Sunday, 26 December 2010

Feast of the Holy Family, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 2:13-23
On today's feast of the Holy Family I’d like to say a few words about God's help to us in family difficulties.

Every year today's feast of the Holy Family comes immediately after Christmas. Christmas, for many of us, is a time when families gather, and so we think of what it means to be a family, and the birth of our Lord in Bethlehem reminds in particular of the family of “the Holy Family” of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
When the Church urges us to think of the life of the Holy Family we have set before us both an EXAMPLE of happy family life, and, and an ENCOURAGEMENT to value family life in a way that sadly too few people in our society today do.
But just because the Holy Family is set before us as a role model that doesn't mean we should either imagine or pretend that their life was not a family life with difficulties.
This year, with the snow, many of us have not been able to meet up with family in the way that we had planned and wanted. And this perhaps is one of many examples of the difficulties we can have in family living.

Thinking of the difficulties faced by the Holy Family it is worth noting the fact that even though the Gospels tell us relatively little about the life of the Holy Family much of what they tell us concerns the difficulties that family faced:
First, there was the unusual nature of Jesus Christ's conception –something that the gospel tells us troubled Saint Joseph.
Second, there was the difficulty of His birth: there was no room for them at the inn, and He was born in poverty, in a stable, and laid in a manger.
Not long after, King Herod tries to kill the boy Jesus, and the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt (Mt 2:14).
Then, when Herod died and they attempted to return to Judaea, they heard that Herod's son had become king there, and so they had to go to live in Nazareth.
Finally, the last difficulty of this period was when the child Jesus was lost for three days in the Temple, a time that must have been of great anxiety for Our Lady and St Joseph.
Our Catholic Faith tells us that family life is to be valued, but does not promise that it will be easy, and it was not easy for the Holy Family.

What our Faith does promise us for family life is divine assistance, and this is also something we see clearly in the life of Holy Family:
In the unusual circumstances surrounding the Lord Jesus's birth, St Joseph and Our Lady were each assisted by dreams and visions.
Though the childbirth was in poverty, messages from angels, adoration from shepherds, and gifts from wise men in the East accompanied it.
Though they had to flee from King Herod, St Joseph was nonetheless warned to do so by another dream. And in a similar manner, it was by yet another dream that he was warned to avoid returning to Judaea.
In summary: Repeated divine assistance in the midst of the difficulties that came upon the Holy Family.

Perhaps the greatest divine assistance, however, must simply have been in their daily living. What must it have been like for St Joseph to have raised such a perfect child? What must it have been like to have had such a perfect sinless wife?
The abiding presence of God among them, the fruitfulness of the inner life of grace in them, the strength of such grace to help them for every difficulty
-this is surely what stands before us as a SIGN of how God is present in EVERY family, and His grace will strengthen and bear fruit in every family, just as long as we turn to Him, and seek Him, the way that St Joseph was attentive and responsive to the promptings of the Lord.

So, on this feast of the Holy Family, let us take inspiration from the life of that family. As we see in the life of that family, family life is not promised to be easy, but we are promised to have the presence and help of the Lord, just as truly as the Lord was present and active in the life of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas, Shaftesbury

I recently asked one of our 10-year-olds in the parish whether he was enjoying the snow. And he said, "Actually, I'm a little bored of it". And I don't think he's the only one! Which is rather odd because for as long as I can remember I've heard people talking about how nice it would be to have a "White Christmas" -after all, isn't that what Bing Crosby sang about? And yet, it turns out that a white Christmas is rather awkward.
As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for: it may come true!”

Christmas is a good time to think about getting what we wish for, about whether what we get matches up to our hopes and expectations. I don't mean this about the size of our Christmas presents, but rather, about the coming of Jesus Christ Himself.
The simple point I want to make is that the coming of Christ exceeds anything we could wish for, hope for, or expect. But in many ways His coming is so different from what we expect that many people fail to recognise it, and even we who profess to be Christians can fail to truly appreciate it.

If we think back in history to shortly before Jesus Christ came, we know that the Jewish people had been awaiting the coming of the Messiah. For many centuries they had the promises of God telling them that the Messiah would come. But, they didn't know what the Messiah would be like when He came. Most of them were expecting a worldly king, who would freedom from their bondage to the Roman Empire. And their notion of the salvation that He would bring was almost entirely focused on the material world, much as people today easily make Christmas too much about presents, about food and feasting, and so forth –these are part of celebrating Christmas but they are not Christmas itself.

When the Messiah came the manner of His coming was not what the Jews were expecting, even though He fulfilled all of the prophecies to the letter, and the salvation He offered was not what they expected either.
They expected the Messiah to come as a conquering king. In reality, as our Christmas readings remind us, He came as a little child, born in poverty in a stable and laid in a manger. And when, many years later, He was proclaimed king it was as He hung on the wood of the cross (Jn 19:19).
They expected that the Messiah would bring them instant material abundance. In reality, He came in poverty and simplicity, and taught us the way to heaven by showing us a wiser way to use the things of earth. Heaven is a place of happiness so vastly superior to the material happiness that this world promises that as long as our eyes are fixed on this world we will fail to comprehend the happiness of heaven, and fail to properly order our lives to achieve it.

Heaven consists of life with the loving God, the love of God whose very presence awakens a joy in the soul that surpasses our presence comprehension.
If heaven consists of life with the loving God, then it is not surprising that the way to heaven consists of living with the loving God even while we are in this world. And Jesus, the Lord God Himself, came among us in order that He might always be among us, to lead us to the fullness of life with Him in heaven.

His coming will exceed all our wishes, our hopes, and our expectations.
But He can only do this for us if we recognise His coming.
He came to us 2000 years ago born as a little child;
He comes to us still today, in the Mass, and in the hearts yearning to receive Him;
He comes to lead us to heaven, which exceeds all we wish for, even a white Christmas.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

4th Sunday Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 1:18-24
There are just five shopping days left before Christmas and, like many people, I have a slight feeling of panic. I still haven't sent all my Christmas cards. I fear that the light sabres I have bought for my nephews, while they be good enough for them to hit each other with, may not be quite the right brand of light sabres they were supposed to be. And as for my 2½ year old niece's doll, well, getting that right would be anybody's guess. And that's not to begin to start thinking about my Christmas PRIESTLY duties: there is much to worry about!

And I know that I'm not alone in thinking that this last week before Christmas is a time to worry. So, I'd like to point out how the figure of St Joseph that the Church gives us this year on this last Sunday of Advent teaches us a number of things to help us not worry, and to help us properly focus ourselves to celebrate Christ's birth.

As our gospel passage indicated, St Joseph had much to worry about, because "before they came to live together [Our Lady] was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit". Now, that's not a very normal thing to happen in a marriage, it's not a very normal problem for a husband-to-be to face, and the gospel does not tell us much detail about how St Joseph FELT about all this.
The gospel does tell us, however, that, "the angel of the Lord appeared to [ St Joseph] in a dream", appeared to him, explained to him who this child would be, and told St Joseph "do not be afraid".

The key point to learn from this is not what the angel said to him but rather how he RESPONDED to what the angel said to him. He responded with faith; he believed what the angel told him; he didn't even ask "how" this was to happen, he just got on with doing what he had to do, he got on with doing what was his part, and he left the details to God's care.
We, of course, can see with hindsight how right he was to trust in God's care because in the difficulties that unfolded before him in the years that lay ahead God continued to guide him through them: for example, when Herod sought to kill the child Jesus, St Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt.

Faith consists of our response to what God has told us, and for us today, that means that faith consists in believing what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ: in His Bible, and in the teaching of His Catholic Church.
A person of faith is a person who listens more to the promises of God than he does to the things of this world. In contrast, there are many things this week that are not of faith that we can listen to: we can listen to the television, we can listen to the cravings of our belly yearning for the food luxuries that abound at Christmas, and, we can listen to the worries and panic of the next week.

If we take St Joseph is our role model then we will spend this next week not focusing on our worries, not focusing on the distracting peripherals, but focusing on the things of faith, focusing on what God has made known to us and what God has promised to us:
He has made known to us his love and care by coming among us born as a little child;
He has promised to remain forever in hearts that will receive Him.
Let us, like St Joseph, be people of faith who listen not to our worries but to the words of God, and entrust the details of the outcome to Him.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

3rd Sunday Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 11:2-11; Isa 35:1-6.10
Today’s Gospel starts by asking a question about who Jesus is. In our modern Britain it might well seem that people are more infested in who Santa Claus is than in who the baby in the crib was. But the question of “who” He was was a question that was uppermost in the minds of everyone who met him 2000 years ago.

You don’t need to know every detail of the Christmas accounts to know that it was a question people asked as Jesus was born. The shepherds who were told to go and see Him by the angels on the hillside must have wondered –because the angels didn’t give them any details. The Kings who came out of the East saw His star, and must have realised He was important, but they also didn’t know fully who He was. “And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them”(Lk 2:18).

And the same was true with the other major figure in today’s Gospel, in the birth of John the Baptist: there were signs and miracles there too. His father was struck dumb for his lack of faith, and then given back his speech. “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’" (Lk 1:66). The question of the “who” of the child John and of the child Jesus were very much linked. John the Baptist came to make Christ known.

We just heard Jesus say that John the Baptist was the greatest “of all children born of women”(Mt 11:11). He was the last of the prophets of the OLD Testament, the final voice calling the people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. But we also heard Jesus say that “the least in the kingdom of heaven”(Mt 11:11), the least of US, is greater than John –because they are not just born of the flesh, “of women”, but born of God.

That kingdom of heaven can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ, and that’s why John spent his whole life trying to make Christ known. John wanted his disciples to follow Christ, and that’s why he sent them to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for another?”(Mt 11:3)

“Are you the one?” The answer Jesus gave was more than just saying “yes” –He pointed to all the wonderful signs that would accompany the coming of the Messiah. The Jews knew that many promises had been made, and we heard some of those promises in our first reading in that prophecy from Isaiah (Isa 35:5-6). And that’s why Jesus said,
“Go back and tell John what you hear and see;
the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear,
and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor;
and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”(Mt 11:4-6).

Jesus not only proved that He was the Messiah, He also proved that the kingdom of heaven had begun to reign here on earth. We’ve been thinking the last couple of weeks about the Second Coming of Christ, in glory and power, and it is only then the reign of heaven will be fully established. But even now that reign of heaven is present.
Because He came as a little child in Bethlehem He can come to our hearts now –come especially in Holy Communion. Come to work is us all the things He worked so publicly long ago. Healing for the wounded heart, peace for the troubled mind, rest for the weary soul.

Jesus, the wonder-worker, proved Himself to be the answer to the Jews hopes and prophecies. And if we would have those same hopes and prophecies be real in us today, then that is the baby we must prepare our hearts for this Christmas.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Rom 15:4-9
I want to say a few words today about hope. Hope is one of the defining characteristics of the season of Advent: in Advent we look forward hopefully to Christmas, and, in particular, in this first part of Advent we look forward, in hope, to the Second Coming of Christ.

It may be that you've never thought that much about what "hope" is, but it’s something that has been greatly analysed by the saints and theologians of the Church, and it is important because it concerns what moves us ONWARD in our activity.
Many people today, if they think of hope at all, think of hope as being just sort of ‘feeling’, however, the saints speak of hope as being something much more definite, and much more important.

St Thomas Aquinas defines hope has that movement of the will (ST I-II q62 a3) by which we direct ourselves towards “a future good, difficult but possible to attain”(ST II-II q17 a1). As such, hope is something we can have on both a natural level and on a supernatural level.
For example, with natural hope: someone who buys a house and gets a mortgage has "hope" that he will pay off the mortgage, not today not tomorrow but as a “difficult but possible” future good. And he measures and directs his present activity towards that possible, difficult, but important future good.
Supernatural hope directs us to the ultimate good of heaven, “by means of the Divine assistance”(ST II II q17 a1).

In our second reading today we heard St Paul writing to the Romans about hope, he said, "Everything that was written long ago in the Scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope from the examples Scripture gives of how people who did not give up were helped by God”(Rom 15:4).
So, in the Old Testament, we read about how the people of Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert, 40 years before they finally entered the Promised Land. And they serve as an example to us because they "did not give up". Further, they serve as an example to us because they were "helped by God" as they struggled on: God gave them manna from heaven, quails to eat, cures for the bite of a fiery serpents, and help in battle. Finally, because they "did not give up" they achieved that “difficult but possible” good because they were finally allowed to enter the Promise Land. They “did not give up” and they “were helped by God” to that goal.

For ourselves, St Paul gives a much more immediate and concrete example of how we must apply this to our lives. He notes that it is possible for us to "give up" in the struggle to be good to our neighbour, to be "tolerant with each other". But he encourages us by urging us to set our hope on the good that is both present and future, namely, the mercy of the Lord. The mercy of the Lord that is tolerant with us in our weakness and sin and inadequacy. And the mercy of the Lord that continues to give us His grace and strength in order that we might do good. Yes, it can be difficult to be tolerant and loving and giving to friends, family, to those we daily live with a brush up against, but he urges us to "to treat each other in the same friendly way is Christ treated you”(Rom 15:7).

This aspect of hope has a simple but twofold application to our lives. On one level it orients us towards the Second Coming and towards that ultimate "difficult but possible" good of heaven: if we persevere in being loving to others then God will be loving to us and give us the reward of heaven. And, in the much shorter term, thinking of Christmas coming: if we persevere in being loving to others then Christmas will be a more loving, pleasant, joyful experience; and Christ will find a place to come to us this Christmas.

To come back to where I began, the nature of hope: hope is what sets us towards that difficult but possible ultimate good, relying on God’s help. Let us prepare ourselves in this Advent season by deepening our hope, by deepening our focus on that good which is beyond ourselves, that good which is possible to attain because we, like the examples given to us in the Scriptures, will be "helped by God”(Rom 15:4).

Sunday, 28 November 2010

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 24:37-44; Rom 13:11-14
Today’s readings remind us of the End of the World, in particular, about the Second Coming of Christ, “when the Son of Man comes”(Mt 24:39).
There are 2 matters of humour that I often think of when I think of the Second Coming:
The first is a bumper sticker I’ve seen on cars: “Jesus is Coming. Look Busy!”
The second is a comedy sketch from the old Spitting Image series in the 1980s. It featured a priest rushing in to tell the Pope that Jesus had just returned. And, Spitting Image, irreverent as always, had the Pope reply: “Quick! Sell the popemobile and buy a Skoda –I want Him to think I’ve been suffering!”

What both of these comic images have in common is the notion that there is something that we think we can keep hidden from God. And it is right that the thought of trying to hide something from God should be a matter of humour, because God by definition is the one being that we cannot hide anything from.
Of course, many of the things in life that we laugh about are things that people do all the time, are things that WE do all the time. And when we laugh about things that people do all the time part of the reason we laugh is because we can recognise the ridiculousness of it when someone else does it, even if we fail to see the foolishness of our own behaviour in the same regard.

In our second reading today (Rom 13:11-14) we heard St Paul speak about how the coming of Christ will be the coming of "daylight" so that the "night” will be over. As St Paul indicated one of the things that the coming of daylight does is that it shows up all the things that cannot be seen at night. He gave the particular example of people sins: sins will be publicly exposed and seen in the coming of the light of Christ. And he draws a very simple conclusion: if our deeds are going to be exposed to the light, if our deeds are going to be exposed for all to see, then: "Let us live decently as people do in the daytime”(Rom 13:13).

Now, I imagine that many of us might hear the items, the sins, on St Paul's list and think, “Well, I don't do those things” –they are, after all, a list of the most serious sins, the things you would probably LEAST like to have exposed to the daylight.
Maybe, you don't commit any of those sins. Maybe, you don’t need to sell your equivalent of a popemobile because already drive a Skoda.
However, I think we all have little sins that we would be embarrassed to have brought to light: little acts of selfishness, little acts of laziness, uncharitable thoughts about other people, critical judgements, and so forth.

Every year the Church starts our season of Advent by reminding us of the Second Coming of Christ. We prepare to celebrate His birth at Christmas by remembering WHO that baby was and is: the child who was born in Bethlehem is the same God who will come as Lord and Judge at the End of Time.
For the world in general, and for us as individuals with our own particular death, “you do not know the hour”(Mt 14:44).
And so, let us remember that, “Jesus is Coming.” So, “Look Busy!” And let us not only ‘look’ busy but be busy in fact, let us repent and be "busy" with things that He would have us do.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

AIDS, Condoms, and What the Pope Really Said

AIDS, Prophylactics, and What the Pope Really Said, by Fr Dylan James, Moral Theologian, Wonersh Seminary

A document file version of this is avaialble at this link:

Last weekend saw many inaccurate media reports claiming that the Pope said that condoms were sometimes permissible in the fight against AIDS. This is not what he said. Below I have briefly quoted him and explained his comments in the light of his previous comments. If we want to understand him we need to read him in the context of other things he has said and in the context of the standard Catholic moral theology he is articulating.

(1) The Pope said that condoms are not “a real or moral solution”[1] to the fight against AIDS:

(a) Condoms are not a “real” solution because they are not effective at a simple practical level

While condom use can reduce the risk of infection it does not prevent it. As Durex themselves warn: 'No method of contraception can give you 100% protection against pregnancy, HIV or sexually transmitted infections.' As a consequence programs that distribute condoms may slow the spread of AIDS in a population but do not prevent the spread of the disease.
AIDS campaigns that promote the use of condoms frequently mislead people into thinking they can ‘safely’ engage in promiscuous sexual lifestyles when in fact they are exposing themselves to risk. In addition, such campaigns encourage sexual promiscuity among the youth at a younger and younger age and thus hasten rather than slow the spread of a great many sexually transmitted diseases. For example, 1 in 10 young people in Dorset are affected by Chlamydia.[2]
Telling people that they can safely engage in promiscuous sex is a lie. Promiscuous sex, with or without a condom, is not ‘safe’ even though a condom reduces the risk.

(b) The Church has a real solution it offers: abstinence and faithfulness

Any ‘real’ solution is not going to be easy and what the Church notes is the only effective way to avoid infection involves discipline and self-restraint –something that the modern world avoids. The only way to safely avoid sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sex if you are single and be faithful to your spouse if you are married. Thus the Pope said in his 2009 trip to Africa: "The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."[3]
Those countries in Africa that have promoted abstinence programs instead of condom programs have statistics that show their success.[4] “Recognition of the value of promoting abstinence, instead of just relying on condoms, came in a commentary published in The Lancet Nov 27 [2004]. Written by a group of medical experts, and endorsed by a long list of health care experts, the article noted that when campaigns target young people who have not initiated sexual activity, ‘the first priority should be to encourage abstinence or delay of sexual onset, hence emphasizing risk avoidance as the best way to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.’”[5]

(c) The Church does a lot of work caring for AIDS sufferers

Did you know that 25% of AIDS care worldwide is provided by Catholic organisations?
As the Pope said in his recent interview: “Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDS. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDS victims, especially children with Aids.
“I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.”[6]

(2) What then did the Pope say about condoms that was mistakenly claimed to be ‘new’?
The Pope spoke about what can sometimes be a “first step” towards moral living, even when this first step is something that is nonetheless still sinful. He said “perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”[7]
When the Pope was asked in response, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” It was then that the Pope said, “She [i.e. the Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution” but only a possible “first step” towards a moral life.
In noting that the “first step” towards morality is often something that is still sinful the Pope is articulating standard Catholic moral theology. In commenting on the Pope’s words the moral theologian Professor Janet Smith used the example of theft to illustrate what the Pope is saying: “If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.”[8]

(3) Why then has the media misinterpreted the Pope’s words?
Different reports have said very different things and have no doubt done so for very different reasons. Some seem to have imagined that the Pope said what they wished he had said rather than what he actually said. Others have misinterpreted the Pope because they are unfamiliar with his other writings and unfamiliar with Catholic moral theology.
Regardless, nothing the Pope said is new and nothing he said changes the fact that, as he said, condoms are not “a real or moral solution”[9] to the fight against AIDS.

[1] accessed 26/11/2010
[2] accessed 23/11/2010
[3] accessed 23/11/2010 . To see some other secular reports backing the science of what the Pope has said about abstinence and faithfulness being the only effective way to prevent the spread of AIDS, follow links at: accessed 23/11/2010
[4], among many other reports on this point see: accessed 26/11/2010
[5] accessed 23/11/2010
[6] accessed 26/11/2010
[7] Ibid
[8] accessed 23/11/2010
[9] accessed 26/11/2010

Monday, 22 November 2010

Vigil for Nascent Life, 27th November 2010

Prayer Vigil For Unborn Life
5.45pm-6.15pm Saturday evening, 1st Sunday of Advent, 27th Nov 2010

There will be a half-hour of prayer immediately after the evening Mass.
Our Bishop has encouraged us to respond to the Holy Father’s “unprecedented request” for Catholics throughout the world to join him in observing a “Vigil for All Nascent Human Life”. The purpose of this prayer vigil is “is to ‘thank the Lord for his total self-giving to the world and for his Incarnation which gave every human life its real worth and dignity,’ and to ‘invoke the Lord’s protection over every human being called into existence’.”

Opening Hymn while the Blessed Sacrament is incensed
Soul of my Saviour sanctify my breast,
Body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with waters gushing from thy side.

Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O bless├Ęd Jesus, hear and answer me;
deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
in death's dread moments make me only thine;
call me and bid me come to thee on high
where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.

Prayer (said by priest)


Please join in the responses in bold print
Lord, have mercy - Response: Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy - Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy - Lord, have mercy
Christ hear us - Christ, graciously hear us

God the Father, Creator of the world, Response: Have mercy on us
God the Son, through whom all things were made,
God the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life,
Lord Jesus, the Beginning and the End,
Lord Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life,
Lord Jesus, Eternal Word of Life,
Lord Jesus, living in the womb of the Virgin Mary,
Lord Jesus, Lover of the poor and weak,

For the gift of new life, Response: We thank you, Lord
For those who cherish and support life,
For all those in healthcare,
For mothers who welcome new life,
For those who support new mothers,
For fathers who accept their responsibilities,
For those who help provide alternatives to abortion,
For those who promote adoption,

For parents fearful of their responsibilities, Response: Aid them, Lord
For mothers with unplanned pregnancies,
For weak and sick unborn children,
For doctors caring for life in the womb,
For unborn children under threat,

For every sin against life, Response: Forgive us, Lord
For experimentation on human embryos,
For profiteering in human experimentation,
For the sin of abortion,
For mothers and fathers pressured to have abortions,
For all doctors & nurses who perform abortions,
For the silence of Your people,
For our own complicity in failing to defend life,

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
Response: spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
graciously hear us, O Lord
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.

Let us pray,
Almighty and ever-living God, You have created all things through Your Son Jesus Christ. He hallowed life in the womb by His incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary. May all who acknowledge You promote the sacredness of life and always serve You faithfully, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Litany adapted and shortened from the “Litany in Response to Abortion” by Fr Frank Pavone, accessed 20/11/2010)

Prayer (said by priest)

Tantum ergo sacramentum
Veneremur cernui;
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui;
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

Genitori genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque,
Sit et benedictio;
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.Amen.

Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.
Reverently bow your heads while the congregation is blessed by Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Divine Praises (repeat each line after the priest)

While the Blessed Sacrament is reposed into the tabernacle we will sing the following refrain three times:
O Sacrament Most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine

Final hymn to Our Lady:
As I kneel before you, As I bow my head in prayer,
Take this day, make it yours and fill me with your love.

Ave Maria, Gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Benedicta tu.

All I have I give you, Every dream and wish are yours,
Mother of Christ, Mother of mine, present them to my Lord.

As I kneel before you, And I see your smiling face,
Ev'ry thought, ev'ry word, Is lost in your embrace.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Pastoral letter from Bishop

There was no sermon this week because there was a pastoral letter from the Bishop. This will be available at the Diocesan website:

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Shaftesbury

Lk 21:5-19
Today in Britain we keep Remembrance Sunday when we think of those who have died in the wars: we thank God for their labours and sacrifice, and pray to God for them.

This year I would like to spend a moment recalling a virtue that we associate with soldiers, a virtue that is typically defined with respect to soldiers, namely, fortitude, and its related act: endurance.
The Latin word for fortitude, which gives us the ancient meaning that saints and philosophers assigned to it, combines both strength and courage.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas both write at great length about fortitude and they describe it as THE soldierly virtue, the virtue that faces fear (Summa Theologica II-II q123 a3) and faces death (a5). In particular, St Thomas considers what is the DEFINING act of fortitude, and says that it is endurance, because it is endurance that enables a man to stand firm in the face of fear and death (a6).
And, in this, the soldier models something that all of us need to live.

The soldier endures despite discomfort and difficulty before the battlefield, the soldier endures despite fear and uncertainty in the midst of a battle, and the soldier endures despite the attack of the enemy.
For us as Christians, Scripture explicitly describes Christians as "soldiers of Jesus Christ”(2 Tim 2:3) and describes us as such in the context of saying that we must "endure suffering".

In today's gospel we heard the Lord Jesus also speak about endurance and about suffering: he spoke in particular about the sufferings that would accompany the end of the world: nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and plagues and famines and fearful signs from heaven. Worse still, for Christians, there will be persecution.
And what must the Christian do in the midst of all this? What is it that will gain the Christian eternal life? Jesus says, “Your ENDURANCE will win you your lives"(Lk 21:19).

The endurance I have just described is perhaps most obvious in the face of the dramatic sufferings Jesus indicated. However, there are many other forms of endurance that characterise Christian living: to love others often requires simple endurance in the form of patience with other people; to love others in obedience to Christ's command requires a further form of endurance in that it requires endurance in the form of maintaining our hope in the promised reward for loving others; and loving others include endurance in the form of patience with the difficulties of life so that we don't allow our illnesses and difficulties, our personal crosses, to make a so disagreeable that we fail to love. To be a Christian is to endure.

So, to come back to where I began, as we think today of the many soldiers who died in the wars, let us think too of the way in which soldierly fortitude, and its principal act of endurance, models the endurance that we each need to be manifesting in our daily Christian lives.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Mass Intentions

From the newsletter this week:

The month of November is a time when people particularly remember to have Masses offered for the dead, especially for family and friends. There are brown ‘Mass Offering’ envelopes in the porch for this purpose: please write your intention on the outside of the envelope, enclose your Mass stipend donation, and place the envelope in the collection plate or in the presbytery letterbox.

The practice of offering Masses for the dead is the Christian fulfilment of the Jewish practice of having sacrifices offered in the Temple for the dead “so that they might be released from their sins”(2 Macc 12:45). The Early Church celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the sacrifice that superseded the Old Testament Temple sacrifices and it was for this reason that the writings of the Early Church Fathers record how the Mass was offered for the dead. For example, Tertullian writes in the 2nd Century about a widow who had Mass offered for her deceased husband: "Indeed she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship with him in the first resurrection; and she offers her sacrifice on the anniversaries of his falling asleep". Similarly, many of the Fathers echo the sentiment expressed by St Gregory the Great, "Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them." While St. John Chrysostom encourages us by saying, "If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them."[1]

But what does it mean to have a Mass offered ‘for’ something or someone? In answering this question it is important to differentiate between the general and particular intentions in the Mass: Every Mass is offered with the general intention that is articulated in every Eucharistic Prayer: for the glory of God and for the needs of the Church and the world as a whole. In addition, each individual member of the congregation brings his or her own particular intentions in his or her prayers that are united to that Mass. There is a third type of intention brought to the Mass, however, and it is this intention that is referred to when people speak of a ‘Mass Intention’, namely, the specific intention for which the priest celebrant offers the Mass: The priest’s intention specifies the “special fruit”[2] for which that particular Mass is being offered. It is in this sense that someone asks a priest to offer Mass ‘for’ something or someone.

Mass Stipends
Linked with the above is the ancient practice of Mass Stipends: a financial offering to accompany the offering of your prayer, a specific donation to accompany the specific request. While the amount donated for a Mass is at the discretion of the individual there is a standard rate set in each diocese and for many years our Bishop has set this at £10. In this parish the donation goes to the parish funds (in contrast, most other places continue the ancient practice of the Mass offering going to support the priest).

Other Intentions
The Mass is the greatest prayer we have since it is the sacrifice of Christ Himself. It is therefore important to remember that we can have Mass offered for many intentions: for the living as well as for the dead, for family difficulties, for sickness, as well as in thanksgiving for graces received etc.

Announcing the intention?

In some parishes the intention of each Mass is published in the weekly newsletter or on the notice board. Sometimes a priest may announce the intention. It is worth noting, however, that the offering of the Mass for that intention does not depend on it being publically voiced but on it being specified in the priest’s personal prayers. Similarly, if a priest announces that “I am offering this Mass for [such and such an] intention” he does not thereby require the rest of the congregation to pray for that intention or to make their own lay-offering of the Mass to be for that intention.

[1]Fr William Saunders, “What does it mean to have a Mass ‘offered’ for someone?”, accessed 2/11/2010
[2]Pope Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei (1786), cited in Aidan Nichols, The Holy Eucharist (Dublin: Veritas, 1991), p.100.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 18:9-14; Ecclesiaticus (Sirach) 35:12-19
Many people in Shaftesbury think that they are among those people who are to be considered as “personages”. Shaftesbury is full of people who attended the finest schools, the great universities, many have fine houses and secure pensions, and perhaps you might add that you are popular among your friends.
But God could not care less about any of these things. There is not one of these things that mean that you stand more or less in God's sight.
Thus it is that we heard in our first reading about how "The Lord... is no respecter of personages... [it is] the humble man's prayer [that] pierces the clouds”(Sirach 35:12ff).

I have been thinking these past few days especially, as I’ve pondered this Bible text, how I might view myself in the same way. I might think about how I stand before the world and before God: I have a degree, from a respectable university, a degree in a respectable subject, as a priest I have studied in Rome, even now I am a professor in the seminary, surely I am a “personage”. And yet, God couldn't care less about any of these things. There is not one of these things that mean that I stand more or less in God's sight.
God surely laughs at our pretence of being some kind of "equal" to Him.

Now, it might seem that this is not fair. Surely, you might say, my achievements should mean something to God. “Surely”, you might say, “God must think more of me than that person over there because I am” whatever-you-might-think-yourself-to-be.
Well, and this is perhaps the key point:
our achievements do have a value, and our achievements do change how we stand before God, but how our achievements affect our standing before God depends not so much on the external matter of the achievement but the inner humble spirit with which we did that thing –or not.

The importance of humility can perhaps be most clearly seen when we recognise the destructive effect of its opposite, namely, pride. As I think St Augustine said: It is the distinctive quality of pride that it can enter into ANY outwardly good action and turn it into something evil.
ANY task or chore can be done in pride for our own achievement, or, it can be done as an act of service to God using the talents He has given me as He wishes me to use them.

To turn to the example in today’s gospel, let us consider the good deeds of that Pharisee. There was nothing wrong with his deeds at the outward level. As he said himself: he fasted twice a week, he paid his tithes. However, his good deeds were destroyed by the pride that animated them: his deeds were something that he did not refer to as serving God or as serving his fellow man, rather, his deeds were something that he used to rank himself, as he himself put it, above “the rest of mankind” and especially above “this tax collector here”(Lk 18:11).

A humble person is capable of doing outwardly great things –the same outwardly great things that a proud man does. The difference is that the proud man attributes all of his greatness and all of his success to himself, and he achieves things for himself and for his own greatness, whereas, in contrast, the humble man attributes all of his gifts and talents to the Lord who bestows those gifts and talents, and a humble man achieves great things not for himself but in service to others.
Hence, as we heard in our first reading: it is such a “man who with his whole heart serves God” and it is such a man who "will be accepted"(Sir 35:16). "The Lord... is no respecter of personages”(Sirach 35:12ff).

Sunday, 10 October 2010

28th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year C, Harvest Festival, Shaftesbury

Lk 17:11-19
Today we keep our harvest festival. The primary thing that this involves is giving thanks to God for the fruits of the harvest, and in this giving thanks to God for all the good things He gives us.
Today's gospel gives us one of the classic texts where we see thanksgiving in action: 10 lepers were healed. One leper came back to give thanks.
I want to say a word about the connection between faith, thanksgiving, and salvation, and to start by looking at the words that Jesus said to the healed leper who had returned to give thanks.

Jesus said to that leper, "Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you"(Lk 17:19). Now, I think this is interesting, because it indicates something of what "salvation" means.
All 10 of the lepers were healed, all 10 were "saved" in their body.
But it was only the one who had enough “faith” to return and give thanks, it was only that leper who Jesus said was "saved":

"Salvation" is not just about the body. Often, especially when we are sick, we can reduce our problems and reduce our concept of salvation to just being about matters of the body, just being about material issues, whether it is health, money, and so forth.
However, Jesus's words point out to us that salvation is more than just about material things. Ultimate salvation, in heaven, will have the perfection and satisfaction of both our bodily and spiritual needs. But, while we journey though this world it is important to remember that it is the spiritual soul that is the higher part of us, and if we are saved in our body but not in our soul then we are not really saved at all.
And this is something we experience even at the psychological level: my body can be healthy, my house and my wealth might be secure, but I can still lack that peace of soul that is the more precious commodity.

The words of Jesus to that leper not only praised him for what he had but also point out to us how it is that we might have that salvation: by having faith.
If we believe in God, if we believe in what Jesus Christ has told us in the words of Scripture and through the teaching of His Church, IF we believe then we see the realities that this passing world fails to see and we rejoice in the realities that this passing world fails to rejoice in. And if our faith enables us to see these things then it enables us to give thanks to God for them.

But, this said, many of us often feel how we lack faith, how our faith is not as strong as we would like it to be.
We can pray the prayer we heard in last week’s Gospel: “Lord, Increase our faith”(Lk 17:5).
I would like, however, to point out something else that we can do to increase our faith, something that is important for us to do even if we think our faith is strong: we can give thanks.
If I want to deepen my awareness of God, deepen my faith in Him, deepen the amount I see His workings and gifts all around me, then an important way to deepen my faith is to thank Him for the gifts that the little faith I already have enables me to recognise.
When I go to bed at night I can pause to thank Him for the good things I have enjoyed during the day;
when I wake in the morning I can thank Him for the gift of the new day and for what will lie ahead;
and, the more I remember to thank Him at the start and end of the day the easier it will be to remember to thank Him during the day,
and, the more I thank Him then more that habit will enable me to clear my sight so that I will see better with the eyes of faith,
and, possessing ever deeper faith I will possess a deeper share in salvation,
so that one day Christ might say to me as He said to that leper, "Your faith has saved you"(Lk 17:19).

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Centenary, Mass of Anniversary of Dedication of a Church, Shaftesbury

2 Chron 5:6-11.13-6:2; 1 Cor 3:9-11.16-17; Lk 19:1-10
We are here today to celebrate the solemn dedication of the church 100 years ago, and it great to have so many here today. I want to start by referring to a historical memory that someone told me.

In the buildup to this centenary a number of people have been offering their memories of our parish history, and I was very struck by a recollection from someone whose family has lived here for many generations, someone who told me how his parents told him part of what it meant to be a Catholic here before the church was built, even before the FMI priests came here:
to be a Catholic here in Shaftesbury meant walking the 6 miles that it took to get to Mass in Marnhull –and they had to go to Marnhull because there was no Mass in Shaftesbury. And I think that memory alone helps illustrate what the building of this church was about:
the building of this church was about people who knew their Catholic Faith well enough, and valued what their Catholic Faith told them, to know that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was something worth making the effort for, and, worth constructing a building that would be set apart for the Mass.

But there is something else that a Church is, something that it is BECAUSE the Mass is offered here, and that something was echoed in two of the Scripture readings we just heard:
a Catholic church is the dwelling place of God –a place where we meet Him.
In our 1st reading (2 Chron 5) we heard of how the Temple of the Old Testament was built and how the glory of the Lord filled the Temple, the glory of a presence that was brought through the actions of the priests.
This happens even more fully in the dispensation of the New Testament:
In keeping with the command of the Lord Jesus that we “do this in memory of me”, when the priest repeats the words of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, "This is my body... this is the chalice my blood", the promise of Christ comes true and He dwells among us: The bread and wine change and become His very self: His Body and Blood, His Soul and His Divinity.
And so, because the Mass is offered here, God dwells here in His tabernacle, as He dwells in the tabernacle of every Catholic church across the world.

This is something that we as Catholics value highly, and something that Catholics frequent suffer to acquire. Across the world today, and down through the years, Catholics have made many sacrifices to be with God in the Eucharist:
Today, in many parts of Africa or South America people walk long hours to get to Sunday Mass;
In our own country, in centuries gone past, during the Penal years when it was illegal to be a Catholic in this country, people made great risks to get to hidden Masses and to shelter priests who would then offer them Mass;
In centuries before that, when the Catholic Faith was first being established in this land, when King Alfred the Great was driving out the pagan Vikings and building the abbey here in Shaftesbury, to achieve that people made sacrifices by donating for the building and upkeep of the abbey;
Even before that, in the very beginnings of Christianity, we know from the first historical records of the universal Church that the first Christians set aside houses from the very beginning to be dedicated for the worship of God;
And, as we are commemorating today, when this church was built a hundred years ago, people sacrificed time, money, and work, that there might be a sacred place for the Mass, that there might be dwelling place of God among them.

But, my final point and concluding focus is to point out that God dwells among men, and we build churches that He might dwell in them, SO THAT He might then also dwell in our hearts.
As we heard in that 2nd reading, “You are God’s building”, you are His dwelling place.
The people who journeyed to get to Mass in Marnhull, the people who built this church, they did so in the hope that God would also dwell in them, with the resolution to make Him welcome in Holy Communion.

All of this leaves a legacy for us, and a call for us to put that legacy to good use: the example of our forefathers in the Faith should prompt us to seek to value the Mass more, to love Jesus in the Mass more. Last week, when Pope Benedict was here, he spoke repeatedly of the need to rediscover the place of God in society and in our lives. As we recall today what has been bequeathed to us in this sacred building, let us seek to value and love what they loved: to love the good God who dwells among us in the Eucharist.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

25th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year C, Papal Visit Weekend, Shaftesbury

Lk 16:10-13
Contrary to fears, there have been huge crowds to great the Pope these last few days on his visit to Britain.
From our own parish: 5 young people were among the privileged few at the special youth gatherings with the Pope. 8 other parishioners are presently awaiting the Pope’s arrival for Mass in Birmingham. And yesterday, I was with 16 more from the parish who went to pray with the Pope in Hyde Park -all from sleepy little Shaftesbury!
I’m sure that most of you will have caught something of the atmosphere by watching on the television. But, I found myself surprised as I watched his arrival on Thursday, and even more when I was up in London, I found myself surprised at the emotion, the inner excitement and thrill that the visit has produced within me. I’ve seen the Pope before in Rome; I’ve shaken his hand; before he was pope I even had breakfast with him at the German college in Rome –he was actually not only very courteous but funny: he told a number of jokes, and I can remember thinking: here is a German with a sense of humour!
So, I’ve seen this man before, but seeing him come HERE felt palpably different. And meeting the man who was not-yet-pope is not the same as seeing the man-who-has-become-pope, who has become the Vicar of Christ on earth. And judging from what I saw of all the crowds in London, we all felt the same –no one even complained about the 6 hour wait after getting through security.

As I said last week, it’s a great privilege for us that the Holy Father is visiting our land.
And, it’s a great joy to see the crowds that have come to see him.
And hopefully that is something we feel at an emotional level as well as something we acknowledge with our heads.
But, the question I would put to you this morning is: will Britain heed what he has come to say? And will WE heed what he has come to say?

Today’s Gospel, by either providence or chance, gives us a text that pointedly focuses us on a major part of the Pope’s message to us:
“You cannot be the slave both of God and of money”(Lk 16:13).
And, ‘money’ here does not just mean cash –it means those things and that lifestyle that is rooted solely in the here and now.
The Pope has spoken very directly to us of the dangers of the secular society, of trying to build a world and a life as if God did not exist. I’d like to quote to you some of the Pope’s words, that he addressed directly to young people but hold for all of us in different ways by extension:
“I would like to say a word to you, my dear young Catholics of Scotland. I urge you to lead lives worthy of our Lord (cf. Ephesians 4:1) and of yourselves. There are many temptations placed before you every day -- drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol -- which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive. There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society. Put aside what is worthless and learn of your own dignity as children of God.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Glasgow, 16th Sept 2010)

Do we “put aside” what is worthless?
Do we, as Catholics, value things in a way that is visibly different from the rest of Britain?
Because, if we are not living differently from people who don’t believe in God,
if we value money in the same way as people who don’t believe in God,
then, what judgment do Christ’s words in the Gospel place upon us? “No servant can be the slave of two masters... You cannot be the slave both of God and of money”(Lk 16:13).

As the Pope said, it is “the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you” that lasts. And, if we are convinced of that truth then we should not expect to find our daily happiness in the passing pleasures of this world, but we should expect to find it in the love of the Lord.
Let us hope, and pray, that the visit of the Holy Father to our land will inspire not only the British people to think again about what the value, to re-discover the place of God, but make us think again too.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Papal Visit, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

I want to say a few words about the Pope's visit to our country next weekend, I want to start doing so by making an analogy between the Pope and Moses -who we heard about in our first reading (Ex 32:7-14).
Moses was on the mountain with the Lord God, and, as we just heard, God is greatly displeased with the people he had “brought out of Egypt” because, as He told Moses, the people “have apostatised”(Ex 32:7). To "apostasize” means to deny your religion, and in the case of the people of Israel they had apostatised I no longer worshipping the God who brought them out of Egypt and instead making a golden calf and worshipping that. As one of the psalms puts it, “They exchanged the God who was their glory for the image of a bull that eats grass”(Ps 106:20). Moses pleaded with God to spare the people, and “so the Lord relented”(Ex 32:14), as we just heard. Moses then went down to the people carrying the tablets of the law (Ex 32:15). And, I imagine that many of the people were not pleased to see Moses again, they were not pleased to have the law brought to them. And yet, Moses went to them, Moses brought the law of them, because he cared for the people, and by his care he saved the people.

The Pope is coming to England. He is coming to a people who, while they are not worshipping the golden calf, they have by and large stopped worshipping the Christian God that the people of Britain once knew. He is coming to a people who have apostatised. He is coming because he cares about the people of England, just as Moses cared for the people of Israel. And, just as Moses carried the law to the people, I expect that one of the things the Pope will be bringing will be the call to return to the law of God.

Now, it might be wondered WHY the Pope is coming to England. Certainly, there are many people who have warned him not to come, there are many people who have told him that he will not be welcome here. And the Pope knows this. Many people in the Vatican have warned the Pope not to come: but the Pope is coming because he WANTS to come, he feels he NEEDS to come, he knows that he has something that he needs to say to us - I do not know whether he will be saying that by what he does or what he says, or even merely by his presence -but I am sure that he is coming because he has a message for us.

The Pope receives invitations to go to many different countries, and his decision to accept the invitation of our government to come to Britain must surely be because he thinks Britain is an important place for him to come. And he does not think that we are an important place to come because he somehow mistakenly thinks we are deeply religious country that WANTS him to come. I think that it must surely be the opposite, he feels a need to come because he knows that Britain is NOT religious, he knows that Britain is one of the most secular countries not only in Europe but in the world. He knows that it is important that Britain acknowledge the Lord again, because many other countries, in different ways, look to Britain. By coming to Britain the Pope is coming to the centre of the secular versus Christian fight. Britain is a country and culture that has been trying to build a society without God: this does not mean that our people necessarily wicked or malicious, but they have been trying to live as if God was not there. By coming to Britain the Pope is trying to tell the people of our land that we would be happier, that we would be better, if we turned to the Lord.

For us, as Catholics, it is a great privilege for us to have the Holy Father come to England. The present Pope may not have some of the movie star charisma that John Paul II had. But his coming to England is important not because of his personality, but rather simply because of who he is as Pope: the fact that he is the successor of St Peter, the fact that he is the Vicar of Christ on earth. And it is a great blessing for us that he is coming, even if he comes in the midst of great hostility, even if he comes to be martyred by some Englishman.
For us, it is important not only that we support him in his task to remind our country of God, it is also important, for ourselves, that we make the most of this opportunity of grace: it is still not too late to decide to go to London and join some part of those cheering crowds that will greet him, or to stand along the road and cheer him as he goes by. But at the very least, let us take the opportunity to join with this visit in prayer, by watching him on the television, by praying with him as he comes to pray with us.

God sends his messengers to his people in every age: he sent Moses to his people when they apostatised, he sent the prophets to his people when they forgot Him, and this week He is sending us His Vicar. Let us be sure that we are ready to welcome him.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 14:25-33
What does it mean to “hate” my “father, mother, [...] brothers, sisters, yes and [my] own life too”?(Lk 14:25)
This same Jesus who said this also told me that I must love my neighbour, even love my enemy. And, the 4th of the Ten Old Testament Commandments, that Jesus Himself reiterated (Lk 18:20), commands that I love my “father and mother”. So, why does He here say I must “hate” them?

Well, part of the reason Jesus says "hate" concerns Hebrew grammar: At a grammatical level, Hebrew, the language of the ancient Jews, lacked the ability to form superlative or comparative forms in the same way that we can in English. So, unable to say that we must love Jesus “the most” or “more”, Jesus says this, Jesus expresses the superlative, by saying that we must “hate” everything but Him. (see weblink below)

But, grammatical points aside:
This statement by the Lord is teaching us a pivotally important truth: we must have nothing that we put before Him. This truth has many consequences, for one thing: If we do not love Him properly, then the entire edifice of love of others will be a building built on a faulty foundation.
Let me give the example of the love of friendship. I have many friends, people whose company I enjoy, people I feel a ready and immediate affection for. But enjoying their company is not the same thing as loving them: loving involves the gift of self to another, the sacrifice of self in the service of the needs of another –and this is the type of love that there must be in a true friendship, or in any true loving relationship.

If I only love someone for what they give to me then I do not actually love them -I just enjoy using them.
In contrast, the best foundation to build my love of someone on is the love of the Lord Jesus. If I seek to love someone as Christ loves him, BECAUSE Christ loves him, THEN I will love him in the most perfect way possible. But this means that I must love Christ first and foremost. And, and this is important: if I want to love my “father and mother” I must want to love God more than I love my “father and mother”. If my parents, or anyone else, puts themselves between me and the love of God then they place me in a false conflict, and TRUE authentic love of them will require me to put God first.

The Lord Jesus must come first. This is half of the message of today’s Gospel. The other half of that message is that putting Jesus first is hard, a commitment, a sacrifice.
It is so difficult that before seeking to follow Him, He says that we must contemplate the cost and decide whether we will go through with it. Like the man who didn’t finish building the tower because he lacked the money, or the king who couldn’t fight his enemy because his army was too small, we can often fail to truly follow Christ because we haven’t thought through what it means to put Him first, we haven’t thought through the fact that following Him means “carrying [my] cross”(Lk 14:27).

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us three simple examples of things we can love in a way that prevents us from following Him: worldly possessions, comfort (unwillingness to carry my cross), and family.
All of these things can and should be loved, but each loved in a way that is proper to them, not in a way that makes them rivals to loving God.
If I love any of them more than I love God then I will not love them properly, and, I will do a disservice to God, the Lord and Creator –who deserves to be put first.
Whereas, if I love God first then I will order my love so that I can enjoy possessions and comfort while not letting them become a pursuit that makes me unwilling to carry my cross, and, if I love God first, then I will love my neighbour and my family with that Divine love that is purer and greater than the love I could possibly hope to give them myself.

The grammatical comment noted above about “hating” father or mother etc is well expressed on the following website:
“Hebrew grammar doesn’t have a comparative form or superlative form of adjectives and adverbs. In English we say, "Apple pie is good; apple pie with ice-cream is better". Lacking a comparative Hebrew says, "Apple pie with ice-cream is good; apple pie without ice-cream is terrible". Now when we come to express the idea that we ought to love God more than we love anything or anyone else, that our love for God ought to be greater than our love given elsewhere, Hebrew says we ought to love the one and hate the other. Because Jesus is Hebrew, thoroughly Hebrew, he says that to become his disciple we must hate parents, spouse and children. (Luke 14:26) He means that compared to him all earthly ties come second. However important our bond with other people, none is as important as our bond with him.”

Sunday, 29 August 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Heb 12:18-24
We heard a line in our second reading that well describes our experience at Mass: “What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”(Heb 12:18).
What we come to in the Mass is God Himself –but this isn’t what we experience directly with our senses:
Our senses say merely that we have come to a gathering of human beings, human beings that in many ways might not seen particularly god-like: they might sing badly, they might mumble their responses inaudibly, some of them might even look bored and distracted. Our senses might also say that what is given out at Mass just looks like wafers of bread, not like the Lord Jesus Himself.
But, and this is the basic point of my sermon today: there is more to the Mass, and more to life in general, than just what immediately strikes our senses. If we limit our appreciation of life to only what is immediately self-evident to the senses then we miss much, in fact, we miss the most important things.

Now, to say that in the Mass, “What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”, does not mean that the senses cannot aid us in helping us appreciate what we have come to.
For one thing, the senses enable us to see the signs and symbols, the sacramentals, that point us towards the reality we have come to.
For example, looking ahead of us to the sanctuary, our sense of sight can see that there is a veil that hangs in front of the tabernacle, a sign indicating to us that God dwells inside –and the tabernacle veil of the Church was pre-figured in the tabernacle veil of the Old Testament: when the Jews wandered in the desert God was in their midst in the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting that Moses would enter to commune with God, and later in the temple in Jerusalem there was a veil in the sanctuary of the holy of holies of God’s dwelling.
Another example, the red hanging sanctuary lamp is another thing that our sense of sight can perceive –this also indicates to us that God dwells here in the Tabernacle, just as in the Old Testament God commanded that a lamp should always burn in the Tabernacle of the tent of meeting(Ex 27:20-21).

But a final and more pivotal example: our sense of hearing hears the priest utter the words that Jesus Himself uttered: “This is my Body”. At this point our sense of hearing conflicts with part of our sense of sight and taste: our hearing tells us that this is the Lord Himself, present because He is faithful to His promise to come when we “do this in memory” of Him, but, our sight and taste mistakenly thinks it looks and tastes just like bread.
Our senses can HELP us perceive what is here, but what is here is BEYOND what our senses can exhaust.
To see what is really here, to see what is really important in life, we need to look more carefully, we need to look with the eyes of faith.

“What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”, Saint Paul said these words of God Himself and of the splendour of heaven. And as he said in another of his letters (1 Cor 2:9): “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, what” wonders there are.
In a few weeks the Pope will be here in England, and many atheists like Richard Dawkins, will be appearing on the BBC to tell us what a fool they think he is. But the Pope is coming to remind Britain, and to remind us, that there is a world beyond our immediate sense perception, and it is this world that gives ultimate meaning to everything our senses are capable of perceiving, and without the eyes of faith we fail to see what is really here. The Lord is here in this tabernacle, here in this church, and He is present in our lives if we will but see Him. To have closed our eyes to such realities is to have missed out on the greatest things there are.
“What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”(Heb 12:18).

Sunday, 22 August 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 13:22-30; Heb 12:18-24
There are some questions that I get asked many times as a priest. One question that comes up again and again, and that I was asked again this week, is, "How many people go to Hell?” or, the reverse, “How many go to Heaven?" This is a good question, an old question, a question that has concerned people down the centuries. It is also a question that Jesus was asked, as we heard in today’s Gospel: "Sir, will there be only a few saved?"(Lk 13:23). But it’s interesting how few people today seem to recall the Lord’s answer.

Jesus’s answer was certainly not comforting to the person who asked the question, because Jesus started by questioning the salvation of the questioner:
"Try YOUR best to enter by the NARROW door, because I tell you, many will TRY to enter and will not succeed"(13:24).
He went on to say that many would knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us” (13:25) but be turned away.
More worryingly still, Jesus said that many who thought they were saved would not be: they will say to the Lord that they knew the Lord (or so they thought), but the Lord will say to them, “I do not know where you come from” and cast them out into the “weeping and grinding of teeth”(Lk 13:28).
And it will be others who will be saved, others from the “east and west”(13:19) who will take the places that the comfortable and complacent thought they had waiting for them.

The Lord’s answer is clearly not one to encourage complacency in His hearers, or in us.
And yet, we ourselves live in an age where popular opinion makes us complacent in such matters. Hell is something that is rarely talked about, even as a possibility -it is often dismissed as being only for people who are so wicked that they only exist as theoretical examples.
But Jesus's teaching does not encourage such presumption. He speaks in this text of a “narrow” door, not a wide one. And as He says elsewhere, “The road is wide that leads to perdition and MANY walk in it"(Mt 7:13).

So, what must WE do?
To repeat the words Jesus said to His questioner: “Try YOUR best to enter by the NARROW door”. We ourselves also need to enter by this narrow door, and we know that it is narrow because it can be HARD WORK to be good, to walk the path of salvation. Our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminded us of the suffering and training that is involved in being a Christian. Just as the athlete suffers and endures so that he may enters the arena and win the game, we too must not shrink from the hard work that is involved in living the moral Godly life that Christ calls us to. Anything good is worth striving for, and eternal salvation is no exception.

But, to conclude, let us remember that though the Lord speaks of hell and tells us that we must “strive”(Lk 13:24) to follow Him, we are striving not against Him but with Him.
Let us remember the text we heard in our second reading from Hebrews, "Have you forgotten that encouraging text in which you are addressed as sons?"(12:5)
If we wish to ponder the question, "How many will be saved?" and more directly, "Will I be saved?", we must not forget that God calls each and every one of us to become His adopted child. For EACH of us He has a special plan, He guides our lives and even our sufferings, to lead us, daily, towards Him and the salvation He desires for us. He wants us to be saved, He calls us to Himself, He has come to us because He is the way, He Himself is the “narrow door” that leads to life.

If we would enter that door, it is not complicated: We must embrace His will, daily repent of our sins, continually call on His mercy.
And, if we are humbly among the little ones acknowledging our sins and weakness and calling on His mercy, rather than presuming on our strength, then we will be among the “men from east and west, north and south, [who] will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God”(Lk 13:29).

Sunday, 1 August 2010

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Eccles 1:-2:23; Col 3:1-11; Lk 12:13-21
Today’s readings warn us of the need to place our hope in the things of heaven, not of the passing things of this world. I’d like to illustrate this point by referring to the life of St Bernadette and a promise made to her by Our Lady.

Two weeks ago I was in Lourdes, a site that attracts 6 millions pilgrims a year, and I was reminded while I was there of the promise made to the little girl Bernadette when Our Lady appeared to her. Our Lady said, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next” –to repeat: not happy in this world, but in heaven.
And, thinking of that promise, I wondered what my own response would have been if Our Lady had said such a thing to me. I think I’d have wanted to say something like, “Thanks for the offer of happiness in heaven, but, could I perhaps have a little bit of happiness in this world too? I was rather set on a cosy little life in Shaftesbury, with the odd glass of red wine. OK?”
But such a response from me would be rooted in the fact that I have an insufficient grasp of the reality of heaven –I know of it, but it is not a thought sufficiently in my continual daily consciousness.

St Bernadette, however, saw more than I have seen. She saw the beauty of heaven, because she saw the beauty of heaven reflected in the beauty of the vision of Our Lady that she saw. This vision of the wonder of heaven enabled her to understand, in a way that is difficult for the rest of us, to understand at an experiential level how wonderful heaven is and how worth while it is to put aside all things in the pursuit of it. We need to strive to see things as clearly as she did, with the thought of the promise of heaven.

Let us think for a moment of that rich man in the Gospel parable. He was saving for tomorrow. In our debt-ridden present economic climate, saving for tomorrow might seem like a prudent, sensible, virtuous thing to do. But there is a selfish way to save, and an unselfish way to save. Part of what can help us see the difference is whether we can look at our actions and see them as laying up more merit for ourselves in heaven than they do for us on earth. And, if we live in the HOPE of heaven then we learn to almost instinctively judge our deeds in the light of heaven.

The promise of heaven is a measure that passes judgement, either positive or negative, on everything we do. Is what I am doing gaining me treasure in heaven, or losing it?
To come back to the promise St Bernadette received from Our Lady, St Bernadette was quite clear, as she said many times[1], that this promise of happiness in heaven was only conditional on her being good on earth. And, at its most basic level, this is true of each of us too:

In our second reading from Colossians we were reminded that, as baptised Christians, we “have been brought back to life in Christ”(Col 3:1), but if this is to mean something then we must have our action oriented towards heaven: “look for the things of heaven”, St Paul added.
Our first reading, with its powerful message from the preacher Quoheleth (Ecclesiates), spoke of the vanity of so much of the activity we pursue in this world: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity... what does a man gain for all his toil under the sun”(Ecc 1:2ff).
What does a man gain for his toil? It depends what toil he is doing, and who he is doing it for, and this was the point made by the Lord in the Gospel. The rich man selfishly toiling for himself, laying up treasure in his barn –what is this worth if he dies and he has not laid up “treasure for himself”(Lk 12:21) in heaven, in the sight of God?

Every deed we do, we need to ask, Is this laying up treasure for myself in heaven?
If my action motivated entirely by the thought of happiness in this world as if there was no world to come? Or, does my faith in the world to come help me detach myself from short-term self-seeking because I have the joy of living in hope of the eternal future: “you must look for the things of heaven, where Christ is”(Col 3:2). If we had such faith and hope we’d be content to have a promise like, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next”.

[1] Rene Laurentin, Bernadette Speaks (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), p.602.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 11:1-13
We just heard Jesus speak of the importance of asking in prayer and of the heavenly Father's wish to grant our prayers. I'd like to tell you about a prayer of mine that was answered recently.

When we think about God answering prayer we often wonder why He grants some requests and not others. And, we all know the trial of an unanswered prayers, or, more precisely, we all know the trial of when the answer to our prayers is “no”. While we don't know in this life why He grants one request and not another, we do know that we will somehow understand in Heaven. But, for many of our prayers part of the reason that some are granted and some are not is whether we are praying that something that is TRULY for our good: God does not grant a request that will ultimately be to our supernatural disadvantage. St James indicates this when he says, “you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly”(Jam 4:3), and Jesus indicates something of the same when He says that the type of prayer that we can be SURE will be answered is to pray for the Holy Spirit (Lk 11:13).

But on to my prayer, and perhaps I first need to tell you where I'd been –these past few weeks: The first Sunday I was away I was on holiday, and then the next two Sundays I was helping to lead a youth pilgrimage around a great number of shrines in France.
And at the end of this, on my way home, exhausted but inspired by all that I had seen, I prayed after the example of the saints who shrines I have seen. In particular, inspired by the example of the patron saint of parish priests, the holy Cure D’Ars, I prayed that Jesus would help me bear suffering and difficulty the way that the saints did; I prayed that Jesus would give me a greater share in the cross.
I made this prayer for a greater share in the cross while at the entrance to the airport on my way home, and Jesus pomptly granted my request by cancelling my flight. I then had a 3 hour wait on a line to discover that all of other ways home were booked and that I was stuck there for the next 2 days. It wasn’t exactly how I had wanted Him to answer my request! And wiser men than myself and taught the inadvisability of praying for an increase in the cross.

However, as a consequence of my delay I was able to use those days to visit some more shrines, in Paris. I visited the shrine of Our Lady of Victories which bears great testimony to answered prayers. Many of you will know the life of St Therese of Lisieux, whose relics toured England last year, and you’ll know that as a child she lay sick and dying in a prolonged and incurable illness –her father had prayers offered to this shrine of Our Lady of Victories; Our Lady then appeared to St Therese, and she was cured. And her cure is just one of many there. The walls of this large church are lined with THOUSANDS of plaques of thanksgiving from people who have had prayers answered there. And this reminded me very powerfully that God DOES answer prayer. Earlier on the pilgrimage I had seen other churches with large walls lined with similar plaques of thanksgiving –in Ars and Lourdes.

All these plaques were a reminder to me of a very particular point: the importance of ASKING for things in our prayer. And this I had further reminder of in another additional shrine I went to: the Rue du Bac, in Paris, the shrine of the Miraculous Medal. It was there, in 1830, that Our Lady appeared to St Catherine Laboure, and in the vision Our Lady appeared with rings on her fingers; some of these rings shed light and some did not, and when St Catherine asked why Our Lady told her that this symbolised the many graces that people failed to gain because they did not ask for them.
And this is not just a point from a private revelation but is part of our Catholic teaching, as articulated by the likes of St Thomas Aquinas as part of the doctrine of merit, that there are many graces that we fail to get because we do not ask. So we SHOULD ask.

And this is the key point is today’s readings. Abraham prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah, and God granted his prayer. The parables of Jesus taught us the importance of asking in prayer. And the history and experience of the Church, down through the centuries and in the lives of many of us here, shows us that God DOES answer prayer and so we should ask, and do so with the confidence of a child who knows that his Father loves him. “Ask and you will receive”(Lk 11:9).

Sunday, 27 June 2010

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Gal 5:1,13-18.
How do I know what the Holy Spirit is saying to me?
In our 2nd reading we heard St Paul talk about being “guided by the Spirit”, and people often wonder what this means in practice. I’ve been pondering this a lot recently; one very useful book I’ve read is listed in this week’s newsletter: Jacques Philippe, In the School of the Holy Spirit (Sceptre Press, 2007).

To talk a simple example from my daily life: in trying to plan what to do this Saturday afternoon, does the Lord want me to pray for an hour, or visit the sick for an hour?
Does He want me to call my Mother on the phone, or write a better sermon?
-These are all good things, but doing one means I won’t do the other. Which does the Holy Spirit want me to do?

Now, pondering these things can get taken to extremes. I’ve heard pious young ladies (in particular) ask whether God wants them to wear a red shirt or a blue dress today?
For me, that’s an easy answer. He wants me to wear a black shirt, again.
But generally speaking, it’s not really meaningful to ask what colour shirt the Holy Spirit wants you to wear.
-to ask a question like that is a misguided piety
A mis-directed piety, but basically starting with the right premise: I should want to do God’s Will, and He has a Will for every detail of my life.

However, for most details of my life, the way He speaks to me is much more mundane. He has given me a brain, the ability to reason. If He has not given me any other reason to think He has a specific answer to a question, which with many questions He hasn’t, then He just wants me to use my reason to decide which colour shirt to wear.

But there are ways we can discern what the Lord wants us to do:
First, is it a matter of sin, a matter that the Bible or the Church clearly teaches me? For example, I don’t need to pray about whether I should sleep with another’s man wife –we just know that the Bible and the Church tell us that this is the sin of adultery.
Second, it is a matter that my state of life makes clear? Like a duty as a parent or a worker or a boss?
Third, is there some other matter that indicates it is a matter of sin?
None of these cases need much sophisticated analysis, but all of them DO show me what the Holy Spirit is telling me.

And, to be open to the Holy Spirit in subtle things, I need to be in the habit of being open to Him in those more basic things.
Having that spirit of openness to His Will is what will enable me to be better able to detect His promptings in more subtle things –but that, in many ways, is a later skill.

What do I mean? Well, we heard St Paul contrast the promptings of the Holy Spirit with those of “self-indulgence”(Gal 5:17). Let’s consider the self-indulgence of laziness: If the entire goal of my day is to get to that TV show at the end of the end. If the entire goal of my afternoon is set on that cake with my tea. Then I am not going to let other things get in the way of ME, my priorities, my pleasures.
These might not be big pleasures, often they might not be sins –at least not sinful in themselves, only in how I might be attached to them.
But if my priorities are such that these things mean more to me than anything else, then I am not going to be open to the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
And so CONTRASTING within ourselves the promptings of self-indulgence with those of the Spirit, and seeking to DETACH ourselves from self-indulgence, is a key way that will led us to be in that “liberty”(Gal 5:13) that St Paul spoke of, a liberty where we are not enslaved by the desire of the flesh.
So, if I want to grow in my ability to be able to discern what the Holy Spirit is prompting me to do, that detachment from self is a key place to start.