Sunday, 22 April 2018

Vocations and the Parish, 4th Sunday of Easter

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, when we think of the Lord Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  With this, we think of how the Lord shepherds us with priests, and we pray for new priestly vocations.

Priestly vocations don’t spring up in vacuum.  For a vocation to be heard it usually requires a healthy spiritual environment.  A consequence of this is that vocations often appear in CLUSTERS: a spiritually healthy parish will often produce a GROUP of priests.  So, for example, near us, Ensbury Park parish was renowned for the way that, some decades ago, it produced half a dozen priestly vocations in quite a short period of time.  Similarly, my home parish of Paignton produced 4 vocations about the time I came forward.  As Pope John Paul II put it, the number of vocations arising in a parish is a significant sign of the spiritual health of that church.  I’m very grateful that I was raised in such a parish.  

In a healthy parish the people love the Lord.  
In a healthy parish people value the sacraments as the means by which they can encounter the Lord: 
they prepare themselves for Holy Communion; they go to Confession frequently.  
They love the Lord, they love the sacraments of the Lord, and they value priests as the ones who (1) teach them of the Lord, (2) teach how to live following Him, and (3) make the sacraments possible.  
In such a parish it’s hardly surprising that a young man might recognise the priesthood as something worthy of giving his life to.  

There is one thing, especially, that needs to be primary in such a healthy parish: 
            Prayer, and, in particular, pray to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. 
We have a church that is open for prayer, unlocked all day. 
Most days we have weekday Mass available.  
A vocation is a supernatural reality, a call from God. The Lord tells us that if we want such calls to be made we need to ask for them, He said, ‘Ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest’(Mt 9:38).  I have no doubt that the reason I received my call was that there were people in my home parish praying for vocations; and I’m equally sure that the reason I recognised my call was the value that that parish placed on prayer, the sacraments, and the priesthood.

How often do we pray for vocations?  How often do YOU pray? You want a priest in this parish.  
Do you say a rosary every week for the specific intention that one be called?
And if you don’t pray, are you still going to complain if you don’t get a priest?  If in 10 years or 5 years or next year there is no priest here –will you complain if you didn’t pray?

I’d like to make a point of comparison: in the USA they used to be in the same situation as us in England, it seemed that the number of priestly vocations was in terminal decline.  But NOW, numbers are up, and the average age of vocations is down, i.e. more YOUNG men are coming forward.
But this statistic is not uniform, it varies from diocese to diocese.  And when people compare the difference between the successful dioceses and the ones that are failing it is frequently attributed to EUCHARISTIC ADORATION for vocations.  Some dioceses promote it heavily, and their vocations have returned.  Other dioceses are dying instead.  
A priest friend of mine is in Kansas, and his diocese is about the same size as ours, it has 65 priests, and it used to be like ours, almost without vocations.  But now, while we have 2 seminarians they have 36.  I.e. Your PRAYER can make a difference.
If the heart and soul of a parish and diocese is turned to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament then priests WILL come.
One specific recommendation: We will shortly, as last year, have an all-night 24 hour adoration of the Lord.  I would invite you to come, and to pray especially for vocations in that time.

To pray that the Lord will call a young man to the priesthood is pray that he will be given a great path to happiness.
Many in our world our focused on achieving the perfect middle class lifestyle.
But the glamour of the world will pass, the beauties of flesh fade, power and money are not worth dedicating your life to.  Only love of the Lord lasts. 
God calls most men to love Him by means of loving their wife (c.f. Pope John Paul II L’Osservatore RomanoEnglish edition Nov 30, 1994, p.19, n.4.)  
There are others He calls to cleave to Him directly, with what Scripture calls “an undivided heart”(I Cor 7:25-38). And for a priest, that means that I must love the Church His bride as MY wife too, because I am configured to Him(Pastores Dabo Vobisn. 22c).  
I don’t love perfectly, but I know that I WILL FIND MY HAPPINESS NOWHERE ELSE.   
The REAL thing that will make a young man happy is not what our modern society offers: its intimacy with the Lord.  

To conclude: 
Are we the sort of parish that raises up vocations?
The choice is up to us

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Why? 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B

Lk 24:35-48
I spent last week with my family, and saw a lot of my nephews and niece. I’ve seen them progressively grow through various phases. I remember the difficulty of the “why” phase about 5 years old.
The sky is blue, “why?” Flowers come out in spring, “why?”
They’ve now graduated to tougher questions.
One of my nephews said, grasping that I’m a priest, “Priests know lots of stuff about lots of things, because they have to be able to help people”, which I think must be my sister’s way of telling him,
“Why don’t you save that question for your Uncle Dylan”.

So, in the midst of me assembling, yet again, the car racing track, my nephew stopped, and rather seriously said, “Can I ask you a question, Uncle Dylan?” And I thought, what? “Why did Jesus rise from the dead?”
Now, “how” Jesus did this, is a big enough question! And I just about answered that by saying that God can do anything, just as big people can do things that little people can’t do.
But, “why” –that’s an even bigger question, and it’s the one we find in today’s Gospel.

If you recall what had happened before the event recorded in today’s Gospel, Jesus had appeared to the two men on the road to Emmaus, and He had explained to them “all the passages in the Scriptures that were about Himself”(Lk 24:27).
He now appeared again, and indicated three things:
First, that despite the fact they were seeing someone who had died they should not be afraid: “peace be with you”, He said.
Second, that He was not just a phantom or ghost: He ate food, and had them touch His hands and flesh.
Third, and this is my main point, He gave them the “why”: He explained the Scriptures to them, and said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ SHOULD SUFFER and on the third day rise from the dead, ...”(Lk 24:46-48).

Which indicates, that, after the Resurrection the big question facing the disciples was not so much, “Why did He rise?”, but, “Why did He die?”.
If He truly was the Messiah, if He truly had the power to RISE from the dead, surely He had the power to stop them killing Him.
So, why? Why did He have to suffer and die?

To fulfil the Scriptures, that is why.
While that is a complete answer, it is a very brief summary, and could have a much longer explanation (and we can note that the Gospel text does not offer more than this statement of it). In short, “to fulfil the Scriptures” means that everything we see in an incomplete way in the Old Testament, we see in a COMPLETE and perfect way in Christ: It was all waiting for Him to bring it to completion.
I’d like to refer to one part of the fulfilment of the Scriptures, as indicated in our second reading, namely, that the Christ was “To be the sacrifice that takes our sins away”(1 Jn 2:2) –a fulfilment that the Scriptures looked to in many different ways:

The Old Testament Scriptures taught by command that blood sacrifices must be offered for sin;
As St Paul summed it up, “without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins”(Heb 9:22 cf Ex 24:6-8)
But the Old Testament also said that the sacrifices weren’t good enough;
And there was a continual looking for something better, the promise of a NEW Covenant.
The Old Testament ritual had the blood of the Passover lamb shed, but a better more perfect lamb was needed:
Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (Gen 22:7) echoed at a deeper level down the centuries, until finally, John the Baptist cried, “Behold, There is the lamb” who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:35) [c.f. Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s exegesis]
Christ’s dying thus fulfilled the Scriptures –one example of how He made complete what was in-complete.

So, “why?” Well, my nephew knows that most answers raise still further questions. And while the answer in today’s Gospel does that too, it is the true answer nonetheless.
Why? Because “it was written”.
Why? That we might be forgiven.
Why? “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations... You are witness to these things”(Lk 24:46-48).

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Divine Mercy Sunday, 2nd Sunday of Easter

Today is the feast of Divine Mercy, a new-ish feast in the Church. Pope Francis has made a big thing out of this feast day in his focus on mercy, but it was actually instituted by his predecessor Pope John Paul II. In some ways it might be thought of as an odd feast to have in our modern world, so many people don’t think they NEED mercy any more! Well, this is precisely WHY Church has instituted this feast. As Pope John Paul II said of the modern world, “They need mercy even though they often do not realise it” (Dives in misericordia, n.2).
And, of course, we need to remember that we ourselves are part of this modern phenomenon, we ourselves can so easily live and think as if we didn’t need mercy. There is a dilemma in the heart of modern man that is the same dilemma in each of us: we pretend to ourselves that we are alright alone, that we are strong, but in reality we are not.
And answer to the riddle of this dilemma lies in the relevance of mercy to the Resurrection, which is why the Church has this new feast in Eastertide: forgiveness is not just about the Cross, it lies in the Empty Tomb as well.

Today’s feast has its origin in a series of visions to a Polish nun in the World War Two era, and it was Pope John Paul II’s experiences during that era that produced his encyclical on mercy, Dives in misericordia [Rich in Mercy].
JPII noted that modern man of the Twentieth Century was both incredibly powerful and incredibly vulnerable. In industry, in technology, in war, he was MASTER of the world in a way he had never been before. But in destruction, evil, holocausts, and tyrannies, he was EVEN MORE of need of mercy than he ever was. The era when human rights were most spoken of (at the United Nations) was simultaneously the era when those rights were most oppressed.
And this mixture of power and weakness is still with us in the 21st Century. We have the internet and mobile phones, but we also fear climate change and bird flu.
And, closer to home still, I know that this mixture of power and weakness is in my own heart. I think I am strong, but time and again I find that I am weak.

Not all people accept that they are weak.
One of the most significant claims I hear from unbelievers who I stumble across as a priest is: ‘I don’t need God’, or, ‘I find the thought of an all-powerful God repulsive’.
But this is a hollow claim. As hollow and empty as man is vulnerable under his apparent power.
The emptiness that remedies the emptiness of this claim to self-sufficiency is the emptiness of the Tomb on Easter Sunday morning. That emptiness shows us what God is like, and He is revealed as a God of mercy.

Mercy is a particular gift to those who are in need. It was in the pages of the Old Testament, that God first revealed Himself as a God of mercy –who in the Exodus, reached out and rescued His people out of the slavery of Egypt (n.4).
But it is in Christ Himself, the very image of the Father, that God is shown as “Rich in mercy”(n.1). When Christ first declared Himself to be the messiah, He did so by quoting Isaiah (Lk 4:18-19, n.3) saying that He had come to the poor, the deprived, the blind, the lame, the broken hearted, those suffering injustice, and finally sinners. He used this same way to identify Himself as the messiah when John the Baptist (Lk 7:19) asked if He was the one. In His words and in His actions –His care for the sick, the unloved, those rejected - He revealed Himself as mercy.

There are two events above all else in which Jesus reveals God as mercy. On the Cross, the one who had gone about being merciful to others, allowed Himself to be in need of mercy (n.7). By His union with our pain, Christ revealed the Father to be intimately linked with us. Further, On the Cross, His superabundant satisfaction of justice compensated for our sins, and opened up mercy to us.
But the final sign of Christ’s mission of mercy was only seen when He ROSE from the dead. In the Resurrection of the one who was weak and crucified, we see the ultimate proof of the Father’s mercy on a world that is subject to evil (n.8) –a love more powerful that death.
And so, the point is: Believing in the Resurrection is about believing in the victory of mercy (n.7). God is not just love: He is love-in-action, i.e. mercy.

In His vision to Sr. Faustina, Jesus called for this feast to be a sign of His mercy in an age that is forgetting its need of mercy. If we will turn to Him to this day, this mercy is what the Risen Christ wishes to bestow on us.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Proof, Easter Sunday

Jn 20:1-9; Acts 10:34.37-43; Col 3:1-4 (first choice of the 2 alternative 2nd readings)
2000 years ago, as we just heard in that Gospel text read to us, 2000 years ago the tomb was found to be empty.
The fact that the tomb was empty is attested to by history, it is not a myth. Even the ancient enemies of Christianity acknowledged that the tomb was empty: we can read in the writings of the Roman historians (e.g. Tacitus) and the Jewish historians (e.g. Josephus) that they acknowledged that the tomb was empty.

The fact that the tomb was empty came as a surprise to the disciples of Jesus. Even though the Lord Jesus had predicted it many times to them (e.g. Mt 20:19), the Gospels record that His disciples hadn't understood. Now this point is worth noting because it indicates just how trustworthy the Gospel records are: if the Gospel records were not recording FACTS then they would have been written to make the disciples LOOK GOOD, to highlight their good points, because, after all, they were the early Church LEADERS. The Gospels, however, record the opposite: that the disciples were slow to be understand the Lord’s true message, and even worse that they were worldly and competitive (e.g. Mk 9:34).

So, the empty tomb came as a surprise to the disciples. It was a surprise to Mary Magdalene, the first one to the tomb that Easter morning. It was a surprise to Peter and John who came running to see it. And when the Lord later appeared to others, to a total of over 515 witnesses recorded in the Scriptures, this is pattern again and again: they were filled with joy, but they were surprised.

And they were right to be surprised. This was an event unlike any other in history.
People do not rise from the dead.
Yet, here was someone who did.
For three years He had, as we heard St Peter recall in our first reading, He had gone “about doing good and curing”(Acts 10:38), preaching a Gospel calling for repentance (Mk 1:15) and offering the forgiveness of sins. He claimed that He had the authority to many things that only God can do, like offer the forgiveness of sins (Mk 2:10), something that only God can do (Mk 2:7). He was therefore condemned to death as a blasphemer (Mk 14:62-64). And was crucified.
And then, after three days in the tomb, the tomb was found to be empty.
And, more, for a further forty days He appeared to at least 515 witnesses (that's how many the Scriptures record, there may well have been more).
These witnesses did not see a ghost. Rather, as we heard St Peter recount in that first reading, they “ate and drank” with Him (Acts 10:41), they also touched Him and St Thomas even put his fingers into the wounds in His hands and side (Jn 20:27).

What did these witnesses gain for telling others that they had seen the Risen Lord?
They at first earned doubt and derision. Then they earned persecution and martyrdom.
They had no reason to make this up.

But, there is something they gained, and it is the same thing that you and I can gain if we accept their testimony today: the hope of a better life, eternal life.
And living in the knowledge of that life changes how we live and experience THIS life here below. So, as we heard in our second reading, it empowers us to “look for the things of heaven, where Christ is”(Col 3:1), to look to where our TRUE life is. Because if we die to self, die to sin, we can rise to Christ and in Christ, because “He is our life”(Col 3:4) –if we will but let Him be so.

Inside your newsletter there is a sheet summarising some of the reasons for believing in the Resurrection.
You could also view this video offering reasons for believing in the Resurrection.
It is not a myth. It is not just wishful thinking. Accepting it, and therefore accepting HIM, can change our lives –if we will but accept the evidence

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Reception of Robert Tawse, Easter Vigil

Tonight is a wonderful night for our parish because we’re receiving someone into the Church, Robert Tawse. 
I’d like us to consider what will change for Robert, because it’s also a reminder of each of us are called to.

Tonight, most basically, is about Robert and the Lord Jesus, and Robert finding the meaning of his life in union with the Lord Jesus.

For Robert, tonight is both an end and a beginning.
It’s the end of the process that began with his baptism: the process of being sacramentally initiated into Christ and into His Church.
Baptism began that process.  In baptism we die and rise with Christ.
As for many of us, that happened for Robert in his infancy.
Baptism, however, is not the end. 
Baptism gives the Holy Spirit, in part, but not in fullness.  The fullness is given sacramentally in Confirmation, as Robert will be confirmed with the sacred oil of Chrism tonight.
Baptism gives union with Jesus Christ, but not in fullness.  The completion of initiation into Christ happens with the Eucharist, when we receive the Lord in Holy Communion, as Robert will do for the first time tonight.
As St Augustine notes, when we eat normal food, our body digests it and it becomes a part of us.  In contrast, when we eat that food which is the Lord Jesus, we become a part of Him.
We become part of His Body, rather than Him becomes a part of our body.
We are initiated into something greater than ourselves.

In all of this, Robert is completing something, ENDING something that began in his baptism.
But it’s also a new beginning.
We celebrate it at Easter, to symbolize the old dying and the new rising, not by our power, but by union with Christ Jesus in His Paschal mystery, His dying and rising.
Tonight Robert becomes someone new, acquires a new identity in Christ.
This, therefore, is also a new beginning.
In baptism, in dying and rising with Christ, we are called to holiness, we are called to become SAINTS.
What sort of saint might Robert become? 
The saints aren’t all the same.
‘Grace build on nature’ as the scholastics say.
God takes our natural temperament and abilities,
For example, some people are hurried and quick, others are slow and careful
And God TRANSFORMS our natural characteristics, but doesn’t DESTROY them.
What will Robert look like as a saint?
On one level, Robert will still be same old Robert. 
In being called to be a saint he is NOT called to become someone else.
The hipster beard will still be there.
The absence of hair on his head will still be there.
To become ‘saint’ Robert, he doesn’t become someone else, but becomes more fully himself.
The full man, the complete man, is Jesus Christ.
It is IN Christ Jesus that we are fully REVEALED to ourselves.
It is in UNION with Christ Jesus that we BECOME fully ourselves:
Stronger -by His power, not ours;
Better capable of love -by His power, not ours;
More alive in His Spirit -by His power, not ours.
-none of these changes are automatic:
the gifts Robert receives tonight will only bear fruit in as much as he uses them.

I started by saying that tonight is about Robert and the Lord Jesus, and Robert finding the meaning of his life in union with the Lord Jesus.
It an end, because it completes the sacramental union:
Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion.
It’s a beginning, because it opens the pathway that we have in the power of Christ,
The power to be transformed, transformed into Christ, into a saint.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Silence, Good Friday

Jn, 18:1-19:42; Isa 52:12-53:12
There is a specific moment, every year during the Good Friday and Passion liturgy when I feel a little odd, and no doubt many of you feel it too: the moment when Jesus dies, and we kneel down.
It’s not just that I feel sad, but I feel kind of funny, odd.
God died on a tree.
We stop in silence.
And there is a much deeper sense in which the whole cosmos must have stood still at that moment.
The ancient hymn that we use in the Office of Readings for tomorrow speaks of how, “The cross stands empty in a world grown silent”.
It feels like all has stopped. It feels like nothing is happening.

What did the people looking on think 2000 years ago? To most who saw it, it would have looked like defeat. To the faithful few who stood by Him at the foot of the Cross, they still kept faith –but faith in what?

But, what did HE says of it?
WE might sense silence, sense absence, sense the defeat of God.
But He, He said, as He gave His last breath, He said, “It is accomplished”.
And as He had said so many times in different ways in the build-up to this event, and as we heard Him say in that account just read, He said, “I was born for this, I came into the world for this.” And now, “it is accomplished”.

Let us consider for a moment, even if only briefly, let us consider WHAT was accomplished.
The prophecies of old were fulfilled, of one who would bear our sufferings and carry our sorrows (Isa 53:4).
A sacrifice was made for our sins:
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”(Jn 1:29)
A definitive confrontation with evil was wrought.
And, the One Eternal God was united to us in OUR pain, in our woes.

I spoke of the silence of the Cross, the silence evoked in us as we behold God dead on a tree.
But there is another silence that suffering evokes. The silence that comes in each one of us in our own troubles, in our own suffering.
How often, in our suffering, are we left thinking: “Why? Why does God let me suffer?” Here too the silence of the Cross is at work.
How does God answer that question, “Why?”
Well, actions are said to speak louder than words. And, on the Cross, in a world gone silent, the action that speaks is the act that says He is with us. Am I suffering? So is He on the Cross. Am I weak? So is He on the Cross. Am I alone? So is He on the Cross?

Or, rather, what the Cross means is that I am not alone. He is with me.
I am not weak, for He will be my strength.
And in that silence, the suffering that seemed to be absence of God is revealed as His most definitive activity.

(Postscript: Can we truly say that "God died"?
Yes, by using “the ancient patristic teaching on the communicatio idiomata. In the Incarnation we recognise the union, in the Person of the Logos, of both the divine and the human natures. Thus, the properties or characteristics of either the divinity or the humanity can be predicated of the divine Person who is the subject of the Incarnation. In this way, even though it is only characteristic of humanity to die, death can nevertheless be predicated of the one God-man in light of the hypostatic union. Since Jesus is a divine person, we can truly say that God suffered and died. The patristic tradition… made use of this doctrine to show the loving involvement of God, through the Incarnation, in our human predicament of suffering and dying.”(Ed. Lewis Fiorelli,OSFS, The Sermons of St Francis de Sales for Lent (Charlotte, North Carolina: TAN Books, 2010), p.207, n.6.)

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Four Passover Questions, Maundy Thursday

Ex 12:1-8.11-14; 1 Cor 11:23-26
This year, for tonight’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I want to think about the Passover.
The Mass, the Eucharist, is called “the LORD’s Passover” (Ceremonial n.297), meaning that of the Lord JESUS, and one way of appreciating the new Passover is to think about the old Passover.

The Jewish Passover meal, as it was observed 2000 years ago and is still observed today, has were four cups. The meal also has four questions.
As many of you will know, in the Jewish Passover meal, still today, the youngest child at the meal asks, asks about the meal, “Why is this night not like other nights?” And then asks four sub-questions about how the meal is different to other nights. Each of the answers the child is given point to the original Passover, which we heard about in our first reading, by which the Jews were rescued from Egypt.

Let me point to more detail.
First, the child points out that on other nights the family eats leavened bread, and asks why on this night they only eat unleavened bread. The reason for this is that the original Passover meal in Egypt was eaten, as we heard in our first reading, “hastily”, with no time for the bread to rise.

Second, the child points out that on other nights the family eats vegetables, but on this night only bitter herbs. This is to remind them of the bitterness of slavery that they knew in Egypt, that the Lord released them from in Egypt.

Third, the child points out that normally the food is not dipped even once but on this night it is dipped twice. This dipping of food into salt water is a reminder of the tears of sorrow the Jews experienced in slavery.

Fourth, and finally, the child points out that on other nights the meat can be boiled or stewed, but tonight can only be roasted. This points them to the original Passover lamb, which, as we heard, God decreed was to be roasted.

All four of those questions point backwards towards a specific act in history that saved the Jews from a specific situation they were in. They were saved from the bitterness and tears of slavery. They were in haste to flee their oppressors. And they ate a sacrificial lamb according to the command of the God who saved them.

In a parallel manner, the Eucharist, “the Lord’s Passover” (Ceremonial n.297), points us backwards to a specific act and situation in history. The situation we were saved from was the slavery of sin. The specific act that saved us was the death of Christ on the Cross, the sacrificial death of the lamb of the new Passover.

Let me pose questions and answers about the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

First, why is bread and wine taken?
Because these are what Christ chose to take at the First Mass, at the Last Supper.

Second, why do we treat them with such reverence?
Because they are changed into what Christ said, namely, His very self: His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.

Third, why did Christ use both bread and wine?
Because the Eucharist makes present His sacrificial DEATH. If body and blood are separated then death occurs. Symbolically, the sign value of bread consecrated as His Body and wine consecrated as His Blood is a sign of His death, a sign of His sacrifice.

Fourth, why do we EAT this?
Because Christ gave Himself, as He promised, as “the Bread of Life” (Jn 6:35) and said that “unless you eat my flesh… you cannot have eternal life within you”(Jn 6:53).
He has given us His very self to be the food for our souls.
The food He gives us is not a part of Him, or a bit of Him, but His WHOLE self. He is whole under the appearance of what was once bread. He is whole under the appearance of what was once wine.
In receiving either we receive the whole Him.
In receiving both, as we do tonight, we receive not a greater reality, but a greater sign, namely, that of His death -as blood separated from body brings death.

To sum that up, the Passover of the Old Covenant was a ritual that looked back to the original Passover, and the parts of that ritual symbolically looked to that original Passover.
The Mass, “the Lord’s Passover” (Ceremonial n.297), is similarly a ritual that looks back, and the parts of its ritual signify that original saving event of the Cross.
HOWEVER, the Mass, Christ’s great gift to us, not only reminds us of that past event, but it makes it PRESENT:
the sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of the Cross;
and the food of the Eucharist is the same flesh that died on the Cross and Rose three days later.

Both the old and the new Passover can only be understood by recalling the original event they signify.