Sunday, 31 May 2020

Our Lady and the Holy Spirit, Pentecost in May

This is one of my last sermons in West Moors, my last May-time sermon here and my last Pentecost-sermon here, so I want to return to a favourite topic of mine: the relationship between Our Lady and the Holy Spirit
-but I’m going to say some different things about that than you’ve heard me say before.
Our Lady, as you know, has as one of her titles, the ‘Spouse of the Holy Spirit’, and she shows us how to live in relationship with the Holy Spirit.

To many people, the Holy Spirit can seem a little remote and odd, pictured as DOVE not as a person.
But, though He’s difficult to picture, He is easy to recognise in his EFFECTS:
Scripture tells us of 12 FRUITS the Holy Spirit produces in those who allow Him to enter their hearts. Among these are peace, joy, patience, and love/charity (Gal 5:22, also: self-control, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, modesty, chastity cf CCC 1832).

But, maybe, even those things can seem a little vague and abstract.
So, let’s turn to Our Lady, because in her we see these things in their perfection:
She had patience and peace –she endured the foot of the Cross.
She had joy –the Magnificat.
She had charity –when she heard she was to be pregnant and that her cousin already was, she didn’t think of her own needs but she went straight to go and care for her cousin Elizabeth.

But these things in the life of Our Lady didn’t spring from nowhere, they sprang from her unique relationship with the Holy Spirit.
At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel said ‘the Holy Spirit will overshadow you’ –and she was filled.
At the Visitation to Elizabeth, the babe in her cousin’s womb leapt ‘filled with the Spirit’ when it sensed Our Lady’s presence (bearing The Child within her).
At the Cross, when, the Spirit was breathed forth by Christ as He died on the Cross, it was there that she was.
[At the Res’n appearances, when the Risen Lord showed His wounds and breathed forth His Holy Spirit again.]
At Pentecost, when the Apostles panicked and were in fear, we read that it was around HER that they gathered waiting for the HS to come.

WE often do not feel the Holy Spirit.
WE often can think He is distant or vague.
We can hear of His peace and His joy and His patience, but these seem far away.
Who can we turn to to find Him? Our Lady.
Two things in her example:
(i) She was docile to the Will of God,
and so the Holy Spirit found room to dwell in her heart.
If we are docile, rather than being filled with ourselves, then Holy Spirit can dwell in us.
(ii) She prayed.
Scripture repeatedly refers to her contemplative nature, ‘she pondered all these things in her heart’.
And it was around her prayer that Pentecost occurred.
So we too must pray if Holy Spirit is to come.

MORE THAN HER EXAMPLE, she is the Mother in heaven that Jesus has assigned to watch over me, and watch over you.
The saints repeatedly teach that whatever she asks of God, God grants. ‘He denies her not.’
Because while she was on earth she was sinless, she denied Him not.
So, she is a powerful Mother to care for me, a care for you.

I want the gifts of the HS.
I want the fruits of the HS to be manifested in my life.
But, by myself, I don’t know how.
He can seem strange to me.
Those gifts were manifested before:
in the life of the sinless Virgin, our Mother.
She can ask for a fresh outpouring of HS into my heart.
She can ask for me to be aided in removing the obstacles to the Holy Spirit in my life.
And, if we turn to her,
if we entrust ourselves to her in this month of May,
then those fruits of the Holy Spirit can be ours too.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Ascension, Year A

There are three truths that we are called to remember on the feast of the Ascension: Christ has gone before us to Heaven; Christ yet remains with us; and, as the liturgy phrases it: “Where He has gone, we hope to follow”.

That Christ has GONE is the most self-evident of these truths: even a person without faith can tell that He is not with us as He was originally with the 12 two thousand years ago.

The fact that He REMAINS with us even though He has gone is, without doubt, a more subtle truth. A truth that can only be known by faith, and by ‘faith’ I don’t mean a vague feeling but I mean that definite response in our will and intellect to what He has told us and promised us. He promised us, as we just heard, “Lo, I am with you always, yes, till the end of time” (Mt 28:20). This He promised, and so this we know must be true –even if it cannot be seen as easily as the visibility of His absence.

We heard in our first reading, from Acts, about His promise to send us His Holy Spirit, and it is by means of that Spirit that He is present in His other ways. But He is present also, at the physical tangible levels we know as Catholics, like the sacraments. That’s why we just heard how Christ sent out His Apostles.
Christ said that He had all authority, and He gave that authority to His Apostles. Why? So that they might take HIM, make HIM, present to all the nations.
That’s why He’d promised to be present by means of His apostles, His Apostles of whom He had said, “He who hears you, hears me”. His Apostles to whom He had given the command to celebrate the Mass, “Do this in memory of me…”, to whom He had given His mercy in saying, “Those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them…”, and, as we just heard, He commanded to go forth and baptise the nations.

When I want to find Christ present today, I can look to His tabernacle.
When I want to find His forgiveness today, I go to a priest in Confession.
Christ IS with us.
And He is with us in a physical, tangible way.
As the Easter hymn sings, “Though we see his face no more, He is with us as before”.

The third and last truth I mentioned, “Where He has gone, we hope to follow”.
This truth is the REASON behind the other truths. He has gone, “to prepare a place for” us. He remains, to lead us there. We cannot get there alone, unaided, we need His presence on the way.

And we cannot even know WHICH way is the way UNLESS He is with us to teach us.
Which is why He commanded His Apostles to teach, why they appointed bishops to teach, and why they all know that it is not their own word they must teach, but HIS. Because otherwise it is not the way to HIM. Because what they must make present is not themselves, but Him. “Teach them to observe all I commanded you”, He said, because that teaching is a pivotal part of how He remains with us on the way.

The commands, the life of virtue, this is HOW we get there.
But WHERE we are going this, too we need to be taught. Until He comes in glory, we can only know of the greatness of the place He has gone by hearing the repetition of the words and teaching of what He spoke of: Heaven is beyond the grasp of our unaided mind, and so we need Him to tell us of it, tell us of the place, “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, what God has ready for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).

On this feast of the Ascension, this is what we recall: He is gone; He remains with us to lead us there; we hope to follow.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Help to Love, 6th Sunday of Easter Year A

Jn 14:15-21
This week I’ve had the growing sensation that I’m faced with a series of things that are too big for me to do,
and yet, they are things that I obviously AM being asked to do, that GOD was therefore asking of me:
figure out how to pack and travel; write not one but 3 completely new courses; and MORE!
Then, when I heard today’s Gospel, I remembered HOW I’m supposed to face them.
Because in today's Gospel we are both asked to do something seemingly beyond us,
and, given the promise that makes it possible.

Today’s Gospel gave us part of the account of the Lord’s ‘last request’, His ‘last will and testament’, so to speak. These are the words He said at the Last Supper:
He was going off to die for love of us.
And what does He ask of us? What is His ‘last request’? He says, 'If you love me, keep my commandments"
And, though we don't have the text today, He sums up His commandments very simply:
"Love one another, as I have loved you".
And then, at that very moment when He asked us to keep His commandments, WITH THIS request, He promised to send the Holy Spirit, "the helper".

So, this is the point I want to make to you today:
God asks great things of us, He asks difficult things of us,
He asks difficult things like commanding us to love,
BUT He never fails to give us the capacity to do them,
and the clearest sign of this is His promise to give us His Holy Spirit.
The command to love is a thing simply said,
but living it out involves many DIFFICULT challenges.
Living love amidst the lockdown has been a real challenge for many of us:
to be patient, amidst the boredom;
to think of others in love, when we can easily think of just ourselves in fear;
to remember to pray for other -to do that GOOD for them, when there is little around me to physically remind me for them.

How we are called to love others is often expressed in small and unexciting details,
but it’s how we behave in such details that shows our love.
I feel I have some BIG challenges coming up,
but it’s how I behave in the LITTLE challenges that determines what I am.
And love is tough.
Can I do it alone? By my own power?
But I can WITH HIM. With HIS power. With the Holy Spirit He Promised to send me.

So, to sum up:
Maybe the tedious, small details of living in the lockdown has seemed too much for you this week.
Or, maybe, the weight of a crisis or problem has seemed too much, and you quake in FEAR about whether you can cope.
Well, Alone, we cannot. But with Him, we can.
And remember: It's His last request. He asks us to love, and to do all the small and big things that are part of that love.
He asks much, but it is possible, because He promises EVEN MORE than He asks. He promises not a thing outside Himself, not something less than God, but His very Spirit.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Leaving, 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A

Jn 14:1-12
There’s an old joke that goes like this:
When a priest announces that he’s leaving the parish, a third of the people cry, a third of the people rejoice, and a third of people don’t even notice the difference!

By now, most of you will have heard yesterday’s announcement that I’m leaving the parish this summer (to be appointed to full time seminary work).
Now, I’m aware that we are living, amidst the coronavirus, in a time of great uncertainty, and that my leaving just adds to that uncertainty,
so, I thought I’ll make my sermon address that uncertainty.
My basic point is this:
If the apostles could survive the LORD JESUS leaving them, then the parish can CERTAINLY survive MY leaving!

In the Gospel we just heard the Lord Jesus announce that He was going, “I am now going…”(Jn 14:2).
And, while they didn’t understand it yet (even though He had predicted it e.g. Mk 8:31), the Lord was not only leaving them but leaving them in a horrible way:
by crucifixion and death.
But, even if He hadn’t been going to depart in such a brutal manner, we might well imagine that they still wouldn’t have wanted Him to go:
they were WITH Him because they liked being with Him;
and they like Him being with them.
They didn’t want change -we can be pretty sure of that.

But if He hadn’t left them,
if they hadn’t endured change,
then He couldn’t have opened the way to the Father, the way to heaven, the way to the place He was preparing for them.

And MY leaving?
I don’t know what lies ahead for you, but I trust God, I trust God FOR YOU.

When I think back on my own life, and think of all the different priests who have ministered to me…
they’ve all been different,
-I haven’t been able to RECEIVE the SAME thing from each one;
but their DIFFERENCES have also been a gift to me,
-they have each helped me in different ways, BECAUSE they were different.
We need to TRUST God that He will help us, in different ways.

We just heard the Lord Jesus addressing His troubled disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled”(Jn 14:1).
He told them to “trust in God”(Jn 14:1).
What does God have in store for this community, and for the individuals within this community?
I don’t know.
But He has shown that He is a good God.
And I am confident that WHATEVER lies ahead, He will find MANY different ways to shepherd the sheep of this flock.

He doesn’t always lead us in EASY ways.
He doesn’t always lead us in the way we want.
But He DOES always lead us.
And even with the uncertainty of my going, He will lead YOU still.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Fr Dylan James is Leaving

Dear Parishioners,

I write to you with some significant news, news that I realise comes amidst a time of great uncertainty.  The news is this: I will be leaving the parish this summer to take up a full-time seminary post.  I make this announcement to you now, some months before I go, so that key parish workers can understand why I’m organising various things even amidst the COVID19 situation.

When I was appointed here, four years ago, I expected to be here much longer, and like every new parish priest I hoped to have a period of time to build up certain initiatives in the parish.  While I hope the parish has benefitted from what I have offered you, I realise that I am leaving with a sense of a work still in progress.  I’m sad to feel that I've not been able to achieve more for you and with you.  I hope, nonetheless, that I’ve offered you something that has helped parishioners individually and helped the community of the parish as a whole.  Any priest knows that his time in a parish is transitory, knows that he serves at the will of the Bishop, and that parish work is only one of the ways we can be called upon to serve.

What has interrupted my appointment in West Moors?  
The papal nuncio has asked our Bishop to appoint me to the Josephinum Seminary (see here and here) in the USA.  The Josephinum is a 'pontifical seminary', meaning that it is established not by an individual bishop for an individual diocese or country, but directly under the pope.  It thus recruits priests widely.  It’s the only pontifical seminary outside of Italy.  As our Bishop pointed out to me, there is no Catholic institution of this size or status in the UK to compare it to.  
For me personally, this means I will be working for 6 years in a region of the USA where I have family (my Mom is from Illinois and I’m an American citizen).  The new seminary rector and two members of the board of governors at the Josephinum knew me from when I studied in Rome.  

I leave West Moors grateful to a great many of you for many things.  For me personally, one of the sadnesses of the current situation is that it seems likely that I won’t be able to see you personally to express my thanks to you.  While we don’t know what the months ahead hold, it seems quite possible that I will leave the parish before public Mass has resumed.  This will make the transition between me and my successor difficult for both the parish and for my successor.  While I haven’t yet been told who my successor will be, I ask you to pray for him as he prepares to come here.  I will be praying for you, as individuals and as a parish community.  I had expected to plan a proper farewell, but COVID19 will sadly prevent that.  The lockdown context is an especially hard way to go. 

As more details become clear (my successor, the date of my departure, etc) I’ll let you know.

Please let others know.  I am emailing 130 parishioners, and will announce this via YouTube at Mass, but I regret that due to the lockdown there will be many I won't be able to tell directly.

May God bless you all,
Fr Dylan James
10th May 2020

New Josephinum Professor: Fr Dylan James

I've just been appointed to the Josephinum Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.  I'll be a professor of moral theology and a formator, arriving in July.  I'll be teaching UTHE 105 (Life in Christ), MO701 (Sexual Morality) and MO702 (Medical Moral).

Two of my great passions in priestly life are teaching and working with youth & young adults, and part of what I've loved about parish life is that involves me in both of these, with a variety of much more. I hope seminary work will bring these together while taking them in a new direction.

I'm an American citizen via my Mom (from Waukegan, Illinois) and British via my Dad (from Cardigan, Wales).  I was raised in Devon, England but we spent all our summers in the USA and I greatly treasure my American roots.  My new home in Columbus is 16 minutes from the frozen custard in Culver's, and 11 minutes from my favourite chilli in Wendy's (which was founded in Columbus).

The intellectual vision I seek to impart comes from my licentiate at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC -two years which truly transformed me.  St Thomas, and his virtue-based approach to ethics, is my guiding light.  I subsequently got a doctorate in Rome and it was there that I got to know the new Josephinum Rector, and a couple others now on the Josephinum board.

I'm a priest of the Diocese of Plymouth, ordained 2nd December 1998.   I've spent 14 years as a pastor (what the British call a 'parish priest') with 13 years of that teaching part-time at Wonersh Seminary, while also giving moral theology formation for the Ordinariate 2014-19.  I've spent the last 4 years in West Moors parish, the previous 9 in Shaftesbury, and shorter periods in Dartmouth, Poole, Exeter, and Barnstaple.

I'm chaplain to 'Beyond the Wild' (see here and here), offering formation in Christian manhood.
Here we are at Mass on one of the residentials:

One of the great privileges of my life was 4 years of being chaplain to the summer training programme of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), 2003-6, back when they were much smaller.  Here are some of us at the March for Life in DC:

I have a degree in Mathematical Physics and since I was 19 I've been an active member of the Faith Movement -a youth movement dedicated to offering a science-based apologetic in our secular world.
Here's a shot of one of our conferences:

Running is my main form of exercise.  Here I am on a 17-mile sponsored run to Salisbury Cathedral, with a member of the parish youth group:

I'm a big fan of mind-mapping lectures.  Most of my lectures start with a single-board summary of the day's topic:

At the parish Blessed Sacrament procession:

With some of the Shaftesbury men's circle, in the pub after the meeting:

With the parish pilgrimage to Glastonbury Abbey:

With the family at Christmas: My parents, sister, brother-in-law, nephews and niece:

With some of the Iowa family, including my Great Uncle Karl who is a priest of Dubuque Archdiocese:

What will I miss most while I'm Ohio?  Other than people, I'll miss the sea.  Here's a beach near my parents' house in Torquay, 'The English Riviera':

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Shepherd of our Souls: 4th Sunday of Easter Year A

Jn 10:1-10; 1 Pet 2:20-25; Ps 22

Today our Easter readings take us in a new direction:
we no longer have direct accounts of the various Resurrection appearances of the Lord, 
but, instead, we have different words that the Lord Jesus said shortly before He died 
-words that we are able to read and understand differently I the light of his Resurrection.
This Sunday, the 4th of Easter, is always ‘Good Shepherd’ when we think of how He shepherds us,
and, we pray across the world today that He might raise up new priests for us to be our shepherds.

I know that many of us have read many things in news reports over the last couple months, 
but, as a priest, I was very struck by a statistic quoted by Pope Francis in his Holy Thursday Mass:
calling them “the saints next door, priests who gave their lives in service.” 
In the UK, our media have reported our doctors and nurses who have died caring for infected
-and, of course, one of the ways, we need to shepherd others is by caring for the body, for physical health.
The non-British media have perhaps paid more attention to those who have died caring for the infected, IN ORDER to care for their SOULS.
Beyond those 60, many other priests have died simply because they were already frail, or old, had health conditions
but, as of that date [3 weeks ago], at least 60 had died in Italy BECAUSE they were administering the SACRAMENTS to the dying.

The Lord Jesus calls Himself, “The Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11).
God cares for us in many ways, including the body,
He tells us that if He clothes the lilies of the field with such beauty and glory (Mt 6:25-34) then He will care even more for us.
But our readings this year, Year A, remind us that He is primarily “the shepherd of your SOULS”(1 Pet 2:25).
The beauty of the lily is here today and gone tomorrow.
Youthful human bodily beauty is the same.
The soul, in contrast, lasts forever.
And the Lord Jesus has come to make our souls beautiful.
The Lord Jesus has come, as we just heard, “that they might have life, and have it to the full”(Jn 10:10).

What is a “full” life?
What is a life, to use the image in today’s psalm, with “a cup overflowing”(Ps 22:5)
Well, it’s not a life full of gadgets and worldliness and all the materialistic things the lockdown stops us having.
And even, post-Lent, in Eastertide, “fullness” isn’t about more chocolate and cake.
A full life is a life living with the Lord and in the Lord Jesus.

The good Shepherd “laid down His life for His sheep”(Jn 10:11)
He died, to be the sacrifice that puts right what was wrong with our souls, our sins.
He lives, to be the life that TRULY lives in us, a different kind of life.

He shepherds our souls:
By forgiving our sins;
By teaching us how to live 
-not living for self, but living in love, love for others and love for Him
-not living for possession or gluttony, but, again, living for love;
By guiding us through the events of life
-His providential hand is always at work;
By the strength of his grace
-working within us;
By meeting us in the sacraments
-this is the form of shepherding those priests died to impart.

Christ established 7 sacraments
-7 different ways that He touches us
-7 different ways that He gives our souls what they need.
These 7 moments of the spiritual life parallel the physical life
reborn in Baptism
matured in Confirmation
fed and incorporated in Holy Communion 
directed for our state of life: be it in marriage or priesthood
healed of our sins in confession
and, lastly, when the ultimate wound of death comes calling,
there is a final anointing sacrament of healing 
to carry is across that last wound
That, He who called Himself “the gate”(Jn 10:9)
might leads us through to “restful waters” & “green pastures”(Ps 22:2)

Those 60 priests died shepherding others to that home.
I, and the other priests around here, have all been recently trained in the local hospitals with PPE equipment to be ready to do the same.
Jesus died to leads us home.
Jesus lives to leads us home.
Let’s remember, today, that this is the ultimate shepherding we need to seek from Him.