Sunday, 29 December 2013

Feast of the Holy Family, Shaftesbury

Mt 2:13-15.19-23
We keep today a beautiful feast, that of ‘The Holy Family’. Having celebrated, just a few days ago at Christmas, the birth of the Lord as a baby, we now recall the life of that perfect family: St Joseph, Our Lady, and the child Jesus.
We know it wasn’t a typical family:
the child was the Lord God Almighty Himself in human form;
the mother was sinless from the first moment of her existence, the ‘Immaculate Conception’;
and even St Joseph was a ‘saint’ –so not exactly run-of-the-mill either.
But even though it was not a TYPICAL family it is put before as THE ‘normal’ one because of the example of Christian living, and Christian FAMILY living, that it lays before us.

I’d like, this year, to focus on the figure of St Joseph, in part because this year’s Gospel places him before us more than the other years, but also,
because placing the father before our focus is something that might, in itself, be notable as being rather counter-cultural for us today in that our post-Christian society: Our society has increasingly made fathers an optional part of family life –even though repeated studies have shown that children grow up differently, more healthily, if their fathers are around.
A man and a woman, a husband and a wife, each bringing something different and yet complementarily, so that the two together form one whole, committed to each other for life, looking to bring for a life beyond their own –this what we see in Our Lady and St Joseph, their common love and life ordered towards the child they bring into the world.

All this would sound sexist, maybe patriarchal, to many in our modern world.
So, let us consider two things about the form of leadership that St Joseph offers, because it’s the very opposite of what feminist critiques of patriarchy condemn:
First let us note that St Joseph is a man who LISTENS:
There are three big decisions that the Gospels record him making, and in each case he does not do what HE wants, but what he is told to do –told by an angel:
(1) He takes Our Lady home as his wife, despite her not being pregnant with his child;
(2) He flees to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the infants –because this is what the angel tells him to do;
(3) He returns from Egypt –again, in obedience to the angel.

Second, let us note that St Joseph is a man who is never recorded as having ever said ANYTHING. He isn’t recorded as being mute, so he presumably spoke, but it somehow seems more characteristic of him to be DOING things, not talking:
taking them to Bethlehem,
taking them to Egypt,
returning them to Israel.
NOT running around bossing and telling other people what to do.

So, as we today celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, and think about how they can be a role model for modern families, let us think in particular what St Joseph shows us:
A family in which there is LISTENING rather than self-assertion is a family capable of being open to God’s will, capable of being loving and happy, capable of bringing Christ into the world.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas, Shaftesbury

I've been to the post office rather a lot recently, going to get stamps to post my Christmas cards. And I've had to go there so many times because Shaftesbury post office hasn't had stamps. I went there with a huge pile of cards, only to be told that they didn't have any foreign stamps, and didn't have any second class stamps, that they hadn't had any for over two weeks, and they didn't know when they would get any in.
I was tempted to get ANGRY and demand to know what a post office was for if not for posting things,
and to demand to know how on earth Cousin Doky in Iowa was going to get her card?!!
But, actually, I didn't get angry. I was very polite. I was very English. I just said, "Oh dear. I'll just have to come back another time”.

But what struck me as significant was the fact that the post office still somehow was BUSY.
Now, a post office is for posting things. And yet, somehow, even when they can't do that, they somehow stay busy with other stuff, selling decorations, cello tape etc
And I though that church can be like that too, and you as Christian families can be like that too.
We can fail to have the thing that makes us what we are, the loving Christ-child, and yet stay busy with other churchy or Christmassy things.

So, what is Christmas like without the core, without Jesus Christ?
Busy. There is still turkey. Still presents to be found, and bought, and wrapped. Still cards to be sent (if you can get stamps).
But without Christ, it doesn’t have a MEANING, it doesn’t have it’s purpose.
It becomes a celebration of His birth that forgets the One who was born.

And, of course, we can also lose Christ at Christmas by a lack of love.
He came from heaven to earth because He loves us, because He wishes to save us.
Yet, we can have the celebration without love.
Eating turkey, but not being kind,
Gathering with family, but not patient and forgiving.
We can be like the post office: busy, but not busy with what it is supposed to be about.

In contrast, Christmas WITH Christ is a very different affair.
It remembers Christ, remembers the One who gives meaning to it all:
That the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite love for each and every one of us, formed a plan long ago:
He promised it at the dawn of creation, that the Son of Eve would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15).
He called and formed a Chosen People to be the place of His birth.
He prophesied it through the lips of His many prophets that they might be ready.
And then, finally, God entered His world, as one of us, out of love for us.
And He still comes to us today, to hearts willing to receive Him.

And our celebration of that, at Christmas: If we let what we believe inspire our actions then it becomes a beautiful sight:
If we are patient and laugh when Uncle Bert tells us joke, again, that isn’t very funny -just as the Lord was patient in planning for His birth.
If we are forgiving with little faults and failing as the Lord came to forgive us and die for us on the Cross.
If we are loving as Christ loved us enough to be poor and humble, born in the stable.
Then we will have the CORE of what Christmas is about: the loving Christ-child.
A celebration with meaning, and activity with its core purpose,
something even better than a post office with stamps.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

4th Sunday of Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 1:18-24; Isa 7:10-14
We have just 3 days to go now before Christmas, and so we’re in our final stage of preparation: both physically and in the Church’s liturgy.
This Sunday, the final one before Christmas, the Church always turns our focus to Our Lady, to look to her to help us bring the Christ-child into our lives. But this year, Year A in the 3-year lectionary, we also have the figure of St Joseph. And both of them give us simple but vital examples of what we must do, what we must be like, if we are to let Christ in this Christmas.
I’d like to point out, in particular, the way that the two of them behaved towards each other.

First, St Joseph. As we heard in that account, he found out that Our Lady was “with child” –and not by him. As any of us can imagine, that would have been a tough thing for him to take.
I’d like to point out his forgiving and tolerant response to this. He could have sent her away in public disgrace, but he “wanted to spare her publicity” and so was going to do so “informally” (Mt 1:19).

Second, Our Lady. Let us note that she doesn’t seem to make any great deal of justifying herself before St Joseph. Defending ourselves, self-justification, are common human actions, often linked with selfishness in how we seek to defend our honour.
But Lady takes another path, and the Lord steps in for her before St Joseph, just as the Lord had stepped in to ask her to receive the child.

Thirdly, ourselves. Christmas, and family and other personal interactions, can sadly be time of the opposite of what we just heard.
In frayed tempers over organising things with others,
in mistakes that we make,
in the little things in which people let us down,
we can be unforgiving and self-justifying:
“It wasn’t ME who forgot to buy the Brussels sprouts…”
“It’s not my fault the shop was out of sprouts –you should have reminded me beforehand!”
[Apparently a recent TV show and survey showed that nobody actually likes Brussels sprouts away, we just eat them at Christmas because it’s traditional. Regardless…]

So, let’s remember in these days ahead to be like Our Lady, and not be overly keen seek to justify ourselves before others in our various failings;
And to be like St Joseph, and be forgiving and tolerant of what seem to be the faults of others –for one thing, maybe there are explanations we don’t know about, just as St Joseph found.

And if we do that, then we can expect to find that for us too, “the maiden [will be] with child”(Isa 7:14) and a child will be born for us, Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

No Sermon This Sunday

There is a pastoral letter from our retiring Bishop today, available on the Diocesan website

Sunday, 17 November 2013

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 21:5-19
This week our Diocese had a major gathering, a 'symposium', on what is called 'The New Evangelisation’ -concerning our need, as believers, to give witness to the people of our modern secular society. The call to give witness runs repeatedly through the Scriptures; and in our Gospel today we heard what might seem an unlikely example of it: the Lord Jesus said that when believers will be persecuted at the End of Time, in trials, and brought before their persecutors, this will be "an opportunity to bear WITNESS"(Lk 21:13).
But, to WHAT are we to give witness? Or, rather, to WHOM?

Bearing witness is all about HIM. The symposium was looking at a document of the 2012 Synod of Bishops on Evangelisation, it's Instrumentum Laboris, which talks in its introduction about what the whole thing is about, which can be summed up in three points:
It's about (1) having "a personal relationship" with the Lord, a relationship with Him that begins when (2) someone proclaims Him to us in such a way that we can say that (3) we truly MEET Him, "encounter" Him (nn.17-18; Introduction). This parallels the manner in which we meet anybody, encounter anybody, get introduced to anybody, and thus start to have a relationship with him/ her.

It may be that to some of you the language of "having a personal relationship with Jesus" sounds foreign, sounds like American terminology imported from Evangelicals. Certainly, for myself, as a teenager, it was from such people that I first came across this phrase. But, as a matter of fact, it is common in the documents of the Catholic Church, rooted in our tradition; and the entirety of everything we believe as Catholics, from the personal love of Jesus for us in the Sacred Heart, to the motherly care bestowed on us by our Heavenly Mother Mary -these and countless other things are only coherent as part of a Faith that believes in "personal relationship" with the Lord.

Let me make the point using another term: 'friendship', countless ancient devotions remind us that Jesus is our ‘friend’; theologians like St Thomas Aquinas tell we must listen to Him because He is our “best and wisest friend” (ST I-II q108 a4). And, mystics like St Teresa of Avila, in describing what prayer is, says: “it is nothing but a frequent heart-to-heart conversation with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved”.
He is a friend who transcends all others, in a friendship, a personal relationship that transcends all others. He loves me, He forgives me, He strengthens me, He consoles me.
He is with me: in prayer, in the Holy Mass, in Holy Communion.
He is with me in the way my neighbour loves me, and in me when I love my neighbour.
He, like all friends, is with me in my joys, and shares my rejoicing.
And, even better than any friend, He is with me in my problems, so that I do not bear the burden alone -even if my problems are not the tribulations of the End Days.
The friend I can talk to about my whole life, who listens; and, if I am sensible, the friend whose wise advice I listen to hear.
Finally, He shows His perfect friendship in the way that He is with me even though I am so often only imperfectly with Him. He is my best friend even though I am not faithful enough to say the same for Him.

To have such a friend, to be in such a wonderful "personal relationship", is a beautiful and precious thing.
If we have such a thing, even if we only have it imperfectly, if we have such a thing we surely need to want others to have it.
And it is for such a sharing that we are called to "bear witness"(Lk 21:13).

You can't force someone to come to faith; just as you can't force someone into a friendship. But, by presenting Christ to others we create a situation where that initial "encounter" with Him, and sometimes a re-encounter with Him, becomes possible. We have a duty to give people this possibility, and to do it often. The Church teaches us that the PRIMARY duty of charity is to proclaim Christ to others (Novo Millennio Ineunte n.50): Others deserve too have this friend too.
To close with a quote from a saint who lived through the Reformation persecutions, who stood before trials and sufferings such as those Jesus described in the Gospel: how do we describe Jesus?
"First friend He was,
Best friend He is,
All ages will find Him true."(St Robert Southwell)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Remembrance Sunday, Shaftesbury

2 Macc 7:1-14; Lk 20: 27-38
Today our nation keeps Remembrance Sunday, when we remember all those who have died in the wars. The Scripture readings that the Church gives us today are not chosen with that in mind, they are on a different cycle, but by a happy coincidence they also speak to us of death, and, more particularly, of our hope in a resurrection after death.

Our Gospel text described how a group of Sadducees came up to Jesus with a trick question. You may not have heard the old joke: "Why were the Sadducees sad? Because they didn't believe in the resurrection!" Both modern Judaism and ancient Judaism were divided over the question of whether there was life after death. The Pharisees said there was. The Sadducees said there wasn't. And they brought what they thought was a trick question to Jesus, with the tale of a woman who had been married to seven men who had all died in sequence, and which of them would she be married to in heaven, if there was a 'heaven'?

There are some key things we need to note about this passage, because it teaches us some very definite things about life after death.
First, we might note the Sadducees' concern that the woman produce a child -thus she needed to keep marrying. This was rooted in the thought that the only 'after life' is to have a child who keeps living when you die, who keeps your name and memory going.
Second, we might note the contrast that exists between such a vague existence-as-being-remembered-after-death and existence-as-having-a-resurrected-BODY. Jesus speaks very clearly about the BODY being resurrected. Not just a vague spirit, not just a vague memory. But a BODY. You REALLY do live after death if there is a new body!

The Sadducees, however, mocked the idea of a resurrected body. What would it be like?! Or, as some modern people who sometimes think they are being clever imply: all this talk of 'bodies' is rather crude and primitive and foolish.
The Lord Jesus, however, is emphatic: there is a resurrection of the body. And, of course, He ultimately made this a reality in His own physical Resurrection.
The foolishness is to think that the new body will be just like the old. It will not! And perhaps nothing makes this clearer than the fact that there will be no marriage in heaven. The 'new heaven, and new earth'(Rev 21:1) that the book of the Apocalypse describes is truly 'made new' (Rev 21:5). It is real, it is bodily, but it is different.

To conclude, however, what difference does any of this really make to us?
Well, we heard a good example in our first reading, with the description of the bravery of the Maccabees. They were Jews in what became 'the Pharisee tradition', not Sadducees. The Maccabees believed very exactly in a resurrected body. And, as, today, we think of the bravery of many soldiers, we might note that many of these Maccabees were soldiers, and it was faith in the resurrection that empowered these Maccabees to be so brave in the face of death: "Heaven gave me these limbs, and for the sake of His laws I disdain them; from Him I hope to receive them again" (2Macc 7:11) in the resurrection of the body. Thus the Maccabees were brave in fighting their pagan overlords. We might note, in comparison, that the Sadducees were not known for bravery against the Roman oppressors, but known rather for cooperating, in order to keep their power and the Temple cult in place.

The simple point is this: believing in life after death CHANGES how we live on earth.
It gives you hope while you live, it inspires you to bravery and feats that you would otherwise not achieve.
To come back to that opening quip: Why were the Sadducees sad? Because they didn't believe in the resurrection.
Believing in the resurrection CHANGES us. From sadness to hope. From weakness to bravery.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 19:1-10
We just heard the Lord Jesus make a rather important statement about WHY “the Son of Man has come”(Lk 19:10). If you recall, the title, “The Son of Man” is one that Jesus had applied to Himself as one of the titles used of the long-awaited Messiah, the one who was to SAVE the Chosen People. The name ‘Jesus’ itself means “The Lord [YHWH] is salvation”[1], and we heard in that passage the Lord say that “salvation has come to this house” of the tax-collector Zacchaeus.

Jesus comes to bring salvation, and He says salvation has come to this man, but, WHAT is this thing called ‘salvation’?
You may recall that last year Pope Benedict came out with his last book, The Infancy Narratives, and in that book he commented on this very question. And he noted that for some of the people, what Jesus claimed to bring seemed too much, and to others it seemed too little. But in either case, it was not the ‘salvation’ they were expecting.
Jesus came to save us from our sins, whereas many of the Jewish people were expecting a this-worldly salvation, a political messiah to liberate them from the Romans. Such people were disappointed that Jesus was offering something else.
Others, the Pharisees and Sadducees, heard what Jesus claimed but thought it was too much, because only GOD can forgive sin, so who was Jesus claiming to be? [Well, He was claiming to be God.]

Pope Benedict commented on this issue of the type of salvation that Jesus came to bring by commenting on the occasion when some people brought a paralytic to Jesus and lowered him down to Him through the roof. What did Jesus say to the sick man? “My son, your sins are forgiven”(Mk 2:5). As Pope Benedict noted, “This was the last thing anyone was expecting [Jesus to say]. This was the last thing they were concerned about. The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins”![2]

Yet, this is what Jesus claimed to be about: the forgiveness of sins, the saving of us from our sins, and this was a deeper and more profound healing that that of the body from illness.
Thus, Zacchaeus, who was physically well, and materially rich, he still NEEDED saving. And it was only because Jesus ‘sought out’ this man declared to be a “sinner”(Lk 19:7), and that this sinner likewise sought out Him and welcomed Him into his home, that Jesus was able to say, “salvation has come to this house”(Lk 19:9).

Still today, however, many people think this too little a thing. Still today there are people, and let me be blunt and say especially the wealthy, still today there are people who value the body and material welfare in a manner that declares ‘sin’ to be something not really to be what Jesus is about. And they re-make Jesus into another image by ignoring these and other passages of the Scriptures.
But WHY is being saved from sin the most important thing? WHY is it the greatest salvation Jesus comes to bring? To quote Pope Benedict again, because “man is a relational being”[3] and our “first, fundamental relationship” is with God our creator, and as long as this relationship is disturbed all my other relationships are disturbed too. I cannot properly love my neighbour, who is made in God’s image, if I am out of kilter with God.
Sin is the heart of the human sickness and if we are not healed in this then “no matter how many things you may find, you are not truly healed”[4].
And, conversely, when we ARE saved from sin, saved in this deepest relational core of our being with GOD, when we are saved here it brings great JOY. Thus, as we heard, Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus “joyfully”(Lk 19:6), as joy accompanied the forgiveness of sin elsewhere in the Gospels too.

So, this is the greatness of what Jesus comes to us to bring. To put us at right in the core of our being.
It was for this that He came, it was to achieve this that He died, and it is still today for this that He “seeks out and saves that which is lost”

[1] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth. The Infancy Narratives (London: Burns and Oates, 2012), p.42
[2] Ibid p.44
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid

Sunday, 20 October 2013

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 18:1-8; Ex 17:8-13; Ps 120
Who do we turn to when we have problems?
Mum? Dad? A trusted friend? Ourselves?
Today's first reading and gospel remind us that we should turn to God, especially in prayer, when we have problems. In our first reading we heard how the Chosen People were in peril in battle against the fearsome Amalakites, but then prayer of Moses was powerful enabling them to triumph.
Our gospel text, however, closed with what might seem a puzzling text, with the Lord Jesus suddenly talking about the End of the World. To make sense of that, we need to know the verses that preceded this section: It describes Jesus warning His disciples about the trials and tribulations that will come at the end of time.
And, how then are they to behave in the build up to that time? That is the question today's Gospel text addresses: in the midst of those trials, they are to pray continually and not lose heart.
So, when the Lord closes this passage by lamenting that few people will actually respond with faith when the Son of Man comes, it's a tragic comment that even in the midst of difficulties, even when it should be all the clearer to us that we need to pray and call on God's help rather than feebly replying on our own strength, EVEN THEN few people will respond in prayer.

For example, if I've had a tough week this week, at what stage did I bring that to God in prayer? Did I wait till I'd sorted the problem, wait till I had 'time' for God, and only then come to Him?

I was thinking about this from another angle this week, reading a newspaper article about the declining living standards in Britain. It was something that some old school friends and I talked about when we were at our annual get-together (about half a dozen of us met up once a year), the hard fact that our living standards will be less than those enjoyed by our parents: only being able to afford to live in smaller houses than an older generation when houses were cheaper; higher fuel costs, and so forth –I know that I’m cushioned from much of this myself because I live in the Church’s property, and don’t pay the fuel bills.
But I also know that such worries beset many members of this congregation.

Well, at what stage do we turn TO GOD in our worries? Do we only 'find time for God' when things are sorted already? Do we only get to Sunday Mass when life is easy and steady and we 'have the time'?
Or, do we turn to Him 'constantly, and never lose heart' (Lk 18:1) -as we heard Him say in today's Gospel text.

The point is this: we NEED God ALL the time, and we must pray to Him continually, and go to Mass each and EVERY Sunday.
The danger is that we live as if we were, by behaviour, functional atheists: we live as if God didn't really exist, as if we didn't really depend on Him, as if whatever we do in our problems (and we ALWAYS have problems in 'this vale of tears') depends on us rather than depends on HIM!

To close by returning to our Lord's point in the gospel: even at the End of the World, even when the trials and catastrophes that accompany it are falling down, even then people will be failing to turn to Him in their need, 'When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?'(Lk 18:8)
Yet, He is worth having us put our faith in Him. He is kind, and caring, and listening, and, if we bring Him our needs, then, as we heard the Lord promise, "He will have justice done for [us], and done speedily" (Lk 18:8).

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Fatima Papal Consecration, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

2 Kgs 5:14-17; Lk 17:11-19
People often wonder if God still does anything, still works miracles, is still active in people's lives.
We read in the Bible of Him doing great things. So, for example, our first reading described the healing of the leper Naaman by the prophet Elisha. While our Gospel text described the healing of ten lepers.
But, is the Lord unable or unwilling to work His power in OUR age as He did in the past?
To phrase this Scripturally, because it actually an old question that gets asked in pretty much every age, "Is the arm of the Lord shortened?" (Isa 59:1; Num 11:23). Does He not reach as far as He used to?

Today, Pope Francis is doing something that should remind us of the power of God still today. As you've no doubt heard me say repeatedly by now, today the Pope is consecrating the entire world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, before the statue of our Lady of Fatima, a statue he's had specially brought to Rome from the sanctuary in Portugal. You may recall, too, that just after he was elected Pope, he had his papacy dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima by the bishop there.
But what is Fatima all about, and why should it matter to us?
Fatima is one of those many places where God has manifested His power in a mighty fashion, and here, as in similarly many occasions, here He manifested that power through the hand of our Blessed Mother & His.

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

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

"Is the arm of the Lord shortened?" No.
Yes, we have difficulties. Yes, we have fears.
But if we bring those to her, she will not let us down.
"Be not afraid", said Pope John Paul II as his repeated refrain, citing the words of our Lord when He had Risen and had shown His power over death itself.
And when we come to her, we have one who can save us from whatever would make us fear without her.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

27th Sunday in Ordinary time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 17:5-19; 2 Tim 1:6-8.13-14
There are many things I don’t know about you, this congregation, but there is one thing I am certain about: none of you has ever said to a mulberry tree: “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”(Lk 17:6) and had it obey you.
Now, rather than let that discourage you, discourage you because you just heard the Lord Jesus referring to doing just that, let me remind you of what I pointed out three years ago when commenting on this text:
None of the saints down the ages have ever done this, none of the apostles ever did this, and not even Jesus did this.

The Lord Jesus is speaking about the ability of faith to achieve great things. He says this in a particular context, however, and His apostles are asking for an ‘increase’ in faith in this particular context: the context (not read to us today, but in the preceding verses), the context of difficulty of forgiving. Jesus had just taught His disciples that they must each forgive their brother not just once but seven times a day: as often as he turns to you repentant asking your forgiveness.
And I know there are times in my life when I would rather cast mulberry trees into the sea than forgive someone who has wronged me in the very same away as he has kept doing before.
This is a GREAT thing to do, and yet, in another sense, Jesus seems to be referring to it just a necessary thing to do, “we are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty”(Lk 17:19).

There are many things that can be a struggle, a mighty thing to do in fulfilling the basic requirements of being good. Sometimes just responding to the alarm clock to give God yet another day can seem like a MIGHTY deed (giving Him the ‘day’ isn’t half as difficult as just giving Him the first minute!).

To come back to the apostles’ request, their request in what would seem to the face of a difficult challenge, what did they ask for? An increase in love? In hope? No. interestingly, they asked for faith: “Increase our faith”(Lk 17:5).
Often, it is my lack of Christian faith that makes it hard for me to love, hard to do good, hard to be patient.
For example, when the Faith reminds me that this difficult person in front of me is made in God’s image, that God loves him, that even if he is a sinner he a sinner LIKE ME, when the Faith reminds me of such things I am enabled to do good in a way that I struggle to when I lose sight of what the Faith shows me.

Pope Francis, in his first encyclical earlier this year, on 'The Light of Faith', speaks about how faith changes how we look at the world. He speaks about how 'the eyes of faith' (Pope Francis, The Light of Faith (2013), nn.30; 60) change how we see things. But he speaks also of the lack of faith in our modern society, about how people have lost the sense that God is present, and active, and doing things in their lives. That's why I'm having a series of talks this Autumn reminding us of the reverse, of how God is present. And this Wednesday’s talk will focus on how He speaks to us.

Much of the time we look out on the world, and we look out on people, and we fail to see it as God see it, and fail to love it as God loves it. If our Faith is stronger, if we see the world as God has shown it to us in Scripture and in His own dear Son, then we are empowered to relate to it differently. So, to use that phrase in our second reading, we need to “fan into a flame” (2 Tim 1:6) that gift of faith we each have. Some of us think we have pretty strong faith, some of us feel that it is weak, but faith is a response to what God has shown us, and if we are here at all we are responding, and so we must have some little bit of faith at least.
So, whatever we’re struggling to do, let’s ask to see the world as God sees it, as He’s shown it, and ask Him, “Lord, increase our faith!”

Sunday, 29 September 2013

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

1 Tim 6:11-16
As I think you all know, I’ve just been away on our parish pilgrimage to Rome, and it was a fantastic week, visiting all the holy sites we’d planned, with glorious weather, and good company! And I want today to say a few words picking up on our second reading with St Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “fight the good fight”(1 Tim 6: 12) –because it’s an image that was very much before us when we were thinking of the martyrs in Rome.

We saw the Circus Maximus where the majority of the martyrs of ancient Rome faced their final struggle, where many were eaten by lions or torn apart by beasts. Where the Emperor Nero set fire to Christians so that their bodies would be burning torches to light his palace. We went out to visit the grave of St Paul, not far from where he was beheaded. And we saw the obelisk where St Peter was crucified upside down. All of these sites reminded us of those who had “fought the good fight” when it was much tougher than it is for us today in England.

We might well wonder how we, ourselves, would cope in such a trial. We know of course, as St Paul says elsewhere, that “His grace is sufficient for me”(2 Cor 12:9) –so that we can be strong with Him in a way that we cannot be strong alone. He gives us the strength that we each need for our particular trials, such that as St Paul says elsewhere, “He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”(1 Cor 10:13).
In today’s reading, however, St Paul strengthens Timothy with a twofold motivation: “the Appearing” of the Lord Jesus. That Appearing had occurred once in humility in Galilee: being born, dying, and rising. The final Appearing will be in glory, at the Second Coming. The first appearing proved who He is, the second appearing is the promise to lead us on.

What of us, now? Do we realise that to be a Christian is to “fight”?
You are I are not being called to be martyred in Shaftesbury, but we are being called to “fight”.
I am being called to conquer MYSELF: my impatience, my laziness, my selfishness is not giving enough to the poor, my gluttony, my lust, my complaining about my cross, my grumbling and moaning and thinking about myself rather than about loving my neighbour.
If I don’t conquer myself, master myself, then I’m just defeated by my own selfishness.
All of these small mundane things are part of that same on-going battle that Christians have ALWAYS been fighting against “the world, the flesh, and the devil”(c.f. 1 Jn 2:16; Eph 2:1-13).
And, if you and I are not fighting, then it’s because we’ve already lost. In which case, we need to get with the program, get into the battle.

St Paul told Timothy, as he thus tells us too, of “the duty of doing ALL that you have been told, with no faults or failures”, and it’s not easy doing so, it’s a battle.
But like the martyrs of ancient Rome, and the Christians martyrs suffering today in Egypt, Syria, now Pakistan, and elsewhere, we do not “fight the good fight” alone.
We are in the same battle that they were in and are in.
We, like them, look to the same victor in the war: Christ, who triumphed in the Resurrection, and will be shown triumphant in His final Appearing.
And we, like them, have the promise of a share in the same crown.
But only if we wake up and join the battle.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Sunday, 15 September 2013

No sermon today

This Sunday we had a pastoral letter from the Bishop (which can be read at the Plymouth Diocese website)

Sunday, 8 September 2013

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Wis 9:13-18; Lk 14:25-33
Our first reading poses a question that remains as relevant today as it was when it was asked thousands of years ago:
"Who can know the mind of God?" (Wis 9:13), or, to use the Jerusalem Bible in our lectionary, "What man can know the intentions of God?"
and, you might say, our Scripture readings for today give us at least two examples of how it is hard to know the mind of God, even when reading His own word in Sacred Scripture: We have our Gospel text in which we hear the Lord Jesus, the same Lord who commanded us to love, we hear Him insist that unless we "hate" (Lk 14:25) father, mother, brother etc we cannot be His disciple. And to round it all off, He says we must ALL “give up [our] possessions” (Lk 14:33) if we would follow Him.
These are just a two of many quandaries we face in seeking to know what God is about, what the mind of God holds. And there are three basic possible approaches people take:

First, there is the approach most common in our age, the agnostic approach, namely, to say that NO ONE can know the mind of God.
But this brings difficulties of its own. For one thing, it renders life meaningless if we cannot know its meaning. It also makes God rather odd, in that He would have created us but then not sought to have anything to do with us, not sought to communicate to us, to make His mind known to us.

Second, there is the Protestant approach –very close to the real deal, but not quite. This says that God has made Himself known, in speaking His one Eternal Word. Then the Bible appeared, in a mechanism that Protestantism fails to comment upon, and fails to explain how on earth we are to INTERPRET so many difficult texts in the Bible. So, although the Protestant approach comes very close to the real deal, and it does truly say that the mind of God has been made known, and it is written in the Bible, but it gives us no hermeneutical key to understand the Bible. Small wonder that the Protestant approach has given rise to countless split groups of rival interpretations, such that there are now 33,000 splinter denominations

Finally, there is the Catholic approach. This says: God has made Himself known in Christ, but the TRANSMISSION of what He has given, what St Jude's epistle calls "the deposit of faith"(1:3), was entrusted by Christ, at the very beginning, to His Church, under His popes as His vicars on earth, to pass on authoritatively and reliably. The Bible was written by the Church, and it was the Church that judged which books were to go in the Bible and which books were not, and it is that same Church that in every age has the task on interpreting that sacred word. And this interpretation is done not by a mere human agency, but with the promise of infallibility, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that the popes hand on that "deposit of faith" to us reliably. The Church wrote the Bible, and it is that same Church that knows how to interpret the Bible –using her living memory of "Sacred Tradition".

And because we belong to the same Church that wrote the Bible, we have access to how to interpret those tough texts I started my mentioning….
You can read a longer analysis on the internet, on my sermon for these texts the three years ago when these readings last came up, But in short, the Hebrew language lacked the ability to say, “the most” or “more”, so the way you say you must love Jesus “the most”, more than your family, more than money, more than avoiding suffering, to say you must “hate” your family, “give up all possessions”, and carry your cross.

So, the mind of God is no longer a mystery, He has made it known, and if we entrust ourselves to the teaching of His Church we can know that mind with certainty today, not know it in the fullness of His infinite wisdom, but know it in the fullness with which He has made it known, know it with the fullness of all we need to get to heaven, and all we need to live and love while on earth.

[The girl in the t-shirt is one of our parishioners, author of the blog, "Yes, I'm Catholic" ]

Sunday, 1 September 2013

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 14:1.7-14
Sometimes it can take other people to point out to us certain things we don’t realise about ourselves, and sometimes children do this to us very directly and simply. I was struck by this some time ago, as a young priest, when a little child asked me why I did ‘that funny thing’ with my voice at the end of the long prayer. It took me a while to figure out what he meant, but it turned out that he was referring to the doxology at the minor elevation, and that ‘funny thing with my voice’ is what I had been thinking was ‘singing’!

The path to self-knowledge can be a hard lesson, but it is an essential one if we are ever to have the outward humility that we hear Jesus call us to in the Gospel today. If we mistakenly thing we’re better or grander than we are, then we simply end up looking foolish if we’ve been pushing ourselves forwards anyway. True self-knowledge prevents us making such fools of ourselves. And so a Christian is called to act humbly.

It might be replied, however, and I’ve frequently had people say this, and only recently had someone say this to me: but surely I AM better than some people, and so I shouldn’t behave as if I was lesser than EVERYONE.
Well, the saints say otherwise, and say so very emphatically. (e.g. The Imitation of Christ, Bk 1, chpt II).
But, what struck me while reading this Gospel text this week, is that I think the Lord Jesus deliberately by-passes this question.
Note, He doesn’t say: seat yourself lower because you are lower. If that was the reason then He would say, surely, analyse the room and figure out who is TRULY greater and lower than yourself, and rank your seating accordingly. No. He by-passes the reality of our true worth and rank and instead says we should sit AS IF we were lowest.
Behave as if you rank the least, regardless of whether or not you rank the least.

This is the better path, the surer path, the one that Christ has marked out for us.
He marked it out in His teaching, but most of all in His own example –“He was humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross”(Phil 2:8).
In His own example He by-passed the question of whether He was more important (which, as God, He certainly was) and behaved AS IF we were more important than He was, as if our salvation mattered more than His suffering.
This, of course, is involved in all love. This is why humility is the essential foundation if the house of love is to be built. We must behave as if we were less important and others more important, as the earlier part of that text from Philippians that I just quoted said, “put other people’s interests before your own”(Phil 2:3-4)

Let me close by noting the fear that I think we all have here:
We don’t want to put ourselves down because we fear that if we do then we’ll be forgotten, neglected, and so forth.
But chasing after that quest to raise ourselves forward is a fool’s goal, as Jesus’s example of people who raise themselves and then get lowered by others shows us.
And, even if (in this world) lowering ourselves means that we get forgotten, well, isn’t it better to lower ourselves if it means that we thus raise others in loving them, in putting them higher?
And, ultimately, it is better for us too, so that on that final day of judgement, when that final seating of all people is established, so that the Lord Himself will say to us, because we have put ourselves lower, "My friend, come up higher"(Lk 14:10).

Sunday, 18 August 2013

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 12:49-53; Jer 38:4-6.8-10; Heb 12:1-4
“I have come not to bring peace, but division [or a 'sword' to use another translation]”(Lk 12:51). We can often think of Jesus as just being “nice”, being gentle, meek and mild, but not much else. But, sayings like, “division”, remind us that the Lord Jesus was more than just mild. It wasn’t for being mild that they nailed Him to the Cross.

We heard in our first reading how the great prophet Jeremiah was sentenced to death by the king. And in fact almost all of the Old Testament prophets were deeply unpopular men, and many were martyred. Jeremiah was unpopular because he told the people they were sinning by breaking the commandments of God, and he warned them that they would perish in destruction if they did not repent. They didn’t repent, Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people were taken off into slavery.
And Jesus did the same: He also taught people about sin, and demanded that they change their lives, and He warned them about the eternal fires of Hell (Mt 10:28; Mt 13: 41-43; Mt 25:31-46; Mk 9:46; Lk 16:22-28)(–a warning as real today as it was then. And such warnings do not make a man popular. And as the great fulfilment of the line of Jewish prophets, they killed Him just like the killed so many of the prophets.

Jesus came to bring division, to bring “not peace but a sword”(Mt 10:34), not because He loves division, but because He wants to bring about a deeper everlasting peace –a sharing in the peace of Heaven. There is ALREADY a division within each of us, a division caused by the sinful inclinations of our hearts. True peace with God only comes by facing and overcoming that division.
We must do this in our own hearts, but also with others, and this is why Jesus warns that He comes to bring division within family and friends.

If we would cling to Christ, who is our salvation and hope, then we must reject the ways of the world, and we must call on others to do the same. And if we love our friends and family then we must call on them to live the moral life, BECAUSE we love them, not because we do not. Even when this brings division.

So a mother must tell her daughter that it is not right for her to sleep with her boyfriend.
A son must tell his father that he owes it to God to go to Mass each and every Sunday.
A worker must tell his boss that it is wrong for him to fiddle the books.
And among my many tasks, I must tell adulterers that it is wrong for them to live in sin and then just come up to Holy Communion anyway.

Such things do not make us popular. People can deride us as kill-joys, just as they derided Jeremiah and our Lord Himself. But if we cling to Christ’s teaching then we can also expect to cling to His consolation and strength.
I might note, that we must also always seek His guidance in what we say. We must seek not to be imposing our SELF-righteousness on others, but to be calling them to GOD’s righteousness. If it’s GOD’s will, and it is, then HE will help us find the time and the place to say the right thing –but we can’t just take that as an excuse to say nothing.

As we heard in our second reading, St. Paul says, “Let us not lose sight of Jesus”(Heb 12:2), let us keep running steadily in the race of faith that we have begun. Many people do give up in running the race, because the demands seem tough, and sometimes it’s hard to see how it’s possible to live them. But anything good takes working at, and there are many sacrifices needed to win the crown of eternity. “Think of the way [Jesus] [like Jeremiah and the prophets] stood such opposition from sinners and then you will not lack for courage.”(Heb 12:3)

But we must also never forget that the struggle to cast off sin starts and ends in our OWN hearts, it is THERE we must bring division, so that we can throw off the sin that clings so easily to us(Heb 12:1). And if we do so, then the blazing fire of His love will blaze in our own hearts, in the hearts of all freed from sin, and bring us all to perfection.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Chideock Martyrs and the Transfiguration, Parish Day Trip

We’re gathered here in this shrine on the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, for our annual parish day out, and I’d like to say a few words linking that feast and the martyrs who are commemorated here.

The 8 martyrs of Chideock were a mixture of people. Some were priests, some were laity. Some were wealthy, some were servants: two servants of the Arundells (John Carey and Patrick Salmon), a local carpenter who had converted to Catholicism (William Pike), as well as one of the aristocratic Arundell family (Thomas Bosgrave, a nephew of Lady Arundell). What did all these different people have in common? The fact that they all valued the Mass, and our Catholic Faith in the Mass. They all recognised that there is one supreme means that God has given us by which He comes to us and we can come to Him: the sacraments, especially the Mass, and thus they all valued the priesthood as the means by which the sacraments come to the people. The martyrs of that era were not the first to die for the Mass: Pope John Paul II quoted the 49 Fourth Century Martrys of Abitina, who knew the Roman law forbade it but celebrated Mass anyway: "Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord's Supper, because it cannot be missed; that is our law"; "We cannot live without the Lord's Supper"; "Yes I went to the assembly and I celebrated the Lord's Supper with my brothers and sisters, because I am a Christian." (Martyrs of Abitina, quoted by John Paul II, Dies Domini, n. 46)

We keep today the feast of the Transfiguration, when we recall the great sign Christ gave of Himself in glory on the mountaintop. Two key things about that: first, the sight of Him in glory is sign of the glory we can all share with Him is we hold firm with Him, if we unite ourselves to Him. Second, he gave this sign to His special 3 (Peter, James and John) at a particular moment: just after He had predicted he coming crucifixion –He wanted to encourage and strengthen them for the trial ahead. Of course, as the Gospels record, they seem to have not dwelt on this much, because they weren’t very strong when He was arrested and taken away. It was only later, after His Resurrection, that things seem to have fully slotted into place, and they were strong for the future then, and all three faced a martyr’s trial. The trial that, in union with Christ, leads to glory, the glory of the Transfiguration.

These Chideock martyrs were also strong, strong no doubt with the hope of the glorious end in view. Strong enough to remain faithful to the Mass. Strong, also, I would point out, BECAUSE of the Mass: the grace of the Lord in the Sacraments strengthens us to bear trials, even trials such as these.

Those martyrs now enjoy glory in heaven.

What of ourselves? Well, surely, the thought of these martyrs should inspire us to be more devout and focussed on these sacred mysteries in the Mass, to treasure what is on offer here, to re-commit ourselves to it as something we would be willing to suffer rather than lose. So, let us think of their sacrifice, think what they value, and strive to value and treasure the same.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury, 'A Poor Church for the Poor'

Col 3:1-5,9-11; Lk 12:13-21; Eccles 1:2,2:21-23
Pope Francis, as I'm sure we're all aware, has been very much in the news the last week and a bit, with the youth gathering around him for World Youth Day in Rio. And its been great to see the Church enjoying some good publicity. An estimated three and half million joined him for the main Mass -a number that is almost impossible to visualise! But the reports also indicated the Pope doing other profound things, things more characteristic of the particular message his pontificate has been focussing on, like his visit to the slums in Rio, meeting the poorest of the poor.

The poor, and poverty, has been a theme Pope Francis has spoken about from day one of his pontificate. He has set a personal example of a simple lifestyle in many aspects of his own living: declining to use the standard papal apartments, riding in a bus with the other cardinals rather than in a separate car, and many other such things. He has done these things consciously seeking to set an agenda, because he wants, as he has put it: "A poor Church for the poor".

"A poor Church for the poor". What does this mean? Well, its doesn't just mean the priests.
It DOES mean the priests too, of course, and I know many priests, like myself, have been thinking hard in recent months about our various possessions. Reexamining our things. I wanted some new shoes because these have some holes, but I've decided I can keep them longer still. I wanted a new watch, but decided against it. These and other such questions need to be part of an ongoing and continual examination of my life.
A priest needs to live simply, as canon law has always put it, clerics must "avoid everything that smacks of worldliness"(Canon 282.1). They must pursue "simplicity of life"(Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, n.67). St Francis de Sales would add that priests shouldn't be scruffy -our Lord went to His crucifixion in a garment nice enough that the centurions cast lots for it rather than rip it up. But things can be simple without being scruffy. I can have a clean ironed shirt even if it doesn't have cuff links.

But, to repeat, Pope Francis isn't just talking about the priests. He hasn't said, "poor priests for the poor" but "a poor Church for the poor", and, this means YOU too.
Our Scripture readings for Mass today speak about wealth. What the Pope is talking about is not new -it is in the Bible, it is in our Catholic tradition. But it is something that we can easily try to ignore. Yes, I go to Mass on Sunday. But my choice of car, choice of house, choice of the food I buy -do I make these choices in the same way that unbelievers make them? Or does my being a Christian change what I buy? Change what I choose to own and what I choose to give away?
To remind you of a criteria I offered you a couple weeks ago: Does the amount of money I give to poor, that you give to the poor, does it actually change how you live? Have I given away enough that there are actually things I would have liked to have bought that I can't because I've given the money away?

Our first reading and our Gospel text focus us on the futility of the pursuit of wealth. Both readings focus on the issue of death casting wealth as meaningless. "You can't take it with you when you go", as the old saying goes. Or as one of my favourite Country Western songs puts it, "I've never seen a hearse with a luggage rack"!

Let me close, however, with the different angle that's put on this by our second reading, which draws our attention to the issue of what the eyes of our hearts are focused on. Do they look to heaven like a believer? Or simply to earth, like an unbeliever? Am I yearning for heaven or am I yearning for this-worldly things?
If I am this-worldly, then good food, good shoes, a comfortable sofa, a nice house, my favourite wine -these things will be unduly important to me. I will invest disproportionate time and energy in their pursuit.
In contrast, Colossians tells us to "look for the things of heaven, where Christ is". Acknowledging the reality of heaven changes everything. But it only changes everything if I truly acknowledge it.

Let us take heed of Pope Francis's call for us to become "a poor Church for the poor". Let us ask ourselves whether we are giving so much that it actually hurts. And, especially if we struggle with fear at the thought of losing worldly comforts, let us look to the things of heaven, the riches that last, the riches that you can take with you when you go.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 11:1-13; Gen 18:20-32
As you may recall me mentioning last Sunday, I've been away this week on retreat. I've spent 5 full days in silence. Not saying anything. Time alone with God.

I go on a retreat like this every year, and whenever I refer to it to parishioners I'm always aware that it is quite a privilege for me to be able to go on a retreat (though I am also aware that a good number of you go on retreats yourselves).
On my retreat I spent about 5 hours a day in prayer: Talking to Him about my life, and about my sins, bringing many intentions and needs of parishioners before Him, but mainly just being silent before God. As the saintly Cure D'Ars used to say when asked what he did when he prayed: "I look at the good God, and He looks at me."
I don't pray that much usually, and I won't pretend I find it easy. To spend that long talking to God can be difficult because He doesn't talk back to us the way that others do. And yet, prayer is important for us, essential for us simply because we're human.

Prayer can sometimes be something that people talk about as if it is for OTHER people to do. Monks and nuns pray, but ordinary people don't. But the reality of human experience, and of what God has told us in the bible, is very different. In every ancient culture of the world, on every continent, we find that people pray. And they do so because there is a human need within us to contact God. The spiritual soul that we humans have within us yearns for contact with the spiritual God. Our soul seeks its home in the God, because it cannot find its home anywhere else. Prayer is where our spirit meets His, and if we neglect prayer, then we’re not fully human. To pray is to be human, it’s what we are designed to do. As the great St. Irenaeus said, and I think I've told you before, "Birds, fly, fish swim, people pray”.

That's why Jesus taught us to pray, as we heard in today's Gospel text: in the "Our Father" we just heard Him teach. And He taught ALL of His followers to pray, not just a special few of them. And in the Old Testament, too, God taught His people to pray. In Genesis, we heard how powerful the prayer of Abraham was in asking God to spare the people of Sodom. And that’s an example to us of the power of OUR prayer, as Jesus said, "Ask and you will receive"(Lk 11: 9).

Jesus promises us that He hears our prayers, which is important to remember, especially at those times when it seems like He's not hearing us.
But let me point out what many saints have said about prayer, including prayer of petition: it’s important not so much because it changes God as because it changes US. Yes, it somehow changes God in that He chooses to only grant things BECAUSE we ask them. But, it changes us too, and this seems to be key to what prayer is about.
We, small humans that we are, need to pray, need to make our petitions to God, because we need this way of remembering that we need to connect ourselves to Him, to Him Who is our life.
Let's be honest, if prayer was only about saying sorry, or only about saying how wonderful God is in praising Him, few of us would get around to it, few of us would bother. But ASKING for things, prayers of petition, THIS is something most of are much better at! And it benefits us too by putting us in touch with the spiritual dimension of our life that otherwise flounders.

As I said, I've just been on 5 days of intensive prayer. Most of you, I know, have your own patterns of prayer: daily, and weekly, and seasonal. Whatever we do, let us take our Lord's words to us this Sunday in the Gospel as a reminder of the importance of our need to pray.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 10:38-42, Gen 18:1-10; Ps 14
I'm going on my annual retreat this week, and this year I'm off to join the Poor Clare sisters in Lynton in North Devon. I've visited them before and, being Poor Clares, they are definitely, to use the American expression, "hard core". They live poverty in the extreme. They have no heating -not a problem this week, but a serious issue in the winter. You might know that, similarly, one of the controversies among the various reforms of the Carmelite order was the question of whether they could wear socks with their sandals. Not because they were concerned about the fashion faux pas of wearing socks with sandals but because they thought it too much of a luxurious comfort.

Now, such Religious Sisters and Brothers do not embrace poverty because they somehow don't enjoy life. Rather, they do it because they have found what TRULY brings joy to their lives, namely possessing Christ alone. We just heard in our Gospel text that account of Martha and Mary, with Mary being praised because she recognised that she had "the one thing necessary"(Lk 10:42), namely, Christ the Lord. Our psalm similarly spoke of the reward of the just being to "live in the presence of the Lord". Our first reading came to a similar point from a slightly different angle, it spoken of the Lord "visiting" Abraham in the form of the three angelic visitors. And to have the Lord with us is THE truly great blessing, the thing that enables us to bear any difficulty, that enables us to rejoice in any hardship, because we have the One who we know truly loves us.

Thinking of that phrase in the Gospel text, "the one thing necessary", I was struck, and somewhat intimidated, by an interpretation of this I read a couple weeks ago by St John of the Cross. He was speaking of the MEANS of getting to God, and how if we truly realise who He is, then we need to pursue a means towards Him that is proportionate to Him. If I have understood him correctly, his analysis goes like this: as the end or goal, Jesus alone is "the one thing necessary", and to have Him is to have everything. But what is the MEANS to get to this end, to Him? In this sense, "the one thing necessary" is "self-denial"(Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, chapter 7, section 8). And this is a hard teaching, even if is it the teaching of Our Lord that "if anyone would be my disciple he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me"(Mt 16:24): That spirit of self-denial we embrace especially in Lent must be with us at other times too.

If we have recognised that Christ loves us, if we have recognised that Christ is worth us loving Him in response, if we have recognised that ALL fulfilment is to be found in Him, then we must want to deny ourselves all things in order to put aside things that distract us from Him.
Seeking my own comfort distracts me from Him.
Seeking my own wealth distracts me from Him.
Seeking my own preferences rather than the preferences of others distracts me from Him.
All these things, comfort, wealth etc, can be truly good (created by the good God), but if we love them in themselves then they lead us away from God. As the Lord Jesus puts it, you can "use" money, "that tainted thing"(Lk 16:9-10) but we shouldn't love it, neither as an end nor as a means to the end. The means to the "one thing necessary" is self-denial.

So, this week, while I'm on retreat, and seeing the good nuns without any socks under their sandals, I'll be thinking myself about what things I love, and whether I am denying myself enough to gain "the one thing necessary", Christ The Lord.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 10:25-37
We just heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, and like yourselves, it’s a parable I’m heard countless times. However, for all my familiarity with the text, there is one question that only occurred to me quite recently: Where was the Good Samaritan going to?
He must have been travelling for a purpose. And that purpose must have been interrupted by his helping the man who was in need. If that Samaritan was like most of us, he must have felt busy, must have felt like he didn’t want to be interrupted. HOWEVER, and this is my point: to love my neighbour means I must be willing to be inconvenienced in order to help him.

I was struck by this rather obvious point when I had a flat car battery. I’d left my car at Tiverton Parkway train station, which as some of you may know is in the middle of nowhere. My train got me back there late at night, practically no one was around, and I realised that my car battery was flat. Fortunately my father had raised me well, and, like always, I had a pair of jump leads in the boot. But these are no use unless someone else’s car is there with a working battery.
It was dark, remote, and there was just one person I could see. So I asked him for help. And I realised that I was interrupting this man who had a desire to get somewhere else. And I was struck too, in a way I never had been before, that the Good Samaritan must have been desiring to get somewhere else when charity called on him to help that man in need.

That night I was fortunate. That man allowed himself to be inconvenienced and he helped me. But I have often reflected since that part of what it means to be “a neighbour” to someone, to “take pity on him”(Lk 10:37), is to inconvenience myself.
Let me put it another way, St Therese of Lisieux taught that, “the language of love is sacrifice”. Well, every time I make the choice to love someone, to be LOVING to someone, it is a choice to make a sacrifice. Sometimes of my time, sometimes of my money, sometimes simply of my energy.

Surely, a simple test of whether I am loving is this: do I feel the sacrifice?
Is my generosity to the poor such that affects the way I live because I have less money for myself?
Is my willingness to let others interrupt me such that it shows I think of others before myself?
Now, it is true, that we all have many responsibilities, and a need in front of me now might not be as important as a need further away –if you helped an old lady cross the street that’s a good thing. But it’s not a good thing if you should have been feeding your starving child at the time. i.e. I’m not saying that we must always allow ourselves to be interrupted.

But, my WILLINGNESS to be interrupted is a pretty good test of my love. And my feeling, or not feeling, the sacrifice involved is a pretty clear sign too. If I don’t feel the pain then I’m probably not sacrificing, I’m probably not loving.
To come back to my opening query: the Good Samaritan was going somewhere else when he stopped to help the man in need. If we would be “a neighbour” we need to have that same spirit in us too.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

No Sermon this week

Sorry but I'm away on holiday this Sunday. Back next Sunday!

Sunday, 30 June 2013

St Peter and St Paul (transferred from 29th June), Shaftesbury

Mt 16:13-19
You often hear people say words to the effect of, "You Catholics are always going around telling people that you're right, that you've got all the answers." Over the years I've noticed that people sometimes say this even if I've been silent for the preceding hour! My preceding sense of 'having all the answers' clearly lingers!
Anyway, today we keep the feast of two saints who had all the answers, who are both very Roman and very Catholic -Catholic in the sense of 'universal', and I want to say a word about how and why these two things go together.

Both St Peter and St Paul died in Rome, died a martyr's death. St Peter had been Bishop of Rome before being executed. St Paul came to be there in a more circuitous manner: he had gone out, to almost the whole known world, spreading the Gospel to the gentile nations. He had gone out as one who thought he 'had all the answers', it made him followers among some, and enemies among others, and eventually he was imprisoned, taken to Rome, and beheaded. He had gone out to the whole world, with a 'universal' or 'Catholic' (in the true sense of the word) sense of mission –BECAUSE he had the answers. But if he had the answer, what question was he answering?

The question St Paul knew the answer to, that gave him ALL the answers, is the question we just heard St Peter answer in that Gospel text. The question of WHO Jesus is. The Lord Jesus had been travelling through the land, He'd taken upon Himself the Old Testament Messianic title of 'the Son of Man' (as I've preached about before here and a little here), working miracles, preaching “with authority” (Mk 1:21), claiming to do what only God could do (forgive sins(e.g. Lk 5:24), alter the Law of Moses(e.g. Mk 10:2-9), judge the nations(Mt 25:31)), and people naturally puzzled over who He was. The answer, as we heard, is that He is "The Son of the Living God"(Mt 16:16), the only Son, the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father, God from God, light from light etc.

If the answer had been, "You're a great man, a wonderful teacher", well, that might have been nice, but we wouldn't be here today, and St Paul wouldn't have gone out to all the nations to tell of Him. But, in fact, He is the One who makes sense of ALL things, the One "through whom all things were made"(Jn 1:3), and therefore the One with all the answers, who gives US all the answers in as much as we truly know Him.

Today we live in what many people experience as a confusing world, with confusion about whether there is a meaning to life, whether life comes from somewhere and is going somewhere, whether there is a 'right' and 'wrong' way to live. But, if we know the Lord Jesus, we should not have such confusion ourselves.

Who, today, gives us those answers? The successor of St Peter, the Pope in Rome. St Peter himself didn't know that answer OF himself, as Jesus said, it was "given him by my Father in heaven"(Mt 16:17). And still today, the infallibility that resides in the Papacy, that protects what the Pope teaches us so that it is 'free from error', that gift to him is 'given by my Father in heaven'. It is because of this that the Pope can, and must, give the world the answers it needs today. So, it is because the universal Church is Roman in its centre, Roman in its connection to the truth, that the Church possesses that truth that sends her out to all the world, send us out. Being Roman and being Catholic thus stand together. And all those answers we are sent with are encapsulated in knowing the answer to that central question, "but you, who do you say I am?"(Mt 16:15)

On this feast of St Peter and St Paul, let us rejoice in them being Roman, rejoice in them being universal and Catholic, rejoice in the reason they went out to all the world, rejoice in the reason they knew all the answers: because they knew Christ, "the Son of the Living God"(Mt 16:16).

Sunday, 23 June 2013

12th Sunday in ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Zech 12:10-11.13:12; Ps 62; Lk 9:18-24
We all, I am sure, have different texts in the Scriptures that strike us every time we hear them. The first reading we heard today has one such verse for me:
"They shall look upon the one whom they have pierced"(Zechariah 10:10)
This is a text, as we heard, from the Old Testament. And it has, for the Christian, an obvious sense of being a prophecy of Christ.
Who is the one who was pierced? Christ, on the cross, with a lance that pierced His side.
And who were the ones who pierced Him? Literally, it was the Roman centurion. But mystically, it was each one of us -we pierced Him with our sins.
And every time I come to pray, every time I gaze upon a crucifix, I "look upon the One whom I have pierced". And when I hear those words it always makes me still inside.

The text is from the prophet Zechariah, and it is an obscure text in terms of what it must have meant in its original context. It refers to a prophet who is an shepherd of a flock doomed to slaughter (Zech 11:4), an unhappy shepherd who is betrayed for thirty pieces silver (11:12-13), who is maltreated and left with marks on his body, "These wounds I received in the house of my friends" (13:6) -another prophecy.

But, even more obscurely, the text goes on with a happy prophecy, that a “fountain” will open that will wash away the sins of the people(13:1). When we apply this, as the Gospel does (Jn 19:37), as a prophecy of Christ, the fountain that gushes forth is from the wound in the side of Christ. And it is a glad thing. It is from that fountain of love that gushes forth our salvation.

Our psalm today (Ps 62) adds another hermeneutical twist to interpret this. It speaks of our thirst for God, and of that thirst being satisfied.
I mentioned a couple weeks ago that we are, in June, in the month of the Sacred Heart, and devotion to the Sacred Heart has often focused on the fountain that gushes forth from His wounded Heart. The prophecy of Isaiah is often quoted in this regard, "With Joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3), and in fact the 1956 encyclical of Pope Pius XII on the Sacred Heart started with these very words, and proceeded to marvel at all the graces that have poured forth from people’s devotion to that Heart.
Then our Gospel text recalls the prophecy of the Lord Jesus that He would suffer and die and that anyone who would be His disciple must also, daily, take up His cross.

Let me simply draw these three strands together in thinking of His Heart:
Centuries of devotion to the Sacred Heart have indeed, as Pius XII noted, drawn forth countless graces for the Faithful. But these graces, from the wellspring of salvation, only pour into us, into in our hearts when we responds to His.
I do, indeed, as a physical fact, often “gaze upon the one whom I have pierced”.
But I do not always do so spiritually, I do not always look upon Him in a way that loves in return for love. The sight of the One whom I have pierced can leave me unmoved.
Or, as I do in my better moments, I can see the one I have pierced and realise WHO has pierced Him, that I have priced Him. I might then, "Mourn for Him, as for an only Son"(Zechariah 12:10), and "weep bitterly" (Ibid).
There are different sorts of weeping, and the weeping that responds to His wounds is a weeping of both sorrow and joy. Sorrow for my sins that have done this to Him. But joy in realising the love He has had, and still has, for me.
And, finally, that should move me to action, move me, in particular, to take my MY cross in a renewed way. To carry it with Him who carries it with me, who, in fact, first and foremost carries it for me. And to offer it to Him in reparation for my sins.

"These wounds I received in the house of my friends" (13:6)
"They shall look upon the one whom they have pierced"(Zechariah 10:10)
They shall "Mourn for Him, as for an only Son"(Zechariah 12:10), and "weep bitterly" (Ibid).
But, that Heart was pierced for me, it flows for me,
and, "With Joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3)

Sunday, 16 June 2013

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 7:36-8:3
We just heard one of the most memorable accounts in the Gospels, one that has inspired many works of art.
The woman in the text is not named here, she is simply described as "a woman with a bad reputation in the town". Tradition identifies her as Mary Magdalene, a woman of loose living, who ‘knew’ many men, who had "loved much" to use what was quite possibly a deliberate play on words by our Lord.
But by the time we see her here in this Gospel text she has changed. She still has a "bad reputation", for such things change slowly. But her behaviour towards our Lord is not that of a loose woman, but of a woman who has come to love a man in a very different sense. And, this man is of course not just a man, He is the Lord God. She covered His feet with kisses and tears, wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment.

This behaviour by the woman was seen as odd by the people present.
The Lord responded to their comments by pointing out not so much her behaviour as what motivated it, namely, her love. More specifically, He indicated what had led her to love Him: the fact that He had forgiven her sins, "her many sins".
She loved much because she delighted in the fact that she had been forgiven much. To know that you are forgiven is a very special way of knowing that you are loved, and such a knowledge of being loved is a POWERFUL motive for us to love in return. To love with such passion and exuberance that we don't care if we make fools of ourselves in front of others -as this woman might have been said to have done.

What of ourselves? If no one here is loving in the manner that the woman loved, what does that say of us?
It might say that we are just English, and that we keep our emotions tightly bottled up --heaven forbid that we should commit a social faux pas like that of this wild woman!
It might, however, say something more problematic. Maybe we have let our love for the good Lord grow cold. Maybe we have forgotten what He has forgiven in us. Maybe we have come to take Him for granted, and thus no longer love Him the way we once did.
Perhaps the most worrying possibility, however, is that our emotions are unmoved because we are like the man we just heard Jesus condemn, the Pharisee Simon: we love little because we have little realisation that we have been forgiven ourselves. Maybe it is not so much that our love has grown cold as that it never really reached much of a fervour to begin with.

Either way, this woman before us in this text should motivate us to want to fire up that love within ourselves. How do we do this? By looking at two things: (1) The Lord, and (2) Ourselves. We need to look at the Lord anew as the loving Lord who welcomes the sinner, who wants to welcome me, who wants to welcome you. And we need to look at ourselves anew too, to see our sins with an honesty that we haven't seen them with before. And to do that we need to be convinced that the good God loves us. It is only when know that God loves the sinner that we can have the strength to admit our sins. It is only when we know that He is strong that we can be comfortable admitting that we are week.

What this woman shows us, what the Lord's behaviour to her shows us, is one of many examples in the Gospels that demonstrate His love for the sinner, His love for all who turn to Him in humility.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 7:11-17; 1 Kgs 17:17-24
I want to say a few words today about what God looks like, about His Sacred Heart.
We, as Christians, claim to know what God is like, claim to know Him and not just have an opinion about Him. This, of course, is not considered to be an acceptable position in our post-modern culture. In post-modern thinking there is no single ‘truth’, only many different opinions that grasps partial truths, and many different opinions about what god is like. Such a view, however, is not compatible with acknowledging Who Christ claimed to be. He claimed to be God, and He demonstrated the reasonableness of His claim by the profundity of His teaching, the goodness of His life, and His miracles –chief among them being His rising from the dead.
The point I wish to make that follows about this is simple: We know what God ‘looks’ like because we see it in Christ, see it in His Sacred Heart. And the Church kept the Feast of the Sacred Heart this Friday, and the month of June that we’re now in is always the month of the Sacred Heart.

Jesus shows us what God ‘looks’ like. Let us look very simply at today’s Gospel text. How did Jesus act? How, to be more precise, how did He show Himself to FEEL in His passions?
He saw a widow, mourning “the only son of his mother”(Lk 7:12). And, “He felt sorry for her”(Lk 7:13).
Note, He didn’t feel annoyance at yet another problem brought before Him, He didn’t say, “all these people are going to worry me to death”.
Rather, “He felt sorry for her”. This shows us His heart, the heart of God. And so we truly know God.

The doctrine concerning the Sacred Heart is very profound. In concerns the Incarnation, the union of the human and the Divine in the one person of Christ.
In what sense can we say God has a “heart”?
Physically, God had no heart –He is pure spirit in His divinity. So, in the Old Testament the Scriptures can only refer to His ‘emotions’ in a metaphorical sense, symbolically. Literally speaking, He “felt” nothing for us because feelings and passions are part of what constitute our BODILY nature –and He had no body. And it might well have been wondered, in the Old Testament, what God’s passion would ‘look’ like if He had any.
All that changed in the Incarnation. When the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took a human nature He took with it a human heart, with the ability to experience and manifest human feelings and passions.

The point, however, is this: the feelings and passions in Jesus are those of God Himself, not feelings and passions belonging to someone other than God. Jesus is ONE person with TWO natures –one divine person, Jesus, with both a divine nature and a human nature. And the passions IN that human nature belong to that ONE divine person; show us what the divinity is like. We can note this: the one person of Christ could thus do things only God can do. His miracle of raising the dead that we heard today was thus worked differently from the raising worked through Elijah. Elijah had to pray to God, three times. Jesus, in contrast, just commanded, “get up”, and His divine power, His OWN divine power, worked the rising.

The ONE divine power was at operation in Him, in Jesus. There are not three rival powers in the Trinity but “one and the same operation”(Catechism n.258). And, when this operation is at work, as it is continually at work, it “makes known both what is proper to the divine persons and their one divine nature”(Catechism n.259) . So, when Jesus ACTS He makes the divinity known to us. And when Jesus FEELS He makes the divinity known to us. Because, as a result of the Incarnation, there is now a divine heart, showing forth the divinity in human form.

So, what does God ‘look’ like? He has shown us in the Heart of Jesus. As the vision to St Mary Margaret put it some centuries ago, inspiring so many of the statues of the Sacred Heart like that in our own Church here: God ‘looks’ like love, “behold this heart which has so loved men”.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Consecration of the Parish to Our Lady, on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, Shaftesbury

Today, I'm going to consecrate the parish to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I'm doing this now for a number of reasons: first, because it’s May, which is her month; second, because it’s something I should have already done during my 6 years here (even though I'm sure other parish priests have done this before me, it should be done and re-done, renewed); but, third, most directly, I'm doing this in union with Pope Francis who many of you will have read recently consecrated his papacy and re-consecrated the Church to Our Lady in the month of May -on the recent feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
I’m sure we all recall the image of him, the very first day of his papacy, directly going to the Church of St Mary Major to lay flowers at her shrine.

But what is a Marian consecration? How does it benefit us? and, how might it relate to today's feast of the Trinity?

A consecration is when something is dedicated to something. In a Marian consecration we dedicate ourselves to her. We offer her our lives, and all that is part of them: our hopes and fears, joys and sufferings, our good deeds, the crosses we carry –everything, we consecrate it all to her. The practice of doing this, of giving ourselves to Our Lady, is both ancient and new.
It’s new because it regained a new impetus after the call for this in the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917, and the fact that Pope Francis had his consecration made for him in Fatima on that feast day is a reminder of that. We might also think of the motto of Pope John Paul II, “Totus Tuus” (‘All Yours’) –which meant “All Mary’s”.
But it’s also ancient. The phrase of John Paul II was a quote from a Saint Louis Marie de Montfort who is particularly known for the articulation of the meaning of consecrations and Marian consecrations. And we’ll be using a text adapted from him in a few minutes in our consecration.

The consecration prayer of St Louis de Montfort refers us back to an original consecration, the consecration that was made of us in our baptism. In that consecration God consecrated us to Himself. In that consecration, by the action of the Holy Spirit, we were conformed to the image of the Son, and became adopted children of the Father. When we, ourselves, make a prayer of consecration what this does is re-new and deepen that original consecration, it expresses our choice and desire to live out that consecration.

But who is the one who can best help us be consecrated to God? Surely, the one who was herself most perfectly consecrated to God, namely, Our Lady. On today’s feast of the Trinity we might recall how she was chosen before all time to be the Immaculate Mother of the Divine Son; made so by the power of the Holy Spirit whose spouse she was; and we can recall how all this made her the most perfect daughter of the Eternal Father. She was chosen and consecrated in this role not just for her sake, or for God’s sake alone, but for OUR sake, that God might enter our world through her, that we might become united to Him through the union of the human and Divine that occurred within her consecrated womb.

She is the one who was given to us as OUR mother too, “behold your mother”, said Jesus as He hung on the Cross for us, and saw His loving mother there at His feet. And now, she is the loving and powerful mother who looks out for us from heaven. And when we give ourselves into her hands we give ourselves into the hands of one who loves us more than we love ourselves; one who, as the Mother of Divine Wisdom, knows best what to do with what we offer her –our deeds, our prayers, our merits; one who will most effectively direct all things to the One Triune God to whom she herself was so beautifully consecrated.
So, who helps us grow in our consecration to God, well, as Pope Francis put it this month when he was recently leading the Rosary, “Our Lady is the mother who helps Christians grow

So, in a few moments, in the conclusion of the bidding prayers, I will pray as your parish priest, consecrating the parish to her, that she will be our mother and lead us to God. And at the conclusion of that prayer I’ll invite you to join in the consecration words: renewing your baptismal consecration, making it your own, all through the hands of the one who was consecrated to God for our sake.

Consecration of our Parish
of the Most Holy Name and St Edward, King and Martyr, Shaftesbury 25th-26th May 2013
To the Immaculate Heart of Mary
in union of Pope Francis (on 13th May 2013)

The first part of said by the parish priest, the second by the whole congregation
Priest, kneeling before the Lady Altar:
O Immaculate Heart of Mary,
Queen of Heaven and Earth,
and our tender Mother,
in accordance with your ardent wish made known at Fatima,
and in union with Pope Francis’s consecration to you
of himself, his papacy, and the Church,
I consecrate to your Immaculate Heart:
and this parish entrusted to my care,
I consecrate and commit to you all the members of this parish,
beginning with the weakest:
the unborn, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly.
I commit to you our families, our children, our young people,
the single and the widowed.
I pray especially for dysfunctional, hurt and broken families,
for those seeking meaning in life but failing to find it;
for the unemployed, the lonely and the desperate.
I pray for those who are away from the parish,
and are distant from the Church.
Holy Mother, by your powerful intercession,
obtain for us all the graces we need,
And call down the Holy Spirit, your spouse,
to heal and sustain us,
To lead and conform us to the image of Christ your Son.

Please join me in saying together:

We, the parishioners of St Edward’s,
renew and ratify today in your hands,
O Immaculate Mother,
the vows of our Baptism.
We renounce forever Satan,
all his works,
and all his empty promises.
We give ourselves entirely to Jesus Christ,
to be more faithful to Him
than we have ever been before.
In the presence of all the heavenly hosts
we choose you this day,
for our Mother.
We deliver and consecrate to you,
our bodies and souls,
our goods, both interior and exterior,
and even the value of all our good actions,
past, present and future;
that you will dispose of them as you know best,
for the greater glory of God,
in time and in eternity.

Adapted from St. Louis De Montfort's Consecration