Sunday, 29 April 2018

Pruning, 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B

Jn 15:1-8
I’m not much of gardener, I like plants to look nice, I like it when spring comes and the flowers are in bloom.  But I don’t I don’t know what plants need to make them grow well.
There is one thing I do know, however, and that is that a good gardener PRUNES his bushes –he cuts away the wood.  I don’t know WHEN to prune, I had to check that in Google for my sermon preparation: 
apparently most things get pruned in late winter, 
some things like climbing roses get pruned in Autumn, 
and some things like Raspberries in very early spring                        –I didn’t know that.

Fortunately, there are gardeners who do what they are doing.
And, in our Gospel today, Jesus tells us that THE Gardener is the Lord Himself, and He knows what to cut and when to cut it.
Pruning is rather violent image to associate with God, 
an image that suggests that He directs not only the easy things in life, like the flowers coming up, 
but also the tough things in life, the blows in life that we never enjoying receiving.  

We can never fully grasp the ways of the Lord, but the image of the Gardener can help:
Why does a gardener prune?  Because he hates his plants and wants to cut them up?
No, because he loves and cares for them, and wants them to become something better than they presently are.
Because he knows what is good for them

The Divine Creator, Scripture tells us, did not create suffering.  
Scripture gives us the image of the Garden of Eden, but it tells us a truth that is not just a symbol: 
Suffering only entered this world with sin, and radically disrupted the harmony of this world so that we can barely imagine what life was like without suffering.  
But even though He didn’t create it, He now directs it, to bring all things to the good, 
to the Good which is He Himself.

Now, this is something to recall in every difficulty.  
Because we never WANT to be pruned.  
I want this dead wood in my life; and I certainly don’t want the pain that comes with it being cut away.
I know that there are many pointless things I am attached to, that aren’t good for me;
And I know that there are many GOOD things I’m attached to, 
but attached to in a selfish way that is bad for me and bad for the people I’m attached to;
So, I know I need to be pruned, but I don’t enjoy the pruning.  
But I do need it.  
And because the Lord, the Divine Gardener knows it, He prunes me.

Before concluding, let me point out why we have this Gospel today, in Eastertide.  
Easter if the time of new growth, of Resurrection; of the resurrection that could only happen because of the Death that preceded it.
And the new growth that I need in my life can only come by the thousand little deaths that pruning involves.  

So, when we feel one of those thousand little deaths, let us not only remember that the Lord is with us our suffering, let us remember too what He taught us in this passage: He is the Gardener, He knows what He is about, and every bit of pruning can be for our good, CAN be if we allow it to draw us to Him:
“a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself... cut off from me you can do nothing”
But “Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty”.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Vocations and the Parish, 4th Sunday of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Why? 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Divine Mercy Sunday, 2nd Sunday of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Proof, Easter Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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