Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Sermon: Conversion of St Paul

There is one simple point I wish to focus on today: the PRIMACY of God’s action in our lives.


Today is the feast of the conversion of St Paul.

When we speak of  ‘conversion’ we speak, usually, of someone who changed their mind:

“He’s a convert” -usually means: he used to not be a Catholic

Now, he is a Catholic,

AND, If you ask him, he’ll tell you what intellectual conviction led him to the Catholic Church.

The problem with that narrative is:

That God doesn’t fit into the conversion account

-this description is about the man changing himself, changing his MIND

-this description isn’t about GOD changing him.

Perhaps most worryingly, 

not just about “the convert” but about “the seminarian”

-this description is one that lends itself to PRIDE

I have MADE myself into this GREAT man you see before you

I, the perfect seminarian.

I, the perfect formator.


Saint Paul was not a self-made man.

In contrast, we might say: SAUL was a self-made man.

But God took that “Saul” guy and knocked him off his horse, both literally and symbolically

God took him, and by His mighty providential planning,

By His mighty works of miracles -the voice, the blinding, the healing,

By His mighty grace -worked an inner transformation that made a NEW man:

Saul no longer, but Saint Paul.





I read a meme this week, quoting Fr Garrigou-Lagrange, who was probably the greatest theologian of the 20thcentury.

It said:

There are two doctrines that preserve us from pride:

One, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo

-If I have been created out of nothing, what pride can I take in myself!?!

Two, the doctrine of the primacy of God’s grace

-Even my ability to RESPOND to His grace is itself a work of grace within in.

We might note, not on that particular meme, but in St Thomas:

Concerning freedom, 

(for those of you who get concerning pondering this)

When God works in us by His grace

He moves us such that we become MORE free because of His action

Not less free

In a crude analogy:

When a father lifts a child so the child can reach something,

The father increases the child’s freedom, he doesn’t diminish it.

-even more so with God’s grace in us.



Back to Saul.

Saul, as we know, was what the early Christians would have seen as a boogy-man:

A man to frighten little children by telling tales of him.

Determined, organised, out to get them.

Travelling city to city, getting the proper documentation and authorisation to hunt and destroy them.

Saul was a very UNLIKELY CHOICE for an apostle.

But if God can make something out of nothing,

He can, even more easily, make an apostle out of a persecutor and sinner.





Now, where does this leave us?

I have many things in my life that don’t seem to change

Or, that seem to change only very slowly.

As long as I think my change is about ME,

Then my failure to change is a cause to despair.


If my change, my conversion, is about HIM,

Then the whole problem looks different.

GOD is in charge,

GOD knows what He is doing.

If He can make an apostle out of Saul

Then He can make a saint out you and me.

He orders all things mightily,

As St Paul would later put it,

All things work to the good, for those who love the Lord,

For all He has called according to His purpose, called to be saints. (Rom 8:28)

He can take my being one who “loves the Lord” 

Even if I only live Him weakly,

He can take that, build on that, and work all things to the good. 



One of my favourite booksthe Spiritual Combat, by Don Lawrence Scupoli,

Expounds at length about how, even in His permitting my specific sins and falls:

He works to help me grow in humility,

Helps me grow in awareness that I need to place my confidence IN HIM.

Even in my failings,

“All things work to the good, for those who love the Lord”.

Why did God strike Saul from his horse?

Why did He blind him?

Because He had a plan for him, 

Because He loved him.

And it has been the same in my life, and yours,

He allows your sin,

To lead you humility

To lead you to more

He sometimes slaps us around a bit,

Because He has a plan for us

Because He loves us


To conclude,

Today we celebrate a conversion;

Today we celebrate the working of God’s grace;

God’s grace converted Saul, 

It was not Saul who converted Saul.

Let us rejoice to think: He can even convert us.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Sermon: He knows our weakness, Monday Ordinary time week 2, Year I

Heb 5:1-10

The law of the Church, in multiple places but most immediately in the General Instruction at the front of the Roman Missal, says there’s always to be a crucifix on clear display by the altar,

An image of “Christ crucified” (n.308) that is “clearly visible to the assembled congregation” (c.f. GIRM 117, 122, 306).


Because the sacrifice on the altar is the sacrifice on the cross.

Devotionally, however,

the crucifix in a church means much more than, dare I say, “just” its relationship to the altar, 

and our first reading from Hebrews gets to the heart of it in speaking about how the Son “knows human weakness”.


The last four years, before I came here,

 I was stationed in a church that didn’t have a crucifix, 

with a congregation that had lived its entire existence never knowing a crucifix.  

I can remember having a public meeting explaining plans to install a crucifix, 

I can remember things the people said.

One said, “I don’t want a dead man hanging there”.

Another sad, “When you see him like that, it just makes you sad”.

Such words are words I’m afraid, that aren’t seeing with faith.

And, it is with faith in what the crucifix portrays

that we revolutionise how we think God interacts with us and with the world.


Is He a distant God?

Is a disconnected God?

On the Cross, as Hebrews tells us, 

we see the Son, sharing our weakness.

God is close

God is among us

In the everything when it FEELS like He is absent, 

the Cross shows us that He is not.


Do you feel lonely and isolated and fed up with the isolation of quarantine?

He knew loneliness and isolation in His last night in earth when they locked Him in a cell.

Do you feel tired and fed up?

He knew tiredness, 

Whatever you feel of human weakness: 

He knew mourning, He knew “silent tears”, He knew and knows it all…


All this tell us about God.  

And it is a revolution.

And, sadly, there is a comfortable middle class false God that tries to hide from suffering, that does not like like cross,



But, the Cross, and the letter to the Hebrews,

 it also tells us about the priesthood,

 and about your vocation to the priesthood.

Pope Francis speaks about “accompaniment”, 

that the priest is to accompany his people, 

that the priest is to smell of the sheep.


You are weak and human

and your future parishioners need to know that you FEEL weakness WITH them.

You sin, and go to confession,

and your future parishioners need to know that you FEEL this WITH them.



To conclude, 

All Christians need to see themselves on the Cross.

Need to learn to take up their own cross WITH Him

Need to learn to hang there with Him.

A priest,

a seminarian,

Needs to learn a devotion to the crucifix that sees himself there.

So that he can learn, even more,

“to sympathise with those… in weakness”.


Sunday, 17 January 2021

Sermon: Stay with Him, 2nd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B

Jn 1:35-42; 1 Sam 3:3-10,19

I want to return to one of my favourite themes:

what it was like, as an EXPERIENCE for the apostles to meet the Lord.

That first encounter;

The Baptist had said, “Behold!”

And WHAT did they behold?

when God, the infinite, the Almighty,

-when He took flesh and was THERE before them?

That first seeing Him

 -what did He look like? how did His body move?


Pope Francis makes an observation about the text we heard in the Gospel, about that description of the first encounter between the Lord and what was presumably the disciple John:

Saint John wrote that text many YEARS later, possibly many decades later,

Yet, he still remembered the precious moment, the exact time, he first met Him:

“The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: ‘It was about the tenth hour [four o’clock in the afternoon]’ (Jn 1:39).”(Evangelii gaudium n.13)

And, what did they do?

“They stayed with Him the rest of that day” (Jn 1:39).


You and I are here today because we also have encountered the Lord.

We have encountered Him in many different ways:

Childhood catechesis,

My First Holy Communion,


Most of us, also, have had moments when we could specify something tangible:

When I was in THAT church, in THAT year of life, after THAT problem/blessing/event

-but the Lord does not have ONE path He calls by, 

and our experiences are manifold


What is common to us all, is that we have met and been called by the Lord.

Maybe by a voice that was clear, like Samuel in our first reading;

Maybe by a silent breeze, like Elijah.

But, regardless,

We are here because we were called.

And even if you don’t yet know if you’re called to be a priest, you know that HERE in this place,

You are called to “They stayed with Him that day” (Jn 1:39).



Seminary, as know, can have its trials.

But, even speaking as someone who went to a very bad seminary,

Seminary is place of unique blessing, 

Because, it is a place to “stay with Him”.




Most of us, I’m sure, are returning from a nice rest and break.

But many of us, I know, found it hard to PRAY while we were away,

Found it hard to “stay with Him” while we were away.

The laity are also called to be with Him,

But we are uniquely fortunately to have way of life STRUCTURED around making that possible.

So, how are we going to USE that opportunity this semester?


This semester is going to be rush.          

Less than 11 weeks of being physically resident.

No mid-term rest.

Still restricted in our movements off-campus.

But whatever else this semester is going to be, 

We need to make it time to “stay with Him”.

The apostles stayed with Him 3 years non-stop before He sent them off.



Returning to our Gospel text:

What did John and Andrew DO when they “stayed with Him that day’?

Presumably, some of the things we need to do:

They listened, 

as we need to listen to hear HIS voice through our lectures and talks and reading these months.

They looked, 

as we need to be ATTENTIVE to have Him communicate to us, amidst events, amidst people.

And, most simply, 

they were PHYSICALLY there, 

as we need to be with Him in prayer, with Him here in the chapel.

And, today, in class, in prayer, 

the Gospel texts especially need to be what we are reading, 

where we are seeking to find Him.


To conclude.

“Jesus looked hard” at Peter

And He has looked hard at you.

He chose Peter,

And He has chosen you.

He found Peter worthy, worthy to be given a chance to become something more,

And, somehow, He’s found you worthy too.


This is our first Sunday together,

We could do worse than take this image for our semester: 

To “Stay with Him that day”