some old men who tell you continually about their past glories, their victories, their achievements.
It was not so with the Admiral.
He spoke to me often, and I think it said much about him that when he looked back on his life he would talk often about his faults, his failings. He did this with humility.
BUT, and I think this is important, he didn’t seem to do it with a sense of despair, but rather with a mark of Christian HOPE. It is a characteristic of a true Christian that he is able to know his weakness, know his sin, repent of his sin, confess his sin, and do all of this trusting in the loving mercy of our Saviour.

The Admiral died fortified by the sacraments of Holy Mother Church. He died confessing his sins and humbly trusting in the mercy of God. And, if we reflect on the words we heard in our Gospel text, it is to those who have imitated His call to be humble that the Lord offers final call to “come to me” (Mt 11: 28) when they die.

Let me note one final thing about the Catholicism we see in the Admiral’s life: The way he prayed for his dead wife Rita.
Rita passed away in 2012, and he obviously missed her greatly these few years. But, I would point out that he lived out his faith by PRAYING for her, not just pining her absence.
There is a manner in which some people gloss over the ‘difficulty’ of death by referring to their loved ones as if they were already in heaven, or as if they had never sinned, or as if they had nothing to worry about in the judgement seat before God.
The Catholic faith says otherwise.
The Catholic faith follows the practice of the Jews of our Lord’s time, the practice of the early Church, and it prays for those who have died. It feels no need to pretend that our loved ones didn’t sin, because we able to DO something about those sins: we can pray that God will have mercy on mercy. We feel no need to pretend that our loved ones are immediately ready to enter the perfection of heaven, because we can pray that they will be purged of their faults in Purgatory, and our prayers are able to help them in that process.
What this means, in practice, is that our prayers for the dead become a loving activity that continues to unite us to those who have died, and unites us to them with the vision of HOPE that it look towards.
This is something that Bill lived out in his love for Rita after she died.
And our love for him should lead us to do the same for him in days and years ahead.

To sum that up: The Admiral lived out his Catholic faith in a manner that points us to things that can console us today. He saw the dignity that a Christian possesses, and we can hope that he will inherent the greater dignity of that in its fullness in heaven. He manifested humility, so we can hope that the reward that God promises to the humble of heart will be granted to him. He had the love and supernatural confidence to pray for the dead, and so we should do the same, for him.