FATHER ALF’S HOMILIES
Message from Fr Alf ….My homily starts with a piece I read from a priest in Liverpool on the need for change in the Church, to which I refer in my homily.
Yesterday 11 of us attended the Divine Renovation conference at Salford Cathedral along with 80 others from parishes throughout the country.
The reason Divine Renovation is gaining traction in the Church today is because quite a few of us have the same firm grip on reality that Fr Bill Redmond outlined in the little passage I read. We know we have to change the culture of our parishes, if the Church is to survive and thrive.
The keynote speaker described most parishes today as a cruise liner, with lots of activities and a comfortable atmosphere, with the passengers enjoying the set menu and all that goes on inside. What he says we should be is an aircraft carrierreturning every week from a mission, refuelling here at Mass and then going out again on mission.
He quoted the famous words of Our Lord when he sent the apostles out on Mission “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and make them observe all the commands I gave you”. The two most important words in that passage are “make disciples”. If you take them out that’s where most parishes are now. We are baptising and confirming without making disciples. Every week I put baptism anniversaries on the bulletin so that we pray for them, because we promised we’d do that when we accepted those children into our Faith Community. But where are all those children and the parents who made their promises to bring their child up in the Faith? We failed to make them disciples.
So, what is a disciple, and how would you recognise one? Our speaker gave us seven indicators of what makes a disciple: Habitual worship, growth, service, giving, sharing their faith, living virtuously and building community. Of the seven, most parishes admitted that here are three they don’t do very well, if at all: they don’t grow, share their faith or build community.
This led to an example he gave of a conference in the Lake District last week, in which he asked to be introduced to the newest parishioner and to know how long he’d been in the parish. “15 years” was the answer. The parish was about to celebrate it’s 150th anniversary, so he asked the only teenager present who he thought would be celebrating its 200th with him? A sobering thought. We celebrate our 100th in 3 year’s time. At the current rate, how many of our young people willcelebrate it’s 150th if we don’t start making disciples now?
I could say much, much more as it was a brilliant conference, full of hope and the joy of the Holy Spirit, but the main thrust was that our parish family has to become a “Church for Life”, so that when we baptise, confirm, give first Holy Communion and teach the faith in our Catholic schools, we are doing so toactively make Catholics for life, not just for special occasions, making disciples, as Jesus commanded us to.
The three keys used in Divine Renovation are the primacy of evangelisation, the best of leadership and the power of the Holy Spirit. They are called keys because they are the tools to unlock the parish so that people on the outside can see what’s on the inside, to unlock the many gifts and talents stored away in each one of us to use for the Common Good, and to unlock the door of our hearts to allow the Holy Spirit in, to empower us to make disciples as he did the apostles at Pentecost.
We came away with lots of ideas for the way ahead and are going to meet next week to put them together so that we canshare them with you, and to pray that, hopefully, many of you will want to come on board of, not of a boat that’s sinking but a well-made sturdy craft with Christ at the helm and the Holy Spirit providing the puff to get us to where he wants us to be.
15.05.22 ~ FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
08.05.22 ~ FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2022
~ Good Shepherd Sunday
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF May 8th 2022
My dear people,
It is customary for me to address you on this Fourth Sunday of Eastertide with a Pastoral Letter on the subject of Vocations to the Priesthood and Consecrated Life. Whilst all are called to the same eternal life in Christ, the same heaven, we know that within the Church there are various vocations ordered to the building up of the Body of Christ.
On many occasions Jesus speaks of how His disciples are to live their vocation. The role of shepherding is given to us as an outstanding example of how we are to show leadership and pastoral care. When we reflect on the relationship of the shepherd and the sheep, we are given a deep insight into the heart of Jesus. This is a theme relevant to every age and situation, even though particular circumstances will vary greatly. The key to all vocations is to set our hearts on knowing Christ.
Since its foundation in 1924, the Diocese of Lancaster has been richly blessed with vocations to the Priesthood. Please continue to pray for men to hear and answer generously and courageously the call to the Priesthood. Please continue to pray for men and women to hear and answer the Lord’s call to follow Him joyfully in the Religious and Consecrated life.
We live in a world of bewilderingly rapid change, filled with many voices. There is much that is disturbing and confusing us, not only the war in Ukraine, pandemic, climate, inflation and identity issues. We must make space and time in our lives to step aside and listen carefully, without distractions, to the voice of the Good Shepherd. How reassuring it is to hear Him say of His sheep, ‘I know them and they follow me’. What a comfort it is to hear Him say, ‘They will never be lost, and no one will steal them from me’.
As you are already aware, we have many priests who are retired or approaching retirement age, although they will live their priesthood to the completion of their days. I thank them for their years of faithful service. Faced with fewer active clergy we must make the necessary adjustments in our parishes so that pastoral care is still available. Fewer clergy does not lessen the Church’s presence or effectiveness. What is needed is for our lay Faithful to become more engaged with work in our parishes and schools perhaps previously done by clergy and religious, but not specifically restricted to their vocation. Thus, an important part of the work of priests is to help you to know and carry out your own vocations as Baptised Catholics. You often hold a professionalism and great experience which differs from that of our clergy. I am grateful to my predecessors for the work they have done in various ways to highlight this need and to help bring it about. I have a real concern for my priests as they find themselves continually stretched to meet the pastoral demands of today in all their complexities.
Let us pray for and encourage those men who are already in formation in the seminaries. We also pray for those who have come forward and are actively discerning their vocation. Others have yet to hear that gentle call from our Lord to follow Him as little shepherds, serving with His Heart.
In the autumn we will welcome to the Diocese the relics of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, the little shepherdess of Lourdes. Her own time looking after the family’s sheep at Bartres was a time of intimate formation in the ways of Christ. I encourage all of you to know her story in more detail, and to pray close to her relics when they are with us in Saint Peter’s Cathedral and then in the church of Our Lady and Saint Joseph, Carlisle. Her life holds a wonderful example from which we can learn the art of prayerful listening. After listening comes the art of answering. After answering comes the exquisite experience of knowing how much we are loved by Him who calls us to share His life, the life of the Blessed Trinity. Let us set our hearts on listening and on answering the Lord’s call, and then let Him lead us in whichever way He chooses, confident that He knows best.
I send this with my prayers for yourselves and your families at this time, and with my deep gratitude for your prayers. These are the times and circumstances in which our Blessed Lord asks us to live our vocations. They may not be the times we would have chosen. We find consolation when we simply hear Him say, ‘I know you; follow me’. He takes us on the way to heaven.
Bishop of Lancaster
01.05.22 ~ THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On a Saturday evening I usually have 5Live sport on in the background while I’m beavering away at something. Last Saturday lots of fans were complaining about the ill-tempered match between Liverpool, playing for the title, and Everton, trying to avoid relegation. Two or three Liverpool fans said, with relish, that they hoped Everton would go down. Not very sporting, you might think, but, for many today, sport is all about winning, tribalism, and in some cases, hatred of opposing teams.
For some reason that came to mind yesterday, when I was reading an article by Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist, who works in high security prisons, with people who have committed appalling crimes. She was saying how CS Lewis, in the Screwtape Letters, got it dead right about the power of the Devil to make any of us capable of vice and cruelty, and quoted his description of Hell: “Hell is a state of mind where everyone is perpetually concerned about their own dignity and advancement, everyone has a grievance, everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment, and everyone wishes everyone else’s demotion and ruin; a state of mind which invites people to see themselves as passive victims of others, not responsible for their own actions”. Never mind the real Hell. I think that’s also a good description of what’s happening in the‘Hell on earth’ of today, eg in Ukraine. It’s a situation which couldn’t be further from where Christ wants us to be.
What’s the answer? It’s pretty obvious actually. From the evidence of her work with rehabilitating serious offenders, Gwen has found that the only way to change for the better, is to start with our own behaviour, to take responsibility for who we are, and for the story of our life, which, once again fits in with the answer CS Lewis gives: “Christian life is about thanking God for our forgiveness and healing, then getting up to walk in the way of the cross, asking for grace on a daily basis, to love and forgive our neighbour, and do whatever service we have been given to do”.
We see that answer lived out in Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ in today’s gospel. Peter had already acknowledged his betrayal of Christ when he went outside and wept bitterly but, as we see today, he is forgiven totally. He is also entrusted with the care of Jesus’ church, which will mean walking in the way of the cross, and needing God’s grace on a daily basis, to fulfill his mission.
It’s interesting that the apostles had caught nothing during the night but, as we sing in the Exultet at Easter, Christ, the light of the world, dispels the darkness. It’s no accident this takes place at first light, symbolically the dawn of the new reign of God, in which they will play an active part. On their own they have achieved nothing, but with Christ working through them they will achieve everything. When Jesus appears, there is a superabundant catch of fish, all of different kinds, expressing plenty, universality and variety. It symbolises how, through their apostolic work, all nations of the earth will be brought to Christ, a mission which is still ongoing, and of which we are privileged to be part.
Like them, we have work to do. We can’t sit here every week like people in a boat waiting for the fish to jump in. To paraphrase CS Lewis, as long as Christians are not doing anything to bring people to Christ, the Devil is content to laze around letting them destroy themselves by war, self absorption, greed, addiction or apathy. No contest! George Bernanos, a Catholic writer, said “One of the main culprits in losing souls is the mediocre priest, where the light and Word of Christ is not transparent. The same applies to the laity when this voice and light become inaudible, disappearing into the texture of society, colourless and bland”. So, we must go fishing, using whatever talents and gifts we have been blessed with. But, a word of warning! As soon as we resolve to become active for Christ, we become a challenge. The Devil is roused into life, swift to attack, ready and able to destroy our resolve before it gets going. That’s when we remember Peter and take courage. Like him, we are aware of our mistakes, but we also know that our sins are gone forever, forgiven and forgotten, and that like Peter Jesus has entrusted us with the care of his people and the mission of the Church today.
24.04.22 ~ SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A couple of weeks ago I watched a film called ‘We bought a Zoo’, based on a true story. A widowed father of two children was having huge problems with his 13yr old son, who, after the death of his mother, was so consistently disruptive at school, that he had to be expelled. It was at this stage that the father decided to move away, find a quiet, peaceful place to make a new start for his family, and try to recapture some of the happiness they had before his wife died. The quiet, peaceful place he found turned out to be a zoo, which his 7yr old daughter loved, but his son hated, and vented all his pent-up rage at his father. It was a breakthrough moment, because the father himself, for the first time, yelled back at his son that he too was suffering and broken by the loss of their mother.
That film came to mind when reading the very familiar story of ‘Doubting Thomas’. The son in the story had become anti-social and obnoxious, because he had been robbed of his mother, whom he clearly worshipped, and obstinately refused to let anything console him. I wondered if Thomas was going through something similar over the loss of Jesus, whom he clearly loved. When grief of such magnitude touches us, it’s natural to feel dejected and inconsolable. When Thomas left the room, the atmosphere would have been one of great sadness, a sense that everything had gone wrong, and that’s how he expected it to be when he returned, only to find that it was buzzing with joy. Thomas, however, is unmoved. For a full eight days, he obstinately refuses to believe them, demanding incontrovertible proof. When given that, by Jesus himself, he immediately, without a further hint of doubt, goes to the opposite extreme, making the most uncompromising act of faith in Christ in the whole Bible – “My Lord and my God”.
We can look at Thomas and wonder why he was unmoved by the enthusiasm of his fellow apostles. But It’s also worth remembering that when the women came running from the tomb to say they had seen the risen Lord, none of the other apostles believed them. Only when they saw for themselves did they believe. So, I think that when Jesus said what he said to Thomas, he was addressing all of them, reminding them of how privileged they were “To see and hear what many longed to see and hear, but never saw or heard it.” By adding “Blessed who have not seen and yet believe”, he is also reminding them that they are not to glory in their privileged position over the people they will serve. What they’ll need is faith, humility, awareness of their limitations and complete reliance on him.
I think it’s fair to say that the apostles got that message, because they attributed everything to the power of the Holy Spirit. When Peter and John were dragged before the High Priest, the Sanhedrin and the Leaders of the people, to explain how they had cured a crippled man, they proclaimed it was by the name of Jesus, and fearlessly refused to obey their command to stop preaching in his name, with the result that ‘So many signs and wonders were worked by them, that people from all the towns nearby, laid their sick on beds and mats out in the streets, in the hope that the shadow of Peter might fall across them as he passed by and bring healing; all of them were cured’, it says.
With that kind of adulation, it would have been very easy for Peter to have started a personality cult. Lots of religious leaders do if they get a following, but when that happens, inevitably, the message gets blurred. For example, the name of Jesus is often used by charismatic preachers in our own time, to proclaim a gospel of prosperity, which usually makes themselves very rich indeed in the process. Others may not deliberately set out to put themselves at the centre, but do so by default, by relying on their own strengths rather than the power of Christ.
The acid test of authenticity in a Christian community is seen in the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, where we see that after the resurrection, the faith of all those who did not see Jesus rise, yet believe the preaching of the apostles, begins to bear fruit.
It’s a rather idealised picture, but it shows the essential and indispensable elements for every Christian parish. Union of hearts – The faithful all met by common consent. A place to meet - in the Portico of Solomon every Sunday. Welcome – the people were all loud in their praise. Missionary witness – the numbers who came to believe in the Lord increased steadily. Care of the sick – as we saw earlier. You could say it was the first Catholic parish.
Some of those elements are very alive in our own parish, and others we need to work on, especially Missionary Witness. All of us, not just religious leaders, are called to be witnesses of Christ and the Truth, to plant and water the seeds of faith, and we can do it if we are determined to be involved.
One way to be involved is to come to the Divine Renovation day in Manchester. The other is to take part in the Synodal process Pope Francis has inaugurated, which values every Catholic’s views, ideas and suggestions, for moving away from centralisation of authority, to a symphony of cooperation and life, through the working of the Holy Spirit.
As we move into a new phase in the life of the Church, may we remember that Jesus is as alive and present to us through his Holy Spirit, the Sacraments, his Word, and whenever we meet together in his name, as he was to the Apostles on Easter day, and only he can give the growth. All we need do is have complete faith and trust in whatever and wherever his Holy Spirit is leading us, and never ever be afraid, when he opportunity arises, to speak in Jesus’ name.
17.04.22 ~ EASTER SUNDAY - MASS OF THE RESURRECTION
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
As you may know, Stephen, our potential student for the Priesthood, is spending Holy Week at the English College at Valladolid. Valladolid is built on a plateau, so it was very cold in winter and blazing hot in the summer, which we would spend at country house. There we’d would work on the land in the morning, have a nice glass of wine at lunch, then take a siesta in the afternoon, because it was too hot to do anything else.
Occasionally, however, those soporific afternoons would be shattered by a violent storm. The sky would go incredibly black, and the birds would go silent thinking that night had come. Even the noise of the cicadas would stop. I used to like to go up on top flat to watch it approaching. First would come the deep roll of distant thunder, which exploded as it got nearer, with flashes of lightning cracking the darkness around us. It was quite an awesome experience and I often felt the power of God somehow behind this display of nature at its most majestic. When the storm passed, the sky would brighten again and all would be calm. The garden would be alive and fresh, and I’d usually go for a run in the nearby pine forest, to breath in its beautiful scent heightened by the warm rain.
The moment Christ died was like that stormy day. The sun stopped shining, the sky went black, there was darkness over the whole earth, all of which caused the Centurion in charge of the crucifixion party to exclaim, “In truth this was a son of God”. It was obvious to him, and I imagine to everyone there, that this was no ordinary death. However, the storm passed, the bodies were taken down and people went home. All was calm again, especially for the Chief priests, Scribes and Pharisees who had put an end to the religious storm Jesus had kicked up for them. But had they?
Certainly, it looked like the end. His mission was by and large a failure. His teaching on service, forgiveness of enemies, and turning the other cheek, were rejected as unworkable by all, except the faithful few. Things were not looking good. Then came Easter morning.
In the gospels there is confusion and total lack of perception of what was going on. In St Luke, the women stand in the empty tomb not knowing what to think, until the two men in white say Jesus is risen, and remind them, that he had told them in Galilee, that he would rise on the third day. When they tell the apostles they’re not believed. In St John, Mary is on her own at the empty tomb and reports “They’ve taken the Lord, and we don’t know where they’ve put him”. In Luke Peter, the leader of the apostles decides to run to the tomb. He sees the cloths Jesus was wrapped up in, then goes back home amazed at what had happened. In John, both Peter and John run to the tomb. John takes a look at the way the cloths are arranged and gets it straight away: “He saw and he believed”.
The difference between Peter’s response and john’s, is very like the confusion sometimes caused by a surrealist painting, or a work of art which nobody can make head nor tail of. unless you know the artist. Peter, of course, knew Jesus well but was often slow to comprehend things at a level deeper than the obvious. He had a great heart and always wanted to be helpful: build tents for Moses, Elijah and Jesus at the Transfiguration, fight the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus, but you sense he never got what Jesus was really about, until the resurrected Jesus appeared to them all in the upper room.
John, on the other hand, was ‘The disciple Jesus loved’. How come? You might say surely Jesus loved them all. I’ve a feeling he may have earned that title after Jesus admonished him and his brother James for wanting to sit one on his right and the other on his left in his kingdom. After that, John changed. Personal ambition disappeared. He was the youngest by far, so probably more open to Jesus’ constant message of love. Indeed, he became the apostle of love. His three letters and his gospel are full of it. I think it was because of that deep inner love, that he was able to cut through the confusion at the tomb, to an immediate understanding of what had just happened.
Like Peter, most of the baptised know Jesus, some better than others, but also like him during their years together, their understanding of who he truly is, and what he is about, may not have penetrated below the surface. For many, their relationship may be superficial.
For example, in my daily prayers for peace recently, I have focused mainly on Ukraine, where a war is being fought between two nations which profess belief in Christ. How does that fit in with ‘Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you’? But, as we know, there are people suffering injustice in many other parts of the world, China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and not forgetting Syria. Men and women are enslaved by fellow human beings for the sake of territorial gain or ideology. You could say that the aggressors themselves are enslaved by the lust for power.
But what’s the point? Everyone knows that here we have no abiding city. They’ll all be dead in a few year’s time. Maybe, because they think death is the end, the final arbiter to whom they will lose everything, they feel they must not only cling on to what they’ve got, but take more and build bigger barns to store it all. Jesus does tell a story about the folly of doing that.
At Easter, that philosophy of death being the end, is made redundant and dare I say, foolish, because Christ has broken the chains of death. His resurrection was not a reanimation of a dead body like Lazarus. He died a second time. Christ will never die again and nor will we who believe in him.
Thank God there are enough of us in the world who do believe and put his gospel of love into practice. We are the Easter People and we have the power, through the Holy Spirit, to change the world for the better, but only if allow the Holy Spirit to move us on, as he did with Peter at Pentecost, from surface knowledge of Christ to intimate love of Christ, which, as with the one Jesus loved, will be the motivation for everything we do, and the way we choose to live.
God knows we’re not perfect, but because of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, we know that when our time comes, we will experience the intense joy, of the repentant thief hanging beside Jesus, who heard from his lips, the words of the greatest promise ever made. “Today, my friend, you will be with me in Paradise”.
14.04.22 ~ MAUNDY THURSDAY - MASS OF THE LAST SUPPER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
As we see in today’s first reading from Exodus, the Israelites celebrated a last supper immediately before they began their great adventure of escape from slavery and their perilous journey to the Promised Land. The starting gun for their move was fired with the shedding of much blood.
In the account we read tonight, we hear God saying, “I will see the blood and pass over you, and you will escape the mortal plague when I strike Egypt”. The ‘mortal plague’ would be the death of every first born in the land, animal and human, except for the first born of the Israelites. Only those signed with the blood of the lamb were spared, as the angel of death passed over.
In sparing the firstborn children of Israel, God was making it clear his opposition to human sacrifice, practised by some of the pagan nations they would into contact with on their travels.
From that night on, The Israelites would consider their first born as belonging and consecrated to the Lord, so they would present him to God, but then have him redeemed by a blood sacrifice – a lamb if the parents were wealthy: pigeons if they were poor. And, as we know, Jesus himself, as the firstborn, was presented in the temple and redeemed by a blood sacrifice.
This pivotal moment in their history was remembered every year with a Passover meal, which all Jews had to celebrate in memory of their liberation from slavery, and this was what Jesus and the apostles were doing at the Last Supper. But this particular meal took on a whole new meaning. Jesus himself becomes the sacrificial lamb, whose blood will be shed on the altar of the cross, to redeem, not only his own people, but the whole of humanity.
It is a once-for-all perfect sacrifice which Jesus makes available to all people of all times, so that they too can be set free from the slavery of sin. As in Exodus, after this last supper, much blood would be shed just before the great adventure of resurrection, and the journey to eternal life, in the promised land of heaven. With the death of Jesus, the Old Covenant with God comes to an end, and his blood seals God’s new Covenant with humanity, which we call the ‘New Testament’.
Every Mass we celebrate is rooted in the death and resurrection of Christ, the King who came to serve, not to be served, a point he makes very graphically, as he lowers himself to the level of a slave, to wash the apostles’ feet.
By our communion with him at Mass, and with his Spirit within us, we are given the strength to be his hands and feet in order to reach out to the poor, the marginalised, the lost and the lonely.
Every celebration of Mass is a call to, and the means of, entering more deeply into our Christian vocation to follow him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, to be at the service of our fellow man, in a world which Jesus is still trying to set free from the slavery of sin and the many evils still rampant in our so-called civilised society, such as the slaughter of innocents in Ukraine at this very moment.
“Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us and grant us your peace”.
03.04.22 ~ 5th SUNDAY OF LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
There’s a well-known phrase, which most of us hope to avoid being addressed to us, but which is very common in TV dramas: “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court”.
The incident of the woman caught in adultery is one of several incidents, quite close to his own arrest and trial, in which Jesus is put into a compromising position by his enemies. Another would be when they tried to trap him by asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Their aim is to build up evidence they can use against him. As the woman’s accusers stand there fully armed with stones to smash her to bits, Jesus exercises his right to remain silent and bends down to write something in the sand. Maybe his looking down at the ground was an attempt to spare the woman’s shame. Having been caught in the act of adultery, it’s hardly likely her accusers would have politely asked her to put some clothes on, before dragging her out and making her stand in full view of everybody. Be that as it may, because they persist with their question Jesus feels compelled to break his silence which he does with a brilliant response. “If there is one of you here who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”. Brilliant, because who would dare to claim that he was without sin? St John says, “If anyone says he has not sinned, he’s a liar.”
We’re now coming to the climax of Lent when Jesus himself will be put on trial before the Sanhedrin and, as we’ll see, he exercises his right to remain silent, as he does in today’s story. It’s as though he is giving his accusers time to reflect on what they are about to do, and how they’d feel if they were the accused. The woman’s accusers clearly don’t care about how she feels, but put yourself in her shoes. Your sin is exposed, your dignity is gone, your fate is in the balance, you’re shaking with fear, terrified of the cruel death the obvious verdict of ‘guilty as charged’ will bring. Everything depends on what this man will answer. Your situation is hopeless. And then, suddenly, it's quiet. The shrieks of your accusers have stopped, the crowd has slipped away, and, still confused and frightened, you glance up to see only eyes of compassion, in a stranger, whose words have just saved your life. You listen, hardly able to believe you are safe, as he says, "Go in peace, and sin no more".
Ironically, because Jesus is the only person there without sin, he is the only one with authority to throw the first stone, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t condemn her but nor does he approve of what she has done. He doesn’t minimise it or look for mitigating circumstances. He knows she’s guilty as sin. What he does do is offer her a new start. This poor woman was clearly on the edge of despair but God despairs of no-one, as we saw in the parable of the Prodigal Son last week. The Church says the same: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” As it says in the first reading “No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before. See I am doing a new deed”.
Like the men in the story, most people know they are sinners, but very few seek forgiveness in the sacrament of confession. Maybe some think they have a direct hotline to God and don’t need his forgiveness mediated by a priest, even though Jesus gave us this sacrament as the surefire way to get it. The Church teaches that we should go to confession at least once a year, even if we don't think we've done anything wrong. Why? Because we certainly will have - nobody’s perfect, and nobody is a judge in his own case. Some people carry a burden round for years unable to believe they can be forgiven. If you are one of them, think of today's gospel. Imagine yourself standing before Jesus, fully conscious of what you've done, which he knows already. Then remember his attitude to the woman, his understanding of her human weakness, and his readiness to forgive. He knows that, more often than not, we fail because we are at the mercy of our moods and desires, and that, deep down, each of us would like to go in peace and sin no more. In confession his understanding, compassion and forgiveness make that possible. Confession really is good for the soul.
I try to go every couple of months, but since my Confessor, Fr Dakin died, it’s getting more difficult to find an opportunity with so few priests around. However, that’s not the case for you. I’m in the confessional every Saturday morning from 1000-1030. If that’s not a good time, you can make an appointment over the phone or just ring the door bell of the presbytery, which I’m happy to say, some of you already do.
Finally, we have the Lenten penitential service Wednesday of Holy week at 6.30pm. It is not general absolution, but very user friendly, so do think about coming to receive the absolute certainty of God’s forgiveness in this wonderful sacrament.
27.03.22 ~ 4th SUNDAY OF LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Thursday Stephen and I were out delivering food when Oasis came on the radio, which got us talking about the older and younger Gallagher brothers who, in spite of their phenomenal success, hated each other and often got into fights. I am sure it was nothing to do with being City supporters. Later that day I was in class and asked the children what they have been doing in RE. As it happened, they’d been doing the story of Cain and Abel, the first two brothers we know of, which ended badly for both of them. Cain, the elder brother was resentful of Abel and killed him. When God asked Cain where his brother was, he angrily replied. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Clearly, God thought so. Coincidentally, I recently came across an extract from a book by a man called Edmund Clowney, which tells the true story of a soldier missing in action during the Vietnam War. When his family could get no word of him through official channels, his older brother flew to Vietnam and, risking his own life, scoured the area he was last seen in, looking for his lost brother. He was never hurt, apparently because soldiers of both sides heard of his dedication and respected his quest. He was known simply as ‘The brother’.
That led me on to the two brothers in today’s gospel. In the parable maybe that’s what the elder brother should have thought of doing when he heard what his daft, immature younger brother had done. A true elder brother could have said to his father, “Our Jack’s made a right fool of himself, and will probably lose all you’ve given him. I’ll go and look for him and bring him home before he does himself too much damage”. But, as we know, such generosity of spirit is not in his armoury. He does nothing, and when his self-indulgent, undisciplined and ruined younger brother appears back on the scene, like Cain, the older brother is, to put it mildly, totally resentful of him, and even more of his father, who welcomes him back with impunity. His self-righteousness creates an unforgiving, judgemental spirit. He cannot, or will not, pardon his younger brother for the disgrace he has brought on the family and for squandering its wealth. He doesn’t even talk to him, but lays into his father for giving a feast to toast the return of his wastrel son.
When Jesus told this story, it was because the scribes and Pharisees were complaining about him welcoming
sinners and eating with them. It’s not hard to see that they are the elder brother in the story, resenting the fact that a Rabbi should be wasting his time on low-life, who do not obey the Law and have no integrity, unlike themselves. But, the whole point of Christ’s mission is to reconcile men to the Father and make of them a new creation. He is the ultimate big brother looking out for those of us who so easily go astray.
Making a new creation has a particular relevance today, I think, because we can dwell too much on the mistakes of the past, and never move forward. In the first reading. we see that after 40 yrs in the wilderness, the Israelites inherit the Promised Land. The manna dries up and for the first time they eat the produce of their new land. Taste and see that the Lord is good. His promises have been fulfilled. The Lord says to Joshua “Today I have taken the shame of Egypt away from you”. So, time to forget the past and move on. In our own time, I’m not sure I go along with all this apologising for what people, who are not us, did hundreds of years ago, as Prince William did in Jamaica about slavery. Where does it stop? Should today’s citizens of Rome apologise for enslaving us in 55 BC? Certainly, remembering the past is essential for avoiding similar mistakes in the future, but I don’t feel we have to apologise for something we didn’t do. That was then – this is now. It’s modern-day slavery and trafficking we should be trying to eradicate. As St Paul says ”For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old creation has gone and the new one is here.”
St Paul also says “We are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God is appealing through us, and the appeal we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God”. The job of an ambassador is to represent and further the interests of his country or Sovereign. Our job as ambassadors of Christ is to give the same message he gives: salvation and forgiveness is for everyone without exception. We do this by trying to act in the way he himself would, when dealing with people who may not, at first sight, be the desirable company we should keep. We have to be an elder brother who understands, that, in God’s eyes, we definitely are our brother’s keeper.
20.03.22 ~ 3rd SUNDAY OF LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Thursday we celebrated the feast of St Patrick. After the gospel I told of a book I had read about a man called Damon Shakarian, a self-made millionaire in the Bible belt of the Southern States. In gratitude to God for his good fortune, he decided he would hire the local baseball stadium and give a testimony to God’s glory. It cost him a fortune but on the big night only a handful of people turned up. Crestfallen he went back to his Bible to try to understand why God had let this happen, and in St Peter’s first letter he read “Each one of you has been given a special grace, so put yourself at the service of others. If you are a speaker, speak in words that come from God; if you are a helper help as though everything is done at God’s orders so that God may receive the glory”. Bingo! I may be a useless speaker, but I’m a fantastic helper. So, he hired the stadium again, but this time he got the day’s most famous preacher to do the speaking, and it was a huge success.
There are two things to draw from this story. One is to find out what you are really gifted at, then use it for the common good, and, at the same time, acknowledge what you’re no good at and leave that to someone else. However, it can happen that you think you are gifted at something, but God has other plans for you. Eg, on Friday I was at Jane O’Donnell’s funeral at Saint Kent’s. Jane, like her sisters, had trained to be a nurse, which she enjoyed, but later changed careers to become a Catholic teacher, which turned out to be the real vocation God was calling her to, because she was exceptional. Not only did she give a living faith to her own children, all of whom still practice, but also to the children she taught, and the parents she nurtured and supported outside of school life, especially with preparation for the sacraments. It was no wonder that there was standing room only at the church. So, when you pray about your future, leave an open mind for the Holy Spirit to enlighten you. You never know what may happen. I wanted to be a policeman!
The second thing is that when you are doing something wonderful for God, never give up, which is easier said than done. Sometimes never giving up demands incredible bravery, which brings me back to St Patrick. He was an extraordinarily brave man, in that having escaped from slavery in pagan Ireland and become a priest, he made the choice to go back to bring the gospel to his erstwhile slave masters. If you want to put it in context, Imagine Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe volunteering to go back to Iran in a few years’ time to convert her hostage takers. In today’s scriptures it’s the turn of Moses to go back. He had fled from Egypt, where he was wanted for murder, to the safety of the land of Midian. He had married, settled down and was living a comfy life. Now God was asking him to go back to Egypt, where his fellow Hebrews were being treated abominably, and stand up to Pharoah, the world’s most powerful man. No wonder he objected. Then, when he got to Egypt did all go smoothly? No, it definitely didn’t. For Moses, God’s end game didn’t seem to have been well thought out. Although they’d been set free, the people became Moses’ biggest headache, dancing round a golden calf and grumbling all the time. But he never gave up and, in the end, he got the job done.
St Paul reminds us that we’re on a similar journey to the Promised Land of Heaven, and warns us that, like Moses, we will have difficulties on the way. So, it helps to remember that what persuaded him to go back to Egypt was his encounter with God on holy ground, where he learned that he would be only an instrument in the liberation of his people, not the liberator himself. It is God who sets his people free. Every time we come into church, we too are on holy ground where we encounter God. Although we don’t take our shoes off, as the Muslims do when entering the Mosque, we bless ourselves as we enter, and we genuflect before the light of the world present in the tabernacle, symbolised by the burning light beside it. He will speak to us through the scriptures, encouraging us to live them with the strength he will provide, reassuring us that like Moses, in spite of difficulties all will be well. So, we must be brave and never give up. As we can see from the parable of the fig tree, on our journey every Christian is expected to produce fruit for the growth of the kingdom, and there’s a warning of what will happen if we don’t. But so long as we live, there will always be time to do so using the gifts we have been blessed with, even if we think we not particularly blessed or even useless. No person on this earth is useless. I once saw a guy coming towards me in a tee shirt which said on the front, “Stop telling me I’m good for nothing”. On the back “I can always be used as a bad example!”
13.03.22 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
When I heard last week that President Putin was thinking of bringing nuclear weapons into the war against Ukraine, it brought back memories of the Arms race of the last century, a crazy time of stockpiling tons of nuclear weapons, even though not many are needed, to guarantee mutually assured destruction, on a global scale. Naturally, this didn’t go unnoticed, and many protest songs were written, like Barry Maguires “Eve of Destruction”. My particular favourite, by the Dubliners, was ‘The Button Pusher’ about the man who would push the button to end the world. The most telling line in the song is “You don’t have to kill the whole bloody lot to make the people free”. Sadly, until Putin made his statement last week, we thought those crazy days were over, and even though, thank God, nuclear weapons have not so far come into play, conventional arms are still killing as many Ukrainians as possible – ostensibly, in order to make them free. Pure madness.
This land grab at the expense of the lives of so many innocent people is a classic example of what St Paul points out to the Philippians: “There are many who are behaving as enemies of the cross of Christ. They are proudest of what they should think shameful; the things they think important are earthly things”. There is complete ignorance, or rejection, of the Christian belief that “For us, our homeland is in heaven” that here we have no abiding city and, because of that common belief, we should spend this life seeking what unites rather than what divides, the golden rule being “Do unto others what you would have them do to you”.
We may wonder how it is that a self-professed Christian leader, can behave as an enemy of the cross of Christ, on which the greatest act of love known to man took place? But he’s not the first – Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe. Perhaps they never got beyond seeing only what the people of Jesus’ own time saw – an ordinary man. Maybe that’s why they could dismiss his teaching on how to exercise authority as naïve and unrealistic – the very idea of ruling over people by becoming their servant – preposterous! How different it could all be if they took to heart the lesson of service Jesus gave on the cross, and realise that one day he, not just an ordinary man, but the Son of God, will demand of them justice for the way they behaved. Many people think of Jesus as just a good man. Even the apostles, in spite of all they had seen him say and do, in their everyday life on the road, saw only the man Jesus, that is, until their encounter on the mountain in today’s gospel.
Throughout the scriptures mountains are the places where meetings with God occur. On Mt Ararat Noah sacrificed to God after the Flood. On Moriah Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, On Sinai Moses received the Law. On Horeb Elijah saw God in the gentle breeze. On Mt Sion Solomon built the Temple. When we’re faced with great difficulties, we say we have a mountain to climb. Until we get to the top, we won’t see clearly what needs to be done. In battle those who hold the high ground have the advantage. If you ever go to Monte Casino, you will see by its sheer steepness, why so many allied troops lie buried at its base.
When we come to Mass, we come to the mountain of God where we encounter him in Word and sacrament as well as in each other, and from this high vantage point, hopefully we get a clearer view of what we need to do out there, back on the road, so to speak. Clearly, the time we spend here face to face with Jesus is vital – we learn from his word what he wants from us. That sense of belonging, made even better by the support we give each other, is a great feeling, but we can’t stay here all week. Like the apostles, we must come down from the mountain, into the messy world that needs our input to make things better. In this war President Zelensky occupies the moral high ground and could easily remain above the conflict in a safe place, but physically, he’s down there on the front line with the people he promised to serve. That’s true leadership.
On our ascent to our true home in heaven, all of us, especially those entrusted with leadership, must rise above nominal Christianity, remembering that Christians are not born but made, by the nitty gritty of putting the gospel into practice, which is very difficult if the only things you think are important are earthly like land, power, or one’s legacy. To have Christ at the centre of one’s personal life, or the life of a nation, means to measure ourselves and our actions, by the way he treated people just the same, whether friend or enemy.
06.03.22 ~ 1st SUNDAY OF LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER for the First Sunday of Lent 2022
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF 5-6 MARCH 2022
My dear people,
The gift of Lent is given to us once more. Let us use it well, accepting it as an opportunity to reveal our hearts to the Lord, inviting Him to enter and make His home in us. Lent is our opportunity to prepare a worthy place for this most welcome guest. Prayer, fasting and sharing with the poor will be the three instruments we use to get the work done. Notice how none of these three needs public words; prayer is a conversation within the heart, fasting and alms-giving take place most effectively in silence and in private.
On this first Sunday of Lent we hear how our Lord, after being baptised by Saint John the Baptist in the Jordan, was taken into the wilderness by the Spirit. When the Son of God was sent by the Father into the world, conceived in the womb of Mary, He came from heaven into the wilderness of fallen creation. Now, as He prepares to begin His public ministry, He enters into the wilderness of our hearts. Sadly, as we know, we are not ready to receive Him, having allowed ourselves to be distracted by so many other things. It is our good fortune that He comes to be our Saviour.
It is sometimes the case that we find things in life so difficult to deal with that we hide them away and don’t go in; we know it is there, but the mess is too much for us to deal with, so we leave it covered up. This may be true of our garages, lofts, drawers or emails! In a similar way we may be conscious of a health problem, and yet we fear to go to the doctor. More seriously, it can be true that my spirit needs attention and yet I do nothing.
What is needed is for us to find someone who will help us get started and work with us. That person is Jesus. We may be surprised to find Him already getting on with this work. How did He get in? Mary gives Him the key to every heart. What motivates Him? It is the Father’s love for us. What can motivate us to cooperate in this work? It is the realisation that we have been loved first. We will also find motivation in realising that life is not what it should be.
These forty days of Lent will pass quickly, and we will find ourselves in Holy Week. By then a transformation will have taken place in the world around us. That change will be obvious to see, but it will be on the outside of things. What matters now for each of us is the inside, the personal, the hidden wilderness of the soul. Remember that our Faith is not just a private matter; our lives lived with Christ will benefit others for their good in this life and for their eternal life. United with Christ, your little sacrifices can achieve a great deal of good.
Lent must be penitential, but it is still good news, part of the Gospel. ‘Turn away from sin: Believe the Good News.’ There is immense benefit to be found in a Lent well kept. It is not designed to make our lives harder. Rather it serves to make them more honest, more humble, and more a place where Our Blessed Lord can find welcome. A priest made a comment in the retreat he gave us many years ago, ‘When you preach to the people on Sunday, don’t give them a hard time – they get that during the rest of their week. That’s not what they come for. Try to raise their spirits. Help them hear the Good News’.
May this Lent help us all to hear the Gospel more clearly, and welcome it more generously, for all our sakes, but especially for those whose needs are greatest. We turn to Mary, the first to give Jesus shelter in the wilderness of this world. She has given Jesus the key to the wilderness of every heart. Although free from sin, she accepted to do penance for us all as a way to return love for love received. May we follow her example with joy and gratitude.
With my blessing for you and your families,
Bishop of Lancaster
27.02.22 ~ 8th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
I was telling the children on Thursday about my dad. One night, when he was a little boy in Dublin, he was riding past a tenement block on his bike, when he heard some terrible screams and saw a man with a knife threatening a woman, presumably his wife. He rode as fast as he could until he found a policeman, and breathlessly told him what he’d seen, expecting the policeman to go tearing off to stop the murder. But, to his amazement, the policeman completely ignored what dad had said, and instead inspected his bike and told him off because his rear light was not working. In the light of today’s gospel, I think we can safely say the policeman had placed a plank in his own eye to avoid doing his sworn, albeit dangerous, duty, while insisting my dad did his very small speck of duty in comparison. It was the complete opposite of what Jesus advises in the gospel: if you want to direct others in the right way to go, you must yourself be clear-sighted. No point offering advice to someone if you don’t follow it yourself. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a woman in the compound to tell her son to stop eating so many sweets. After three weeks she said, ‘Why haven’t you spoken to my son?’ to which he replied, ‘Well, I haven’t managed it myself yet”.
In everyday life, to be aware of the plank in our own eye, is a great grace which can prevent us from making some horrible mistakes in our judgements. To deny responsibility, or pour blame entirely on another person, can have disastrous results, as in a recent high-profile case – “The grand old Duke of York, he had £12 million quid; he gave it to a woman he’d never met, for something he never did”.
Where it gets far more serious is on the grander scale of international relations where consequences are often tragic. The current war in Ukraine, if I understand it correctly, has come about because Putin who, like the Nazis, allows no legitimate opposition to his power, wants to rid Ukraine of Nazism (of which there is none) and genocide (which has not taken place). Blinded by the plank of corruption, coercion and lack of freedom in his own back yard, he wants to remove, what he sees as the splinter of Democracy, from the eye of a sovereign State, and to bring it under the same rigorous control he exercises on the Russian people. Let’s pray he doesn’t succeed and this war is soon over.
Later in today’s gospel, Jesus says “A good man draws what is good from the store of goodness in his heart; a bad man draws what is bad from the store of badness” which echoes Sirach in the first reading, “A man’s words betrays what he feels”. CS Lewis, in his wonderful book, ‘Mere Christianity’ gives a great example of how what we say often gives the game away about who we are. He remembers snapping at someone, then later excusing himself. “I’m not really like that. I was simply caught off guard by unexpected provocation”. However, he came to realise that what a man does when he is taken off guard, is probably the best evidence of what sort of man he is. So, in his case, the unexpectedness of the provocation did not turn him into an ill-tempered man; it demonstrated that he already was an ill-tempered man. He realised he had a plank in his eye and needed a change for the better. Although a good Christian, he knew he was a sinner, like the rest of men, and to change for the better was not something he could bring about solely by his own efforts. What he needed to change for the better could only be done by the grace of God.
Lent is just around the corner. It’s a wonderful gift, an opportunity given us every year to be honest with ourselves by acknowledging that we all need a change for the better. No doubt we will be thinking of what sacrifices we can make to help us progress in the spiritual life. Whatever penance we choose will be a good one, in the sense that it will be a physical reminder of what the purpose of our life is, and that ‘Man doesn’t live on bread alone’. But don’t let us make Lent a six weeks’ endurance test. Keep in mind that Jesus has left us a life to be imitated rather than rules to follow. So, as Fr Tom suggested, it would be a good idea to read a little scripture every day to build up that store of goodness in our heart, and make progress in the spiritual life. If we do that, we will become ever more aware of Christ living within us, prompting the words of life and love he needs us to speak to the world. Remember, “A man’s words flow out from what fills his heart”.
30.01.22 ~ 4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
“Who the hell do you think you are?” is a phrase often used against someone who comes up with an unpopular opinion, and which forces them to appeal to a higher authority for why they’ve given it. So, in the first reading, Jeremiah has to justify himself, by affirming that it was God who ordered him to pronounce judgement against the people, hoping they get it, that he’s just the messenger. When somebody makes an accusation which makes for uncomfortable listening by those it’s aimed at, it’s natural for them to go on the attack, as the townsfolk of Nazareth did against Jesus. “This is Joseph’s son, surely? Who does he think he is?”
The way it’s done today, is to employ researchers to mine any information, scandals, skeletons in the cupboard etc, to discredit the messenger, so that it weakens or discredits his message. As you know, Pope Francis’ papacy has been marked throughout by his preaching of mercy and forgiveness, but his enemies refer back to his time as Jesuit Superior in Argentina, when he was less forgiving, a fact he has acknowledged and of which he is not proud. But that was then, and this is now. People can and do change, as he did, leading to his constant theme that love, mercy and forgiveness are not to be denied to anyone.What led Francis from being judgemental, to answering a question about homosexuality with the words “Who am I to judge?” was his understanding what St Paul means by ‘Love’.
This familiar passage is often used at weddings to try to express the emotional attachment the couple have for each other in a super strong way. But it’s really about the self-sacrifice and giving, that are necessary to live out the wedding vows they make to each other. The Greeks had four words to describe the different types of love: eros for sexual, philia for brotherly, storge for family and agape for unconditional love of others, enemies included, which is what Paul is describing here. Love is the greatest motivator we human beings have. If we truly love someone or something we are often prepared, as the late lamented Meatloaf sang, to do anything to prove it.
Last week St Paul talked about all of us being parts of the one Body of Christ, each with unique gifts and talents to offer for the common good. The problem is that they can be used grudgingly, automatically, or because we feel we have to, but, as Paul says, ‘without love it will do me no good whatever’. The same applies to our attitude to God. We all know Catholics, many in our own families, who say “You don’t have to go to Mass to be a Catholic”. But are they right? Yes, if they see it as an obligation. No, if they are motivated by love. You go to Mass because you want to. You go because you love God and, as with anyone you love, want to spend time with him. You go to express your gratitude toJesus who sacrificed everything for us, by doing what he asks of us, which is “Do this in memory of me”.
Do this in memory of me is not an unusual request or weird thing to understand. On Friday a mother came to Mass for her deceased daughter’s birthday, and afterwards the whole family went up to visit the grave and spend time there. They were doing it in memory of her, showing that they will never forget what she meant to them. People often sit at the graveside and talk to those they have lost, united in spirit. I do it all the time when I visit my mum and dad’s grave. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do, even though I don’t expect them to answer me back!Coming to Mass should never be out of duty, fear of going to Hell, habit, or any other reason except the love of God; to spend time in hispresence, and to keep Jesus’ memory alive, as he asked us to do, in a world which has largely forgotten him. It can be difficult to convince ourselves that Jesus is really and truly present here, because, as Paul again says, “Now we just see him as a dim reflection in a mirror, notface to face”. ‘Seeing’s believing’ as Doubting Thomas would say. But we all know what Jesus thought of that: ‘Blessed are those who believe without seeing’.
One of the greatest benefits of coming to Mass, is that we get fuelled up with God’s grace for the task of loving our neighbour during the week. We become the good soil Jesus talks about in the parable of the Sower, allowing the seed of the Word of God to take root in us, and produce its fruit, in whatever sphere of influence we live and move and have our being. We’re not talking about spectacular growth, like that amazing water lily in David Attenborough’s documentary on plants, which takes over the whole lake, by blocking all the other plants from the life-giving rays of the sun. We’re not in competition: quite the opposite. In the new church emerging after Covid, we are not looking for an overnight explosion of change, ordered from on high by the Vatican, but littleshoots of growth from all of us, and I’m very happy to say it is alreadyhappening in our parish. As a result of our recent Synod discussions, several people have stepped up with new ideas and initiatives, which you’ll soon hear about. So, what started in the first meeting as a general lament for what we’ve lost from the past, by the third, had moved on to positive ideas for our future, and a desire to keep the Synodal process going, with a quarterly meeting, in which everybody gets to have their say about the way ahead, with no danger whatsoever of anyone saying, “Who the hell do you think you are”?
23.01.22 ~ 3rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
The Synod Discussion meeting on Thursday was not as well attended as the first one, but still as lively. In fact it led me to a fairly sleepless night, due to a comment from one of lovely parishioners. Her grown-up children no longer go to Mass, and they lay the blame for not going firmly at the feet of the Church, because of its stance on same sex marriage, the paedophile scandals and unwelcoming priests. Fair enough, but what caused my lack of sleep, was her opinion that they were right. I thought, “Blimey, are they?” I can see where they’re coming from if their vision is limited to the Institutional Church. But that’s not the Church I know.
Most Institutions have the problem that the bigger they become, the further they get from their founding ideals, due to more administration, rules and management of structures. So, if you are not going to get involved until the Institution changes, you’re gonna have to wait a long time. Look at our voting system. How many years has the movement for proportional representation been waiting to change to a fairer way of choosing a Government than ‘First past the Post’? They’re still waiting!
Looking at the Church as an Institution, firstly, we have to acknowledge that the Magisterium is not man-made but divinely instituted. Peter and the apostles were given authority to teach in his name by Christ himself. “I give you the keys of the kingdom. Whosever sins you forgive they are forgiven; whosever sins you retain they are retained”. That power to bind and loose has been handed down to the bishops their successors, but it gives them no authority to teach something different from what Jesus taught, regardless of public opinion, or whatever changing fashions may be. Eg Jesus is quite clear that marriage can only be between one man and one woman. “A man must leave his parents and cling to his wife and the two become one flesh”. What the Bishops do have to do, however, is to keep their eyes on the signs of the times and be able to adapt his teaching without changing it. So, recently, without changing traditional teaching on chastity, the Church has allowed same-sex civil partnerships as a matter of justice, recognising that a same-sex partner should be entitled, like any other partner in a long-term relationship, to inherit what’s left when the other partner dies.
When they think of the Church as an Institution, some people have an image of grumpy old men, who have never married, and wouldn’t know one end of a saucepan from another, running the Church, hunkered down in the Vatican. It’s a fair one, and until now there was probably a lot of truth in that. But, as I said earlier, the Magisterium is a divine institution, which means the Holy Spirit runs the Church not old men in the Vatican, and Pope Francis is on a mission to get rid of those who still cling to clerical power. He is gradually replacing them with Bishops who have the smell of the sheep, ie live in the real world, and promoting lay men and women to positions of Authority. As for us at Parish level, the Synod is his chosen way of ensuring that everyone has a share in the process, very much based on the model of the Body of Christ Paul gives us in the second reading.
Getting back to the assertion that the Church itself is to blame for the defection of young and clever individuals, yes, it’s true that the “Church” has done awful things, often exercising worldly power like feudal Lords, rather than the Servant King, and, as we know, there have also been scandals. But that was then. This is now. We’ve got to stop looking back, being miserable about what happened in the past, and move on. After all, we’re not the only Institution with historic and recent failures, yet most people have not reacted by walking away from them, as they have from the Church.
Have people stopped watching the BBC because of how it let Jimmy Saville get away with sexually abusing hundreds of young people, or stopped donating to Stoke Mandeville Spinal Unit, because he was given his own keys, with access to paralysed patients unable to fight him off? Have they made a vow never to buy a German car because of the Holocaust, or a Japanese camera because of what was done to our FEPOW? Have people given up on the Police because of its reported institutional racism? Do they no longer vote because of corrupt politicians, or take part in Armed Forces Day because of the massacre of hundreds of Innocent people at Amritsar by the British Army? Have they cancelled their Sky Sports Subscription because of Corrupt FIFA Officials? Have they withdrawn their shares from companies where Chief Execs get an annual bonus, which is more than a shop-floor worker could earn in a lifetime? Probably not, yet they can still single out the Church as unworthy of their patronage. You could say that’s a back-handed compliment to the Church, because, clearly, higher standards are expected than from other Institutions. And, fair enough, it is tragic when those standards are dropped or, in some cases, lost altogether.
But guess what! The Church is made up of sinners and if people condemn it for being so, then, by all means, let them cast the first stone if, of course, they are without sin themselves. As you see from those examples, we don’t live in a perfect world, and we will never be a perfect church. That’s why Pope Francis describes it as a field hospital for the wounded. The Church most of us know and love, the real Church, is not a monolithic Institution but a family, the Body of Christ. Francis has called this Synod for every one of us to play our part in its healing, to contribute our accumulated wisdom and experience to turn things round, and become once again the Church Jesus always intended it to be.
And, don’t forget, there’s quite a lot of good stuff going on already. Catholic Social Teaching is renowned throughout the world, and borrowed from by Governments, because of the insights and solutions it offers to many of society’s major problems. It constantly reminds people of the importance of contributing to the Common Good, to solidarity, subsidiarity, human dignity, the sharing of the world’s resources and the care of our Common Home. We, the Church, are out there actively involved in the betterment of mankind, and putting the gospel into practice.
So, with regard to whether to belong to the church, there are two choices. To walk away, like walking away from a road accident unwilling to see what we can do to help. Or to stay and exercise our particular gifts for the common good, no matter how small we think our efforts are. Mother Theresa was once mocked by a journalist who said to her. “With so much poverty and deprivation in the world what you are doing is just a drop in the ocean” to which she replied, “Yes, but it’s a drop that wasn’t there before”. Every little helps! Saint Oscar Romero once said: “We plant a seed that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise…We are prophets of a future not our own.” Who knows how much good our little contribution, as a member of the Body of Christ, united with all the other members, will make for the future of the new Church which is emerging after Covid?
In conclusion; you might ask “Why are you telling all this to us? We’re here!” Well, it could be that I might not, in every case, be preaching to the converted. It is simply to give you some ammo to help your discussions with those who have a very dim view of the Church, to see another side, and of course, to get it off my chest and help me to get a good night’s sleep!
16.01.22 ~ 2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
There’s a lovely story of a young priest at the reception of a wedding he has just celebrated in a small Italian village. As the party gets bigger the family ask if they can extend onto the church patio. “Of course” he says. As it continues to grow they’re allowed to move into the parish garden, then eventually into the church itself, a good time had by all, until the Parish priest gets back. “Mama Mia! What are all these people doing partying in church?” “Well, you know Father, Jesus himself partied at a wedding”. “Yes, but not in front of the Blessed Sacrament!” (he’d obviously forgotten that Jesus is the Blessed Sacrament).
Today is Peace Sunday with the theme “Work and dialogue between generations”. At the Synod discussions on Thursday, a lot of time was devoted to the fact that vast numbers of the younger generation are missing from our churches, while the older generation feel at a loss to know why they don’t seem to have that feeling of belonging, which comes naturally to us. Some helpful suggestions were put forward, eg have a youth Mass once a month, introduce guitar hymns, make the liturgy more like the Castlerigg experience, more entertaining and less boring. The only trouble is no young people turned up to say what they thought, and, as you know, I’m a great believer in the maxim ‘Decisions about us, without us, are not for us’.
However, I don’t think the problem is primarily to do with liturgy, but with what people believe happens at Mass. Do all Catholics believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, that what they receive in Holy Communion is not a piece of bread, but the son of God himself, body, blood, soul and divinity, the God who keeps us in being and with whom we hope to spend eternity? If so, it doesn’t make sense to ignore him and fill your Sunday with alternate attractions? I have celebrated Mass on an upturned oil drum, a hostess trolley, in a cocktail bar, in a jungle clearing, and in many other situations where great liturgy was not possible, but the people came, because they knew Jesus was really and truly present in the host received at those Masses. We know he is also present in his Word, through the Holy Spirit, when a few of us are gathered in his name. In fact, he’s always with us but never more closely than in Holy Communion.
Going back to Jesus’ presence at Cana, I read an interesting article, asking what we today imagine he would be doing at the reception - sitting quietly to one side laughing at the trendy middle-aged men doing dad dancing, up on the dance floor himself strutting his stuff, propping up the bar telling jokes or grabbing the mike at the karaoke. I liked it. It made sense of one of the names he was given, Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’, not just on happy occasions like baptisms, weddings, rites of passage but in sad times too, as he was with Jean Sullivan on Friday as she lay dying. The other day I chanced to call in on someone to see how they were doing. As it happened the person was struggling with a painful memory and needed to talk to somebody. She said ‘God sent you to me today father’, and I said ‘Of course he did. That’s the way he works’
He's there too in the dialogue between the generations both in the angry hurts and the loving reconciliations that are part of family life. He also shows up globally when we see wells have run dry in Somalia and hear the whisper ‘they have no wine’, or when famine hits Ethiopia and we hear the words, ‘give them something to eat’. Jesus is the epitome of optimism. So it’s no wonder Mary says, “Do whatever he tells you”. She knows that in his hands the best is yet to come. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, a sort of helpless cynicism which says that nothing is ever going to get better so why bother trying? I have a friend of a certain age whose glass is always half empty. One of our other friends says of him, “Show him the light at the end of the tunnel, and he’ll soon put it out!” Maybe he’s forgotten what it’s like to be young. Our young people are full of optimism, still dare to dream and fabulous at facing up to injustice, eg Climate Change, but they also know older people have much wisdom and experience to pass on (as Shawn is finding out at Brenda’s craft club). Far better if we choose to live hope-filled lives together, young and old in friendship, strengthened in our faith by receiving the Body of Christ as one united family. At the end of the day, everyone is invited to the great wedding banquet of God’s kingdom, because that’s where we’ll find Jesus, at the heart of the party, rejoicing in human love, and renewing our delight in the goodness of life, and of each other.
09.01.22 ~ FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Wednesday evening, as you know, we met as a parish to discuss the future of St Edmund’s church building. There were no set procedures involved. Those who wanted to, threw in their own thoughts and everyone listened to what they had to say. There was a warm atmosphere, like you get with a group of friends who are trying to work out what is best for everyone, and thankfully we ended up with a consensus.
The reason I tell you this is because, for me, it was an example in microcosm of the kind of church Pope Francis wants to emerge from the Worldwide Synod he has called to take place in 2023. We all know that the Church emerging from the Covid crisis, is not going to be the same church most of us have known all our lives. To take just one example, we are running out of priests. But does that mean the Church is finished? Not at all. The Holy Spirit is clearly telling us something, and it’s for us to find out what it is.
Some people think the Synod will be a fruitless exercise and that things will be sorted out the Brian Clough way: “We talk about the dispute for about 20 minutes and then we decide I was right”. But Pope Francis sees things very differently. He wants to involve everyone. A Synod means walking the same road, walking together. When he set it up he said “It’s a mutual listening, in which everyone has something to learn; the Faithful, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome, all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, in order to know what he is saying to the Church in the third millennium”. Did you notice the pecking order in that quote? He starts with the Laity, then the Bishops, then the Pope. That’s not the way it usually works in the Church. Francis is putting the Laity very firmly centre stage with the parish as the launchpad. It’s important to remember that it is the Catholics in the pew today, with their experience, problems and Catholic identity, who are the principal architects of tomorrow’s Church.
In today’s reading from Isaiah, the Israelites are promised that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. This is particularly relevant to today’s feast of The Baptism of the Lord, because here on the banks of the Jordan, a voice is heard from heaven – “You are my Son the beloved: my favour rests on you”. Jesus is the fulfilment of that prophecy. It’s a time of new beginnings. The Old Testament, (the old church you could say) is about to be transformed. God is doing something very new, and all will be invited by his Son to come on board.
This is a time for new beginnings for us too. Vat II was called by Pope John XXIII to bring the Church into the modern world, a work which was started with great enthusiasm and joy, but stymied over the years, relying on the fact that, no matter what happened in the world, the Church would always remain the same, strong, powerful, Mistress of all she surveys. But, as we have seen in recent years, that is no longer the case. Membership has declined even amongst the numbers who only come at Christmas.
So, how do we go about finding what the Holy Spirit is telling us? Pope Francis gives us three ways of doing this: Encounter, Listen, Discern. Encounter means taking time to look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say, to build rapport, to be sensitive to their questions and be enriched by the gifts and talents they have to offer. Listening means being aware of the concerns and hopes affecting us all as a people, a church and members of the human race, when faced with the challenges and changes the world is setting before us. Encounter and listening are not ends in themselves, otherwise things stay as they were before. Discernment means acting on what we have discovered from the other two for the greater good of all.
We are now at the Parish Discussion stage where we take the pulse of the parish, tap into feelings, gather opinions and harvest ideas. Bishop Paul says he wants us to confidently engage in a simple and prayerful dialogue, respectful of one another. There will be three sessions over the next three weeks. May I invite you all to come to the first one this Thursday from 7-8pm in the Green Hut. It would be good if you can have had a serious think about the questions given out today, but, as the Synod path is an open-ended process, bring along any other issues you would like to be included. I’ll finish with a note about participation which I hope will help us to build on the success of Wednesday’s meeting and point the way ahead for future discussions.
06.01.22 ~ FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
02.01.22 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Looking back over the Pandemic, perhaps the toughest call for most people was being unable to give family or friends a hug or a cuddle. We remember pictures of elderly folk, often confused, wondering why their children won’t come into the care home, and their children in tears unable to explain. For them, and for others, living on their own, or self-isolating, it was a very lonely time. I think it taught us that food, shelter and warmth are not enough in themselves. Human beings need something more: the presence, time, love of others and the re-assurance that they are not forgotten. Gifts, letters and phone calls are good, but they can’t take the place of being together with someone.
In today’s first reading we see the world in a similar situation at the dawn of time. It is a poem in praise of Wisdom who is told to pitch her tent among God’s chosen people, to be there with them in their loneliness and isolation in the desert. This wisdom is not the fruit we pick up by learning from human experience, eg that it’s dangerous to skate on thin ice, but the word of God himself. I think it’s fair to say the Israelites never really got the full import of what that meant. They thought about wisdom more as the gift of the Law, which God gave them through Moses for harmonious living eg if we don’t steal, kill or lie about each other, we can all live in peace together.
St Paul however, in the second reading very much gets it, and gives thanks to God for the gift of his Son who is God’s wisdom personified. He also prays that God will give us wisdom so that we can perceive what was revealed and come to full knowledge of him. And what is revealed is that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”. The Word, then, shares the divine life, which means that he too is Almighty, Creator, Lord of the universe and all then other things we attribute to God. As we saw earlier, the Jews saw the all-powerful God’s relationship with them as master to servant. Their part was simply to worship, honour and obey. In return they got food, shelter, warmth and protection but where was the love, the closeness of a child to its father?
It’s clear from what Paul writes that God had a plan from before the world was made, which is for us to be adopted in love as his sons and daughters. In the gospel that plan is revealed. “The Word was made flesh and lived among us”. The literal translation is that “He pitched his tent among us.” When Jesus, Son of God becomes human, he does actually live like a tent dweller, often on the move, of no fixed abode. “The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head”. John uses the word “Flesh” to underline the humility of what God was doing. He doesn’t say “He took the appearance of a human” but “He became man” ie truly human like you and me, able to be hurt, upset, let down by friends, vulnerable. Although he was in the world and the world did not know him, it doesn’t alter the fact that in him is the fullness of God. Suddenly we weren’t just getting messages and postcards from heaven, delivered by prophets and lawgivers anymore, but God himself had come to live among us.
Jesus’ lasting impact on history is manifold, but two major influences stand out. In a world where any hope of transforming sinful humanity was considered an illusion, he proved the opposite was possible through selfless love. Added to that, his victory over death gave the world the certainty of a common destiny for humankind, with the consequent belief that every person matters, because each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, made visible in the person of Jesus Christ.
In becoming Immanuel, ‘God is with us’, and sending us the gift of the Holy Spirit, he gives us the assurance that, even when we are feeling at our most isolated or lonely, he is with us all day, and every day, till the end of time.
26.12.21 ~ SOLEMNITY OF THE HOLY FAMILY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE HOLY FAMILY ~ 26.12.21
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF 26 DECEMBER 2021 (or shared in whatever way is possible).
My dear people,
Yesterday, in churches and homes, we began our celebration of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem. God has fulfilled His ancient promise to come and save us. How comforting and encouraging it is to know that Jesus comes as our Saviour.
Today, the first Sunday after Christmas Day, we keep the Feast of the Holy Family. They say it was Saint Francis of Assisi who introduced the tradition of building a crib to serve as a focus for devotion and instruction. It is a practice we can treasure and pass on to new generations.
We know that Mary’s pregnancy was a cause of deep initial concern to her, and that it even put at risk the relationship she had with Saint Joseph to whom she was betrothed. We know they must have spoken about the way forward, how to understand her pregnancy, and how to adjust their lives to this new life. We too can find it disturbing and inconvenient for our own plans when God enters us.
In today’s Gospel things have moved on considerably. Jesus is a boy on the threshold of adolescence, wanting to play His part in the world, but still under the care of His mother and step-father. Obviously, His time in Jerusalem has stirred something deep within Him. It has
been a pilgrimage and an adventure, bringing Him to a point where He is finding His public voice. His family should be proud of their boy. But, I smile when I see that even for the Holy Family things did not always go perfectly. The words of Mary reveal something of the panic
and fear she has gone through. Many parents unfortunately have been through experiences that did not have so fortunate an outcome. Mary’s heart would be traumatised again in lateryears as she saw her Son gradually drawing closer to the Cross. It is as though she is being schooled in suffering so that she might grow in trust.
The way God has chosen to come to us is remarkable. To be born as one of us is something astounding in itself; to live under the authority of those He came to save moves towards the incredulous. To comply obediently and willingly with the cultural norms of Jewish family life
begins to reveal to us the heart of the Father, entrusting His child to an unreliable world. This is something He still does. It tells me that God must still see enough good in us to entrust us with what is most dear to Him. It is a vote of confidence. In the face of all that is wrong, and all that could go wrong, He has not lost sight of the fundamental good that exists within creation and within us, made in His image and likeness.
The opening prayer speaks of how we want to imitate the Holy Family in practicing the virtues of family life, in the bonds of charity. That takes some learning. It also takes a decision. We aren’t being asked to reinvent the wheel, but we can be daunted from the outset, after all, those Christmas card scenes make it all look so simple! We can learn the art of keeping the Faith from older generations, and even different traditions. We must be grateful for so many who come to live in the UK from elsewhere and bring a strong example of Catholic family life. This comes at a time when family life in the UK generally is struggling. But perhaps that is not really new; perhaps it has always been a struggle.
The Holy Family is placed before us not with the intention of making life even more difficult, or to emphasise even more how far short of the line I am. One lesson it carries is to remind us of the value of family, yes, even yours! And before we begin with the ‘But . . . . . ’s we are shown that God simply uses what we can give Him, even when it appears to fall so far short of what is required. I recall Simon Peter’s words to Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish, ‘Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ It is not perfection Christ is looking for but an open heart and a welcome in. I recall the small boy sharing his five loaves and two fish, so little for the crowds, but it gave Our Blessed Lord something to get started with. He can do something good even with our families if we let Him.
I hold in prayer families throughout the Diocese, conscious that an immense amount of stress is being placed on them. Some appear to cope better than others, but we are not in competition to see whose is best. My heart goes out to families that are grieving or concerned for less able members. I am aware that some relationships have undoubtedly suffered, but you are not beyond the reach of Our Lord, He has not turned away from you. We think of so many families affected by warfare, famine, failing economies and of course lack of adequate healthcare during the pandemic. The problems are endless, and our help so little. The picture of the Holy Family is given to them too, so that even in their extreme need they may find something to give new heart, because ‘God is with them’.
As we move into the rich succession of Feasts and celebrations of Christmastide, do what you can to show that Christ is in your home. Simple things such as making sure there is a Crucifix and an image of the Madonna and child is all it might need. Your Faith may seem weak, but you have enough to welcome Christ in. Your family may seem scattered, dysfunctional or even just Weird(!), but it is enough to give Christ a place to work. He does not come to ‘catch-you-out’ but to unburden you and raise you up. That’s just what we all need as we prepare for the new year.
May we sense the closeness of our Blessed Lady, whose children we are, as we offer this prayer, perhaps by candlelight towards the evening of the day, within our own homes.
Kind mother of the Redeemer, who remain the open gate of heaven, and the Star of the Sea; help your falling people who want to rise, you who bore your holy Parent, while nature marvelled; a Virgin before and after, receiving that greeting from Gabriel’s mouth, have
mercy on us sinners.
With my blessing on all who hear or read this letter,
+ Paul Swarbrick
Bishop of Lancaster
25.12.21 ~ THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Apart from the ever-changing bulletins about new variants of Coronavirus, there have been very few news stories this week except, perhaps, for the record-breaking divorce settlement between the Ruler of Dubai and his ex-wife, which ended with her being awarded £550 million, in order to keep her and her children in the lifestyle they are accustomed to. And what a lifestyle! The children, both still at school, get an allowance of £10 million each to see them through the year. The judge even threw in an extra £5 million to buy a couple of horses for them.
If ever a story was needed to highlight the immeasurable gulf between rich and poor, or back the claim that 90% of the world’s wealth is owned by 10% of its population, this could be that story. Apparently, for the Sheik, £550 million is small change – he won’t miss it. What power, what influence such riches can buy. It’s the way of the world. Whether to a lesser or greater degree than the example I’ve given, there always has been, and probably always will be, fabulously rich people who live life on a completely different plane than the majority of mankind. At the other end of the scale, in a story that will never make the front pages of the world’s press, there have been, and always will be, people who live on less than one dollar a day, and others who have no money at all.
Into this world of such contrast was born a royal child, promised by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel as a Great Light to alleviate the darkness of their sorrow in exile. He would have the religious zeal of Moses, the bravery of David and the wisdom of Solomon all rolled into one. He would be Wonder Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, King of kings. Nobody would be able to compete in terms of the power and influence he would bring when he arrived, which would naturally be in glory and splendour, as befits one of untold riches and status. With all their hopes and dreams resting on this image of the Messiah, it’s little wonder that when Jesus turned out to be the exact opposite, so many of them rejected him.
As we saw from Jesus’ family tree at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, last week, God often chose leaders of no renown or status, often poor or looked down on by the elite. Throughout the Bible there seems to be a fundamental option from God, for little and humble people, a classic example being the choice of lowly shepherds to be the first to hear the announcement of the birth of the Messiah. The sign of the joy they would see, a joy to be shared with everyone, was of a ‘baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’ which must have had them scratching their heads. Surely, a saviour who is Christ the Lord, ie the anointed Messiah, should be in Herod’s palace, up the road in Jerusalem, surrounded by wealth and privilege. From the sign of the manger they learn what “Poverty in Person” is. Later, he himself would say “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.
So, why did he forego all the trappings of riches and power, and opt for a low-profile entry into our history, and what does it mean for us? I doubt if many people envy the mega rich, but nor do they envy the ragged poor. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, people who have enough to live on, or at least to get by on, who will never know hunger, and will always have enough left over for other things. This should make us content with our lot and thankful for our good fortune. For some that is not enough, and huge amounts of energy and time are dedicated to the pursuit of riches, in spite of knowing you can’t take it with you!
If the humble birth of Christ teaches us anything, it is that real wealth lies in a person’s capacity for generosity especially to those less fortunate than ourselves. To show them compassion and give practical help is at the heart of Christianity, summed up in the two great commandments to love God and our neighbour. To the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to attain eternal life, he said, ‘Sell all you have, give it to the poor, then come follow me’. He couldn’t do that as he was extremely rich.
Luckily, most of us will never get to be that rich, so won’t be faced with such a difficult challenge, but we are rich in other ways. We are blessed with the gift of Faith – we know where we come from and where we are going, and we do understand the importance of generosity in all its forms, not just in giving money.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on generosity of course. As with last year, at the height of the pandemic, the response to our appeal, from people of all religions or none, for food and toys, has been overwhelming. Our store is like Aladdin’s cave, filled to the brim with presents which go out tonight. None of the families in need that we are aware of, in Fleetwood and throughout Wyre, will go without, this Christmas.
Generosity, of course, is not confined to Christmas. Throughout the year people are always giving me money for the Foodbank, and long may it continue, to show our practical help and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. Nor, as I said earlier, is generosity confined to giving money.
We belong to a wonderful parish family whose members comfort and support each other, especially when tragedy strikes, but also in every-day situations. For example, I got a text today asking would I bless some holy water, so that, when she goes to bless her own mother’s grave on Christmas day, she will visit the graves of other parishioners and bless theirs. On Wednesday, some of our choir went round to sing for a fellow member who is ill and can no longer attend church. I saw him today and he was deeply moved by it.
These things, like so many other examples I could give you of what goes on in the parish, are not spectacular, but they are generous. And from generosity given and received comes a sense of belonging to a family in which people feel valued and cared for, and, God knows, in this rather selfish world, it’s a joy many people would love to have. We would love them to have it too.
My prayer tonight, then, is that those of you who don’t join us very often, may think of the benefits and advantages of being here more often, with a real sense of belonging to a family who will support you in your own generous response to the gospel, as we all journey together, good times and bad, along the path of life the infant king has laid out for us.
May God bless you all, now and always.
19.12.21 ~ 4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
From time to time, I get letters and emails from far flung corners of the world, asking for help with information about family members baptized, married or buried from St Wulstan’s. They are from people researching their family history, a very popular pastime these days, as witnessed by the TV series, “Who do you think you are?” I haven’t watched many of them, but in the ones I have seen there has usually been the odd black sheep or colourful character no-one was expecting to find.
On Friday, in the first chapter of his gospel, we had the results of St Matthew’s research into Jesus’ family history, which very much backs up the prophet Micah’s words: “His origin goes back to the distant past”, and boy, what a past! Over 42 generations, divided into three parts, we see a ragbag of saints and sinners, some of whom did wicked things, like David, God’s Poster Boy, who arranged the murder of his lover’s husband and took her to be his own wife. I assure you, there are many more dubious characters along the way, to make you wonder what God was thinking of when he chose them.
The first group were the Patriarchs, starting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob lied to his father in order to steal his blessing. Surprisingly, it was not Joseph who saved Israel from starvation, who was chosen to be the father of David’s line, but Judah who had sold Joseph into slavery. The second group were the Kings. Under David and Solomon they enjoyed the high point of their history in the Promised Land, something the Patriarchs could only dream about. However, only two of the 14 kings were any good, so Israel was conquered and taken into exile in Babylon. We could call the third group the ‘Nondescripts’. Apart from Joseph and Mary at the very end of the list, nothing is written or known about them except their names. Yet it was these little people who brought about the restoration of their nation, brought to ruins by the rich and powerful. In each generation their upbeat story is one of growing expectation of the coming of the Messiah, which climaxes with John the Baptist when he proclaims that he has come.
What we take from this potted history of Jesus’ ancestry is that God doesn’t always chose the best, the most noble or saintly, but those he does chose, good or bad, achieve his purpose only by means of his grace. We see that in today’s scriptures when God chooses Mary, a lowly woman from the country, who will give birth to the Messiah in Bethlehem, described as the least of the clans of Judah.
The question arises, then, what does God’s way of operating mean? Well, the obvious answer is pure gospel, or good news. It’s good news for the poor, the marginalized, outcasts, and anyone who feels undervalued or ignored by the usual way people evaluate others. Jesus himself will operate in exactly the same way. In the light of how God works, St James teaches us to follow his lead, by avoiding the use of double standards in the way we treat people, fawning over the rich and ignoring the poor. It’s a message of hope and joy which has attracted many millions over the years to follow the Lord of the Dance, wherever we may be, and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Such was Elizabeth’s joy in greeting Mary in today’s gospel.
When the Ark of the Covenant was being taken up to Jerusalem, to be installed in the Holy of Holies, King David danced crazily before it all the way, consumed with joy that God had stayed faithful to his promises. Now, the infant John in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy before Mary, the new Ark of the Covenant carrying the new Holy of Holies, while Elizabeth expresses her own joy that God’s promise has been fulfilled.
This choosing of the least expected, including sinners as well as saints, is a cause of great joy for everyone, because it shows that God never writes anyone off. The power of God shows itself in human weakness. We know this because the history of the Church is pretty much the same as the history of Israel. We’ve had our megastars, but we’ve also had 1st class hypocrites. Even today, we know that we too are a ragbag of saints and sinners, so no point trying to prove different, to people who can’t accept the church because it’s not perfect. Far from being a discouragement, knowing that we are as weak as everybody else is actually an encouragement, because it shows God’s grace can work in anyone, even people like us!
12.12.21 ~ 3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Wednesday a group of us went to a mini retreat, given by Donna Worthington, on Contemplative Christianity. It was based on the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the early days of the church. For the first three centuries they took refuge there from Roman persecution as outlaws for the Faith, but after Constantine ended persecution and made Christianity the State Religion, they were admitted back into Society. Life became very easy, and for some almost meaningless. They felt Christianity had lost its cutting edge to nominalists, believers in name only. This led to a huge move back to the desert to rediscover the ‘otherness’ of Christianity which makes it so precious and worthwhile having. The Retreat started with a drama set in a desert cave, performed by Donna herself with clever use of lighting to reflect the changing moods of the occupier, as various crises and changes in her life came and went. From time to time there would be a hint of a mysterious man in rags in the background. Could he be the answer? Could he be the one to give her what she needed to return to face the world and deal with the ordinary events of life?
Although the retreat was meant to take place before Covid, by a happy coincidence the timing was perfect for today’s scriptures, which are all about joy. “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday comes at a time when people all over the world are sending cards wishing each other a happy Christmas. In the secular world it’s part of ‘The season to be jolly’ which advertisers guarantee we will be, if we shop with them. Never mind all the stressing over what presents to buy, queueing for hours at the checkout, explaining to little Johnny that if he doesn’t stop whinging Santa will not be stopping at No 47, and all while listening to some lunatic singing “I wish it could be Christmas every day-y-y”. It does seem strange that we are encouraged to go full pelt, no expense spared, to be jolly for a particular season. What about the rest of the year? St Paul says he wants us to be happy always. “I repeat, what I want is your happiness”.
But what kind of happiness? What does he mean? Well, back to the desert. Before starting his public life, John the Baptist had spent many years there, living an ascetical life – hardly the best qualified person to talk about joy, you might think. For him the desert was a period of purification. He experienced temptation, isolation and loneliness, but also the joy of God’s shadowy presence always in the background, which enabled him to be ready, when the time came, to emerge from the desert resolute, and prepared for whatever lay ahead. Happiness for him was the peace of mind which enables you to deal with whatever life throws at you, the inner contentment of knowing you’re doing the right thing.
So, when the people ask him “What must we do?” John’s answer is not a quick fix or promise of the instant gratification you see on a child’s face when they open their presents. It’s not about excitedly waiting for the Messiah to sort everything out when he comes, extracting themselves from reality, but how to prepare for his coming in the day-to-day conduct of their ordinary lives. They have to get stuck in to the hurly burly of normal life and experience, each according to their particular circumstances “Tax collectors exact no more than your due! Soldiers no intimidation!” In a nutshell, preparing to welcome Christ is about the simple joy of loving people and being loved in return, not demanding more of others while giving less of yourself. This can be hard to do if we’re going through a bad patch, wondering where our life’s going and how we will cope, which is a sort of desert experience. But, as we’ve seen from John and the Desert Fathers, the desert is where God is often to be found. Even in our darkest times, the shadowy presence of the Holy Spirit is always there to call on, as Jesus promised he would be, to ease our troubled minds. That’s the kind of happiness and joy Paul wants us to have: inner peace which is for all seasons, not just for special times of the year.
05.12.21 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Apart from sport and wildlife documentaries, my favourite TV is real life drama. Just recently I have been watching “Impeachment” which is the story of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the case, the fact is that he had all the big guns he needed to enable him to shrug it off and carry on, but for Monica it was the end of her career. Both were ridiculed in the media and lampooned on talk shows. For somebody in public life that’s fairly normal, so they deal with it, but for an unknown, suddenly thrust into the spotlight, it can be devastatingly cruel – and it was. One sketch in particular, portrayed her as a starry-eyed, overweight ingenue, willing to do anything for her Svengali.
Sketches like that, and similar stuff put on social media, are a good example of the kind of things people sometimes do to each other, without counting the cost of the effect on the victim. It’s a kind of inadvertent cruelty, often disguised as humour or banter, as in the recent England Cricket racism affair, which stems from an inability to empathise with the feelings of those being targeted. Nobody likes being humiliated. It’s cruel.
In Jesus’ time the world was very cruel. In the gospel Luke puts everything in very precise historical context, to show us that the Incarnation was true; that it took place at a specific time and in a specific country. We are given the names of the main players, their geographical locations, and the dates they were around. All of them have power which they exercise with varying degrees of cruelty. The Emperor Tiberius was a sexually depraved monster. Herod Antipas ordered the death of John the Baptist. He and his brother Philip were sons of Herod the Great who slaughtered babies in Bethlehem. Annas and Caiaphas helped secure the crucifixion of Jesus, and Pontius Pilate condemned him to death, even though he believed him to be innocent of all charges. This was the so-called Pax Romana, under which everyone was forced to live – effective but brutal.
Into this very unforgiving and merciless world, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Before John, there had been a long silence from God, during which the people had lost hope, and resigned themselves to life under foreign domination, just as their enslaved forefathers in Egypt had done, until Moses appeared. In contrast to the main players I mentioned earlier, John is a nobody, a voice crying in the wilderness, a person of no repute or influence, and yet he becomes the bridge between all that has been
promised in the Old Testament, and all that will be fulfilled and surpassed in the New. His task is to prepare the world for the advent of the Messiah, who will inaugurate an age of mercy and salvation, the very opposite of cruelty. With John, a new liberation from slavery begins, slavery from sin, the cause of cruelty. So, it is no surprise that he starts his ministry by calling everyone to repent and have their sins forgiven.
As you can imagine, for God’s people, John was a breath of fresh air. No wonder they got excited and flocked to the river. They were responding to the call from the prophet Baruch “Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty and glory of God for ever. See your sons returning, jubilant that God has remembered them, and brings them back to you, like royal princes carried back in glory”. Those words remind me of those fabulous pictures of Nelson Mandela walking free from prison after 23 years, with thousands of people surrounding him in jubilation, full of the hope he would bring for their future.
Powerful men are supposed to be the stuff of which history is made, yet theirs is a very brief passage through the limelight. We’d probably never have heard of those men in the gospel had it not been for what they did to John and Jesus. All despotic leaders who keep their people enslaved, eventually wither away like grass in the field, and many politicians are undone by corruption, but while they are in power it takes a lot of courage to stand up to them. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to be powerful to change the world. However, you do
have to be courageous. Like John the Baptist, we have to speak truth to the powerful. For example, every time there’s another move against the life of unborn children, I write to our MP to vote against it. She never does, but I write anyway. Perhaps one day she will. The same goes for any injustice we’re aware of. We should always make our voice heard. Remember, powerful people do not guide the overall purpose of life. They are here today, gone tomorrow, whereas we serve the unchangeable, all powerful, living God, the beginning and end of all things. He it is whose word inspired John the Baptist to prepare the way for his Son, who is our Way, Truth and Life. Through his Holy Spirit he is forever with us to guide, inspire and protect and to him, one day, all men, no matter how great they may be, or think they are, will be accountable.
28.11.21 ~ 1st SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER For the First Sunday of Advent 2021
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF November 27/28 2021
(or shared in whatever way is possible).
My dear people, Many worthy matters will be competing for your attention in these days, matters ranging from the personal to the global. I address you as my flock, and ask for your attention as we move into the shortest days of what has been for many another difficult year. On this first Sunday of Advent there are matters of Faith that claim a priority on our time not only so that we celebrate Christmas as we ought, but also if we are to be found ready when the Lord comes.
We are moving into the darkest time of the year, but Christ is our unfailing Light. We look back over the many events of 2021 and see that Christ has been our constant companion. We plan as best and as wisely as we can for the year ahead, knowing that Christ’s plan is there for us. At times, our plans, even our best plans, must give way to His which is so much better. He will be our way, our guide and our loyal companion.
Today’s Gospel shows us some disturbing scenes that we would all prefer to avoid, but it does not take much effort to realise that, for all its beauty and blessings, life will always have unwelcome surprises. Some people seem more fortunate than others, leading charmed lives, but the uncertainties ahead of us can so easily level things out! There is no room for complacency. However, there is plenty of room for greater trust in Him who will come with mercy to judge the living and the dead, and, please God, call us into that place He has prepared for us from the beginning of time. That is what God wants. That is where He longs for us to be. If it was not so, He would not have sent His Son into the world.
So, let us remind ourselves that Advent is above all a season of joyful hope. It is similar to, but different from, Lent, which carries a more penitential tone. No doubt you have seen how many around us have already put up their decorations and lights. No Advent for them! ‘Let’s get on with it!’ they seem to be saying. But, no; we wait. Before we can ‘get on with it’ we take time to consider what exactly it is we want to ‘get on’ with. That will let us know how best to prepare ourselves as well as our homes, schools and work-places.
The point I want to remind us of is that the God we worship has loved us so much that He sent His only Son to be born into this life to save us from sin. We are familiar with the stories of creation, and with the tragedy of our first parents being cast out of paradise because of their betrayal. But even there, God was merciful: When they were removed from the garden they were allowed to keep their souls, their longing for God and their hope of one day being welcomed back. Deep within each of us there is that memory of the garden; we know this life is not all there is.
The life of the disciple of Jesus must be different from the lives of those who do not know Him or choose to follow Him. If this is not the case, why did Our Lord spend so much time teaching? Why did He interrupt the routine of people’s lives, calling them away from work and home to listen to Him? Why did He send them out into the world with His mission if it did not hold a treasure that would bring new hearts to all who welcomed it?
Of course, there is the temptation that we think that different makes us better than others. That way lies pride and arrogance. It will be for the Lord alone to decide who is welcomed home. We are to be different because we love one another as He has loved us. We are to strive to be holy because the Lord our God is Holy. A simple understanding of holiness is to be different because the Lord our God is different. We must strive to be different as He is.
Some practical matters. Make a crib the centre of your home. Get it ready over these coming weeks. What an excellent work it would be for our school children to make simple cribs to be given out to homes across our parishes, especially to the housebound. (They could be cut out and coloured, or constructed out of plasticine or whatever is to hand) Families could work with the younger members to make them at home, adding to them and improving them each year.
Make Holy Mass the heart of your Christmas celebration, and I would like to see more people choosing to go on Christmas day as well as Midnight. I fear that COVID has made us lazier Catholics in that it can be more convenient to ‘go to Mass’ online. For some this is a necessity; others may be using it as an excuse not to dare to return to our parishes. Perhaps it is becoming an easier option. Our Lord deserves better than that after all He has done for us.
I fear I may be speaking too late for some of you . . . . . wait before you put up your decorations! And don’t be in a hurry to take them down! Christmastide can be celebrated up to the Feast of Candlemas (2nd February). And if people ask why you still have your decorations or cards up it gives you a good opportunity to tell them.
Remember the poor. Find some way of reaching out to those far less fortunate – and there are plenty of them – who see themselves as lost causes.
Confession. Another fear I have is that this wonderful Sacrament is becoming even more neglected. Bother your priests to find some way of enabling individual celebrations of Confession. It is there for our good. As well as forgiveness remember that it brings healing. The simplest of prayers need to be rediscovered, especially the Rosary, and Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat.
In so many ways you may appear out of step with those around you, offering a different way. That is good! Don’t be put off. The world needs to see that difference. Saving the planet begins with the work of saving our souls. Unless that happens any progress will be short-lived.
If we are to be ready for Christmas we must prepare to refresh our Faith. Like Mary, we must prepare ourselves to let Christ be conceived in us, be formed in us. We must give Him a place to grow and to be born, to be welcomed and to be known and loved just as Mary did. He comes to take away the sins of the world, to share our life for a time so that we might share His for eternity.
With my blessing on all who hear or read this letter, and particularly those who are in the greatest need at this time,
Rt Rev Paul Swarbrick
Bishop of Lancaster
21.11.21 ~ FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
14.11.21 ~ 33rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Thursday I was interviewed by Professor Linda Woodhead, a well-known leading sociologist, as part of a wide consultation on various aspects of life here in Fleetwood. There were five questions, the last one being, “If you had the opportunity to ask any question you like from an established and acknowledged person of wisdom, what would it be?” I had to think for a bit but then asked “How come that after the War, when we were on our knees economically, and rationing was in force, everything ran smoothly? We had free milk at school, a bus to take us there, plenty of Police walking the beat, well equipped Armed Forces and an NHS not strapped for cash. Now that we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world, little runs smoothly, and going to food banks is a way of life for many people. Then I said, “You’re a very wise person. What’s the answer?” One of her thoughts was that institutions, as they progress and get bigger, tend to concentrate on their infrastructure, and lose sight of their purpose. So, eg, in many professions, money that could pay to get much-needed boots on the ground, so to speak, is often spent on bigger and shinier admin offices.
This idea of losing sight of what is essential, is very much reflected in today’s scriptures in the context of what the purpose of our life is. Always at this time of the year, they deal with the second coming of Christ, often referred to as the end of the world, or the day of reckoning. At first sight, that looks like a pretty scary thing to contemplate. Daniel paints a picture of “A time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence, when some will awake to everlasting life and others to everlasting disgrace”. In the gospel Our Lord echoes his prophesy, leaving no doubt whatsoever, that there will come a great and terrible day, although no-one knows when that will be.
Because no-one knows when that will be, it’s very easy to think it never will, and so take our eyes off the ball. We live in a fast-moving, ever-changing world, often caught up in whatever is trending and, unintentionally perhaps, put eternal life on the back burner. This is not a new phenomenon. In the years 80-50 BC, many Jews living in the pagan world of Greek culture, with its pantheon of gods and idols, were quick to embrace what they saw as a more sophisticated and materially enriching life and so forgot the God who made them. That’s when and why the Book of Wisdom was written: not to condemn them for enjoying Greek culture, but to help them adapt in such a way that they could enjoy its benefits, without turning their back on God. In other words, to keep their eyes on the ball.
As I said earlier, talk of a time of great distress suddenly appearing out of the blue can be pretty scary, but that’s not it’s primary purpose. When Jesus talks of the sun being darkened and the moon losing its brightness, only for the day to be lit up by the coming of the son of Man, I wonder if he’s thinking of the day of his own death when the sky will turn black, only to be lit up three days later by the glory of the resurrection, and what that will mean for his followers. Don’t forget, he’s talking to people who believe that death is, literally, the end of the world for them, so he needs to give them hope that death is not the final arbiter. Its darkness will be overcome for all who put their faith in him. But he also knows eternal life is a gift easily lost. So, to concentrate our minds, he uses shocking images, as he often did, to shake us from our complacency, and encourage us to examine our priorities in life. If, instead of reacting positively to the signs of the times, eg climate change, we spend all our energy on building a monument to ourselves, we could be in for a rude awakening, and it could all happen in an instant. We could not only lose everything we have laboured for and built, but eternal life too. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his soul?”
Far from being meant to terrify us, today’s scriptures help, by reminding us that all the lovely things God has made - stars, sun, beautiful landscapes - will pale into insignificance when Christ comes again. So, it makes sense to stay focused on him at all times, enjoying things for what they are, but at the same time, being perfectly happy to drop everything when he calls us home.
07.11.21 ~ 32nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
There’s a lovely story of a man out walking in a remote area, who stumbles and falls off a huge cliff. Luckily, he manages to grab an overhanging branch. With no-one in sight to recue him, he cries out to God to save him. Amazingly, he hears a deep voice saying, “Let go of the branch. I will catch you”. “Who is that?” he shouts. “This is God. I heard your cry and I will save you, so let go of the branch”. The man thinks for a bit and then shouts back ”Is there anyone else up there?” In the story God is demanding total trust like that demanded of the poor widow of Sidon, when Elijah asked her to make a cake for him with the last handful of flour she had to live on. God will provide he promised. It's interesting that the miracle happened to a pagan woman in a pagan land, something that Jesus would recall when trying to show that salvation is meant for everyone, not just the chosen people.
Another widow features prominently in today’s gospel. She is in the same desperate straits as the lady in Sidon, but she also gives away all she had to live on, trusting, no doubt, in God to provide. Without a man, widows were dependent on other male relatives, if they had any, and in some circumstances would have been seen as just another mouth to feed. There was no such thing as an independent woman in those times. That’s why the early Church, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles, took very seriously its obligation to support widows. Having said all this, it’s quite ironic that these two widows, both with virtually nothing to give, show us what true generosity is.
In today’s gospel, Jesus contrasts their simple generosity with the ostentation of the Scribes and Pharisees. Why did they feel the need to show off? What can have happened to these good men whose vocation, under God, was to ensure justice and fairness for all? Now, they want to be greeted obsequiously in the streets, take the front seats in the synagogue and the place of honour at banquets. Could it be that, over the years, they had got so used to people’s respect for their high office in God’s service, that they misappropriated it to themselves? Similar things happened in the Army. Some Officers forgot that they were being saluted, not for who they were, but because they held the Queen’s Commission. In the Church too, we’ve had Prince Bishops and cardinals rejoicing in being addressed as Your Eminence, Your Grace, My Lord etc. Such clerical vanity does not impress Pope Francis, who is bent on bringing us back to being a much humbler Church.
The self-imposed status of the Pharisees had practical implications. As acknowledged experts in law it’s possible that they were charged with acting on behalf of widows, in regard to their deceased husband’s estate, prompting Our Lord’s accusation of swallowing widows’ property, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The word he uses for them on other occasions is Hypocrite. It reminded me of the time, as a newly ordained priest, I was filling in for the prison Chaplain in Preston. At Mass a young prisoner, with a very refined accent and perfect diction, read beautifully, and prayed throughout. I later remarked to the Chaplain what a nice bloke he was and asked what he was in for. “That Charmer” he said, “is a professional conman. He's doing five years for selling false insurance to elderly people and robbing them of their savings”. He certainly would have taken me in!
Some people think we’re hypocrites because we come to church, as if we’re here just to impress. I’m happy to say that in my experience very few people come to church to impress. Most of us come to Mass firstly to give, and what we give is ourselves. The gift that is offered on the altar, with the bread and wine, is our life of the past seven days. The successes we offer with joy, the failures we ask forgiveness for. We leave Mass with a blessing to love and serve the Lord in all he wants us to do for him and our neighbour in the week to come. That is not hypocrisy. Like the two widows we come before God not with a show of ostentatious piety, but in humble thanks for all our blessings, and in total trust that in handing our lives, with all its twists and turns, into his care, God will provide.
31.10.21 ~ FEAST OF ALL SAINTS
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Good morning, my fellow saints! Who thinks he/she is not a saint? Why not? Think of all the good you do and the bad things you avoid, as mentioned in last week’s anonymous letter. Add to that, we come here every week to confess our sins and ask forgiveness, and with God’s grace, to do our best. Fair enough, one big thing the letter said we were missing was making disciples, but we’re working on that! St Paul often addressed the early Christians as saints, so let’s look at what makes a saint.
At Bible share on Thursday we began the book of Tobit. Of all the people who ever walked this earth, and worshipped God with his life, doing everything the law required, Tobit was up there with the best. Even after being deported to Assyria, working in the King’s household, surrounded by pagan idols and culture, he continued to honour God unreservedly. This put him in great danger. Although it was forbidden, he began to go out secretly at night to bury Jews killed by Sennacherib, rather than leave them to be scavenged by wild animals. Even his fellow Jews mocked him for doing it, saying he must have a death wish. But for him, duty to God came first. Tobit’s story reminded me of Sir David Amess who also served in public life, as a brilliant MP, but never bowed to the will of the majority on Right to Life matters, for which he was greatly respected. He remained true to the gospel of life and was tragically murdered by someone who thinks it’s ok to kill innocent people in God’s name. Like Tobit, Sir David was a saint, fully engaged as a citizen of the world, but always aware that as our time here is a mere pinprick, when viewed in the light of eternity, it’s a good idea to keep our main focus on God. As St Thomas More said on the scaffold, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first”.
Being holy is not so much about making great resolutions, which human weakness will probably blow apart, but having the knack of being at ease with God, trusting in his love, trying, with his help, to live up to the ideals Jesus sets out in the Beatitudes. We think of saints as superstars, exempt from ordinary faults and failings, but they’re not. If you read the lives of some of them, you soon see that bad character faults were not always overcome, nor did their passion for what they were doing for God, allow them to suffer fools gladly. Not very Christlike, you might think, yet, through the grace of God, they and their gifts were used fruitfully in the service of the gospel. They were just ordinary people like us, trying their best to reply to the love our Father lavishes on his children, in spite of their sins. The image of a vast multitude shows that sainthood is not just for the chosen few, but open to all, even little old you and me. St John Vianney once said to his parishioners, “We should all arrive at the gates of heaven together, in procession, with the parish priest at the head!”
The Beatitudes are the first proclamation of the Good News, although it doesn’t feel like it when you read things like “Blessed are those persecuted in the cause of right, or when people abuse you, and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account”. But they are good news because they make very clear the approach to life God wants us to aspire to. They give us hope of what can be. If we manage even some of them, it shows that God’s blessing is working in us. As well as honouring the saints already in heaven, the feast of All Saints is also the celebration of what we, a mixture of saint and sinner, are in the process of becoming, the feast of the possible saint ie you and me. When St John wrote the Apocalypse for the early Christians, he made it very clear that in this world there is a conflict between the kingdom of God and Satan. In order to win they had to be holy in the way Jesus was holy, centered on God not the world. As with Tobit, this meant great danger, and as we saw with the Jews who mocked Tobit, they would be rejected by the world, and that would result in martyrdom for many of them under Roman persecution. But they did it, and so can we if we allow the Holy Spirit to keep us focused on the kingdom. If we do all we can to stay true to the gospel of life in spite of disappointments, the betrayal of friends, suffering for doing what we know is the right thing, missing out on promotion because of our principles, etc, we can take great consolation from Our Lord’s last words in today’s gospel “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven”
24.10.21 ~ 30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Last week, you may remember, the gospel was about the apostles, particularly James and John, jockeying for key positions in the kingdom Jesus was about to inaugurate. This week, the large crowd which left Jericho to go to Jerusalem with him for the Passover, seems to have the same idea as the apostles, that something spectacular was going to happen, and wanted to be part of it. They’d seen this new young Rabbi stir up a hornet’s nest with his teaching and miracles, and felt the old order was rapidly changing. No doubt they would have helped to organize his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, looking forward to him taking over the reins of power.
Along the way there would have been lots of beggars, hoping to cash in on the size of the crowd. Many would have been submissive, quiet, like some we see today with a tin and a bit of card saying, “Hungry. Please help.” Bartimeus was not one of them. As soon as he heard it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to roar until he made himself heard. With all the desperation of a drowning man, he understands immediately that he has one chance to change his life, and that if he misses it, he’ll never get another. The crowds tell him to shut up and scold him for daring to approach Jesus. As a blind person he’s obviously a sinner, not worthy, but he just shouts all the louder. I’m sure there would have been many other people calling out to Jesus for help, but it’s what Bartimeus shouts that could well be the reason he stops and calls him over. He shouts ‘Son of David’, only the second person in the gospels, after Peter, to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Strange that no-one else recognizes who he is, considering that, unlike Bartimeus, they will have seen the miracles Jesus did.
What’s interesting about this encounter is that Jesus asks Bartimeus what he wants him to do for him, as if it wasn’t obvious. He has to state what is lacking in his life. It’s almost as if Jesus is challenging not only his faith but what he will do with the gift of sight if he restores it to him. What was he like before he became blind? Was he a man who never saw or noticed other people’s needs? If he is cured will he change, will it bring him closer to God or will he live just for himself? Thankfully, Bartimeus was the real deal. He threw off his cloak, perhaps his only possession, and followed Jesus along the road, leaving behind his old life. His faith had saved him. Just a few days later, the very crowd who scolded him would adopt his acclaim of Jesus as the Messiah, when they sang out “Hosanna to the Son of David” on Palm Sunday.
“What is it you want me to do for you?” is a question most of us can relate to. We all have weaknesses which we need to expose humbly to Christ, and ask his help for, in a specific way, as Bartimeus had to. We also have many gifts to offer in spite of those weaknesses, but may need his help to open our eyes, as to how to use them in God’s service. Many of us were moved by the anonymous letter from a parishioner I read out after Mass last week. I shared it with a group of priests on line, and they all asked for a copy. It put into writing what many of us feel, about failing to take the good news into the world, where it is greatly needed, staying in our comfort zone, keeping Jesus to ourselves instead of sharing him with others. We all know the Church doesn’t exist for its members, but to make disciples. Why does it sometimes take an illness, or near death experience, to get me started on all the good I’d always meant to do? To use that well known cliché, life is not a rehearsal. So, if you want to do something beautiful for God, do it now. Don’t keep putting it off until you are not able to. Ask God to open our eyes to the opportunities to be salt to the earth and light to the world.
17.10.21 ~ 29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER FOR OUR SYNODAL JOURNEY
OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF 16/17 OCTOBER 2021 (or shared in whatever way is possible).
My dear People, Some of you may be aware that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has called the whole Church to take part in a ‘synodal journey’; I suspect that many of you may not be aware of this, and that several of you are not particularly interested, and that the majority will be asking what it is anyway!
At heart, a synod is to do with sharing a journey (from the Greek, ‘together’ ‘way’). From the Gospels and the life of the early Christians we can see that it came to mean more than just another meeting. It became a characteristic of the way the Church lived and worked together. Pope Francis does not want us to lose this characteristic. He is telling us that we all have a place in the life and Mission of Christ, and that each of us has something to say, something to contribute to that Mission. In particular, the Holy Father wishes us to have conversations that draw people to Jesus as well as to one another. Such conversations will actually help us hear the voice of God, and recognize the Word of God.
This first phase of preparation is to take place throughout the Diocese, please God, in all the parishes. We are invited to pray, speaking our mind (with respect and charity of course!), careful listening, discernment and openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The Bishops who meet in Rome in 2023 will have received your deliberations on the theme: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.
I can hear some saying that we have been hear before, and that our meetings so easily become talking shops. I disagree. At this time we are in a new place, where we have never been before. Time is passing. Also, those meetings are listening-shops, when we respect one another, and when we are open to hear what the other is saying.
I am asking all our parishes to pray for the success of the Synod of Bishops due to take place in October 2023. As well as praying for the Synod, I want parishes to meet and actually help form the Church, making it Fit for Mission for these times. We are already well on along the road so please don’t think we are still only at the beginning. Those who laboured before us did not do so in vain. There is much to be encouraged by.
Remember that we do not meet as some sort of Parliament body, disputing over policies. We meet as fellow pilgrims, working together for the good of all, and what enables us to do that is our hearing the Holy Spirit, and following Christ the Good Shepherd.
The questions received for our attention in this Diocesan phase are both wide ranging and significant for the life of both the Universal Church and for our own local Church that is the Diocese of Lancaster. They invite us to 1) deepen our sense of communion in our parishes and diocese, as well as with the wider Catholic Church and Holy Father, 2) to affirm our baptismal dignity together with the gifts and charisms we share through our parishes, work and family life, 3) to deepen our adult formation as disciples of Christ for His Mission, building on what we received and promised in Baptism and Confirmation.
Father Jim Burns has agreed to be the contact person for the Synod process. At this stage we are still organizing ourselves to send material out to parishes in more detail about how you participate in the process. Many of us still recall the intense and extensive Fit for Mission consultation. This will not be on that scale. I would prefer if we aim for something far briefer, especially given the continued restrictions on social life. Of course there will be opportunity to use online facilities, but these are not easy for some, and can weaken parish communities as well as strengthen them. Let’s look after our local parishes as best we can. Rather than splinter groups of particular interest I want us to unite.
Whatever is submitted from parishes will be collated into a single report limited to ten pages (although they never specified the font size!) to be received by the beginning of February 2022. These Diocesan reports will feed into the Conference of England and Wales, 22 Dioceses. These will be collated into a report that will be fed into the European continental body, gathering from the various nations. Obviously they will collate what they receive and feed a report to Rome in advance of the October Synod 2023. The more focused and clear we are the better.
More detailed information will come your way very soon. I ask parishes to give this matter significant priority, although do not let it distort what you are already actively engaged with. We will use the Diocesan Website, the Catholic Voice, and parish communications to help provide information. The principal documentation from the Holy See can be freely accessed directly at: https://www.synod.va/en.html
An old Medieval proverb stated that ‘What touches all ought to be considered and approved by all’. Approval by all sounds ambitious, but it is one Faith we adhere to, and One Church that shelters us. We know all too well how easy it is to become divided as families and as a Church. The greatest threat to any strong party will come from within its own ranks rather than from the opposition party. We face many crucial issues, and any one of them could cause the flock to be scattered if we lose our bond with the Good Shepherd. He gave His life for our salvation; let us not allow indifference to be our response to so great a gift.
With all my thanks, prayers and every blessing,
Bishop of Lancaster
10.10.21 ~ 28th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Money, money, money, must be funny in a rich man’s world. Money makes the world go round. Money can’t buy everything that’s true, but what money can’t buy I can’t use, give me money, that’s what I want. No prizes for guessing what today’s scriptures are about.
You will probably have heard of the recent buy out of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia for £305 million, making it the most expensive football club in the world. The reaction on Tyneside has been mixed. Lots of Geordies have been dancing around St James’ Park with tea towels on their heads, but other fans are not happy with the deal. One guy on the radio wondered, in relation to the Saudi’s appalling record on human rights, would the half time entertainment now be a couple of beheadings? Another fan acknowledged the human rights question, but said he wanted quality football at St James, and money was the only way to get it. These very different approaches to such immense wealth reminded me of the story of a Butler ringing his Lordship, in the middle of winter while he was away skiing, with bad and good news. The bad news was that everything his master owned had gone up in flames, house, stables, collection of classic cars everything. Shell-shocked and devastated the Lord asked “What’s the good news?” to which the butler replied, “Well Sir, it would appear the intense heat generated by the fire, has brought the spring bulbs on earlier than usual”.
So, on to the gospel story of the rich young man. I think we will all be familiar with the experience of seeing someone’s face fall at the reception of bad news, especially if everything in the garden of that person’s life is rosy. An unexpected death of a friend, or close relative, would be a typical example guaranteed to spoil your day. Another example is being asked to do something so difficult that it cuts the ground from beneath you. Imagine the face of Abraham whose greatest wish, for so many years, to have a son, had been fulfilled, when God said, “Abraham, I want you to sacrifice your son, your only son Isaac”. His blood must have run cold. The reaction of the rich young man is similar. The happiness he derives from a life which seems to have been perfect in so many ways, both materially (he was a man of great wealth) and spiritually (“Master I have kept all these commandments from my earliest days”), is shattered by the sacrifice Jesus asks of him. No wonder his face fell.
The problem with being extremely rich, is that you can believe that money can buy anything. CS Lewis wrote: “One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give, and so fail to realize your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are, at every moment, totally dependent on God”. This is what Jesus was trying to tell the young man, who knew that everything had its price. His idea of being able to inherit eternal life was based on being able to earn it by doing something. He is quite pleased when Jesus commends him on the way he has kept the 7 commandments on love of neighbour, but when he asks him to focus on the 3 commandments, asking us to put all our trust in God rather than wealth, as the one thing he lacks, his face falls. He was sad, but so was Jesus, for here was a really good man, but not one who had meditated on today’s first reading, which says “I prayed, and Wisdom came to me. Compared with her, all gold is a pinch of sand, and beside her silver ranks as mud”. Wisdom is the Word of God which cuts through the skin, bone and gristle of worldly distractions, like money, right to the heart of the matter, to what is really important.
The heart of the matter is that salvation is a free gift, and the way to receive it is to trust God completely and let go of anything which gets in the way of it. Even though none of us is extremely rich, we should still cultivate the virtue of detachment. That doesn’t mean to say that we can’t enjoy any good fortune that comes our way, but not at the expense of forgetting the God who made us, keeps us in being, and will give us the overwhelming richness of eternal life. As the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It is only with gratitude that life becomes richer”.
03.10.21 ~ 27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
One of my favourite films is Kes. I think I may have mentioned it before. There’s a wonderful scene on a cold, wet, windy day, rather like the last few days here, of a school football match. None of the kids really want to play, and stand around freezing to death, while the tubby PT teacher, who’s also the referee, runs rings round them with the ball, imagining he’s Bobby Charlton. He falls over, claims he was tripped, and awards himself a penalty which he takes, scores and then does a lap of honour.
The theme of today’s scriptures is marriage, and reading through them, that scene of the teacher changing the rules to his own advantage, struck a chord, because that is what Jewish men in the Old Testament had done in respect to marriage. In Jewish Law, husband and wife were not equal: the woman is the property of her husband, a possession among others. But that’s not how it was in the beginning. Over time, they had reduced God’s vision of a community of life and love, as Vat II puts it, to a purely legalistic contract, concluded or annulled by human regulations. The husband simply had to hand his wife a writ of dismissal. A woman had no claim to the fidelity of her husband, who could not therefore in juridical terms, be accused of adultery. (Think of that poor woman caught in the act of adultery and thrown down in front of Jesus, to see if he would say she should be stoned to death. There’s no mention of the man involved although everyone knows it takes two to tango).
As we see in Genesis, there’s no way God intended such inequality. When the Pharisees tested Jesus about divorce, to see if he would contradict Moses, the great Lawgiver, he replied, “It was because you were so unteachable that Moses allowed you to divorce”. In other words – you wore him down. He did it for the sake of peace and quiet; it was only a concession. Divorce was never in God’s plan. “From the beginning he made them male and female, and what God has united, man must not divide”. However, as Jesus cannot deny that divorce is a reality, he can at least, strike a blow for the equality of women. He says that any man who divorces his wife and takes up with another is now also guilty of adultery. So, he couldn’t be clearer, on presenting marriage as the indissoluble unity of two persons who commit themselves as equals. To use a popular modern phrase, it’s about leveling up. The same goes for his teaching about children. Having no status, rights or power, children are receptive – everything is gift. Back in the house the disciples are told they must be equally receptive, not relying on the power and status they have as men. Jesus insists that a person’s significance is not gauged by power, strength, influence or status, but by how close they are to the kingdom”.
Jesus’ words on divorce are quite challenging because they emphasize that marriage is not based on convenience or personal satisfaction but on commitment. The ideal is the imitation of Christ’s love for the Church for whom he laid down his life. To create a beautiful relationship, sacrifices have to be made. It’s clear that God did not want his creation of marriage to be abused by selfish indulgence, to the extent that it becomes seen as a temporary state, valid only until it becomes tiresome, inconvenient, or until a better offer comes along. This is a real challenge to our culture today where fickleness and egocentric choice often dominate, and where some people change their partners like they change their socks.
In forbidding divorce, Jesus is recovering God’s original plan for marriage. He intended it to be a partnership for life. However, life isn’t always that straightforward and divorce is sometimes inevitable. If one of the partners is weak through drink, infidelity, laziness or cruelty, it can cause a great deal of suffering, and nobody has to endure that. Divorce is not something that people expect or want from marriage, but it happens, often bringing heartache and pain. We all know people who have experienced such pain, often through no fault of their own. It can happen to anyone and is a great pity when it does. It follows, then, that we as Christians, should do all we can to help those who need both emotional and practical support, as they try to get their lives back on track.
26.09.21 ~ 26th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On radio 4 the other day there was a long article about an 18yr old girl who gave birth in jail, locked up in her cell. The baby died. There was a huge amount of sympathy from people phoning in. Many spoke of their own heartbreak in losing a child to miscarriage, cot death or a rare illness. Not one of them described the loss of a fetus, or a less-than-perfect baby, but only of a child. Next day, a young Downs Syndrome woman lost her case against the law which allows Downs children to be aborted up till birth. Ironically, then, came the wonderful news that that the BBC has taken on its first Downs Syndrome presenter, 20yr old George Webster. How is it that we can have two such diametrically opposed views on the value, or lack of it, of a human life? There’s something missing in the national psyche about the reality of sin and its destructive power, which today’s scriptures pick up on.
As we see in the first reading, St James has a real go at the rich - for two reasons: unbridled wealth is often the fruit of injustice, and it badly affects the poor. For example, in 2008 a firm called Auden Mackenzie took over the manufacture of hydrocortisone from MSD, which used to sell 30 tablets of 20mg for £1.07. Auden McKenzie, slowly increased the price until by 2010, it was £51.25 for exactly the same thing. Because hydrocortisone is essential for the survival of many patients, the NHS simply paid the increased cost. The price continued to rise annually until in 2017, it reached £147. Luckily, another firm called Genesis Pharmaceuticals, obtained a marketing licence, and began competing. Their hydrocortisone became available in November 2017, and the price gradually fell from £147 until now it’s only £3.55 for a month’s supply. Exploitation of the NHS, so all of us, on a grand scale.
Unbridled wealth is about power, not necessarily the power that money and status bring, but the power to do what you want over the rights of those who have no power. In the gospel Jesus is not quite so in your face as James, about the miseries those who exploit, or cause pain to others for personal gain, have got coming, but the message is the same. We don’t hear many sermons on hell, in case it gives the impression that our God is a vengeful God, bent on punishing us for our sins, but in today’s gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that, whether we like it or not, Hell is a distinct possibility. Hell is not God’s choice for us. He would rather have us all in heaven with him, but as I said last week, he has entrusted us with free will, so the choice is always ours.
So, how does someone choose Hell? Before I answer that, it’s very important to know that one-off sins, even the most deadly mortal sins, committed out of weakness, can be forgiven, through the sacrament of confession. God’s mercy and compassion is always available to those who seek it. However to choose to deliberately, persistently and fully consciously, live in a permanent state of sin, without repenting, could well bring about eternal suffering, and the complete utter loss of God, from whom we came, and with whom we are invited to spend eternity, in never-ending happiness. What’s even worse is if those people lead others astray, especially the young. So concerned is Jesus about this that he uses very strong language on how they should be dealt with. They should have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea.
Nobody in their right mind wants to go to Hell and nobody has to. He doesn’t really want us to pluck our eyes out and cut off our hand, but to be conscious of what causes us to sin and take measures to prevent it. We have been given our bodily parts to use in God’s service. One day we will be asked to give an account of their use. Were my hands used to caress, soothe, help someone up or more often clenched into fists, or raised in anger to strike? Did my eyes look on others with compassion and understanding, or were they filled with lust or jealousy? Was my mouth a source of inspiration and wisdom, or did I give scandal to those little ones by malicious gossip or badmouthing people? Did I use my mind to discern where God is in all that’s going on, or to justify the things I do wrong? As it says in the Book of Deuteronomy, “See today I lay before you life and death: therefore choose life”.
19.09.21 ~ 25th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
At Bible share on Thursday we began to look at the Book of Esther. Esther is a member of the Jewish race taken into captivity in Babylon. But she’s also very beautiful, and when King Ahasuerus needs a new Queen, she is the one selected from all the girls paraded before him. On selection, her uncle Mordecai instructs her to tell no-one that she is Jewish. This was for her own safety, as, in order to survive, the Jews kept a low profile and tried to blend in with the Babylonian culture. This didn’t stop some of them from staying faithful to the God of Israel, and, in fact, because of Mordecai’s refusal to bow down and reverence a pagan idol, things got very dangerous, not just for him, but for all his people. If you want to know what happens next come to Bible Share.
It’s tricky trying to stick to your faith when surrounded by people who don’t have it. When I joined the Army I lived in a Cavalry Officers Mess. Not only was I the only priest, but I was one of only two Catholics out of thirty others, none of them particularly religious, and many awkward and difficult questions came my way. I was often put on the spot to explain the Church’s teaching on some of the more controversial issues. However, that did give me the opportunity to say what we Catholics are about. Many people think it’s dead easy to be a Catholic. All you have to do is say a few prayers, maybe go to church occasionally, or jump through a few religious hoops to get your child into Catholic school. But that’s not enough to connect with God in a deep, life-giving way. Being a true Christian is a lot tougher. We are to love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, speak out for justice, lobby our MP on pro-life issues, put our faith into practice. “Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine, must take up his cross and follow me”.
On the issue of taking up the cross, people sometimes question how such a loving God could ask his beloved son to go through such an horrendous ordeal. Why did Jesus need to suffer? I think it’s all to do with the fact that God created us in his own image and likeness, ie endowed with reason and the ability to choose. Having made that decision, he will never take away our free will. But he also knew that if people exercise that freedom to choose sin, then war, hatred, rivalry will always be a part of the human experience. So, although he could have used his power to subdue and make everyone conform to his will, he chose the more difficult way of appealing to the better nature of each individual person to choose good over evil. What he says is this: “I’m going to show you the way to combat evil with love, even when in extreme suffering. When you’ve seen how love conquers fear, and if you want to do the same, then pick up your cross and follow me”.
Referring back to Jesus’ question of what we discuss on the road of our lives, St James, as always, is useful. He points out that all wars and battles between men first start in the desires fighting inside them, the biggest desire being for greatness. Even the apostles were infected with it. These were lowly men dreaming of advancement, prestige and power in what they expected would be the new earthly kingdom. They know that all are equal in the sight of God, but that didn’t stop them arguing their case for why they should be top dog. It reminded me of communism. Yes, all men are equal, but does the peasant in his rice field, or the democracy protesters in Hong Kong, feel they are the equal of Xi Jinping or the party representatives in the Great Hall of the People? Clearly, as a Christian we should not covet authority and power, but if it comes our way, through promotion at work or whatever, our discussion should be how best to serve others in need with the skills we have to offer.
Choosing to use any power we have to serve, rather than for our own ends, is to challenge the way of the world, especially when we come up against the philosophy of ‘You must look after number one’. ‘Charity begins at home’ or ‘they’re not like us so why should we help?’ To accept Our Lord’s challenge to take up our cross, is to accept that suffering may be part of our discipleship. To do it willingly, is to know we are truly following in his footsteps, he who is the way the truth and the life.
12.09.21 ~ 24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
As some of you may know, I get the Sunday Times, mainly for the cryptic crossword I have to admit. It’s an ordinary Sunday newspaper with the usual content you’d expect, but sometimes there’s something you wouldn’t expect to see in an overtly secular newspaper. Rod Liddle who writes the comment page, is usually quite scathing about the latest fads, and often lampoons political correctness. This week he was bemoaning the loss of the values we used to have in the 70s. I don’t know if he is particularly religious, but this is what he wrote: “Bring back Jesus. He’s terribly unfashionable, yet many of today’s social problems are the consequence of the hole left by the swift eviction of Christianity from our lives. The decline of the nuclear family and the growth of single parenting. The rise of a non-judgmental relativism, the abandonment of deferred gratification. Community spirit replaced by an almost endless clamouring about gender identity. The lack of a clear distinction between right and wrong – instead, it’s “My truth” versus “Your truth”. None of this says that the 70s were a Utopia. They clearly weren’t. But before we became a secular state, the rules were clearer and easier to follow, and so, by and large, we followed them. The problem with the secular state is that nothing fills the hole left by the loss of Christianity”.
Of course, you and I know that Christianity has not disappeared from our land, but if people think it has, then maybe we are not being as up front as we should be in proclaiming it. In a webinar on inviting and welcoming people back to post pandemic church, the Bishop of Northampton said we have to let go of timidity. He used the word “Paresia” which means “Bold and confident”. He’s right, and we have a lot to be bold and confident about. For example, Catholic Social Teaching is admired around the world, and often borrowed from by political leaders. Why is that? Because its core message is all about working for the common good, the antidote to individualism, and what leader, who really had the interest of his people at heart, would not want to see people asking what can I do for my country, rather than what can my country do for me? Pope Francis too is a beacon of hope for a world which has lost its bearings, drawing on the strength of the gospel and the richness of our Apostolic Tradition, to focus our common humanity on what the really important issues are.
So, we should be proud of our Faith, and not be afraid of sharing it, as a way of helping people to deal with many of the social problems Rod Liddle highlighted in his article. After all, we know from experience that it works: people of faith generally cope much better when the shadow of the cross falls across their path. They suffer the same pain as anyone else, but the inner strength they get from their relationship with Christ somehow gets them through, so why not invite people to share this wonderful gift of faith? We received without charge, so we should give without charge. If we want to show people like Rod Liddle that Christianity is still alive and well and living in England, St James’ letter today is a good place to start. There’s a story told of an itinerant preacher giving an outdoor sermon on ‘love thy neighbour’ to an enthusiastic crowd. When he thinks he has them all in the palm of his hand he shouts “Do you believe? “Yes, we believe” So, if you had two houses would you give one to the poor?” “Yes” they all shout back. “Two cars?” “Yes” they roar. “Two shirts”? Not a sound, because everybody had two shirts! As James says, Faith not put into action is quite dead.
A faith which is never realized in good deeds remains purely theoretical or abstract. Many people say they believe in God, and some even study the Bible to learn more about him, but no amount of acquired knowledge will replace having a personal relationship with him, which is not hard to do. My relationship with Jesus is very simple. I talk with him every morning. Before I write a homily I ask him what he wants me to pass on to you. While I have his undivided attention, during thanksgiving after communion, I mention by name those for whom I am offering the Mass. Each day I ask his help in what he wants me to do. Most of you probably do the same. When faith comes from a truly personal relationship with Christ, it does the work he wants us to do, and this gives proof that it is alive.
05.09.21 ~ 23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
While watching the news the other night, I was particularly struck by a woman in Louisiana, tears rolling down her cheeks, telling how her house and car had been swept away in the floods, and that she’d lost everything. The sad irony was that she was wearing a tee shirt with the words “Laissez les bon temps rouler” – let the good times roll. Good times they certainly were not for her. As we all know, we are reaching a critical time for taking action against Climate Change. Many world leaders, including Pope Francis, will be in Glasgow in November for the Cop26 talks. Even climate change sceptics, and petrol heads like Jeremy Clarkson, now acknowledge, grudgingly perhaps, that we have a serious problem. For those who still deny it, they only have to look at the disruptive weather patterns which are causing chaos, not only in impoverished countries like Haiti, but in the US too.
When disaster strikes, how do you cope, not just physically but mentally? You certainly need courage and you need perseverance. Today’s quote from the prophet Isaiah was written at a time when the Israelites were going through a terrible time of oppression by their Edomite captors. They can see no way out; their hearts are faint. But Isaiah says to them “Courage! Do not be afraid. Look your God is coming”. His message is rich in promise of the good times to come. These trials will not last forever, and your life will be better than it was before. The Messiah will change everything, but he could be a long time a coming. In the meantime they need courage, and never to give up hope.
I watched a film a few weeks ago of a family who got caught up in a terrorist attack in Cambodia. As the terrorists began killing all foreigners, they fled to the roof of the hotel, where the only escape was to leap across a 6’ gap 50’ above the ground. Terrified but screamed at by her husband, the wife made the leap. He then threw their children across the gap to her, then took a flying leap himself. Eventually they made it in a stolen boat to the safety of Vietnam. It was a story of personal courage born out of desperation and fueled by adrenalin. Courage is one of the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, specifically designed to help us to do the right thing, regardless of the pressure we’re under, and no doubt we’ve all had to exercise it at times when speaking up for ourselves or against injustice.
Personal courage is one thing, but what about when it’s needed on a national or universal scale? Not so easy to exercise. The oppression the Israelites suffered under the Edomites, has been repeated many times throughout history, and today is playing out for real in Afghanistan, in scenes we see on tele reminiscent of that film I saw. Sadly, many will not make it to the safety of Pakistan, England, Canada or the US. Those who are left will, like the Israelites, languish in exile for God knows how long. So, they will need to hear Isaiah’s same message of hope, from those of us in the free world, that one day things will get better. Clearly many of you have been greatly moved by their plight. I have a mountain of supplies in my hallway for the refugees. And things will get better.
History shows that, like all despotic regimes which make life unbearable for their people, there will come a time when they will be toppled, either by armed insurrection, or through the perseverance of good people who will keep plugging away for a change of heart in their oppressors. Just think how long it took for the abolitionists to finally outlaw slavery. Just down the road from Giant Axe field in Lancaster, where many Catholic martyrs were executed, now stands our Diocesan Catholic cathedral. Catholic emancipation took 350 years, but we got there. Remember Martin Luther King’s final speech. “I have seen the promised land. I might not get there with you”. He didn’t. He was shot dead the next day. But they did get there. Not long after his death segregation became illegal. God will never allow evil, even when it is rampant, to triumph over good forever. So, perhaps today we could offer a prayer for our Afghanistan brothers and sister to have courage, as they await God’s coming, however long that might be. Let’s also pray that in the meantime, they will be able to live a semi-normal life without persecution, and not lose all the freedoms gained over the last 20 years.
29.08.21 ~ 22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
There’s a clip going the rounds of a lady doing the theory part of her driving test. The examiner asks “You see an old man and a little kid in front of you. What do you hit? She answers “The old man: after all the kid has his whole life in front of him”. Then he says “The brakes. You hit the brakes”!
That story illustrates how easy it is, in everyday life, to miss the point, and missing the point is very much the theme of today’s scriptures. In Deuteronomy we see that God is not honoured by adding a multiplicity of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ to the Law he has given Moses, but by the way we put our hearts into the way we serve him. The apostle James says the same thing and gives us a great example of how to put our heart into serving God – “Pure unspoilt religion in God’s eyes, is coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it”, something we intend to do for those poor people fleeing Afghanistan who need our help right now, as you’ll see at the end of Mass.
In the gospel, the fact that the Pharisees and scribes have come all the way from Jerusalem to check out what Jesus was teaching, means they are taking very seriously what they’ve been hearing of his ‘cavalier’ approach to the Law, such as hob-nobbing with tax collectors and sinners, and allowing his apostles to pick ears of grain on the Sabbath. Now they ask him why his disciples break the tradition of the elders by eating with unwashed hands, but Jesus says tradition’s got nothing to do with it. Their problem is that they have added so many customs and human regulations to the traditional Law of Moses, that they have become more important than true worship of God. Their idea was to make religion inseparable from daily life, not a bad one in theory, but, as Frank Carson used to say, “It’s the way you tell ‘em”, and tying people down to all these add-ons, rather than helping them to worship in spirit and in truth was never going to convince the true believer. As we know, the Taliban want to make religion inseparable from daily life, by imposing unessential peripheral customs, eg full-grown beards for men and the hijab for women, but no-one, in their right mind, thinks it’s a good idea to force people, through fear of torture or death to conform to those customs. What’s the point of a religion like that if their hearts are not in it? It would be mere lip service.
In his latest book, ‘Let us Dream’ which I am reading for the second time – it’s that good - Pope Francis says “In the history of the Church, there have always existed groups who feel superior to the Body of Christ. In our own time there are those who will not accept Vatican II. In every case what marks them out is rigidity, an attempt to cling on to something petty, which eventually turns into an ideology. In this way they justify withholding themselves from the forward march of the people of God. Rather than throwing themselves into the great task of evangelizing our world, in communion with the whole Body of Christ, they remain huddled in “their” group of purists, self-appointed guardians of the truth, staying on the balcony while real life passes below”. Rigidity is not tradition.
Customs and things peripheral to our Faith are not tradition either. Languages change as do words. When I was a boy, Gay meant happy. ‘Tradition’ is to hand on what we have received, not what we have added on. We Christians did not invent our faith. It was handed on to us by the apostles who in turn received it from the Son of God himself. The essential, foundational truths of our Faith cannot change, but they do develop, taking account of the signs of the times, because in every generation, and indeed in every culture, they are received in a different context. Human society never stays still – it is always developing. Our task, then, is to listen, understand and interpret God’s word for today, so that we can faithfully hand on the treasure we have received, as fully and clearly as we can.
The way to do that is not to get hung up on human regulations or outward shows of piety, but to love God and our neighbour from the heart, the place where the decisions we make as free human beings are taken, the place where true religion and commitment to God lies.
22.08.21 ~ 21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Joshua’s challenge “Choose today whom you wish to serve” (false gods or the one true God) came after a long speech, in which he outlined, in some detail, all that God had done for them, including their triumphal entry into the Promised Land, where they are now. The people answered, “Are you mad? It’s a no-brainer. We will serve the Lord, for he is our God”, a response which has echoes of a footballer kissing the badge on his shirt, as a symbol of undying loyalty to the club and the fans – ie until a better offer comes along. As you know the Israelites were forever changing sides, so to speak.
In the history of the eternal Covenant God has made with his people, this is a real turning point. The people are free to return to the gods they worshipped in Egypt, or to adapt to the pagan gods of the Amorites, among whom they will now settle. It’s a tricky one, because to remain faithful to the God of Israel, is to live by different values and customs from the neighbours, which nearly always causes problems, as we know only too well from what’s happening in Afghanistan right now. Moderate Muslims who have adapted to modern living, with education for girls, listening to music and women allowed to work, are faced with the terrifying prospect of having to live under strict Sharia Law, which includes hand amputation for stealing and stoning to death for adultery. It''s interesting that the Law doesn’t seem to apply to the Taliban themselves, who commit adultery by stealing other men’s wives, and kill without mercy those whom they judge not to be on message.
Another major turning point in life for many is the commitment to marriage. The way St Paul puts it is that the union of man and wife is so holy a mystery, that it symbolizes the marriage of Christ and his Church, which is the model put before every engaged couple, as they prepare to make their life- long commitment to their partner. Husband and wife must think less of themselves as individuals and more of each other as a couple. Recently in the parish, we have seen wonderful examples of this commitment in the celebration of three long-lasting wedding anniversaries of many years standing.
In the gospel there’s a major turning point for the followers of Jesus. These are not the Jews who were hostile to Jesus and always gave him a hard time, but his disciples, over 5000 of whom had followed him to this lonely place. Now, they are asked to choose. Will they turn away and join the ranks of the unbelievers, or will they give themselves freely and without reservation to Christ? As we see, most find what Jesus is proposing intolerable and do walk away. So, when the whole world is against you, what do you do? Normally you turn to your family, your closest friends, those who’ll stick by you, but in this case I wonder if he had a premonition of how they would all abandon him at the crucifixion when all but one of them ran away. “What about you: do you want to go away too?”
Everything Jesus has worked for hangs on their response to his question. So, imagine the relief and sheer joy of hearing “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. In the face of near total rejection from the huge crowd, it’s a phenomenal act of faith, because, at this stage, they have only had a glimpse that Jesus has the message of eternal life. They know nothing of the resurrection, and have no idea what he means when he says “What if you should see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before?” Yet that glimpse is enough for them to commit their lives to him.
“What about you?” is a question Christ asks of all his disciples, in a world which largely rejects the gospel. Like Joshua, he always leaves us free to go, and many have gone. It’s understandable that people find it easier to blend in with what’s trending on social media, than keep to what the Church teaches. You can like or dislike without committing to anything. Just don’t speak up for what you truly believe if the ‘Thought Police’ are telling you different. But, that’s not the Christian way. Our priority is always to speak up for justice, peace and mercy, the words of eternal life Jesus has asked us to proclaim, and we must stay faithful to them because “We know he is the Holy One of God”
15.08.21 ~ ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
As I was writing notes for this homily, a phrase we use in Lancashire came to me: “First up, best dressed’. Mary was first to be assumed into heaven and must certainly be the best dressed as the Queen of Heaven in the glory of all the saints. Yesterday we celebrated the feast of one of the saints sharing her glory, St Maximilian Kolbe who, incidentally, had a lifelong devotion to her. He gave his life for a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz. After weeks of being starved, he was injected with a lethal dose of carbolic acid on August 14th, the eve of the Assumption. I’m sure Mary will have prayed for him at the hour of his death, then welcomed him home in time to celebrate her great feast in the kingdom of heaven. Such is the inspiration Mary, the perfect servant of Christ, can provide for us.
Although today we are celebrating her triumphant assumption to heaven, her true greatness is to be found in her faith. Like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and most of the prophets, who, like her, had seemingly impossible tasks to do, she kept her faith and trust in God. Although she wasn’t called to be a public figure like them, she is certainly not a passive figure. On being told of the significance of the child which she would conceive through the Holy Spirit, she gave her consent freely. To human eyes she is simply a young village girl, probably not well educated but, in God’s eyes, the supreme representative of humanity. Together they created the Saviour of the world.
The significance of what God is doing is not lost on her, as we see in her outpouring of praise for him in the Magnificat, to which there are two parts – her own and the rest of humanity’s. As a lowly handmaid of the Lord, she is overwhelmed to have been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, and praises God because he has done great things for her: “From this day forward, all generations will call me blessed”. In the second part she tells us that what God did for her is available to us too. “His mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him”. In other words, God raises up all the poor and lowly who recognize their need for him. As for the proud of heart, those who think they have no need of God, they will routed, pulled down from their self-made thrones.
Because of Mary’s faithfulness, she is called the Archtype of the Church. That means she is the image of all the Church should be. When the infant church is about to be gobbled up by the seven headed dragon of Rome, the only thing it had was trust in the words of Jesus who told Peter “The gates of hell will never prevail against her”. Mary had already been there when her infant son was in danger from the murderous King Herod. All she had was trust God’s words that they would be safe in Egypt. Throughout her life as the handmaid of the Lord she is our model of perfect discipleship.
Now a slight diversion to do with the importance of women. After the finding of Jesus in the Temple, we don’t hear too much about Mary, apart from her intervention at Cana and her presence at the foot of the cross. I’m not sure if she followed Jesus during his public ministry. Maybe she was happy to entrust him to the care of the women who provided for him on his travels. Many priests like me can identify with that. I left my mothers’ care, and ever since have been looked after by women. Not only have they made meals, knitted jumpers and wooly hats for me, they’ve also taken a lead in liturgy, teaching, and helped me with the pastoral care of the church. We all know how much every parish benefits from what our talented ladies give. Maybe when we have that silent pause at the end of the bidding prayers, we could all pray for a woman who has made a real difference to our life.
But back to today’s feast, which is really about the joy of heaven. As Paul teaches in the second reading, Christ is the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. After him, all those who belong to him, starting with his beloved mother, but including every one of us. If, like her, we stay faithful to her Son, no matter what life throws at us, or how lowly or unworthy we feel, we know that we too will one day be with Mary our mother in the glory of all the saints.
08.08.21 ~ 19th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
When my family lived in Germany we often went to the swimming pool in the summer. One day my dad decided to dive off the high board, but when he got up there, it looked a lot higher than it did from below, so he tried to come back down again, but there was a queue, so he had to dive. All I can say is that it wasn’t Tom Daly at his best; more of a resounding belly flop. My dad was my hero at the time, so when he eventually surfaced, some distance from where he went in, I shouted “Do it again Dad!” Dad never did teach me to dive, but he did teach me to ride a bike, gaining my trust by holding onto the saddle and running with me, until eventually he let go and I found myself peddling solo.
My experience of a parent taking time to gently draw a child on to achieving a skill, is something most people will have experienced, either from their own parents, or from others with their parents’ support. It’s natural for a parent to draw a child on, gently allowing for their disappointments, fear or mistakes. For example, one of the stand-out moments at the Olympics this week, was the bronze medal won by 13yr old Sky Brown for skateboarding, made more amazing by the fact that she broke her skull just a year ago, in a horrific fall. When interviewed, she made it very clear that without her parents’ encouragement she would never have got to where she is now.
In today’s gospel, like the parents in the examples I’ve just given, God our Father wants to teach us something new, which we can only learn from the one he has sent, his Son. Jesus says, “No-one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me. To hear the teaching of the Father, and learn from it, is to come to me”. But the people are not willing to listen to his son, because they conclude that he’s just too human to be God, too much like us. You can understand where they are coming from. They know his family and his background, and I suppose it doesn’t help that, for 30 years, he has eaten the same bread as them, which is incapable of saving us from death, no matter how much we eat. So, when he tries to teach them that he is the bread of eternal life that a man may eat and not die, they will not accept him, and many of them walk away.
Many of our contemporaries have also walked away, so what is it that keeps us coming here every week to be fed with the bread of life? Well, if we were lucky enough to have parents who, during our formative years, gave us the opportunity to be drawn by the Father to his son Jesus, we have been given an unshakeable foundation on which to build a focused and stable life. And that’s really something, because History shows that we live in a world forever in turmoil of one kind or another. Some peoples’ way of coping is to pretend it’s not happening by creating a diversion. When the Roman Empire began to crumble, their rulers ordered that Bread and Circuses should be maintained at all costs. So long as the people had food and entertainment, they would be happy. We too have food in abundance and an unbelievable array of leisure activities, even on Sundays. The Olympics and Jack Grealish’s transfer to Man City for £100m, have, for a brief time, taken our minds off climate change, Covid 19, China’s persecution of the Uighars, Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and all sorts of other problems which need fixing, and we know bread and circuses can’t do that.
So, how does receiving the Body of Christ help us with all this? For us it’s the antidote to indifference because it’s full of all those life-giving qualities which last forever – love, acceptance, forgiveness and healing, which is food to so many people starved of affection, burdened by failure, or let down by those in whom they put their trust. It keeps us focused on where we are going and how to get there. If we’re being fed by his word regularly and opening our hearts to let him in at Holy Communion, it’s more than likely that, having Christ alongside, will help us to keep things in perspective. For anyone who used to, but no longer feels the need to receive the bread of life, it might be worth re-considering what a tremendous grace it is, to have an intimate relationship with the Son of God, who gave himself for the life of the world. If you do, be assured that Our Lord will always be here in the Blessed Sacrament to welcome you home. God never takes back his gifts once given.
01.08.21 ~ 18th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
I was listening to a song the other day called ‘Man don’t cry’, which came out in the late 80s, about John McCarthy, who, at the time, was being held hostage in Beirut by Islamic Jihad. During their 5yr imprisonment, he and fellow hostage, Brian Keenan, used to fantasize about food, as a way to avoid thinking of the same old dish of rice they actually received. John’s favourite fantasy was of a school pudding - apricot crumble and custard. In today’s reading from Exodus, we see similar fantasizing going on by the Israelites in the wilderness, about the pans of meat, and bread which they ate to their heart’s content, back in Egypt. They complain to Moses that even slavery was better than this. How soon people forget! It’s only about 6 weeks since Moses led them out of slavery, brought them across the Red Sea to safety, and gave them water from the rock. If they’d stopped to think, all those events should have taught them that God will provide food too. As we see later, he certainly did.
The problem with the Israelites is they’re not really listening, in the sense of understanding, to what God is doing. The whole point of leading the Israelites into the desert was so that they could learn to trust him. If they had referred back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the other Patriarchs, they would have remembered, that teaching people to trust in a wisdom far greater than their own, is how God works. Even Jesus himself, before he began his public ministry, spent forty days in the desert, where he learned to put his trust completely in God, by overcoming the Devil’s temptations.
In St John’s gospel, Jesus often engages someone in a conversation which is clearly operating at two levels. So, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well thinks he is offering her ordinary drinking water and says it’s brilliant that she won’t have to come to the well anymore, in the heat of the day, to collect it, whereas he is using the image of water, which gives life, to talk of the Holy Spirit. In today’s encounter, at the obvious level, the people have had bread to eat and they want more, like their ancestors got from Moses, but Jesus is on another level. Life is about far more than simply satisfying physical needs. So, he talks of the bread which lasts forever, something far superior, and only available through faith in him. They too, like the Israelites, must learn to trust. In both these cases, and in all his encounters, Jesus is looking for a personal response and commitment to himself – “This is working for God; you must believe in the one he has sent. I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst”.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, which we eat every time we receive Holy Communion. For those few minutes we see beyond the appearances of bread and wine, to the reality of his presence within us, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. We call it “God’s greatest gift”, and in receiving it, we are responding to the personal, intimate encounter with himself that he seeks from us. But, a word of caution. As we saw in Exodus, the Israelites got so used to the manna appearing, that they took it for granted. It didn’t seem anything special anymore nor did it bring them any closer to God, the source of their miraculous food, much to the frustration of Moses, who had to keep asking God to give them another chance.
Unfortunately, as we know from declining numbers of people coming to Mass, something similar has happened to many Catholics, for whom Sunday is nothing special anymore, and receiving the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life, is nothing to get excited about. Whether that’s because they don’t really believe Jesus is truly present in Holy Communion or whether other interests take precedence, I don’t know. Suffice it to say that for those who do respond to Jesus’ request to “Do this in memory of me” every Sunday, we know that eternal life is guaranteed. All it takes is a profound act of faith, like the one I once got from an old tinker lady, lying in bed with a small, white clay pipe in her mouth. As I held up the host and began the words “This is the lamb of God”, she replied, “Aye, I know it is lad”!
25.07.21 ~ 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
When I was a little boy, I lived on a small RAF camp out in the country. All of us kids used to play together, none of us having a best friend, that is until the little boy next door got a new pedal car. Suddenly, he became my very best friend whom I’d call for every day, until one day, when I knocked on the door to ask if he was coming out, his brother said, “Do you mean, is his car coming out?” The brother had rumbled me: he knew I wasn’t looking for his little brother, but to play with his car.
In today’s gospel, there’s something similar going on in the minds of the crowd. How come Jesus has attracted such a huge number, who are willing to follow him to the other side of the sea of Galilee, without taking any provisions for the journey? The answer is in the first verse. “They were impressed by the signs he gave by curing the sick”. Like me with the pedal car, they’re not really looking for him but for the miracles he can perform. However, Jesus knows they’re only here for the beer, as the old advert used to put it, yet he still goes on to work one of the most spectacular of his miracles, feeding 5000 men, women and children, after which he had to escape, in order to avoid their attempts to make him king, and, no doubt, be assured of free food and health care for life. The last thing he wanted to do was give the impression of manipulating gullible people, by promising them everything in exchange for their personal freedom, as we have seen happen recently, with some cults in America. In this case, he had simply felt sorry for them, so decided to feed them. Of course, he knew the deeper significance of what he was doing, and, as we’ll see over the next few weeks, will use the miracle as a launch pad for his teaching on the Eucharist.
One part we probably gloss over each time we read about the miracle, is the story of the leftovers. What do we make of it? In our throw-away society, who cares about leftovers when we’ve all been fed and satisfied? Why did Jesus insist that all the scraps get picked up, so that nothing gets wasted? By the way, it’s interesting that there are twelve baskets. Could Jesus be making a deliberate link between the twelve tribes of the Old Testament, and the twelve apostles of the New Testament, as if to show that what he is doing, is a direct continuation of what God did for his people in the past? But, back to the scraps. All twelve baskets end up full. Not only has God fed everybody, but there’s stacks left over, like the 40 gallons of wine at Cana. In other words, God’s gifts are superabundant: there’s plenty for everyone. Obviously, the Chosen people were fed first, and filled with the promise of salvation, but what was left over for us, is not any less precious, so none of it should be wasted. The abundant scraps left over are collected and put aside for all peoples, who will be invited, after the Lord’s resurrection, to the messianic feast at the end of time. That’s why, later, Jesus will insist on talking about working for food that will last. The bread the crowd ate was temporary, like the manna their fathers ate in the desert, but the bread he will give is food for eternal life.
Over the centuries, millions of us have benefitted from this greatest of God’s gifts, the eucharist, and continue to do so, but we can’t leave this story without regard for its other implications. In 2021, many parts of our world are still hungry: people are still dying of starvation or risking their lives to get to a country which has plenty of food. Yet we know there are mountains of food produced every year, because we throw away tons of what we have left over. God’s superabundance hasn’t stopped. There’s plenty of food to go round, but our sharing of the world’s resources leaves a lot to be desired. Gandhi once said, “There is enough in the world for man’s need, but not for his greed”. Finally, it’s interesting that Elisha and Jesus, though centuries apart use virtually the same words, “Give them something to eat” and the response from Elisha’s servant and the apostle Philip are the same “How can I?” It’s the same answer our Government gave when it slashed our foreign aid budget. But if we do what Elisha says, “They will eat and have some left over” which Jesus proves, the lesson being that If we are generous with what we have, like the lad with five loaves and two fish, the gifts of God will never cease to multiply.
18.07.21 ~ 16th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Well, as I said in the beginning of Mass as you know things will be changing after July 19th so I just want to say a little bit about that really. As you know we move into step four of the government's recovery roadmap on July 19th on Monday. But as you'll see when I read this, our bishops have advised a cautious approach.
The key watchwords are discernment of local prevailing conditions and careful consideration of what mitigations are needed in the light of these local situations. And in the light of the prevailing local conditions where we live here in Fleetwood in which the number of infections have gone up recently and seem to be on the rise, we need to take a graduated response to step four and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Being cautious has served us well. We’ve stayed open throughout the pandemic apart from the two lockdowns and have had not one single case of Covid as a result of people coming to mass here. We hope to keep it that way even though things are obviously relaxing now.
I’m going to read the statement from the Catholic Bishops of England, then I’ll read Bishop Paul’s letter to us in the Diocese of Lancaster, and after which I’ll mention some suggestions for our own parish.
So, this is the statement from the Catholic Bishops of England. It’s called Sunday it's our day.
CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF ENGLAND AND WALES
Statement from the Catholic Bishops of England
Sunday – it is our Day
On 19th July, the current legislative powers which assist the mitigations against the covid-19 virus transmission will be rescinded by HM Government. Nevertheless, there will be an encouragement to personal and corporate responsibility in this area; as the Prime Minister said in his most recent statement “The pandemic is not over.” Even without this legislation in place, the Church in England and Wales will be adopting a cautious approach to capacity and activity within our buildings, especially at corporate acts of worship.
We are mindful of the certain fact that the Covid-19 virus is still circulating in society. Vaccines provide genuine protection against the worst effects of the virus, yet we recognise the legitimate fear on the part of some who otherwise desire to gather for Holy Mass. It is our continuing judgement, therefore, that it is not possible at the present time for all of the faithful to attend Mass on a Sunday thus fulfilling their duty to God.
It is hoped that it will be possible for all Catholics in England and Wales to fulfil this most important Church precept, that of the Sunday Obligation, by the First Sunday in Advent 2021. In the meantime, all Catholics are asked to do their best to participate in the celebration of the weekly Sunday Mass and to reflect deeply on the centrality of Sunday worship in the life of the Church.
In April, following our Plenary Assembly, we offered a reflection on the experience of the extraordinary long months of the pandemic. It was titled The Day of the Lord. We also began to look at the way forward. We spoke about the important invitation to restore the Sunday Mass to its rightful centrality in our lives. We asked for a rekindling in our hearts of a yearning for the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, as our response to the total, sacrificial love that Jesus has for us. We said: “The Eucharist should be the cause of our deepest joy, our highest manner of offering thanks to God and for seeking his mercy and love. We need to make it the foundation stone of our lives.”
May this continue to be our striving during these coming months as we journey back to the full celebration of our Sunday Mass and our renewed observance of The Day of the Lord.
Now we have a more personal one from our own Bishop Paul of Lancaster, written to the clergy of the diocese:
Although most legal restrictions relating to the Covid pandemic are ending on Monday 19th July, a degree of caution is still needed where a large number of people gather in enclosed spaces, which of course, includes our churches.
Not only is the delta variant of the virus still spreading rapidly, it is also the case that those with supressed immune systems still need a degree of additional protection against the virus.
Whilst in broader society, there may well be those who will welcome 19th July with a complete abandonment of anti-Covid measures, we owe it to others to be prudent in what we do in our churches at this time.
With this in mind, and so that there is some uniformity of practise across our diocese, I would like the following to be adopted in our churches. Most of this is in the C.B.C.E.W. guidance.
Please read the additional note on the Sunday and Holyday obligation to attend Mass.
1. Face coverings should still be worn by all those coming to a church service (exemptions for medical reasons excluded.). Those who do not wish to wear a covering should not be banned from entering, but they should be encouraged to sit a distance away from other people.
2. Social distancing will not be mandatory in our churches; however larger churches might consider still keeping some social distancing in place. Alternatively, if you have a building that can keep a section for those who would feel safer and less vulnerable by maintaining socially distanced sitting, then you could do so.
3. Hand sanitising will remain necessary as people arrive.
4. The numbers for weddings, funerals and baptisms are limited by the capacity of each building.
5. There is no longer a requirement to clean benches etc. between services; however, it will remain best practice to at least clean bench tops if there are two services on the same day. Frequently-touched surfaces, such as door handles should continue to be cleaned regularly.
1. Holy Communion (in the hand) should be restored to its traditional place and with a Communion procession (trying to accommodate those who wish to retain social distancing.) It is recommended that stewards are used to invite people to the Communion procession row by row.
2. Communion on the tongue is permissible, and it should take place at the end of Communion, rather than after Mass, and the priests must use sanitiser after each communicant has presented themselves.
3. Holy Communion under both kinds will not be re-introduced at this time.
4. Singing can be restored, though you may need to consider if this works with face coverings. C.B.C.E.W. recommends a phased re-introduction of singing. Hymn books and service books can be used once in a day.
5. The collection basket/plate should still not be passed around, though collectors may move around with baskets, as previously advised.
6. The Procession of Gifts may be reinstated.
7. The Gloria, Creed, Prayers of the Faithful and Second Reading should be re-introduced if any of these has been omitted. However, Mass should still not be unnecessarily long.
8. A Sign of Peace involving contact with other persons should remain suspended.
9. We need to wait a little longer before the re-introduction of holy water in the stoups.
10. The dispersal of people immediately after Mass should be orderly.”
Yours sincerely in Christ
Bishop of Lancaster
We’ve had a meeting of people who lead on various things in the parish and these are the suggestions for us here in our parish.
We're aiming for a gradual reopening of various things with a view to getting back to full parish life activities by September, virus conditions depending, of course!
For example; bible study, children's liturgy, sacramental programs etc - we would hope to begin again in September.
From this week the Lady Chapel will be open every day for private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
Daily Mass will still be celebrated in the main church until September.
The toilets in the Green Hut will be open during Sunday mass as they used to be.
From next Sunday the Green Hut will be open - that's our parish social centre - for coffee and tea and cakes hopefully after Sunday Mass; for the Craft Club and the Wednesday Club.
Our altar servers can start back next week as well. I will have to write to them and ask them to come for retraining it's been a long time for those little people to remember everything.
Our Eucharistic ministers can take Holy Communion to the sick and our SVP can visit the house bound, providing of course that the housebound are ready to receive them into their homes.
The use of mass books and hymn books are allowed, as is singing as we heard from the Bishop.
We're going to introduce one hymn a week for the congregation during the summer and build up gradually. The choir will start rehearsing again in September.
Saint Edmund’s, our other church, will hopefully reopen for the vigil Mass in September.
At the end of the summer, we we plan to have a massive thanksgiving, with special mention of course for those who have lost people during the pandemic, followed by a big social Jacob’s Join.
Next Sunday, here, Mass will be live streamed from the main church and I will be asking how many would still want to ‘socially distance’ at Sunday Mass so we have an idea of how much of the church to keep for that.
So there we go, we have made a start and we are being very cautious but at the same time allowing for more freedom and hopefully all will be well.
11.07.21 ~ 15th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Some time ago, an Anglican Vicar friend told me of his frustration on how the Church of England is perceived. If it says something nice about the Royal family, it is praised as a valued part of the British Establishment. If, however, it produces a punchy document about poverty in the inner cities, it comes under attack, and its Bishops are told not to meddle in politics. It also bothered him that many of his people have no concept of the church as a means of growing in faith. For them, going to church is the decent thing to do, from time to time, and has a lot to do with saving the Queen. There’s something similar going on in our first reading today. Amaziah, priest of Bethel, thought of religion only in civil terms – it existed to promote loyalty to the State. His job was to prophesy things that would keep the people sweet. Amos, on the other hand, an outsider, not a priest, saw religion as loyalty to God’s Law. His job was to denounce the religious leaders for their injustices, and for getting rich and fat on the backs of the poor. In a similar way, the apostles, simple fishermen, with no status, no material back-up, and relying entirely on providence, are sent out to preach repentance. Regardless of not being made welcome, or of people refusing to listen, as with Amos, their message must get through.
Throughout history humble and unlikely people have been chosen to be prophets and messengers, to let people know that things are not as they should be. In our own time, see how little Greta Thunberg, in spite of often being ridiculed, has mobilised a whole generation of eco warriors, to help preserve God’s beautiful world for future generations. Prophets will always be needed to remind people of the need for justice, and to echo the call of the gospel to care for the most poor and marginalised. During Covid, it has been wonderful to see a huge upsurge in more care and consideration for others, which we were perhaps losing sight of before. That same sense of justice has led to new thinking about the purpose of the economy, whose focus in recent years has been profits before people. It’s also great to see that through pressure from ordinary people who swamped their MPs inboxes last week, the bill to introduce abortion up to birth has been withdrawn. So maybe, we’re beginning to turn the corner.
While we’re on Covid, one of the downsides is that mental health has become a huge issue. Because it is such an issue, lots of stuff is being written about it. By nature, we are creatures of hope. We are always hoping for things to get better, to be in good health, that our plans will succeed, that there’ll be sunshine tomorrow, that the Government will deliver. But that optimism has been dented by the failure of many of our hopes to be realised. For some it has led to a lack of motivation to carry on after a setback, such as missing exams or losing a job. So, how do we restore hope? When the human being fails, where do you go? Who or what do you put your hope in?
It is easy to see why people despair, but actually, the enemy of hope, the destroyer of optimism, is not despair but false hope, and unrealistic expectations. True hope is about reality. Hope flourishes in difficult times. People need to know that it is possible to be happy in a world of limitation, to live with a certain messiness, and adapt to ever changing circumstances, because not everything depends on me and human institutions. So our job, like that of Amos, is to surprise people with the gift that they didn’t know they needed, to help them to realise that they are missing something. We need to help them to rediscover God. Hope is about finding God at the centre of life.
I’ll leave the last word to Charles Hampton, a pastoral psychologist from Oxford, who says that depression settles on a sufferer, without their quite knowing how or why. He reckons that in the understandable desire to work out what’s going wrong and put it right, we have too much input of ourselves, and lose patience, as we might lose patience with a tiresomely unresponsive relative. This, he says is where religion comes in. We live in a society in which the human being has been placed firmly at the centre, and God at the margins. There is a lack of a sense of the transcendent, of being aware that there is someone greater than me who is in control, that we are not self-sufficient, that we must accept our limitations. Choosing to attend Mass introduces something much other than ourselves, into our inner world, where its mediation comes as a welcome relief. Relating to other Mass goers also strips away the isolation that self-absorption creates. It undoubtedly works. So, there you have it. Spread the word. Coming to Mass is good for your mental health.
04.07.21 ~ 14th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A few weeks ago I did something I’ve never done before, skimmed through the business pages of the Sunday Times. Normally it goes straight into the recycling bin, as I have no interest. As I skimmed, an article by James Timpson, of shoe repair fame, caught my eye. He hardly ever mentions his product but puts people at the centre. For example, employees get the day off for their birthday, anniversary or a significant personal milestone, which pays off in increased productivity. Last Sunday his by line was, “Bosses must raise their game to find stars in their ranks”. He says it makes financial sense to develop talent, as successful football clubs do, rather than buy it in from outside. Eg, Phil Foden was recruited by City as a four year old, brought up in the club’s culture and history, and is now one of the world’s most valuable players. At Timpsons, the policy is to find internal employees with the potential to be developed into superstars, thus ensuring a seamless succession.
It’s obvious that James Timpson is on to something, because it works, but I wonder how many other businesses think that way. Certainly, in football, clubs spend millions on a manager from outside the club who is a big name, rather than look at the potential of the Staff they already have. As we have seen with the steady turnover of managers at Chelsea, it doesn’t always work. Yet, if you were to ask the fans what they preferred, they’d probably go for the flash outsider. Those of you who remember Blackadder Goes Forth, may recall the episode where Baldrick and the Tommies go crazy over the dashing, devil- may-care Flying Corps Pilot, while ignoring their rather more boring Army officers.
There are certain things in all I have just said, that I think we can relate to the practice of our faith. In all three scripture readings today there is a common theme – rejection. Ezekiel is rejected by the Israelite rebels. Paul writes about the hardships and persecutions he goes through. Jesus is rejected by the people whom he grew up with. Why are they rejected? Was it because none of them were flashy or exotic enough for people to swoon over? Faith hesitates before the ordinary and familiar. Sometimes God does send us somebody spectacular, like John Pridmore, but most of the time he works through ordinary people like you and me. We know John travels the world speaking to hundreds of people at a time, but if you knew nothing of him and met him in a café, rather than in a church setting, he would be just another big geezer, nothing special, an ordinary bloke, which actually happened last week in a café on the prom. Seeing she was sad, John said to the waitress “I have a feeling that you are troubled”. She had no idea who he was, but burst into floods of tears, which gave John the opportunity to talk about God’s love and mercy. On the strength of what he said, she, the owner and his wife, went to confession to Fr Frankie, for the first time in 30 years. All of them had recognised the unpredictable presence of an ordinary person sent to them by God.
So, don’t ever let the fear of rejection prevent us from sharing God’s good news outside of this building. There’s no promise of success, or that our message will be welcomed. God’s call is simply to be faithful in carrying out our mission, to trust in his strength and not to be over concerned about results. Ezekiel is told to speak to the rebels whether they like it or not. We too have to be out there. On Thursday, a group of us met with the CEO of the NHS, to show her what we are doing for the health and wellbeing of our town. It was important for me to be there, to show that the church is out there in the community, working with people of all religions or none, helping to make life better.
Closer to home, many of you share my concern for our young families. Over the years we have put a lot of effort into encouraging them to feel welcome as baptised members of our family, but with little success in terms of numbers who come. However, we must stay faithful to the call to carry out our mission. Who knows what God may do in his own good time? So, never give up. Keep praying for them. Keep giving the example of an ordinary Catholic staying faithful to the Lord, who comes humbly amongst us, in this very ordinary little part of the world, to nourish us with the bread of life.
27.06.21 ~ 13th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
In the Sunday Times last week, dotted through its pages, were three articles which caught my eye. The first had a photo of Kylie Jenner, a lady with enormous assets, shall we say, surrounded by empty boxes of Louis Vuitton. Apparently it’s the latest craze. If you can’t afford a Rolex, a Tiffany necklace or a Prada handbag, you can just buy the packaging, and use it as a backdrop to your social media posts, to give the impression that you’ve just been on a high end shopping spree. The second was a portrait made of pixilated squares, on a computer, which a 3yr old could have done. It had just sold for £8.3m. The third was about a new breed of shoe detective, who identifies cheap imitations of trainers by sniffing the glue which binds their soles. A real designer trainer can sell for over £1m. He works in Ruislip, NW London and must be the only legal glue sniffer in England. Has the world gone completely mad, or am I just a little out of touch? Oh by the way, there was a fourth article which did, however, bring a semblance of reality back to the fantasy world we live in today. It was called ‘Banish the Bottle’ and reported that, unable to get their hair dyed throughout lockdown, a huge number of women have embraced their natural grey. Makes me feel a bit of a trend setter!
What’s this got to do with anything, you might ask? Well, it shows the trivial nature of much western culture, where people willingly pay over a million pounds for a pair of Michael Jordan’s trainers, while people in less fortunate parts of the world, try to survive on £1 a day. And what about those countries where many lives are lost to war or oppression, often by their own rulers, as witness Myanmar, North Korea, or Rwanda. In all those places people opposed to the regime are disposed of in a culture of death. In the West, although it’s not so blatant, we too have a culture of death, but it’s more subtle, and is justified under the label of expediency. For example, if an unborn child is an inconvenience, it’s perfectly legal to dispose of it, and, as we know, Euthanasia is next on the cards.
In today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom, we’re told, “God takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. To be – for this he created all”, and not just to be, but to live life to the full. Life is an adventure. That means taking risks, having faith and launching out into the unknown sometimes, although in our country with health and safety, that’s not always as easy as it sounds. In school, the children were discussing global warming and, as many of them have never seen real snow, I told them how at their age, we used to make a huge slide on the ice in the playground. Of course we fell and hurt ourselves, but still took our turn for another go. I once took our youth club on Derwent water when it was frozen over, and we made sails from the bed sheets to whizz us across the ice. It was dangerous, but it was living, and, as St Irenaeus said “The glory of god is man fully alive”.
In today’s gospel, Jesus shows that he has come to bring life, and bring it to the full, the complete opposite of a culture of death. The lady with the haemorrhage had suffered for twelve years, the length of time the little girl had been alive. Both, it would seem, were beyond help, but at the risk of disappointment or rejection, reached out in faith to Jesus, the lady expressing hers by touching the hem of his robe, the father continuing to believe, despite having been told that his daughter had died. They weren’t rejected or disposed of. Their faith was rewarded with restored health and life.
As I said, there is still a great need for Gospel of Life in our broken world where people gloss over its troubles, by indulging in the kind of trivialities I mentioned earlier. We must stay focused on doing what we can to heal the injustices that cry out to God for healing. We should pester our MPs on pro-life matters and lobby for vaccines and aid to impoverished nations in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. If we try to live a life of service of others rather than wasting money on trivialities, then, when our time comes to turn our toes up, we’ll know we’ve lived a life worth living, and can look forward to meeting Jesus, Lord of life, time and eternity, who showed us in the miracle of Jairus’ daughter that death is only a sleep from which we wake, through faith, to a morning of resurrection.
20.06.21 ~ 12th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Monday after golf, we were looking at some photos of our early days at seminary, in one of which there was a lad called John Case – we called him Justin. One morning I remember him asking me had I been frightened during the earthquake? He’d leapt out of bed fallen to his knees and prayed as the College shook. I and several others looked at him in mild concern for his mental welfare, as we hadn’t felt a thing. But it was true: an earthquake had taken place the night before, in Lisbon, and the aftershock had indeed reached us in central Spain.
I’m actually a very light sleeper, so how I slept through the earthquake, I really don’t know, There are people who can sleep through anything. It always amazed me in the Army how soldiers could sleep next to a noisy generator or a tank roaring into life. Some would say it was through exhaustion, others because of a good conscience. In the case of Jesus in today’s gospel, fast asleep while the storm rages, we can safely assume a good conscience, but he’s also exhausted, having just finished teaching for several hours at the the lakeside, where there were so many people, that he’d had to get into a boat, so that they could all see and hear him. No surprise then that he fell sound asleep, but a huge surprise as to what happened next.
In the second reading St Paul says "From now on we do not judge anyone by the standards of the flesh, because that’s not the way we know Christ, and for anyone who is in Christ, there’s a new creation". As the apostles unfurled the sails and made ready for cast off, I wonder if for them it was just another day at the office, like roadies packing up after a rock show. Once again they’d seen this man, whom they called their friend, transfix the crowd with a new way of teaching, as he always did. Time to move on, get some rest, have something to eat, as any other band of men would do. Certainly they never foresaw the drama that would soon unfold. If they had, they might have advised him not to set sail. After all, these men, until recently, had made their living from fishing these very waters, so knew their changing moods well.
Be that as it may, the storm did come. As it raged and got worse, they realised the mortal danger they were in, and, unable to believe that Jesus could calmly sleep on, did exactly what we would have done: woke him up. He’s tired and weary, maybe a bit cranky at being woken, as some of us would be. He stands up, rebukes the wind and calms the sea, but then he also rebukes the apostles, amazed at the fact that they thought he didn’t care about them, and would let them drown. “Why were you frightened when you know I am here?”
In that storm at sea, the apostles learnt the truth, in the most dramatic of ways, ‘that for anyone in Christ there is a new creation’. They had judged him by the standards of the flesh, just a man sleeping, apparently at peace, oblivious to the disaster about to befall them. But, once his true nature has been revealed to them by his power over the elements, they were probably more afraid after the storm than during it. “Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him? The apostles came to know Christ in a new way, and for those of us who are in Christ, so must we. Christian living is based on having a relationship with Christ as the focal point of all aspects of our life, even in great danger, or when death is just around the corner. We have to know Christ in a different way than those who judge by appearances, and just think of him as an important man from history.
All of us are familiar with the image of storms in our personal lives, and when a severe one comes along, we may well feel as the apostles in the boat did; ‘Does God not care that I’m sinking, that I’m going under, that I feel completely overwhelmed? And yet, in the midst of it all, we know Jesus is there, even when he doesn’t seem to be around, or able to help. To journey with Jesus is to journey through storms, not to sail round them. This is dangerous work, sometimes. What keeps us going is our strong belief that, in spite of everything, he is Lord, Ruler of chaos, and that there is no storm which his presence in our lives will not calm.
13.06.21 ~ 11th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
As I was shaving the other morning, there was a fascinating article on the news. It was a report about a scientist’s 20 year quest to defeat Dengue fever, a disease transmitted by mosquitos, for which there’s no cure and which kills about 50,000 people every year. Unbelievably, he has managed to successfully inject millions of mosquitos with a bacteria, which prevents them carrying the dengue virus, and released them into tropical areas, to mate with the wild mosquito population. The results have been phenomenal, a 77% reduction in infections. That news item was quite low in the pecking order and only lasted about three minutes. Do you know what was above it? The world-shattering news that Harry and Meghan may not have asked the Queen for permission to call their child Lilibet.
In our populist culture, where the rich and famous draw the banner headlines, it is easy to miss good news stories about things going on in the background, unheralded and given little attention. Yet for all our fascination with frivolous celebrity, where would we be without the steady growth of progress being made, for example by that scientist, beavering away for years, under the radar?
Today’s parable has a lot to say about progress under the radar in relation to the Church. Many articles you read today talk of its decline and the fall in numbers attending. Some people look back to the Church Triumphant of the 50s and sigh for the good old days, in a similar way to people who mourn the loss of Empire. Once we ruled the world. Now Putin calls us just an insignificant little island? Once the Church was the unassailable Rock. Now, as a result of scandal, more open to attack. But, in spite of our loss of status in the eyes of the world, God’s work still goes on in the background, in a Church which Pope Francis is trying very hard to make more humble, less concerned with status, more concerned with service. In “Let us Dream” he talks of “Our culture’s unthinking obsession with GDP, as the single overriding goal of economists and policy makers, which makes vast profits for shareholders, instead of creating an economy which helps to lift people out of poverty to participate in society and survive – an economy which sustains, protects and regenerates our Common Home”.
So, the Church is still here, as Christ promised it always will be –“The gates of Hell shall never prevail against it”, albeit not so high profile. But, we’ve been through times like this before. Here in England, when the whole country took against us, the Faith survived in secret, hidden like the seed growing deep down in the soil, but is now very much part of mainstream Christianity. So, keep calm and carry on. The parable tells us that the kingdom of God will come about, in God’s good time and by God’s means. All we need do is have faith and trust. However, we have to be careful about this parable, in that it could give the impression that human beings have no part to play in the process, and just reap the harvest. But that’s not true: the farmer had to plant the seed and water the ground. So we too have to plant the word of God and water it, confident it will flourish even if we don’t see any growth.
As you know I worry all the time about the absence from Mass of so many of our young parents. How can we have a future if they don’t water the seed of faith their child received in Baptism? But, what we do know is that, in spite of his apparent inactivity, God does not cease to act, and continues to call us to conversion. So, I don’t give up hope that one day, perhaps, they will hear his call. In one of my Army postings, I reaped a huge harvest of ten converts as a result of their spouses’ faith. No preaching, no fuss, just their consistency of coming to Mass every week, over the years, allowing the seed of faith planted deep within their hearts to quietly inspire a life of faith in their other halves.
What the parable teaches us is patience: that we’re in for the long haul. When Jesus talks to the apostles about the coming of the kingdom, he doesn’t give them dates or times, because it’s already here, bubbling under all the time, like the seed the farmer sowed. All he guarantees is that in spite of its lowly beginnings, like the mustard seed, the kingdom will grow and flourish to exceed every hope.
06.06.21 ~ CORPUS CHRISTI
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the saying, “There’s no such thing as a free meal”. When we use that expression we are implying that there has to be a catch. However, I’m also sure that, like me, you have probably had many a free meal where there simply is no catch. You are invited not just for food but to share something of the life of your hosts; the meal is almost incidental to the company. Families like to eat together, not just to make sure that the children eat their vegetables, but to enjoy being a family. Through shared meals a bond is formed.
When God wanted to bond himself to us, he also did it through a meal, albeit a very special one, the Last Supper. This wasn’t the first time he had tried to do this. Other bonds had been attempted and failed. In his relationship with the Chosen People, the covenant was sealed by God’s Word on the one hand, and the blood of a sacrificed animal on the other, making it a communion or bonding sacrifice. In every covenant God made with them, blood was the key element of the bond. The reason blood was so important is that it identified with the whole creature, not just what flowed through its veins and arteries. In other words, it signified life itself – it was sacred. That’s why the people were forbidden to eat flesh with blood in it. Koshe meat still today has to be drained of blood before it can be eaten by observant Jews.
In today’s reading from Exodus, half the blood of the sacrificed animals was poured over the altar, representing God, the other half was sprinkled over the people. Because it was the same blood, it bound God and the people in a covenant: both were committed to each other. As I said earlier, throughout their history, many such covenants were made and sealed in a blood sacrifice. Even in Jesus’ time, first-born sons had to be redeemed by the blood of a lamb or a pair of turtle doves.
But, in today’s gospel, we see a complete change from those covenants sealed by the blood of sacrificed animals. At the Last Supper Jesus took bread and wine and declared, “This is my Body, this is my Blood”. His words and actions were an advance notice of what he was going to do the next day, which was to become the sacrificial victim himself. His blood, his very life itself, would be poured out to establish, and seal, the new and everlasting Covenant with God, which could never be broken, regardless of man’s failure to live up to his side of the bargain.
In the Old Testament, people did not have direct access to God. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and that on only one day of the year. But, as it says in the reading from Hebrews, “Christ, as the High Priest of all the blessings which were to come, has entered the sanctuary once and for all, taking with him not the blood of goats and bull calves, but his own blood, having won an eternal redemption for us”. So, he has direct access to God, in fact is in full union with him, and, because it is his very own blood which he gives us to drink, complete union with God is also possible for us. Each time we eat his flesh and drink his blood we have within us his whole Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
It’s God’s greatest gift to us, a pledge of love that he will be with us till the end of time. Every time the Mass is celebrated, he becomes really and truly present on the altar. “This is my Body broken for you: this is my Blood poured out for you.” The Eucharist draws us ever more close to Jesus, and, as we said earlier about the social effects of meals, closer to each other, working in harmony as parts of his body. Although we’re all different parts of his body, the Church, spread to all four corners of the world, what unites us with every other Catholic in the world is the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, worshipped and adored in our communities, and received in Holy Communion. “Do this in memory of me” he said, something we’ve done ever since that first Mass in the Upper Room, and will do till he comes again. “The Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic Life.”
30.05.21 ~ TRINITY SUNDAY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Life is full of mysteries. Some might say life itself is a mystery. Be that as it may, most people would agree that some things in life are very perplexing indeed, for example golf. I’ve just had a few days at Slaley Hall. The weather was atrocious, but my golf was worse. I couldn’t put two shots together. The mystery for me is that, apart from cricket, I’ve always been fairly good at ball games, such as squash, tennis, football and rugby, but never quite mastered the golf ball. After years of pondering, I have solved the mystery. It’s because every shot is made with a dead ball. There is no chance to react naturally to a moving ball as in other sports. That means you need bags of concentration and attention to detail. Stance, grip, position of feet and hands, all are vital to getting the swing right. Make one mistake and off it goes, sliced out of bounds, hooked into trees, topped into a bunker or thinned into the pond. It’s not good for morale, if you see people diving for cover, when you address the ball. What’s even worse is that, unlike other ball games, you can’t blame anybody else.
As I say, golf is one of life’s mysteries, but it’s not an important one, not remotely like the mystery at the heart of today’s feast, the Blessed Trinity, Three Persons in one God. This is the fundamental mystery of Faith, which underlines the way we live and move and have our being. Like all mysteries it needs a great deal of pondering and concentration. Nobody has yet solved it, and nobody ever will, but many great minds have tried to make it user friendly, by showing that the most important thing is not to be able to explain the relationship between the three Persons, but to be drawn into it.
Naturally, I don’t claim to have the answer to the mystery either, but my idea of how we might be drawn into it, is to look at other relationships, for example, the everyday experience of a young couple falling in love. When a young man and woman are first attracted to each other, it is because there is a spark of interest, over and above what they see in the hundreds of other young men and women they meet. If that interest continues to grow, by spending more time together, the spark may ignite into a warm relationship. If that goes well, it may fire up into engagement and marriage, in which it becomes a flame of energy, spent in making a home, having babies, pursuing a career, taking the children to after-school clubs, and trying to fit a thousand things that need doing into a day. Then, one day, suddenly the children are grown up and gone, so the flame dies down to a less frantic existence: that is, until the grandchildren come along, when they then become the great unpaid babysitters and childminders. Old age is next on the list, in which words are no longer always necessary, in order to enjoy the warm glow of each other’s presence and company.
In this example, I’ve tried to show that the initial spark has come a long way. The spark is, of course, the spirit of love, which first attracted them to each other, sustained and motivated them through those frantic years, in good times and bad, joys and sorrows, and which now holds them together in their old age. Love, with its motivating power, has, to all intents and purpose, been the third person in their relationship, its life and soul, the real presence of the unseen spirit, the one Constant. And, of course, even when we lose the one we love, we know that love never dies.
The life of the Trinity, the relationship between the three Persons, is a bit like that, but much more intense. Father and Son are bound together by the Holy Spirit in such a powerful way, that the Spirit can be described as the Third Person in the relationship or, put another way, Love Personified, without which God could not exist. Now, because the Son of God became one of us, fully human without ceasing to be God, it follows that we are part of that relationship too, as is every other human being. We all have an immortal soul, a share of God’s spirit within us. As St John says, “God is love and the one who lives in love, lives in God and God lives in him”. So, when Jesus gives us his two simple commandments, he’s actually stating the obvious – “If you love God and love your neighbour as yourself, you are actually doing the same thing”, and that’s no mystery!
23.05.21 ~ PENTECOST SUNDAY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A Pastoral Letter on the environment, prepared by the Bishops of England and Wales, for use in churches on 23 May 2021, Pentecost Sunday. +++
The Solemnity of Pentecost reminds us that everything which exists, every person and the whole of creation, is a gift of “God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” God our loving Father creates and continues to give life to the world through His Word, Jesus Christ, in the power of His Holy Spirit. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church, which we celebrate at Pentecost, is not something separate from Creation. God’s revelation of himself in Creation is inseparable from the revelation of his love for us in Christ and in his desire to live in us through his Holy Spirit.
God’s revelation of himself in Creation
‘God’s Spirit is always and everywhere “the Lord, the Giver of Life”, and the voice of Pentecost is echoed in the voice of creation being transformed into the glorious liberty of God’s children.’ In this liberty, as God’s children, we call on the Spirit to ‘renew the face of the Earth’, and as his children, we are called, in turn, to use this liberty for the good of creation and for the good of all that brings life. Our world, God’s creation, is a precious gift to us. It is our common home entrusted to each generation. But how have we used that glorious liberty? How do we honour this precious gift? Are we really demonstrating love, care and respect for our common home?
Interconnected and interdependent
As we celebrate Pentecost this year, we are acutely aware of the damage that continues to be inflicted on the Earth, and the repercussions for the well-being of our brothers and sisters, both here in our own countries and, more especially, in the poorest countries of our world. Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have both taught us that everything is interconnected and interdependent. The way we live our everyday lives has an impact on everyone and on the earth. The urgency of the situation, and the enormity of the challenges we face, have spurred us to speak out together this Pentecost Sunday, as bishops of England, Wales and Scotland, about the role that the Catholic Church and our faith must play in our shared care for God’s gift to us.
For all too long we have either been ignorant of, or ignored, the systematic exploitation of our planet and the unsustainable consumption of its resources. While accepting the crucial need and demand for energy for the benefit of the poorest of our brothers and sisters, the provision of our energy must, nonetheless, be by means which radically reduce the use of carbon-based fuels. In our political thinking, there must be a new global understanding of our world, where nations recognise our common responsibility for the dignity of all people and their rights to sustainable livelihoods, in authentic freedom. Pope Francis speaks of a global politics that looks beyond our own needs to the needs of all, most especially the poor and the marginalised.
Restoring our common home
But we cannot leave the healing of our common home and the wellbeing and care of our brothers and sisters merely to a response from industry and governments. Our own local concern and action is necessary and has far-reaching consequences. We all have a part to play, each and every one of us, in the routines, choices and decisions of our everyday lives and our aspirations for the future. The actions of parishes, families, schools, and individuals will have a significant impact on our efforts to restore our common home. There are now many resources, freely available, to advise us on our choice of food, saving of water and electricity, suggestions about travel, waste, and re-use. These are measures that everyone can employ, in some degree, with minimal inconvenience and change. They are effective ways in which we can each reaffirm our personal vocation to be stewards of creation.
G7 and COP26
This Pentecost comes at a time of remarkable challenge and opportunity. We are gradually emerging from the tragedies and restrictions of the pandemic. We have the ability to make changes. Our countries are also hosting two most important meetings this year, the G7 in June and COP26 in November. These meetings will gather together men and women who have the power to make defining choices and policies which will help us build back better, provide for our brothers and sisters, and take care of our common home. In all our human endeavours, we need the presence of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life”, whose gift to the Church and the world we celebrate again at Pentecost. Let us keep this Feast with that enduring hope that we can begin to repair the damage we have done and provide a healthy home for future generations. Our hope will be strengthened by our prayer. May our constant request be that the Holy Spirit guide us, strengthen our resolve and ‘renew the face of the earth’.
16.05.21 ~ 7th SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
When Jesus prays for his apostles “Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, that they may be one as we are one”, he prays it with feeling, because he knows they are weak. He’s just been let down that very evening by Judas, and knows Peter’s denial will follow the next day. Luckily for us his prayer was answered, and after the resurrection they were united stronger than ever, and ready for anything. After the Ascension, the eleven, with a good number of disciples, went back to the upper room to pray and await the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus had promised. As they prayed it became clear that they needed to replace Judas. They needed to be twelve again. Twelve was a mystical number in Hebrew history. There had been twelve tribes of Israel. Now, there were to be twelve foundation stones for the Church. Twelve, like three or seven, denoted perfection. It denoted strength and unity.
Before they start Peter makes it clear that to be one of them, certain qualifications are essential. It’s not enough to have been a disciple, maybe witnessing a few miracles or able to repeat some of his teachings. Those were all public events which loads of people saw and heard. No, an apostle would have to be someone who travelled around with Jesus, from his baptism till the Ascension. Most essentially, he must be a witness to the resurrection, because that took place secretly, known only to these chosen few. As St John Chrysostom puts it: “For a man would be more worthy of belief if he could testify that he who was crucified, also rose again, and ate and drank with us”.
Unlike our recent elections in which people put themselves forward for selection as a candidate, here it’s the assembly who nominates the candidates. Maybe, in these days of the Laity coming more and more to the fore, we could learn something from this about how to choose Bishops! What’s interesting is that the assembly doesn’t just ask for a show of hands or put it to the vote, but prays “Show us Lord which of these two you have chosen”. Barsabbas had a handle by which he was known, so was possibly quite a popular guy: the other was simply Matthias. I wonder if God’s choice was the more unexpected of the two, as it was with many other leaders he chose in scripture.
Be that as it may, as it was in Matthias’ case, certain essential qualifications are needed for all professions, and are best demonstrated by example. So, no good a priest encouraging people to spend time in silent prayer if he himself doesn’t. No good Staff in school teaching children that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic life, if they themselves hardly ever come to Mass to receive it. No good parents warning children of the dangers of social media if they themselves are never off it. No good a manager talking about team building if he or she completely dominates the proceedings. You get the picture. Lip service is no substitute for leading by example.
For us as disciples, the most effective way to lead by example is, like Matthias, to travel around all our life with Jesus in our hearts, remembering his last words at the Ascension were, “I will be with you all days till the end of the world”.
Whatever our job or station in life, Jesus’ prayer for his apostles, to stay true to his name, applies to us all, because, like them, we are weak. We can’t always be at the top of our game. That’s why he gives us his Holy Spirit as friend and counsellor. So then, as we prepare for Pentecost, next Sunday, let us acknowledge our need for his help, and with it try to be the best example of a faithful disciple we can possibly be.
09.05.21 ~ 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
When politicians talk about ‘Trouble Up North’ it usually means there’s revolution in the air, and a call for change, as there was in the Hartlepool By-election on Thursday. Change can be scary and so many choose to resist it, settling rather for the quiet life. But to risk change is to engage with life. Cardinal Newman famously said, “To grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often”.
In the Acts of the Apostles, which tell us the story of the early years of the Church, there’s definitely trouble up North, and it’s about change. During the week the readings were about the first council of the Church, called by the elders in Jerusalem in AD 50, because of what they heard was going on up North, namely that pagans were being baptised without first being circumcised. Led by Pharisees who had become Christian, they demanded that pagans accept Jewish Law before being admitted into the Church. But, by this time the Holy Spirit was making it pretty clear that, as Peter puts it, “God does not have favourites. Anyone of any nationality who fears God and does what is right, is acceptable to him.” So, why make it difficult for them? Peter won the day. The letter of the Law was overruled by the Spirit. The Council had opened a new window for the spread of the gospel.
There have been 21 Councils over our 2000 year history, the last one being Vatican II in the early 60s. Like the Council of Jerusalem, it opened the windows to allow the fresh wind of change to come in, but now, as then, some Pharisees in the Curia want to rein in the Holy Spirit so as to keep control. However, under Pope Francis great progress has been made and change is a-coming, albeit slowly.
Change is inevitable. Everyone suspects there will be changes in the air after Covid 19, but no-one uite knows what those changes will be. The fact that lockdown has been a reality for everyone, meant that we all had to find ways of coping with change, such as working from home. Some became virtual hermits, hardly daring to venture out, except to the shops. Others left the house daily to exercise, or make themselves useful in some way, meeting and interacting with people who they may never have met before. All those experiences will have changed us in some way, and those changes may well affect the way we live and move and have our being, when all restrictions on our freedom are lifted. For example, someone told me that staggering meal times in school has led to a much calmer atmosphere, and the school might just keep that in as a change for the better.
Change may also affect us as a parish. Some people have told me they have loved sitting on their sofa close up and personal for Mass on the tele, although one did feel strange attending Mass in her PJs! Others have told me how much they have missed physically sharing Mass with their friends and fellow parishioners. Whatever changes we have experienced, my hope is that from all we’ve learned, we will be more aware of the power a parish like ours has to bear fruit, by the way it is perceived by people open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. At a ‘Life in the Spirit’ Zoom meeting on Thursday, we were asked how we got involved. A man called Emmanuel said he had been going to Mass every Sunday for over a year, just to support his wife and children. He was a non-believer. What brought him to faith was what he experienced of his wife’s parish community coming together every week with a sense of belonging, regardless of race, diversity or background. From them, like Peter, he came to realise that God has no favourites; that there was room for even non-believers like him.
Change is good, but not change for change’s sake. It must be based on love for God and each other, which John highlights so strongly in the gospel. I leave the last word to our 8yr olds who had this gospel at their Mass on Thursday. I asked them what they thought love is, and threw in a few egs. I’d love to go to Disneyworld, I love ice cream, etc to see if they thought love is simply something which brings me happiness? But they didn’t take the bait. They all saw it as doing something for others, or as St Augustine puts it, “Love is bestowing gifts on the beloved”. We can learn a lot from kids.
02.05.21 ~ 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
An old Irish lady I met during the week was telling me that she needed an operation on her knees. Presuming she was Catholic, I joked that it was probably a result of years of praying.
I was not quite prepared for her reply. “Oh I gave up that years ago. You don’t have to go to church to be a good person”. That’s true, of course, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard it said. But it misses the point. Going to church is not an exercise in proving that we are good persons. It is so much deeper and richer than that. It’s all about belonging, which Jesus brings out so beautifully in the gospel, where he describes himself as the vine, and us as the branches. He spoke these words at the Last Supper, just before he gave himself to the apostles in the Eucharist. They knew what he meant. The Eucharist makes us one with Jesus in the way branches are one with the vine. The Eucharist is an invitation not to be just an acquaintance, but to be intimately united with him, drawing strength from the grace of his real presence. “Live in me, share my life, drink from the fountain of life that is offered you through the sacraments, whenever you can, and you will share the same life I share with my Father”.
In the second reading, St John shows us what the other side of sharing life with Jesus looks like, which is very much to do with the way we love one another. “Our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active”: it has to bear fruit. Most of us will have found that trying to bear fruit on our own, is not as easy as if you belong to a group or family that is trying to bear fruit with you. Think of the wonderful work of our SVP, our parishioners involved in Fleetwood Together Foodbank, the many groups providing various services in the parish, all producing much fruit to the glory of the Father. Being part of a family, knowing you belong, is key. It’s no wonder Our Lord says “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. A branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, neither can you unless you remain in me”. Remaining with Jesus is very much as with any other friend. We keep in touch with them, so we should keep in touch with him through prayer. We don’t just say we love our friends, we show it in what we do for them. So we also do what we know pleases Jesus. Friends sometimes fall out and have to apologise, which brings reconciliation. If we sin we seek forgiveness.
For those of us who are cradle Catholics, belonging is natural. We’ve been part of a parish all our lives. But what about people outside of our parish family seeking God with a sincere heart, but too shy to come in, or unsure how they would be received? Have you ever wondered how difficult it must be if you feel you would be out of place in the parish, as Paul did when he converted to Christianity? His old Jewish friends, to whom he was once a hero for persecuting Christians, rejected him. To his new Christian community, he was like a fox in the chicken coop. They didn’t believe he had changed and were frightened of him. The Hellenists wanted to kill him. He could be the patron saint of anyone who feels out of place. Luckily for us, his friend Barnabas stood guarantor for him, even though he had no idea how Paul would turn out, or how much fruit he would produce. Without Paul, taking the gospel to the pagans would have been significantly weakened. We can all learn from Barnabas, whose name means ‘son of encouragement’, to invite and welcome people, to go out of our way to make them feel they belong, that here they have a family and a spiritual home for ever.
We are grafted onto the vine at our baptism and, as none of us is perfect, will have to be pruned by the trials of life, such as being shown to be not as great as we think we are, in order to bear more fruit. Through these trials we learn humility, accept that we can’t do it all on our own, and allow the grace of God to flow through us to produce fruit, which it will certainly do, if we stay one with the vine. Those who are not disciples can choose to do what they like, adopt a lifestyle that suits them and live their life with no reference to Christ. Disciples too can choose to leave the vine and go solo. But remember, cut off from him we become a dry stick, and could end up with the only thing anyone has to say about us, as happens at some funerals, is “He never did anybody any harm”. All very well, but what the Father, the Vinedresser, will want to know is, “Did he do anybody any good?”
25.04.21 ~ 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER FOR GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY.
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF 24/25 MARCH 2021 (or shared in whatever way is possible).
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year on this Fourth Sunday of Eastertide the Church prays for Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life. Our heavenly Father knows well what is needed even before we pray, but Christ tells us we must pray always. We are very familiar with prayer of asking, prayer of intercession, the prayer that is a cry for help. We learn it easily whenever we have a problem or a fear or sickness, or whenever there is conflict.
Other forms of prayer can take more effort. A very important one is listening. Asking for vocations is important, but it must lead us to listen for vocations because a vocation is a response to the voice of the Good Shepherd’s call. Creating an outer-silence helps us to listen with the heart, and can help others to hear too. Our silence will help them to recognise the Lord’s reassuring voice. A noisy church can prevent someone hearing the call of the Good Shepherd.
The pandemic brought a profound change to our lives, much of that change has been unwelcome. However, one observation made by many has been how much they noticed the world growing quieter. As traffic and activity reduced, we have been able to notice the quiet of the natural world around us, enabling us to hear more birdsong for example.
We are people of Faith. Appreciation of creation is good but is not an end in itself. A work of art, a beautiful building, or a moving piece of music draws us towards the artist, the architect and inspired composer of whatever has captured our attention and wonder. Such beauty and awe become places of meeting with the Lord of Creation, the person of Jesus Christ.
Over the years, you have had many fine homilies and Pastoral Letters on vocations. Please God, many more are still to come. Sadly, the only point we often take from them is how long they are! Each of us needs to grow and try to become more attentive to the voice of the Good Shepherd. This will not only help us individually; it will help others to become attentive too, and allow them to know the voice of Jesus. Perhaps the Samaritan woman our Lord once met by a well had come to draw water at a time when no one else was about partly because that was when the water was at its purest, when the silt had had time to settle after everyone else had finished stirring it up with their buckets. She wanted the best water for her family and for herself. Prayerful silence in our churches can be like that. We have the rest of the week for chatting.
Our Lord criticises the hired men. Their loyalty was not to the sheep but to their own needs and their own agenda. When they had got what they wanted they went. Good shepherds, good priests and religious, good parents, good teachers are prepared to stay with the sheep, even during the hardest times and most disturbing circumstances. They are prepared to stay even when there is suffering. We must be like that if we are to be like the Good Shepherd.
Our prayer for vocations must focus on our love for the gift that is the Most Holy Eucharist. The pandemic has threatened our appreciation of this gift. Online Masses can help us, but can never replace being physically present at Mass in our parishes. I know we have many who are unable to come to Mass because of sickness and frailty. But I strongly encourage you who can travel to make every effort to get back to Mass as restrictions ease. Make our churches places of strong silent prayer where people can sense the presence of our Lord and hear His voice. Be certain that some of those who will come are being called to the priesthood and the religious life. This matters because it is their way to heaven. Helping them to hear the Lord’s call and to answer can be your way to heaven.
Pray for Deacon Stuart Chapple, to be ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese on June 26th, and for Philip Wrigley to be ordained Deacon at Oscott on the 6th June. Pray for Simon Marley in his first year at the Beda College, Rome, and for James Knight in his propaedeutic year at Valladolid, Spain.
Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to those priests and religious who have come from overseas to serve in our Diocese. It can be a great sacrifice to serve far from home, from loved ones and one’s own culture, with years between visits home. It is a sacrifice for your Bishops, your communities and your families too. This becomes even more of a sacrifice during times of crisis. You are truly listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. We are grateful for your presence and for your generosity, and ask the Lord to pour His blessings upon you.
With my blessing upon all who hear and read this Pastoral Letter,
Rt Rev Paul Swarbrick, Bishop of Lancaster
18.04.21 ~ 3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER
As you will know, since the 2010 Equality Act, it is unlawful to verbally abuse, intimidate or harass anyone because of their sexuality, age, race, religion or other ‘protected characteristics’. Objectively, ‘Hate Crime’, as it’s more popularly known, is a question of justice so can’t be argued against. The problem lies with subjectivity, when someone feels offended where no offence was intended. We are seeing this a lot now in universities where Free Speech is being denied, on a regular basis, to those who do not buy in to prevailing orthodoxies or identity politics. For example, Germaine Greer and J K Rowling have both been barred from speaking, because they believe the biological features you are born with make you either male or female, which upsets the transgender lobby.
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Free speech is something we in this country hold very precious. It allows us to have our say on any conventional wisdom we don’t agree with, or anything we think is unjust or wrong. It is healthy and often leads to reform and progress. Of course, morally speaking, no-one should exercise the right of free speech with the intention of causing offence, but at the same time, if there are valuable truths which need to be heard, it’s also important to say things which might offend. The truth can hurt, but unless it’s heard and acknowledged as truth, no matter how much it hurts, it’s unlikely things will change for the better, and that bad behaviour will continue to be excused by subjective judgement.
Speaking truth to power is the background to what Peter had to say to the people of Jerusalem about their treatment of Jesus. He doesn’t pull his punches, or sugar coat the truth. “You are the people who disowned Jesus in the presence of Pilate after Pilate had decided to release him. You demanded the release of a murderer while you killed the prince of life”. But it’s not said to accuse, to cause offence or to rub their noses in it. Rather it’s designed to work a change for good. He begins with the words that any one of us who has screwed up badly longs to hear from those judging us – “You didn’t really know what you were doing” which echoes Jesus’ dying words on the cross “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”. At first this sounds like Peter’s making excuses for them, “I’m sure you didn’t really mean it”, when he knows they most certainly did. What he’s really saying is that, had they not been so far from understanding “What God had foretold when he said through all his prophets that his Christ would suffer” they would never have done it. He’s acknowledging that we all make mistakes, some which are extremely big ones, but there’s always a way back. For Peter, it’s simple - “You must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out”.
St John, however, although not quite so direct as Peter, agrees with him that the first move is to accept the truth, that to say I Iove God but not keep his commandments, is to be a liar, and that repentance is the next move. But, John also takes into account something we all know, that it’s very difficult to admit that what we did was entirely our own fault. I’ve been there myself. So he offers us some help. He assures us that if we do admit our sin we have an advocate with the Father, his Son, whose sacrifice takes our sins away. Jesus shared our life completely so is well aware of our human frailty and inability to turn things round by our own strength and willpower. By his victory over sin and death, he offers us a route out of slavery to sin, an offer extended to absolutely everyone. That’s why he says “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations”.
He knows that, because human nature never changes, bad things will continue to be done by people who really do know what they’re doing, and that those bad things need addressing by those of us who know the peace that repentance and forgiveness brings. We benefit from having Christ’s abiding presence with us through the Holy Spirit, to help us rise above, and go beyond, the limiting power of sin, to try to live as God wants us to, in spite of our sins. It’s only fair then, that we must also develop the strength to talk truth to power, because unless we say something, even at the risk of causing offence, many people who might have turned their lives around may miss their chance.
11.04.21 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF EASTER
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On our travels delivering food from the Foodbank, we meet all sorts of people, most of whom are very grateful for the help. Sometimes, however, we find that not everyone is. On Thursday, I was greeted at the door by an old man who said, in that very direct way some old people have, “We don’t want half the stuff you bring”. So I took the bags to the door and asked him to show me what he didn’t want. First to go was the cat food. Why? I said. The cat’s dead. Then the dog food. The dog doesn’t like it. At that point his wife, who was equally direct, was called in to decide, which led to a row because she didn’t want the pies and he did. It was like a scene from ‘One foot in the grave’.
Apart from directness, another trait elderly people, and sometimes those getting old, have, is to repeat the same thing. Apart from directness, another trait elderly people, and sometimes those getting old, have, is to repeat the same thing! St John was very old when he wrote his letters and his gospel, so he often repeats one of his favourite ideas, which is, that to love one’s neighbour is to love God. In the extract we have today, he turns the idea around by saying, “If we love God, we can be sure that we love God’s children”. Quite clearly the two ideas are interchangeable, and provide the two elements necessary for being a disciple of Christ, namely to be a missionary witness to the love of God, and to share material goods with those who have none, which we see being done brilliantly in the early Christian community, where ‘everything they owned was held in common’.
Although over the centuries, the Church has had a chequered life, sometimes scandalous, caught up in politics or triumphalist, those two fundamental elements have never been absent. For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, millions were out of work, unable to provide for their families and dependent on soup kitchens for survival, often run by churches. One of the great champions of the Poor at the time was Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who went to jail several ti mes for picketing unscrupulous landowners. She had a wonderful sense of social justice, saying that the way she most easily knew God, was in the poor and destitute, in the littlest and least-wanted of us, believing that everyone is a child of God and infinitely valuable. She added “All the world needs, the essential ingredient, is loving kindness”. And she’s right.
Although Thomas during his time with Jesus, received the same information as the others about the resurrection, and what their mission was to be after it, he is not easily convinced, without concrete proof, that Jesus has risen. Like many people he is mistrustful of what cannot be understood by everyday experience. He was lucky. He was given that experience, and the power of the resurrection changed his life, as it did for all those other apostles who deserted Christ at the crucifixion. After it, all of them found the courage to strike out on the great adventure of faith, and became fearless in proclaiming him as their reason for living, when dragged before hostile Authorities to stand trial.
We can all learn something from Thomas, especially if from time to time we have our doubts, as many people do. For him the resurrection became a symbol of transformation, and he went on to do great things, most notably, as tradition has it, in India. As with him, any doubts we have can be tested, by trying to see what the power of the resurrection does in our own lives, both as individuals and as a community. Has it done for us what it did for the apostles, for Dorothy Day, for all those saints who have given so much of themselves in the service of others? Has our adventure of faith led us to provide loving, practical care for people in need, especially in times of distress like now with Covid? Reflecting on the great divide between rich and poor, Dorothy Day said “When we near the end of our allotted time, having been shaped by work, love, loss, agony and foolishness, and all the doings and makings of our lives, what will be left when all that is gone”? Taking our cue from St John, hopefully, for those of us who haven’t seen, yet believe in the risen Jesus, it will be the legacy of how we showed our love for God in the loving kindness we showed to our neighbour.
04.04.21 ~ EASTER SUNDAY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Tuesday I was at the Cathedral for the Mass of Chrism. I arrived just after the start and to my horror, found all the doors locked. Luckily the secretary saw me through her window, and let me in, where I joined the Bishop and ten other priests. Apart from us, the Cathedral was empty and deadly quiet, so different from the normal Chrism Mass, full of people from all over the Diocese, and alive with glorious music. One Holy Week, when I was Dean of the Cathedral, we joined with other churches to stage a Passion play, which moved around different locations. Fr Tom Hoole and I were Roman soldiers stationed in the square. Before it started, our duty was to wander among the crowd and keep order, which was fun. Once the drama got going, we took our positions on the town hall steps for the trial of Jesus, where we had a great vantage point. It was really moving to see the reaction of people who were close to the scourging scene, as Jesus writhed in agony at each blow of the whip. Some appeared to be genuinely shocked, and perhaps for the first time, were able to appreciate Christ’s mental, spiritual and physical torture as it was brought to life in front of them.
In an earlier scene, Judas presented his plan for betrayal to the High priests and was roundly booed by the crowd, almost like a pantomime villain. Judas was no different from a lot of people who are greedy and love money, but his main fault was he’d lost sight of who Jesus really was. As he slipped out from the Last Supper, eager to make his money, he failed to see that the salvation of the world was about to happen. Like him, many people over the years, have lost sight of who Jesus really is. For lots of our contemporaries, Good Friday has become good only for football, racing, shopping or other leisure pursuits. Jordan Peterson, a leading contemporary psychologist, writes “We are in danger in the West, of abandoning our culture, of leaving our great stories to die on the altar of our inquisitiveness, cynicism and carelessness. It is not a path that will lead to where we would want to be, if we were conscious and careful”
On reflection, it could simply be that people haven’t so much lost sight of Jesus, but that they’ve never really known him. Of course, everyone knows about Baby Jesus. Even non-believing parents shower gifts on their children for whom Christmas is so special. But Easter’s different. There’s no Santa to confuse the message. Easter is for grown-ups. It’s the serious side of Baby Jesus. It’s what he came into the world for. “Yes, I am a King” he said to Pilate, thereby signing his death warrant. Crucifixion was a horrific experience of unimaginable pain. Maybe that’s the reason people are not so attracted to the tough reality of Easter as they are to soft and fluffy Christmas. Yet, without Easter there would be no reason to celebrate Christmas. Christmas was hope for the future. Easter is hope fulfilled. The seed sown in such deep sorrow on Good Friday bore spectacular fruit in the new life of Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Easter teaches us that love is not simply about feeling happy or good about yourself. It may call us to sacrifice all that we have for the object of our love. The Resurrection scene at the end of our pageant took place in the Cathedral. Over 1500 people who crammed into every nook and cranny, will never forget the explosion of joyful music, with the organ at full belt, proclaiming that Christ is alive. Easter truly is the amazing mystery of God’s love, which gives his final answer to suffering, sin and death. Without it there would be no chance of transforming life’s negative experiences, nor any hope of life beyond this existence as we know it. We are the Easter People, and will follow him where he has gone before, he who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
As you probably know, the earliest book of the New Testament to be written was St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, followed shortly by his first letter to the Corinthians, an extract of which we have today. It’s a very important one, because it’s the first description we have of the institution of the Eucharist, which Paul, who wasn’t present at the Last Supper, says he received from the Lord, and in turn passed on to us. In his description there are three essential elements: it’s the memorial of Christ’s passion (Do this in memory of me), the gift of salvation here and now (This is my body broken for you), and the pledge of the glory to come (He who eats this bread shall live forever).
01.04.21 ~ MASS OF THE LAST SUPPER
When the gospels came to be written, that oral tradition which Paul had handed on to the churches he founded, was recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke in their account of the Last Supper. John, however, in his account, focuses more on the washing of the apostles’ feet. I suspect that was because John is writing many years after the other three, when quite a few Christian churches are well established, but not all of them are glowing examples of living the gospel.
John, as you may know is the apostle of love – his gospel and letters are full of the word. He even describes himself as ‘The one Jesus loved’. He, in turn, loved Jesus intensely, so much so that, in spite of the dangers involved, he was the only one of the twelve to stay with him throughout the crucifixion. So, maybe, in highlighting the washing of the feet, he was at pains to remind the early Christians that the love of God is not just prayer and worship, but also the service of others.
There’s a painting of the Last Supper I came across recently, by a man called Sieger Koder. In it the bread and the cup are in the background, while Jesus washing Peter’s feet takes up the centre and foreground. What the painter is doing is giving equal weight to the two great commandments - Love God, and your neighbour as yourself. In both the institution of the Eucharist, and the washing of the feet, I think he has Jesus saying “Do both of these in memory of me”, telling us to gather for the breaking of bread, the essential food for nourishing our spiritual life, but also to care for one another as he did.
“A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you”
As in John’s time, the Church should always take stock: have a look at itself and see how well or not she is doing, in carrying out that commandment. One way to do that is to try to see ourselves as others see us. When others look at us as a faith community, what do they see? Hopefully, they see more to us than just people who go to Mass, not only a community at prayer, but also a community at care. To people who never come to church, our imitation of Christ in the way we serve anyone and everyone, is our main way of being visible. It’s where people see who we are, and who God is.
G K Chesterton, who wrote the Father Brown stories, was a great apologist for Christianity, and once said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting: it has been found difficult and not tried”, and in some ways he was right. Living the two great commandments is difficult. Jesus’ teaching turns things on their head – the greatest is the least, the one who serves at table is greater than the one being served, the last shall be first etc. That doesn’t sound very attractive or ambitious - who would ever choose that way of life? As GK points out, not many! And yet, that’s what Jesus asks of us. By washing the smelly feet of his disciples, he gives us an example of practical love, which shames all who seek greatness by lording it over others, or those who have only their own interests at heart.
On Good Friday he will go further, with the supreme example of true love, laying down his life for us. We may never have to go that far, but to give of ourselves we must certainly do. In his parable of the Last Judgement, when the king separates the sheep from the goats, he does it on the basis of who did or didn’t humble themselves to serve others, reminding them that ‘when you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’.
28.03.21 ~ PALM SUNDAY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
I once listened to a very gifted speaker who had been a teacher, tell a story about his first placement in a rough Catholic school, in a run-down neighbourhood in Birmingham. He was assigned to a class run by a lady coming to the end of her career, quite formidable and very strict. He noticed that every day she seemed to pick on one poor kid, shabbily dressed and obviously neglected. When the bell went for playtime, she would make him bring his book up to be marked, after which the child would slink back to his place. This infuriated the student, and after a few days he decided to challenge the teacher about her cruelty. But then he noticed that the child was surreptitiously eating a sandwich, from under the book, which wasn’t there before, and the penny dropped. She had established a code with him which went something like, “I can’t change the circumstances of your wretched home life, but I can make sure you get something to eat every day”. That teacher was his one constant support, perhaps the only back-up he had at that time in his young life.
Being left out or forgotten about can be quite heart-breaking, even worse if you have no-one to lean on. On Palm Sunday, as Jesus entered Jerusalem he couldn’t have wished for more support – the whole town was out to welcome him. But, as we see in Mark’s account of the Passion, the most brutal of the four, things were to change spectacularly. He is soon abandoned by everyone, the chief priests and Roman so-called justice: the crowds, the very people he had done only good to, and who a few days before had cried out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” now reject him in favour of Barabbas, thus rating him worse than a murderer. Even his closest friends, with the exception of John, and the little group of women at the cross, leave him to face his fate alone.
Perhaps the cruellest part of the torture was the scourging, not just because of the pain, which would be even greater at the crucifixion, but because of the glee with which the soldiers tortured him. They were like kids in the playground, taunting a new kid because he’s not one of them. You can imagine them going home to their families and telling them what a laugh they’d had, tormenting a harmless lunatic who claimed to be a king. It was great fun. We gave him a good hiding, dressed him up in royal purple, put a crown of thorns on his head, and knelt before him, but he just sat there with blood running down his face – didn’t see the funny side at all. He’s dead now. We crucified him.
It’s only when you turn to the first reading from Isaiah, the prophecy describing the Messiah as a suffering servant that you see, throughout the whole of the Passion, that Jesus was never actually alone. The song highlights the constancy of support given by God, to the servant who remains faithful to what God has asked of him. “The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults. The Lord has provided me with a disciple’s tongue, so I know how to reply. That constancy of ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ promised to us and fulfilled at Christmas, was renewed by Christ at the Ascension, when he said, “Remember, I will be with you all days till the end of the world”.
It doesn’t always seem like that. People have said, where was he then in the concentration camps? Even Jesus himself, in agony and at his very lowest ebb, cried out “My God, why have you abandoned me?” But he’s actually praying the first words of Psalm 22 which sums up the hopes and sufferings of the innocent, and ends in the praise of God for rescuing those who cry for help. In other words he’s identifying with man’s common lot of suffering, but also looking to the healing of the world, and continues to do so wherever people suffer and feel abandoned, like the concentration camps. He was there in people like Maximilian Kobe, Primo Levi, Corrie Ten Boom, Titus Brandsma, Edith Stein, and countless others who cared for and encouraged their fellow sufferers. So, as we begin to contemplate our Lord’s lonely journey through Holy Week, at the end of a year of loneliness for so many, let’s remember that no matter how abandoned we may feel, the constancy of God’s support will never waver for those who stay faithful. As Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphans”.
21.03.21 ~ 5th SUNDAY IN LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Thursday I got a text from a friend to say “Here’s an important lesson for our friends and family in the older age groups. Yesterday, my next door neighbour had his second dose of the vaccine at the vaccination centre. On the way home he began to have blurred vision, so when he got home he phoned the centre for advice, and asked if he should see the doctor or go to hospital. He was told NOT to go to the Doctor or to hospital, but just to return to the centre to pick his glasses up”.
As with every crisis, there is always some humour around to help us cope. However, it doesn’t lessen the anxiety that many people feel, when confronted with the serious side of Covid, which has proved fatal. Life is extremely precious, and the thought of losing it, makes us very careful to do all we can to protect it. At the moment, most of us are wearing masks, sanitising our hands, sacrificing social intimacy and doing our best not to be spreaders of the disease, which we know can cause loss of life. As well as this, many of us are also keeping ourselves fit and healthy. Every day the promenade has people out walking or exercising their dogs, while others follow a fitness regime at home. Every time I turn on the tele there’s someone on a static bike, being encouraged to produce their personal best, by an American Trainer, shouting at them “Well done Peloton – we did it together”. Fitness is big business, and together with all the other health measures we mentioned, is dedicated to prolonging life. But, as we all know, no matter how much effort we put into it, this life doesn’t last forever.
In today’s gospel, when Our Lord proclaims “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified”, he is preparing the apostles for his death, which will also be his glorification. What does he mean? Two things. Firstly, we remember that, for three years, he had ministered to the Jews, fed and cared for them like a good shepherd, and announced the Good news, largely without success. But now, at precisely the hour he is approaching the climax of his life, some Greek pagans approach the apostle Philip, with a request to meet Jesus, thus fulfilling his words, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw ALL men to myself”. They are the first of the millions of us non-Jews, by whom he is now glorified throughout the world, and the forerunners of all those seeking him with a sincere heart.
The second meaning is more sombre and gives much food for thought. After all we said earlier about how precious life is, we now see that the hour of his glorification appears to be a very strange one, in which every reality has an opposite meaning: dying is living and losing is winning. “Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life”? What do we make of it? There’s a double-edged clue in the grain of wheat which dies. The obvious meaning is that after death comes resurrection and new life, which we all live in hope of, when our turn comes.
But the word of God is alive and active, so the message of the grain must also resonate with us here and now. And it does. Dying is not just for the end of life. It’s something we must do on a daily basis. If I live for myself alone I may have huge success and acquire many things, but will remain a solitary figure. If however, I choose a life of dying to myself in the service to others, I will produce a harvest of good works, which many of you already do - in the way you give to charity, go without stuff you need in order to buy for your children, look after elderly relatives, sacrifice your ”me” time to help someone out, all of which is “losing” your own life in this world but keeping it for the world to come.
This call to sacrificial love is summed up in a lovely quote from Margaret Guenther in The Tablet. “Jesus’ command is inexorable. If you want to walk with me, there are no excuses, no days off. You’re obsessed with riding your stationary bike, taking all your vitamins, checking your emails and flossing your teeth every day. But, here’s your real obligation. It won’t kill you. You might get tired, bored, scared or fed up, but this is the condition for your walk with me. It doesn’t happen any other way. Put on your sandals, your trainers or your hefty boots. Pick up that cross and let’s get going”.
14.03.21 ~ 4th SUNDAY IN LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
The other night there was an interview with a group of football fans who are taking the Government to court over a friend’s death from Covid 19, because it did not ban fans for a game against a Spanish side, when Covid was tearing through Spain. While that was true, because we weren’t that badly affected in England at the time, it’s also true that fans, who knew about Spain, were free to choose whether to attend the game or not. So, although we must always have sympathy for someone’s loss, it’s fair to say it was not entirely the Government’s fault. Personal responsibility also applies.
Personal responsibility came into my mind when I looked at today’s Psalm. It follows the story of the deportation of the Israelites to Babylon, by King Nebuchadnezzar in 600BC, one of the darkest periods in their history, which lasted for nearly seventy years. During that time they became slaves again, as they had been in Egypt years before. Their captors would mock them, asking them “Where is your God now” and telling them to sing their joyful songs of worship. But they couldn’t. “Oh, how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” In the Psalm they are feeling very sorry for themselves, languishing in exile, wondering why God had let this happen to his Chosen People. But look what they were doing, or rather not doing, before Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar. Far from it being God’s fault for the disaster, the people had brought it on themselves by defiling the Temple, and utterly refusing to listen to the warnings of God’s messengers. “The people added infidelity to infidelity, copying the shameful practices of the nations around them, and mocking the prophets sent to call them back to God”. If they had listened to the prophets, none of this would have happened. Eventually in 538BC, Babylon itself was conquered by Cyrus, King of Persia, who allowed them to return to Israel where, when they saw Jerusalem destroyed and the temple in ruins, they were filled with remorse for having turned away from God. They immediately set about rebuilding the Temple, and in time it was restored to its former magnificence, until the Romans destroyed it again in 70AD.
The consequences of ignoring God, or worse, turning away from him, was a hard lesson for the Jewish People to learn, but it wasn’t the first time in their history that they had had to learn it. Nor is it a lesson unique to the Jews. Throughout history men have turned their backs on God, preferring to do things their own way, often bringing disaster in their wake. “Though the light has come into the world, men have shown that they prefer darkness to light”. Look at the way, in our own time, how China has just destroyed democratic freedom in Hong Kong, how we have just cut our aid budget to Yemen by 50% while, at the same time, selling fighter jets to the Saudis who are bombing the Yemen to bits. I’m sure you can think of many more examples where it seems men have preferred darkness to light. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Christ the Light is still in the world and his call to “Come back to me with all your heart” never ceases. In season and out, the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness continues to be preached. Our Lord was not sent into the world to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved. Were each generation to listen to the way God wants us to do things, and carry it out, the birth right of every human being to have food, shelter, good health, freedom and peace, all of which we regularly pray for, would become reality.
In order for us to help it to become a reality for the whole world, we must start with ourselves, by taking personal responsibility for our actions. St Paul tells us, “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, to live the good life as from the beginning he meant us to live it”. That is high praise indeed, but surely God knows that many of us do not always live life as he meant us to. He might well think of us as his work of art, but lots of us may feel that, because of our sins, we are more like a painting which, over the years, has become grimy, covered in a veneer of dust and dirt, and needs cleaning. Lent is the time par excellence for spiritual restoration through confession. But if that’s not possible, we should still try to be that person who, “Living by the truth, comes out into the light so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God”.
07.03.21 ~ 3rd SUNDAY IN LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
I don’t know if you saw a feature on the news this week about a bombed-out school in the Yemen, It had no roof, no walls, a huge bomb crater in the middle of the first floor, and no furniture. It had hardly any teachers either, but the school was packed with children, sitting on the bare concrete, shouting out their responses to questions being fired at them by a 9yr old boy, blind from birth, who was, in effect, their teacher, while the sound of bullets and mortars were clearly heard in the background. It was the most fantastic and moving example of hope and resilience I’ve ever seen.
The next day, I received from our Headteacher a copy of the Covid 19 risk assessment, for the return of our children to our beautiful, warm, safe, well-equipped school on Monday. It is 30 pages long – I kid you not – 30 pages long! Instead of pointing out a few essentials, it is extremely detailed. Half way through, I lost the will to live. Last year, I was asked by our High School to give a talk to 14yr olds in St Edmund’s church. When I asked the teacher why they were 20 minutes late, she told me she’d had to do a risk assessment for the 250 yard walk from the school. I know our Laws say these things have to be done, but it seems to me there’s little freedom in them, for Headteachers and Staff to use their own experience and common sense. This ‘slavery’ to the law reminds me of an occasion when the Irish Guards’ Officers’ Mess was hosting a Brigade Lunch. The previous host regiment sent over a manual of instructions on how to do it. The PMC took one look, put it to the side and said “Sgt Major, fix lunch for forty” and left him to it. I’m sure if everything had to be done by the book in Yemen all hope would be lost for those wonderful, resourceful children making a life for themselves.
Law is not bad in itself. In today’s scriptures we are reminded that good laws bring life and freedom. They liberate. They don’t restrict. You might not think so when you look at all the prohibitions in the 10 commandments, which are the standards of behaviour that govern our relationships with God and each other and, if followed, allow us to lead peaceful lives. When Jesus came, he stated quite clearly that he had no wish to abolish the Law, but to bring it to perfection, in other words, to take us beyond mere external observance of the Commandments to their spirit, the reason they were given in the first place. To take just one. The obvious meaning of ‘You shall not steal’ is not to take things that do not belong to us. But the spirit of the no stealing law also means not withholding what belongs to the common good, eg we must pay our taxes, and in our work give value for money. Rich countries must not pay poor countries a pittance for their natural resources, nor must excess food or vaccines be hoarded by those who can afford them, while fellow human beings starve or die.
It was because he wanted to get to the heart of the matter; to help people move away from outward observance and keeping up appearances, that Jesus laid into the money changers. He was trying to unclutter the minds of people, who had become so pre-occupied with the law and ritual of the Temple, that they had forgotten its purpose as a house of prayer, where they could internalise, or spiritualise, their relationship with God. The Chief priests hated him for it, especially as he was later to have a go at them for wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels in order to draw attention to themselves. They claimed he wanted to destroy the Temple, and with it their way of applying the law which, they feared, would lessen their power and authority over the ordinary people.
Jesus didn’t want to destroy them. They were good men, but unable to see the wood for the trees. He was trying to remind them, and us, that God searches the mind and knows the heart. So, even though we do keep the Sabbath day holy by coming to Mass, he is more interested in what’s in our hearts when we come. If we have come to worship in spirit and in truth, then there’s every chance we’ll live out God’s law in spirit and truth. We won’t need the commandments, or thirty pages of instruction to tell us what to do. With our love for God, guidance of the Holy Spirit and concern for the common good, we clearly show we understand that “You Lord have the message of eternal life”.
28.02.21 ~ 2nd SUNDAY IN LENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Did you ever wonder what was going through Abraham’s head, as he made the long journey to Mount Moriah, to sacrifice his son Isaac? Was he still in a daze, still trying to make sense of God’s intervention in his life? At the age of 90, childless and with a wife past the age of child-bearing, he had received the call to leave his secure life, in Ur of the Chaldees, for a land he’d never heard of. Then came the miraculous birth of his son Isaac, and now, this unbelievably cruel command to kill that very son, the son of the promise, a promise soon to be shattered. But, in complete obedience to God, he was all set to do it. Abraham was an amazing man. No wonder he is called ‘our father in faith’. As for Isaac, in this particular story, trusting in his father Abraham, and carrying his own wood for the sacrifice, he is a type of Christ trusting in God, his Father, and carrying his own cross.
To have absolute faith in God is something Christ asks of all of us. We may never be put to the kind of test Abraham was, or be called to martyrdom, but there’s no doubt we will have our battles. Today’s reading from Romans was used at Margaret Cuffe’s funeral on Friday. In my homily I recalled how, in the first half of the 20th century, she would have been brought up in the Church Militant, to wage war against the Devil, the World and the Flesh, from behind the battlements of Fortress Church, against which the gates of Hell would never prevail. In the 60s, however, Pope John XXIII looked over the battlements and saw no-one was attacking. In fact, people seemed more interested in the white heat of technology, putting a man on the moon and the defeat of communist ideology. So, he called the 2nd Vatican Council, which instead of issuing decrees, would lower the drawbridge, and make its way into the market place, to engage and dialogue with the world outside.
After a long period of stagnation, Pope Francis is now revitalising Vatican II, encouraging everyone, especially the Laity, to go out to the world, to smell the sheep. Sadly, there are reactionaries, even at the highest level of the Church, trying to stifle his initiatives. They think the solution to our problems is to try to put things back to how they were in the glory days of the 50s. Imagine if we could get all those people back to Mass. Imagine if the seminaries began to fill up again. Imagine if the Church’s status was restored. We could rebuild the battlements, strong enough to withstand any siege. It was that mentality of self-preservation, and concern for the Church’s reputation, which led to the cover-up of recent scandals, with disastrous results. Going back to how things were is not going to happen. The world has moved on and, looking at the signs of the times, so must we. We still have a lot to offer the world in the service of the gospel, but it’s clear we have to be Church in a different way.
Firstly, let’s avoid looking inwards, thinking only of the parish. We are a small ‘Faith Community’ part of a bigger community full of people of all faiths or none. As some of my fellow drivers will tell you, taking food out to complete strangers, whom we might once have just passed in the street, has enabled us to stop, chat, see if they’re ok, talk to their kids, give helpful information or just listen to their troubles. On leaving I always say ‘God Bless’, to which many reply ‘God Bless you too’. By lowering the drawbridge and going out to them, rather than waiting for them to come to us, we have discovered that many have a spirituality. What we are doing may not put more bums on seats, but it is showing the face of Christ to those who have little experience of church. The nourishment we get from regular attendance at Mass, gives us the strength and impetus to share his life with others, remembering his words “You received without charge: give without charge”.
Isaiah once said “Do not consider the things of old. Behold I am about to do a new thing”. In the gospel, the apostles’ vision is of what Jesus would be like after the resurrection, not resuscitated, but transformed, a new sphere of existence. I believe God is doing a new thing in our time too, not resuscitating, but transforming his Church. With Pope Francis, let’s embrace the transfiguration of our faith community, with powerful trust in God like Abraham, and utter conviction like Paul.
21.02.21 ~ 1st SUNDAY IN LENT
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT 2021
APPOINTED TO BE READ AT ALL PUBLIC MASSES IN ALL CHURCHES AND CHAPELS IN THE DIOCESE OF LANCASTER ON THE WEEKEND OF 20/21 FEBRUARY 2021 (or shared in whatever way is possible, bearing in mind how few will be at Mass to hear it)
My dear people,
I send you my greetings as we begin the Holy Season of Lent, aware that we remain in some ways a scattered flock, still doing battle with the pandemic. Reflecting on Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, it could be said we are engaged in battle with the pan-demonic. It is a time of temptation. I was sorely tempted to re-issue last year’s Lenten Pastoral, partly to see how many notice, partly out of idleness and partly because I thought it was rather good . . . and there’s another temptation; pride!
St Mark’s account of our Blessed Lord’s time in the wilderness is astoundingly brief. Perhaps a Lenten Pastoral should follow suit, stating the stark essentials we must follow to make Lent fruitful. According to tradition, this Letter will be read in all churches and chapels of the Diocese at every public Mass on the First Sunday of Lent. However, many parishes are not holding public worship, and those that are have greatly reduced congregations. Added to that, our Liturgies must be short, reducing the time we are socially gathered. Is the pandemic a cure for lengthy sermons? If so, may we live to see if the cure lasts.
So, our religious practice is reduced to stark essentials, just as our Lord found Himself without the freedom and comforts one grows used to when ordinary circumstances prevail. Where the Master is, there the willing disciple must be found too. It is a time of intense on-going formation for both the individual and for the Church. Three life-lines are given us; prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
Prayer. Christ promised to remain with us, and here we find Him an example of prayer. More than that, we are taken into His prayer through His conversation with the Father, His obedience to the Father’s will and His union with the Father. This is more than asking God for favours or help with the things we can’t manage. It is a desire for the Life of heaven.It is also an experience here on earth of the Life of heaven. Fasting. Christ accepted less of this world’s pleasures and ease even though on other occasions He would accept them and enjoy them. But here He deliberately puts them aside, knowing that they do not last. He acknowledges another order of delights, the delights that will last. Fasting is a discipline and an act of trust in the promise of a loving God. He knows our needs before we ask.
Almsgiving. Christ shows us that the fundamental motive for almsgiving is compassion for others. Later He instructed His disciples to ‘Go out to the whole world’. Material-giving remains an essential expression of obeying that command, showing solidarity with our neighbour. It saves us from living a selfish life. Sharing our time also gains us ‘credit’. In this unfair world some are privileged and some are obviously disadvantaged. In these times more will be asked of some than of others. Needy causes are easy to find, overwhelmingly and exhaustingly easy. We do well to recall who it is telling us to persevere in charity even to the point of our own exhaustion and our own diminishing. He is the guarantee that we will not go short. His love will grow in us. ‘Give, and gifts will be given to you.’
And what of Mary’s place in her Son’s Lent? Did He speak with her before He left for the wilderness? Did she know where He was, what He was facing? Did He recall the blessing of a mother’s worry? May Our Lady be with us in our prayer, fasting and almsgiving this Lent.
Much more could be said, but, following the example of St. Mark, this will do for now. May this Lenten message open doors of hope for you, bringing in the clean air of the wilderness, and with it, a reassuring experience of Christ’s closeness. He has overcome all evil.
With my prayers for each of you, and my blessing,
Paul Swarbrick, Bishop of Lancaster
14.02.21 ~ 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Imagine yourself walking down Lord Street wearing torn jeans and a Boris Johnson haircut. Quite probably nobody would turn a head; you’re just making a fashion statement. If, however, because you also had the coronavirus, you were required to ring a bell, and shout a warning to everybody that you were diseased, and then see people recoiling from you with horror, cursing you and swearing at you to get out of town, how do you think you’d feel? Is there anything worse than being cast out?
Over this last year, many of us have had first-hand experience of what self-isolation means, and how it has prevented people from being with their dying relatives, but for all that sadness we also know that a cure for Covid 19 is on the way, bringing us hope. This was not the case for a leper in Jesus’ time. Leprosy was incurable and infectious, and with no hospitals or clinics, meant not only wearing torn clothes and unkempt hair, shielding your upper lip and crying “Unclean”, but also isolation from your family, community and synagogue for life. Although total isolation was undoubtedly effective in preventing the spread of disease, for the outcast leper it was devastating. Loneliness and rejection made him, in fact, a dead man walking. So, knowing all this, it’s quite amazing that this particular leper broke all the rules in coming so close to Jesus. Maybe he had heard of his concern for other wretches like himself, or was so desperate that he was willing to clutch at any straws available. I think that’s why he says “If you want to, you can cure me”. He’s anticipating yet another rejection.
Nobody, least of all the leper, could have been prepared for what happened next. Jesus stretched out his hand and actually touched him. “Of course I want to. Be cured.” It was a stunning and momentous gesture, and, no doubt caused great scandal to those watching, even I suspect, the apostles. You just do not touch a leper! The interesting thing is Jesus didn’t need to touch him. Remember the Centurion’s request “Say but the word and my servant will be healed”. So, why did he touch him? It was a sign of compassion, of Jesus’ acceptance of the leper as a fellow human being, with the same needs of all of us to belong, be accepted and loved. To be ‘unclean’ meant that you were unworthy to be part of God’s holy people and to take your place with them in worship. So, in touching him, Jesus showed that he didn’t believe a man’s condition cut him off from God, which, I think, has great relevance for all those people who think that, because of some irregular lifestyle, or situation they’ve ended up in, they are somehow cut off or excluded from God’s love and mercy. They’re not.
Ironically, according to Leviticus, by touching the leper Jesus made himself ritually unclean, and because the leper ignored his command to keep the cure quiet, and started telling the story everywhere, Jesus himself became a sort of outcast, and had to stay outside towns, in places nobody lived. Nevertheless, people from all around came looking for him, eager to learn more about God’s openness to sinners and outcasts.
It is still possible to be a leper today, without having leprosy. Outcasts come in many forms, from starving refugees abroad, to people forced to leave home and live on the streets, here in our own country. Many are devoid of love or affection, at the mercy of the elements, and the ever-present danger of ‘Sickos’. If Christ’s healing touch is to continue to be felt today by the wretched and poor, it will be because we stretch out our hands to heal what we can heal. We can’t do everything, but we can do something to restore a person’s dignity. For a follower of Christ, there can be no outcasts.
07.02.21 ~ 5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
The other day I was having a chat about how Freddie Mercury, back in 1985, stole the show at Live Aid, a 16 hour non-stop concert featuring 75 of the world’s greatest bands and watched by over 1.5 billion fans world-wide. Bob Geldof wrote a book about it called “Is that it?” The title came about because, when it was finally over, Bob was sitting by the side of the stage, mentally and physically exhausted, having a cup of tea, when a kid came up to him and said, “Is that it?” The message of Live Aid, pumped out continuously throughout the concert, was that millions of people in Ethiopia were dying of famine, so we needed to feed them. It was an immense success and a fabulous thing for an ordinary bloke like Bod Geldof to achieve, and gave an incentive to others to do what they could, albeit on a more modest scale, to help their fellow man. However, for some people, like that kid, the message was lost in the sheer excitement and enjoyment of the greatest free concert of all time.
Another ordinary bloke who achieved something fabulous was, of course, Capt Sir Tom Moore who has just died. Like Bob Geldof, he saw a huge problem and decided to do something about it, in his case the NHS, which was under severe strain trying to deal with the pandemic. As you know, he set himself to raise a few pounds to buy them some PPE, and ended up raising over £33 million. He too, whether he realised it or not, was sending out the same message: people are in distress and we need to help. Since then, quite a few people have been inspired by him, to do something similar, including a 5yr old boy who, at age 3, was near fatally abused by his birth parents and had to have both legs amputated to save his life. This little guy has raised over £1m for the children’s hospital which saved his life, by walking 10 km on his newly acquired prosthetic legs. However, I’ve heard that Sir Tom has been trolled on social media for allegedly spending some of the money on a holiday to Florida, although quite how he would have managed that during lockdown is hard to fathom.
Getting people to see beyond the wondrous and spectacular to the reality of the message behind it is not always easy. Some people just drift through life, marvelling at the wondrous things we see, and gasping at people’s achievements like a perpetual spectator who never engages. One of the first questions the Alpha course asks of people in the street is, “Is there more to life than this?” And it’s amazing how many say they’ve never thought about it. Without having a vision or a purpose in life it would be so easy to look at all the horrible things going on in our time, like the shameful treatment of the Uyghurs and Rohingyas, the relentless lobbying for abortion on demand up to birth, the gradual destruction of our eco-system, accept it all and just say, “What a mess! Somebody should sort it out”. Meanwhile, I must get on with my life. But, if we all said that, life would soon be over. I suspect Bob Geldorf and Sir Tom had no idea, when they started, of the life-changing effects their actions would have on the world. What did Greta Thunberg think she would achieve the first day she sat down alone in the rain outside the Swedish Parliament to protest against Climate change?
Getting people to engage with the reality of the message is the dilemma Jesus has in today’s gospel. We see him rising very early in the morning, long before dawn, to go off to a lonely place to pray. It’s a reality check, to evaluate the effects of the exhausting evening he’d just spent, curing many people suffering from diseases of one kind or another, with the whole town crowding round his door. It’s obvious they had come for the miracles not for what he had to say, just as the people he fed with loaves and fish came looking for more food, rather than for himself, the bread of life. He, however, did not, however, want to be seen as a simple healer, but to be recognised as the Messiah, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy, who would make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk again etc. Miracles were really just the testimonial letters of the messenger, to give authenticity to his preaching, the reason, he says, why he came. It’s his message that counts – and the message is we are all here to serve, not to be served, no matter how old you are, like Sir Tom, or how young you are, like Greta Thunberg, or how “sweetly”, like Bob Geldof, you ask people to give you their money for the poor.
31.01.21 ~ 4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Some years ago, a young lieutenant from an Irish Regiment I lived with was travelling back from an exercise in Southern Germany with a platoon of soldiers. At one stage he got a bit nervous when he thought they might be on the wrong train, so he asked if any of the soldiers spoke German, one of whom said he did. He then told him to ask the ticket collector what the next station was, which he did in a very loud voice: “Vot is der next station?" "Sit down, you so and so idiot! I thought you said you could speak German?" "That is German, Sir - isn’t it?" Sometimes it’s tough being a leader of men!
Moses was a great leader, most famous for leading the Israelites out of slavery. But what a tough job he had with them during their 40 years in the wilderness, a lot of which time they spent whingeing. Nevertheless, like every good leader, he used his God-given authority to bring them safely through to where, in today’s reading, we see him preparing them for entry into the Promised Land. Remembering their fickleness and worship of the golden calf, he knows that they will struggle to keep the Covenant, in a land of many different pagan cultures and gods. They will still need to listen to God in order to be guided and inspired by him. That’s why he says “God will raise up for you a prophet like myself”. In today’s gospel we see the prophecy come true. Jesus is the new Moses, the great leader, not just of the Chosen People, but of everyone.
What stands out in his leadership is the way he exercised his authority to teach with no reference to any other authority, and backed it up with action. And, how did he teach? In my studies for the priesthood we had many lectures in all sorts of subjects. Some of the Profs, although highly qualified, simply read from a commentary or gave us sheafs of notes, which wasn’t very inspiring. Others, however, had clearly absorbed their subject and taught it in their own words with style and conviction. Naturally, the response from the students was better, eg I knew very little of the Old Testament, but our OT Prof was brilliant, and I always looked forward to his lectures. Jesus had a similar effect on those listening in the synagogue at Capernaum. The Scribes were certainly knowledgeable about commentaries previous great teachers had put on the Law of Moses; they knew a lot about God but Jesus knew God himself and it showed.
To teach with authority is an art, whether you are a parent, a teacher, or someone with soldiers under command, but is only ever effective, if it’s done with conviction. St John Bosco, whose feast is today, founded the Salesian Order to teach street kids who were poor and often unruly. He could have flogged them, as they did in Dicken’s tales of Victorian England, to keep order and discipline. Instead he advised the brothers: “Be careful not to give the impression, by a look of contempt, or by using hurtful words, that you are acting under the impulse of anger and asserting your authority. Christ’s attitude to sinners was of kindness and friendship. This astonished and scandalised some people. But, it gave others the confidence to ask for forgiveness”.
By the very fact that we are Christian, we have the authority to teach the faith. Some people exercise that authority by pointing out where everyone else is going wrong, but contribute very little to building up the community, whereas everyone knows faith is best taught by conviction and example. Faith is caught, we say, not taught. If we accept that in the end all authority comes from God, we'll realise that, as with all God's gifts, we must exercise it for the benefit of others, not to their disadvantage.
24.01.21 ~ 3rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On Thursday I delivered some food to a lady I’d not been to before. As I was unloading, she asked could I take the bananas back. ‘I can’t stand the smell of them!’ ‘I love bananas’ I said. However, there was a time when I too may have been put off them. Many years ago when I lived with Fr Gerry in Carlisle, his mum used to give him bananas every time he visited, so we soon had a stockpile. Apart from eating them fresh, we had them fried, in sandwiches and all sorts of other ways, but we always had plenty left over. Then One Saturday night, Fr Gerry said, “Have you ever tried alcoholic bananas?” “No” I wide-eyedly replied. So we boiled them up, added sugar and several spirits, and made some custard. But when we dished them up they were absolutely gopping, so we strained the bananas out and just drank the ‘gravy’. I don’t remember much after that – it was probably 100% proof! Getting back to the lady, how can anybody not like the smell of bananas? I can understand not liking the smell of garlic or really strong cheese, both of which I love by the way, but bananas!
The point of my story is to illustrate how different we all are, not just in our personal tastes, but in our characters and the way we look at life. Today’s scripture readings give examples of characters, all different, and not ideally suited, you would think, for the kind of work God wanted them to do. Jonah, we are told “Set out in obedience to the word of the Lord”, but in actual fact, far from obeying God’s word, shot off in the opposite direction, until God arranged his return, via the whale. Paul started out by persecuting anyone who wanted to be a follower of Christ. The apostles, all of whom, except John, although they responded immediately to Christ’s call, ran away and abandoned him to his fate on Good Friday. What was God thinking about when he made his selection?
Looking more closely at these characters, it’s easy to see why they reacted in the way they did. They were human. Imagine you are a modern day Jonah, ordered by God to march into the very heart of one of today’s corrupt Major Powers, known for cruelty and oppression of its people, like Nineveh, to tell them that unless they repent their Nation will be destroyed in 40 days. No wonder he ran away. Paul was so fiercely zealous that his human reaction to opposition was to destroy it. For the apostles their time with Jesus was a long, slow learning curve to understand that God’s ways are not man’s ways. They frequently misunderstood the purpose of his mission and refused to believe the means by which it would be achieved. No wonder they ran away when the soldiers came for Jesus.
God who knows all things, knew, of course, what he was dealing with, but he also knew what can be achieved when someone hears and answers his call, putting themselves entirely in his hands. Jonah’s preaching, in spite of his reluctance, saved thousands from destruction. As a Christian missionary, Paul lost nothing of his zeal, but gradually surrendered his self-sufficiency, realising that his phenomenal achievements were not down to him, but God’s Spirit working in him. In his early days he was very obstinate about the imminent second coming of Christ, wanting everyone to be ready. “Our time is growing short Brothers. The world as we know it is passing away”. Later in life he writes that as no-one knows when Christ will come again, we need to get on with spreading the Good News of Christ’s love, and what the power of love can do. Later in that letter, he will spell out exactly what real love is, a reading which is by far the most popular choice at weddings. For the apostles too, so often confused and unreliable, everything changes at Pentecost. Filled with the Holy Spirit and no longer afraid of what they are to say or do, they burst into life and bring Christ’s work to fruition.
An apostle is someone who is sent to proclaim the Good News, and because we have the same apostolic faith coursing through our veins we too are sent. Jonah, Paul and the fishermen were called to share in God’s work. They all stayed true to character, but had to let go of their own ideas to allow themselves to learn God’s ways, and let him work in and through them. In doing so, they achieved far more than they could have dreamt of, or believed they were capable of. And so can we.
17.01.21 ~ 2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
As you know, I studied for the priesthood at the Real Colegio de los Ingleses, Valladolid.
Spain is now a very modern country, with high-speed trains and well connected motorways, unlike my time of 50 years ago. Then, the train we called the ‘Shanghai Express’, took nearly two days to travel from La Coruna to Barcelona. Most of it was on single track railway, with passing places. People would emerge from the pueblos en route, and flag it down like a bus, then clamber on board, and maybe hang a couple of live chickens from the coat hooks. Apart from the Costa Brava, tourists were rare in the Spanish Interior, so we were something of a curiosity. In five minutes they would know all about you, where you came from, what you did, and, before long, goatskins of wine, hunks of cheese and chorizo would be shared round the carriage. For a ‘Swinging 60s’ kid, who was used to silence on English trains, in the days before mobile phones enabled people to bellow their one-sided conversation throughout the carriage, the camaraderie was wonderful. The only drawback was that if you left your wooden seat to go to the toilet, you’d have lost it by the time you got back.
Today, we see two of John the Baptist’s disciples directed by him to Jesus. Clearly excited by the prospect of meeting him, but (unlike my friends on the Shanghai Express) too shy to approach him, they sheepishly trail behind. When he asks them what they want, they become tongue-tied, not knowing what to say, like that fan, so starstruck at meeting Victoria Wood, who blurted out, "What’s it like being married to Lenny Henry?" (Lenny Henry was married to Dawn French at the time). Forgetting all the things they would really like to ask, they just say "Where do you live?" Jesus senses their awkwardness, so invites them to spend some time with him, and no doubt over the next few hours they relax and become more themselves, while at the same time getting to know him better. The next day, they can’t wait to tell their friends, and invite them to meet him. "We have found the Messiah. Come and see."
In that little vignette of the calling of the first Apostles, and how they passed it on, we see how God’s call works, and that it’s the same for all of us. A) we need to be open and disposed to hear the call when it comes, which means seeking God with a sincere heart – ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening’. B) when the call comes we need to respond, to go and see where he lives and learn from him, even if it means making changes to our lifestyle. C) We have to tell others what we have learnt and found, so that they too can hear God’s call through us. This is the process by which you and I, the majority of us anyway, came to faith. Somebody, our parents, the teachers at the school we went to, a stranger we had a religious discussion with in a pub, a person who did us an extraordinary kindness when we were desperate - somebody, whoever it was, passed the faith on to us by telling us what they knew about Jesus.
Rarely does God’s call come in a sudden loud shout to wake us up from sleep, as it did for Samuel, or up front as it did for Peter, and later Matthew the tax collector. More often it comes in whispers and quiet ways, often in the still of the night when you can’t sleep. It comes in a million different ways, and is often very subtle, so we should take Eli’s advice to Samuel, to listen for it. If, like the two disciples, we want to know where Jesus lives, he’s here in the quietness of our hearts when we meditate on his Word in scripture, receive him in Holy Communion, or slip into an empty church to spend a little time with him in the Blessed Sacrament. We also know we’ll find him when we are doing his work for our fellow human beings, particularly when they are homeless, in need, lying in a hospital bed, hungry, cold or without a friend. That’s where he lives for sure, and from where his call comes. How we respond is a very personal thing, but a lot depends on the strength of our relationship with him. If there’s real love at the centre it needs to be shared by introducing our friend to others.
10.01.21 ~ FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
In the first reading we have a beautiful passage from Isaiah, telling us “Come to the water, all who are thirsty”. In making this call, Isaiah is acutely aware that all is not well with his people. Although he was writing to them 800 years before Christ, his words still resonate today. Just a few days ago, as you know, an angry mob stormed the Capitol in Washington because they disapproved of the result of the recent Presidential election. They were the latest in a long line of groups of people throughout history, who have tried to force their will on other people by dominance and aggression.
So, when John the Baptist echoes Isaiah’s call for thirsty people to come to the water, he’s not talking about physical thirst, but the thirst we all have for righteousness and peace and the desire to live in harmony. He offers them a new way to resolve conflict, not blaming everyone else for what’s going wrong, but facing up to our own faults and failings. He calls on everyone to repent of their sins and undergo baptism as a sign of cleansing, making a new start, and many did. However, no-one was more surprised than John, when Jesus, the sinless one, appeared before him for baptism. But Jesus insisted, because he knew that to have any hope of redeeming mankind, he had to identify totally with it, go through the same temptations, trials and tribulations we all do, share our life, our food and hospitality, pain and sorrow while, at the same time, inviting us to share the life of peace, mercy and love he had come to bring, in an attempt to set humanity back on its true course to the Father.
His baptism, ratified by the Father and the Holy Spirit, was like a formal commissioning service at the start of his public ministry of dispensing love, mercy and forgiveness, the work he was born into our world for. Three years on, he would ask his followers to do the same: “A new commandment I give you; love one another as I have loved you”. As you notice, that commandment is directly opposed to anything which advocates harming or destroying our fellow human beings. St Paul tells us, “We were baptised into Jesus’ death, so that we may live a new life”. Our baptism, then, means that we too were commissioned to a life of service, in imitation of him, seeking out the good in our neighbour, rather than his destruction. Not everybody, however, sees Baptism as a commitment of any sort.
Some years ago, I went with my friend Pete and his family on a canal boat holiday. It was brilliant, although our seamanship left a little to be desired, accidently ramming another barge at top speed (4 mph) causing an outraged elderly couple to spill their gins and tonic. We had to negotiate quite a few locks, which meant closing the gates in the lower level, then opening the sluice gates in order to ascend to the higher level and so proceed. Getting baptised is a rite of initiation. It’s like entering the lower lock. There’s enough water to float the boat, but not enough to take it to the next level. What every baptised person needs, to rise to the next level of faith, is a regular top-up of sanctifying grace.
Sadly, most of the children we baptise stay in the lower lock, because their parents do not open the sluice gates which allow the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, otherwise known as the Water of Life, to flow in and take them to the higher level of life with Jesus. Without the follow-through from Baptism to full participation in the Mass and the sacraments, the chances are that their underdeveloped faith will have little influence on the major decisions of their adult life, or that our Lord’s new commandment ‘to love one another as I have loved you’, will be their default solution for resolving conflict. More likely their views on life will be influenced by likes and dislikes on twitter, the cancellation culture which bans free speech or, in the worse-case scenario, mob violence, which, as we have just seen, can happen anywhere, even in one of the world’s leading democracies.
For those who think it may be too difficult to commit, remember that Christ has been there before you and negotiated the locks, so knows well the sort of difficulties you will have to face. Remember too that he will be with you every step of the way. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.
06.01.21 ~ FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
03.01.21 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
I don’t know if you ever saw the film, ‘Catch me if you can’? It’s a true story of a confidence trickster called Frank Abagnale, who before he was 19, passed himself off as, amongst other things, an airline pilot with Pan Am, a surgeon, and a prosecutor, living the high life and making lots of money. He was eventually caught and now works for the FBI Fraud Office. The secret of his success, was to blend in perfectly with each organisation. This week I met two mothers in the supermarket, whose daughters have joined the Armed Forces, both as Medics. I also met a young guy home on leave from the Army. I’ve known all three from their primary school days, so was very interested to know how they are getting on. It appears they are all happy, enjoying service life, and have blended in well. Unlike Frank Abagnale, they have blended in for legitimate reasons.
When you join an organisation like the Army, or any job for which you have no experience, it can be quite daunting, so it’s vital to make yourself used to living in a strange environment. You don’t have to lose your individuality or personality, but to belong, you have to become part of it, or you’ll never fit in or be accepted. It’s called incardination. When Jesus, the son of God, was born of a woman, he was incarnated into the human race, so, like everyone else, had to make himself used to living in a new environment, which he did by choosing to live and move and have his being as the rest of men.
St John’s gospel is different from the other three which simply record what Jesus said and did. John, as an old man looking back, is more concerned about what the Incarnation has meant for the world. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us”. The literal translation of ’He dwelt among us’ is ‘He pitched his tent among us’, which links up with that line from Ecclesiasticus - “Pitch your tent in Jacob, make Israel your inheritance”. This refers to the Israelites’ nomadic life in the desert, during the Exodus, when every time they stopped, they pitched a tent over the Ark of the Covenant, God’s presence among them, the ‘Wisdom which speaks its own praises’. In John, the place where God dwells is no longer tied to the people and geography of the Holy Land. He now dwells everywhere in the person of Jesus, Wisdom personified. John’s Prologue sets the theme for the whole of his gospel. Jesus is the “Light which enlightens all men” and, as such, will replace the feats and traditions of Israel in his own person. ‘Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days’. He is the new temple, the incarnate Word of God, forever present among us, even in such a bad year as 2020.
Although 2020 will be universally remembered for Covid, social distancing, self-isolating and national lockdown, we may also look back on our personal lives with all its joys and sorrows, and possibly regret promises not kept and opportunities wasted. If we do feel that way, we should remember the opening words of today’s gospel - “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God”. God is the Lord of all time, for whom a day is as a 1000 years and a 1000 years as a day. He is always making all things new. So, because we are people of hope, new beginnings are always possible. For example, this time last year I received a letter from a 30yr old, whom I knew as a lively, very clever little girl of 7, who used to chatter away to me while her mum was preparing the altar for Mass. I hadn’t heard from her in all that time, so was intrigued to find out how she was doing. I was very surprised, given the bright, full-of-life little girl I remembered, to see that she felt she had largely wasted her life. However, her letter was also jam-packed with hope. She had already made great strides, and 2020 was to be a year full of new beginnings. I await this year’s letter with interest.
Why did God become man and pitch his tent among us? For no other reason than that he loves us, wants each of us to live in an intimate relationship of love with him here on earth, and then to join him for eternity, completely fulfilled and all that we were ever meant to be. St John says, “To all who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God” thus making us who believe adopted sisters and brothers of his beloved son. “Indeed, from his fullness we have, all of us, received“.
27.12.20 ~ FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE HOLY FAMILY 2020
My dear people, This Solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity is kept holy as we recognise Christ, the Light in our darkness, Christ, our Saviour. It falls at a particular time in our calendar but is relevant for the whole year. Christmas falls on 25th December but its gift should be opened each day of the year.
Over these past ten months we have been made aware of our frailty and our strength both as individuals and as a society. We know that the pandemic has landed more heavily on some than on others. We know that certain individuals can cope better under this pressure than others. We have been asked repeatedly to be considerate of others, especially the most vulnerable and those whose occupations or circumstances put them in the front line of this battle.
When a care worker, medic or teacher finishes their shift or their work for the day, what do they do? They go home. Home to what? For the vast majority, they go home to family, spouse, children, news of elderly parents, washing, shopping, cleaning, preparing meals, medical appointments, bills and hopefully time to relax. All this – and more - is what it means to live in this world.
There are others who, unfortunately, have lost jobs, and now are faced with the crisis of knowing how to pay their bills, even how to stay in their rented home. Other families are even less fortunate as they find themselves homeless. I imagine the distress of young parents who find themselves with children they struggle to provide with basic essentials due to the cruelty of fate, economics or ‘luck’. I can imagine that darkness is sometimes welcomed because it helps to hide their plight, and yet, in this darkness they easily fall prey to anxieties that never take time off, robbing them of precious sleep and that most essential quality of human life, hope.
The Light that is Christ does not respect sin. He seeks out the darkest places knowing that these are the very places where He will find those for whom He has come, those who need Him most. The Church carries His light. The Church allows His light to shine through Faith and Charity. Prayer is something we can and must do in every time and every situation. With courage, prayer enables us to enter into the darkness of people’s lives so that the Light of Christ can shine both for us and for those we find there.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis has recently given us a beautiful Apostolic Letter, Patris corde, to mark the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of Saint Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church. It is something I ask your clergy to help make available in our parishes and schools. It speaks to us of the love of a father’s heart and will help to bring us the light of hope at a time when it is greatly needed.
God the Father knows all too well that bringing light into our darkness is wonderful but not in itself enough. Beyond prayer, beyond belief there must be active Charity. This, too, is the vocation of the Church and of every Christian. We must overcome the darkness through our love of others. Too often we can be paralysed by the sheer enormity of the problems we face and the desperate difficulties faced by those around us. St.Joseph shows us what is still possible. A single individual can be given the gift of overcoming what others see as insurmountable problems.
The world is a big place, and the number of those struggling can be overwhelming. Where do I start? Start with those closest to you, your family. Start at home. I invite you to take this opportunity to renew your personal Faith, particularly if you are experiencing severe difficulties. Be aware of the light you were entrusted with at your baptism. It was given to you for your own salvation and also for the good of others. Your vocation is to carry that Light in these days even though they are days we would not have chosen. This is where Christ wants you to carry His love.
At Christmas people want to be generous to others. Many families actually go into debt in order to ’make’ Christmas for their loved ones. Sadly, the most important element is missed; they ignore the reality of the Word made flesh in favour of joys that will not last. For us, Christmas is about a debt, a debt of love we owe to the God who has paid our debt owed due to sin. Note the difference; one household is plunged into debt by their Christmas whilst the faithful household is lifted out of debt by the Saviour.
As we begin the new year we pray above all for holiness. The Holy Family was not spared difficulties, and neither will we be spared. An abiding trust in the Father’s love will enable us to overcome any darkness. With the prayers of Our Blessed Lady, Mother of the Redeemer, and of Saint Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, may you be given a peace, joy and encouragement that only the Lord’s coming can give.
With my blessing on you all,
+Paul Swarbrick Bishop of Lancaster.
25.12.20 ~ CHRISTMAS DAY
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Dad joke – I was gutted this afternoon when my wife told me my 5 year old son wasn’t actually mine. She then said I ought to pay more attention when I go to pick him up from school. Dads eh? As I said last Sunday in my homily, Christmas is real life drama, not fairy-tale sentimentality. These things really happened and this Advent, with most of the commercial hassle subdued by coronavirus, we’ve had more time to dwell on the liturgy, seeing its great Messianic prophecies being fulfilled in the build up to the birth of Christ, especially in the persons of John the Baptist and Mary. But today, I want to say something about a person, who was never mentioned in any of those prophecies, but ended up playing a very significant role in the greatest story ever told – Joseph, foster dad to Jesus.
A long time ago, I sat on the end of a soldier’s bed in hospital while he poured his heart out to me, because his wife and children had left him and gone back to England, and he couldn’t understand why. I knew the wife, and she told me she left because he kept volunteering for every job going, in order to get promotion and more money. The final straw was when he came home from work one day and said, “We’re moving”. She didn’t want to move, and she didn’t want more money. All she wanted was for him to be a proper dad. His mistake was that he didn’t consult her; just presumed she would go with it – that’s not how a partnership works. It’s easy to volunteer, but to be successful you’re going to need back-up from people who buy in to what you’re trying to achieve.
When it’s obvious to Joseph that Mary is pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father, he decides to quietly divorce her, but receives a direct order from God to accept Jesus as his legitimate son, who will then be recognised as coming from David’s line, as all the prophecies say he will. From that moment Joseph is a key player. There’s no way Mary could have carried through God’s plan without him. He is the quintessential back-up, the solid, reliable, dependable type of guy who, although always in the background, is essential for the success of any great venture. Through his work as a carpenter, he provided for and protected his family, as every good husband and father does, allowing Jesus to live as normal a life as possible during the hidden years of his life in Nazareth.
Not everybody can be, would want to be, or needs to be, front of house, but everybody can be a Joseph. More than ever now, when the situation with vocations to the priesthood is dire, every parish needs that kind of back-up. One of the biggest parishes in Preston, Our Lady and St Edward, will have no resident priest from January. In our own parish we’re blessed with lots of Josephs, male and female, thank God, and I pray that will always be the case, to ensure the survival and prospering of the parish when I am no longer with you. Hopefully, even more will be inspired by the Holy Spirit to use their gifts and talents to support our mission to make Christ known and loved. Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands or feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good”.
This week many headlines have screamed out ‘Christmas Cancelled’. Well, the social side of has certainly been cancelled, but not Christmas itself, a time when our concern for others always goes hand in hand with the celebration of Christ’s birth. For example, one of the best Christmases I had was in Northern Germany. I had broken down on the Hamburg autobahn after my last Mass – wasn’t rescued till about 5pm – no mobile phones in those days – I arrived about 7pm where I was to have lunch, to find they had not touched a morsel of food. They had decided to wait for my safe return. That waiting for me was the true meaning of Christmas put into practice – the giving of ourselves in the service of others. (Mind you, they were all legless!) So, even though we cannot celebrate in the usual way, Christmas Day is still a day of joy. Joy is the true gift of Christmas, not expensive presents that demand time and money. It is a day for us to receive the joy of Christ and share it with others, as St Joseph did in that very first Christmas Day.
20.12.20 ~ 4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
On my message board in the kitchen, I have a piece of newspaper, written almost ten years ago now, with the headline ‘Too old to be told’. It refers to an article from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, saying that over 65’s should be screened for alcohol abuse. Well, as you can imagine there are quite a few comments from over 65’s, not all complimentary to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Some are funny, others just musing on life. One lady wrote: ‘Last time I was in the town centre on a Saturday night, I don’t recall seeing 75 year olds tottering drunk and half naked on their stilettos. How things must have changed’. But my favourite, and that’s why I’ve kept the article, is “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting: “What a ride!” I like that because it sees life as an adventure, something I’ve always believed in, for, as the man said, ‘you’ll be long enough dead’!
Every adventure has to start with the word ‘Yes’ before the first step of the journey can be taken. If someone asks you to join them on an adventure, after the initial excitement, most people would want to ask questions, usually about the risks involved. There are lots of incidences in the Bible of God choosing fairly insignificant people for a divine purpose, and most of them, it’s fair to say, are surprised. Some want proof, like Gideon. He wanted the dew at dawn to fall only on the fleeces he laid out, which it did. Not content with that, he asked God to make the dew next day fall only on the ground, not the fleeces. Even their greatest leader Moses, expressed doubt about God’s ability to bring freedom for his people and guarantee their safety. Mary was different. There were many ways she could have reacted, including the response, ‘Not me Lord’, given her fear of being found to be pregnant before marriage. What about the awesome reality of hearing from Gabriel that, of all the women that ever lived, you have been singled out by God, if you’re just a simple village girl, going about your chores, with no illusions of grandeur. Amazingly, and no doubt under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she responds by saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your Word”. No asking for proof, guarantees or explanations, just a simple ‘Yes’.
So began Our Lady’s great adventure. She is the first Christian to engage in the adventure of faith, and what an adventure it turned out to be: fraught with danger from the very beginning, when, to avoid the murder of her child, she became a refugee in a foreign country: that heart-stopping moment of every parent’s life when her young son went missing in the big city. The horror of seeing the man she had given life to, fed and nourished for 30 years, tortured and put to death in the most excruciating way known to man. Finally the triumph of witnessing his resurrection and being present at the birth of his church, when the Holy Spirit came down upon her, and the apostles at Pentecost.
The lovely thing is that her adventure did not finish with being assumed body and soul into heaven. As you know, from the cross, Jesus gave her to us to be our mother too, a role which she continues to play as, like any mother, she watches over us and encourages us in our life’s adventure. And for us, because she’s our mother, we have no problem asking her to intercede for us, especially when we are struggling. ‘Pray for us sinners now” we say “and at the hour of our death”, just as, no doubt, you prayed for your son at the hour of his death.
Christmas is just around the corner, so we should try to immerse ourselves in the human drama surrounding the birth of Jesus, and see God’s coming into our world as his great adventure, in which he works, moves and shows himself in ways our dreams, and well thought-out plans, could not imagine. Who but God could have thought of a virgin birth? Who but God could make his promise to build David a house, that would extend into the future and last forever, come to fulfilment in a dusty little room, in an obscure little village, by relying on the words of a young girl, who described herself as lowly and humble of heart, but whom, from that day forward, “All Nations now call Blessed?
13.12.20 ~ 3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
As you know, Diego Maradona died recently at the relatively tender age of 60, and there were many programmes in tribute to him. One that I watched referred to his godlike status in Argentina, so much so that his body lay in state at the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, an honour usually reserved for great statesmen, not footballers. There is also a Church of Maradona, where its adherents have an altar on which they worship his image, with many religious style paintings of him adorned with a halo. In Italy, when visiting Naples, we were amazed to see statues of him, with candles and votive offerings, in a niche on the corner of houses, where presumably statues of Our Lady used to be. Before he went to Italy, Napoli had won only two trophies in 61 years, and had never won the League title, but in his third year thy won both the League and the Cup, and went on to have unprecedented success. Napoli became the impoverished Southern David, triumphing over the rich Northern Goliaths of Milan and Turin, a bit like unfashionable Nottingham Forest’s European Cup glory under Brian Clough. On the day Maradona arrived to sign for Napoli, 80,000 fans turned out to welcome him, as he walked into the stadium under a banner that read ‘Maradona the god’. They had waited so long for a saviour and he had arrived.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s about joy, excitement and anticipation, and, in some ways, though nowhere near the level of hype generated by celebrities today, the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene, in today’s gospel, has similarities. During Advent, we have many readings from the prophet Isaiah, written when the Israelites were suffering in exile, because of their failure to stay faithful to God’s commandments. He tells them God has not forgotten them, or his promises, and that they will return to their homeland. It’s called the Book of Consolation, and is full of joy and hope for the future, and indeed, they did eventually return to Jerusalem. Now, many centuries on, they are in the doldrums again, this time, still in their own country, but under Roman occupation, with nobody to tell them what to do. There has been no prophet or messenger from God for 300 years.
Then, the word goes round Jerusalem that up north, there’s a guy causing quite a stir by the river Jordan. His clothing, his preaching, calling people to repent and have their sins washed away by baptism, all seem to suggest that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Excitement is building. Could he be the One, the Saviour destined to make Israel great again? The Jews send a delegation of priests and Levites to find out. But John makes it clear in no uncertain words that he is not. The big difference between modern day celebrities and John, is that he doesn’t believe his own publicity. He is no god to be idolised. He’s merely the warm-up man for the true Messiah, whose sandal straps he says he’s unworthy to undo. “I’m just a voice in the wilderness, sent to prepare his way. I must decrease, he must increase”. Can you imagine Donald Trump ever saying that about Joe Biden?
Perhaps the most important message from John, apart from what true humility is, are his words, “There stands among you – unknown to you –the One”. These words must have caused tremendous confusion among the delegates, who, like most people, imagined that the Messiah would arrive in majesty and power. John shows us that God’s plan is to start slowly and build up. The ‘One to come’ will not begin his public life in Jerusalem, the centre of power, but out in the sticks, in Galilee. He will come in poverty not power, weak and vulnerable not strong and mighty, to serve not to be served. In other words, he chose to be among us, not above us, but you need to be switched on to know his presence. To do that you need to look at the evidence. When John, languishing in Herod’s dungeon, sent a message asking for reassurance that he was the one, Jesus replied “Look at the evidence – the blind see, the lame walk the poor are fed etc”. So with us. We can’t force people to believe in God or accept Christ as their Saviour. We can only prepare the way of the Lord. If we live the gospel works of love and mercy, the evidence is there for all to see, that he is still here living and working among us. At the end of the day, we, like John, are merely the warm-up act for the main attraction.
06.12.20 ~ 2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT
A PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP OF LANCASTER
For the Second Sunday of Advent 6th December 2020
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
My Dear People, A single desire lies in our hearts and is beautifully captured by the simple cry, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’ It is spoken with greater intensity in this short season of Advent, but it Is a cry we utter in every season of the year and every season of our lives. Made in the image and likeness of God, we long to see the face of God our creator.
This Pastoral message, following the tradition set by my predecessors, carries a dual purpose. Firstly, to build the unity of the Diocese as it is shared across our parishes and homes. Secondly, it will give a focus for our lives, encouraging us to reflect above all on the second coming of our Saviour.
Our lives seem currently to be dominated by at least three massive uncertainties; the effects of Covid-19, the effects of Brexit, and the effects of damaged ecology. As Christians, we can counterbalance these uncertainties with the certainty of Our Lord’s victory achieved by His love. This is more than clever words. He achieved it by acts. He achieved it by taking flesh, by His ministry, by His Passion and Glorious Resurrection. This is what our lives are dominated by, above and beyond all uncertainties. But our Faith can be weak, and our witness can fail, and we can become scared, and even those who lead us can cause us to question.
St. John the Baptist is a key figure in the life of Our Lord. Even in the womb he responded to Christ’s presence.
He prepared the way for the Lord, and baptised Him. He encouraged his own disciples to leave him and follow Christ. We hear the Baptist in today’s Gospel, ‘at the top of his game’, as it were.
In lockdown and its subsequent tiers we look for ways of coping, remaining strong for others, doing what we can to lift those who have fallen. NHS staff, teachers, carers and many other professionals have done outstanding work.
I commend Clergy, Religious and Lay Faithful for ensuring that people have access to the Blessed Sacrament for prayer in spite of the severe restrictions imposed. I thank those who have written to MPs expressing concern that churches have suffered too severe a lockdown. I commend those who look after families, especially the young, elderly and vulnerable.
I think of St. John the Baptist later in his life in lockdown, having been arrested for his outspoken criticism of Herod. Even strong people have their limits, and St. John reached a point of doubt. He sent a message to Jesus asking,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?’ The answer he received did not change his circumstances, but it did give him new heart.
Christmas can be a point of convergence for three aspects of our lives; past, present and future. From the past we draw memories and lessons, knowing we can’t go back. The future is shrouded in questions, a feast for the imagination. A variety of futures lie before us, depending on how we make choices, and how events beyond our control affect us. So, what of the present, the ‘here and now’?
‘Christianity is not an ideal to be aimed for but a reality to be shared.’ What we have been given matters. What have we been given in our many forms of lockdown? A verse from Psalm 18 is worth remembering; ‘He brought me forth into freedom. He saved me because He loved me.’ We desire freedom, but some little thought leads us to realise that what matters most is that He loves us. Freedom without His love is no freedom; to know He loves us assures our most desired freedom.
In previous Advents I have encouraged us all to have a crib at the centre of decorations in our homes, and perhaps even in our places of work. This year I encourage the same. This year I also encourage you to make every effort to attend and celebrate Mass, but this will be difficult for some. So I encourage you to get to Mass within the Octave (eight days) of Christmas. I also encourage you to keep Christmas going, even up to 2nd February, the beautiful Feast of Candlemas, when Christmastide concludes. Carry the light and hope of our ultimate freedom into the New Year. Carry it joyfully through all the restrictions, trials and uncertainties of this life, knowing the utter certainty of victory through Christ’s love.
With my blessing on you all, especially on those who are experiencing particular hardships.
Bishop of Lancaster
29.11.20 ~ 1st SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
When I was at the Cathedral, I received, from one of the big hotels in town, a poster which they asked me to put on our notice board, asking the parishioners to book early for Christmas dinner. Nothing unusual about that, you might say. But this was in July!! I wrote back congratulating them on their exceptional forward planning. I also enclosed a list of Christmas Mass times, which I asked them to display on their notice board. I didn’t get a reply!
When faced with all the early preparations, and relentless advertising for the commercial Christmas, it’s easy to get cynical, but actually, we Christians don’t live in isolation from the world, so are bound to get caught up in the hustle and bustle, which is no bad thing, if you believe Christ’s birthday is a time of joy, worth having a party for. The difference is that our forward planning, over the four weeks of Advent, must include keeping the spiritual meaning of Christmas in view, but under pressure to shop till you drop, it can be difficult to do so.
However, this year, because, due to coronavirus, most of us have decided on a more low-key approach, to the material side of Christmas, we do have a unique opportunity to prepare spiritually, in a way often denied to us in the past. More time spent at home and less time tearing round the shops, may provide space for quiet prayer and reflection, not only on the meaning of Christmas but on life in general. Throughout Advent the scriptures unfold the drama of Jesus’ first coming, look forward to his second, but also remind us of his continued presence among us every day, in our personal lives. They remind us of our goal, destiny and purpose, which is to be with God and share the joys of heaven with all those we’ve loved and lost. These are the realities we hope and pray for and which, one day, will be ours.
We all know this, of course, but, over the years, as in every generation, some of us may have either forgotten, fallen asleep, got a bit careless or actually chosen to ignore the fact that Christ will come again, in a sort of “OK I believe Jesus is the Son of God and came into our world, but I need to get on with my life – work, mortgages, children etc”. So, that’s why Advent starts by reminding us to keep watch, be vigilant. To the apostles ‘Stay awake’ meant be ready when the master returns ie the second coming, but to us it means stay awake to what Christ’s presence among us here and now is all about. Be alert like a doorkeeper. How many re-runs of James Bond have we seen, where our hero gets into a megalomaniac’s lair because the doorkeeper has fallen asleep? He then usually causes mayhem and blows the evil lair to pieces. A doorkeeper is the first line of safety, but only if he stays awake. Our job is not so much to open the door as to keep it open, not just so that we can let Jesus into our lives, but so that through us, he can enter the world in which we live, commercial Christmas and all.
As people of faith, alert to Our Lord’s teaching and awake to the needs of the world, we have a lot to offer, in spite of our own faults and failings. We don’t generally commit serious crime, or behave anti-socially. People recognise that our behaviour is influenced by our faith.
Non-Catholics often choose Catholic schools for their faith ethos. Pope Francis is seen by the world in general, not just Catholics, as a light in the darkness in his concern for refugees, the poor of the world and the pursuit of justice, mercy and forgiveness. Catholic Social Teaching is often borrowed from by Governments trying to make life better for their people.
Advent, then, is a gift to help us to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the secular. We should be awake to what people are really looking for in life, especially those seeking God with a sincere heart. Christmas could be the perfect start for them. So, it’s most important to be up front about our faith, and to give a good example of how to balance the two ways of preparing for Christ’s birthday. Enjoy, as always, what’s going on around, but also make sure to include some time each day for prayer. When deciding what to spend on ourselves, don’t forget the poor. Most of all, let’s use the time wisely to take stock of our relationship with God and where our priorities lie. If we can do all or some of these things during Advent, we will certainly stay awake, and will prepare the way of the Lord just as he has asked us to.
22.11.20 ~ FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Like some other adults I go into school to listen to some of the children read, and I always let them choose their favourite book. With the boys it is mainly about monsters or superheroes. It got me thinking about the stories we had at their age: the lazy boy too tired to carry a needle, so slipped it into a haystack then couldn’t find it, the silly boy who carried butter home on his head, but the sun melted it. Then there was the ‘little red hen’, who repeatedly asked for help with all the housework but didn’t get any. “Then I’ll do it myself”, said the little red hen. At the end of the story everybody wants to eat the beautiful cake she has made, but “Oh, no! I’ll eat it myself” said the little red hen.
It’s a story of idleness, selfishness and couldn’t-be-botheredness, and in a way echoes the attitude of the bad shepherds, (mainly the kings of Israel) in our first scripture reading, who had not protected their people, or looked after them; leaving them scattered like sheep, all over the place, exiled in Babylon. So, because they failed in their duty of care, God, like the little red hen, says “Then, I’ll do it myself. I am going to look after my flock. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness, bring back the lost, bandage the wounded, and make the weak strong. I will raise up a new David to lead my flock in the ways of justice and love”. The new David is, of course, Christ, the good shepherd and servant King. His whole ministry on earth was the care of the weak, the poor, the marginalised, and the exercise of the corporal works of mercy, many examples of which, he gives in today’s parable of the last judgement. The sheep on the right are those who showed mercy, so are blessed and take their place in the kingdom, as promised by Jesus in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who show mercy, they shall have mercy shown them”.
The word mercy could easily conjure up a picture of a very grand gesture by someone with great power, such as an emperor granting the life of a gladiator, or the Duke of Wellington sparing the life of a soldier caught stealing a pig, but more often than not, mercy is exercised in a thousand little ways, and simply means an act of kindness or thoughtfulness. For example, recently we delivered a quite heavy food parcel to a middle-aged lady. Because of Covid we have to drop parcels at the door. Her teenage daughter remained stretched out on the sofa, leaving her mum to carry in all the stuff by herself, which I pointed out, but her mum said, oh, she’s always like that. An opportunity to show mercy was obviously missed by the girl, but was an opportunity for good shepherding also missed by the mum? Good shepherding, especially to young people, means passing on life skills which benefit,
such as facing up to the reality that you can’t expect to have everything done for you. It also means keeping the flock in view in order to rescue them from danger. One of the great dangers for young people today is that many of them drift away from real life, and get scattered into the mist and darkness of social media, so good shepherding means keeping an eye on their use of it only for good.
Like Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, this parable is addressed to all peoples, but it has a special resonance for communities of faith, such as ours. Working for and praying for Christ’s kingdom to come, means bridging the gap between our values and beliefs, and the secular world of sovereignty, authority and power in which we live and move, and have our being. In the long run, our parish, and the Church in general, is a success if, despite many failures and wrong turnings, we really have tried to set up a community of love, where people can grow in freedom and responsibility, where forgiveness is a reality, and where care and concern reaches out to those in need - in short, where, by how we behave to our neighbour, in whom Jesus is mysteriously present, human beings can get a glimpse of what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
And as for the last judgement, we need have no fear if, like Saint John of the Cross, who had quite a tough life, even being locked up in prison by his own community, we believe that “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love”.
15.11.20 ~ 33rd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
What do you think of the domestic goddess in the first reading? Perhaps some wives are smiling to themselves thinking, ‘that’s me they’re talking about’, while their husbands are thinking ‘lucky sod whoever gets her’. Whenever I hear that reading, I always think of the Fairy liquid advert – a little girl sitting in a beautifully kept house, asking her immaculattely coiffured mother, ’Mummy why are your hands always so soft?’ And I always want her to say ‘Because your daddy does the washing up, dear’.
It would be easy to look at that reading as the gold standard of perfection for women, but, as always in scripture, there’s a lot more to the story than meets the eye. The Book of Proverbs forms part of the Wisdom literature in the OT, and Wisdom is always referred to as ‘She’, the feminine side of God, if you like. So, far from being about a subservient wife, the perfect wife, with her endless busyness, is really about God’s ceaseless, creative and loving work for us his children in our daily life.
The parable of the talents builds on that theme by including us in the work of God. We are made partners in his enterprise, entrusted with his property, until he comes again. As I said last week, the scripture readings, as we approach the end of the liturgical year, during these dark and short days of November, are always about the second coming of Christ as universal king. We say in the creed “He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”. His first coming was at Christmas and ended with the Ascension into heaven when, like the man in the story, he left them to go abroad, having promised that they would receive the wherewithal, to carry out what he wanted them to do, each according to their ability. That was the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The property he entrusted to us was the spread of the gospel, and, as we know, they and their successors did a pretty fine job. But not all of them. Over time, some early Christian communities went off the boil, so Matthew, in recalling this parable, 40 years later, applies it to any community which lacks enthusiasm and rests on its laurels, just doing the minimum required. Like the third man In effect that community has buried its talent, for which, he says, the punishment will be severe. Why did they go off the boil? Perhaps they thought the return of Christ was imminent, so saw no point in getting stuck in. Even St Paul, in his early days, thought the same, but later came to realise that whatever God’s plan was, it was daft us trying to tie him down to a programme. “Don’t expect me to write anything about times and seasons. He’ll come when he’s ready, like a thief in the night. In the meantime, there’s work to be done” – stay awake and sober so as not to be caught off guard”.
The message that Jesus has entrusted to us is “God is love, and the one who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him” a message that has to be taken out to the world. Love cannot be contained within itself. The essence of love is that it must diffuse itself, otherwise it’s not love. Love is the most powerful gift we can give to someone, so, we have to use the talents we’ve been given with flair, imagination and creativity, to increase its reach and power. Sometimes, love in action comes from the most unexpected quarters. Look at Marcus Rashford, blessed with silky football skills which have taken him from poverty to great wealth. He could have guarded that talent for himself alone, to make himself even richer. Instead he has used his fame to make the lives of poor children better. Nor is he resting on his laurels. Like the men in the story who were rewarded for doing well, by being given even more work to do, the good work he did last year has led to even more this year. In this week’s Tablet, an article about David Attenborough’s mission to save the Planet, says that, ironically,
his many films of what’s happening to our world, is having the unintended consequence of people just tut tutting, marking time as it were, instead of getting out and doing something about it. If there’s a message to take from today’s liturgy, it could well be, don’t sleep walk through life. Be adventurous: take risks with whatever talent you’re blessed with, so that one day we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant – come and join your Master’s happiness”?
08.11.20 ~ 32nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
One of our parishioners, Eileen Wright, reminded me recently of a lovely story I heard many years ago, about a little old nun undergoing end of life care in the convent, where the other sisters tried to make her as comfortable as possible. She couldn’t eat much, so they kept her going with milk. As she started to deteriorate, unbeknown to her, they added a little drop of whisky to the milk, which seemed to perk her up, and she lasted much longer than expected. When her time finally came, they asked “Have you any last words of advice to give us, Sister, before you go to your eternal reward?” “Yes, don’t sell the cow!”
November is traditionally a time of remembrance and prayer for the souls of all those who have died and gone before us. But it’s also a time for each of us to reflect on the inevitability of our own death, and how we should prepare for it. Catholics of a certain age may remember being encouraged to ask St Joseph, patron saint of a happy death, to preserve us from a sudden and unprovided death. To be honest, sudden death is not a lot we can do anything about, but nor is it something to be afraid of, if we have been faithful to the gospel. An ‘unprovided’ death, which means not being prepared for it, however, is something we can, and definitely should, do something about.
We sometimes talk about death as sleeping, which, for a Christian, is not a bad metaphor, because after sleeping we wake up at some stage, which is precisely what we believe about the resurrection. In todays’ parable all the bridesmaids grew drowsy and fell asleep, but some of them were wise enough to have fuel in reserve, so that when the Master came, they’d be ready for him. In the same way, all people will die, but only those who have provided for death by having what is needed, when Christ the bridegroom awakes them, will be allowed into the wedding feast. Entry to the kingdom of heaven cannot be taken for granted if we have not been firm in faith and loving in deeds.
The first reading from Wisdom, marries up very nicely with the gospel, because it says “Watch for her early and you will have no trouble – be on the alert for her and anxiety will quickly leave you”. Apply that to today’s gospel and you see Wisdom is just another name for Christ. Like Wisdom in the OT, Christ comes to meet those who seek him, and enlightens those who wait for him in faith. We’re used to the idea of wisdom, and exercise it all the time. Everyday wisdom tells us to provide for the future, build up reserves, save for a rainy day, take out life insurance. If you’re running for High Office during a national pandemic, when movement is restricted, it may be wise to advise supporters to vote by post, rather than attempt to turn up on the day. But, hey! what do I know?
The Wisdom Jesus refers to is all that but much more. He says “Stay awake because you do not know either the day or the hour”. He means stay alert to what is essential and to the dangers which could knock you off course, and make sure we have the reserves we need to sustain us on our journey to meet him, whether our death be sudden or protracted. In the Army, during the Troubles, we used to have signs all over the place saying “Stay alert, stay alive”. Now, its commonplace to see similar warnings in airports about unattended baggage. We all know it makes sense to be alert and ready.
In the story the girls have no idea when the bridegroom will come. Unless we are terminally ill, or about to be executed, nor do we. Like them we too get drowsy and lose concentration, or feel it’s too much of a fag to go to the shop, ie church, to fill up with the spiritual oil which keeps the flame of faith alive in my heart. Like them, we may think the master won’t be coming for yonks, that my death is years away yet, so I’ll take my chances and live with just the small amount of oil I got years ago at primary school. The parable warns us that that is a very risky and not well thought-out strategy. Imagine finding the doors closed, being shut outside, and hearing those heart-breaking words, “I tell you solemnly I do not know you”. I would wish to spare anyone from that, so urge everyone, at whatever stage of their life, to take seriously the message of Christ’s parable today.
01.11.20 ~ FEAST OF ALL SAINTS
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
Today is the feast of All Saints. For most people, I suspect, the first image of a saint that comes to mind is someone like that missionary, leaving the security and comfort of home, maybe sacrificing everything, in order to preach the gospel, with single-minded dedication, someone like the great St Paul perhaps, or our own 40 English martyrs. It’s true that in this wonderful Christian family we belong to, we do have loads of great saints, who in every era of our history have done outstanding things for God. But, as we see in the Apocalypse, there is a ‘huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language’, gathered round the throne of God in heaven too. Today’s feast reminds us that one day, all being well, we’re gonna be in that number when they go marching in. The secret to joining them, is not to blow the many chances God’s grace gives us to carry out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, being a peacemaker, caring for the sick, etc, outlined by Jesus in the Beatitudes in today’s gospel. But in order to be motivated enough to do those wonderful things, we have to understand why we’re doing them.
I saw a little story last week in a missionary magazine, about an American Baptist minister, many years ago, preaching to African villagers, and doing pretty well. He, of course, believed in total immersion, so at the end of his sermon, declared “Come now to the river of life, be baptised, and you will be born again!” But nobody came. He was terribly disappointed. What he didn’t know, but they did, was that there were crocodiles in the river! Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted!
In St John’s letter today he says, “Think of the love the Father has ‘lavished’ on us by letting us be called his children”. At the heart of being a saint, then, is to be loved by God and to be able to love in return, which carries the promise that “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is” (ie the beatific vision, or heaven). Being a saint is being caught up in the life and love of God. We can see something of what that means, in a child who responds to parents’ love and takes pleasure in the life you share together as a family. You are blessed, because, for all his human failings, your child is a saint, unlike the child of whom it is said, “He’s very good to his parents – he never goes home!”
Responding to God’s love makes sainthood possible for everyone, but it needs further exploration. I’m reading a pamphlet on the Holy Spirit at the moment, which talks about a very familiar image of the Holy Spirit - that of living water - used by Jesus when he says, “Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him”. Using that image, the author compares us to a glass. A glass is made for the specific purpose of holding water, but you would never offer someone a dirty one to drink from. It would need to be washed clean first. We, he says, were made for the specific purpose of holding God, but his great plan for the human race went horribly wrong when sin entered the world. By failing to appreciate the tremendous gift we had been given, we allowed ourselves to become unclean, so needed to be cleansed of our sins, before we could hold God in the way he created us for. Thankfully that cleansing has been done by Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, and, through our baptism, we are able to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
But whether we get filled or not depends on how we communicate with God. For example, you can meet someone you’re not keen on, but out of politeness, you stop and just talk about the weather, or Covid - a fleeting encounter with no substance. If, however, you meet someone you like, you may actually talk about the same things, but something deeper is taking place between you. You have opened yourself inwardly, and so has the other person, and as you go on your way you feel good. So too, we can have either just a nodding acquaintance with God, or a deep personal relationship, which leaves us filled with God’s love and glad to return it, full of the joy of sharing his life and love. If you have that you are already a saint, and being a saint frees you up to be a channel of his life and love here on earth, living the beatitudes for the good of the whole of creation.
On Thursday I had a call from someone in another part of the country, asking if she could have her 10 year old baptised here. Like so many, she hadn’t kept her faith up since High School, but had fond memories of going to church with her grandma. Although from Fleetwood, she had lived a long time in the Army, and we’d had a mutual posting in Northern Ireland. We had a really friendly chat, and I ended up telling her that she was not far away from a full return to the faith. I asked her to contact her local priest and have a good heart to heart, which she said she would really like to do. So, say a wee prayer for her. By the way, it was interesting the effect her grandma’s faith had on her. For many, like her, you grandparents are the one constant example of faith in their lives. I hope you all appreciate what a precious influence your love for the faith has when other models are often lacking.
25.10.20 ~ 30th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
That posting in Belfast reminded me of an amusing incident I had in a lift after visiting a soldier in the RVH. When I got in on the 5th floor, the only occupant was a little boy of about 7. I noticed that all 12 buttons had been pressed, but when we arrived at the next floor there was no-one there; then again at the next floor. I looked at the little boy who had gone bright red, and he said “Some wee boy has pressed all the buttons, so he has”. ‘Some’ wee boy? There wasn’t another child for miles! He’d obviously had an attack of guilt, and as we were on the Falls Road, it was probably Catholic guilt.
It was Billy Connolly who coined the phrase, “I went to a Catholic school and got an A level in guilt” but, in actual fact, Catholics probably feel no more guilt than other folk. The difference is that it’s our tradition to humbly admit it, seek forgiveness in Confession and, with the help of God’s grace, to try not to sin again. At least, that’s how it was when I was a boy. When I made my first confession, we were even trained to say exactly how many times we’d sworn, told lies and been mean to our sister, which was often a severe test of memory, with a tendency to exaggerate, hoping to shock the priest into realising this was no softy 7 yr old he was dealing with, but a hardened criminal. It sounds a bit quaint now, but what it did do was give us a sense of sin, and of its potential to harm both ourselves and others, the very opposite of what Jesus is teaching in the gospel today. It allowed us to grow up with a moral compass, knowing that sinful behaviour is always wrong, and to be avoided.
Today’s gospel provides the battleground where the real war against sin should be fought. The Old Testament distinguished between the two great commandments – they are found in different places – but Jesus makes the two into one, the single commandment of the New Testament. The love we profess for God should be the same love we have for our neighbour because, fundamentally, we all come from God, have been redeemed by Christ, and are destined, if we choose to follow him, to be with God for eternity. Because we all have a soul which is the spark of God’s life in us, the part of us which can never die, it’s logical and essential to recognise that spark of God’s life in everyone else. We call the Church, the Body of Christ – he the head, we the members. Because we’re all still here, alive and functioning, that means Christ is here with us too. Christ’s head hasn’t disappeared into space, decapitated – it’s still connected to his body, us. That’s why great spiritual writers talk about seeing Christ in others. It is Christ who lives in slum conditions, with no proper roof or water supply. It is Christ who suffers in hospitals, has cancer or is crippled and blind. It is Christ who is old and lonely with no friends and little money. It is Christ who lives in under developed countries, who is homeless, hungry and naked, and it’s for us to reach out to him. Loving your neighbour is not necessarily about liking them. It is an act of the will, even if feelings and emotions dictate otherwise.
As for guilt, the only guilt worth its name, is looking back and realising you did little for the plight of your neighbour in need when you had the chance, and if that guilt brings you to confession and forgiveness, it has served its purpose. When, one day, I stand and look into the eyes of Christ, I wonder if they will be the eyes of the beggar I passed by, or the neighbour I tried to love as myself??
18.10.20 ~ 29th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
After a rather disappointing rainy Monday this week, when no golf could be played, Tuesday started rather well I thought, until the post arrived. In it was my tax return. Imagine my surprise to find that I owed the Government £42.000. Normally it’s about £200. Turns out an extra digit was added to my State Pension saying that I’d received £86,000 – no wonder people think we Baby Boomers have the life of Reilly! Tax returns can be a pain, but they remind us of our duty to the State or, as Our Lord puts it, our duty to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
In today’s gospel, not for the first time, Jesus finds himself in a tricky position, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one side there are the wealthy supporters of King Herod, who have done quite well out of the Roman occupation. On the other side are the Pharisees, aware that Romans believe Caesar is divine, whereas for Jews, there can be only one God. “Thou shalt love the Lord your God and him alone”. If Jesus answers ‘No’ the Herodians will report him to the Romans for inciting rebellion. If he says ‘Yes’ the Pharisees will be able to show that he is not the Messiah, since he approves of paying to support a pagan god, the irony being they probably all had Roman coins in their pockets, like everyone else.
Instead of answering the question, however, Jesus throws back to them a challenge, to work out for themselves what should be the proper interplay between political and religious loyalty. It’s a challenge that faces us too, as it has Christians throughout the ages. In the early days, refusing to offer incense to the Emperor’s statue cost many Christians their life. Here in England while most of the country apostatised during the reign of Henry VIII, St Thomas More lost his life with the words, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”. Even today Christians are still losing their lives for standing firm in faith against oppressive Regimes.
Here at home, we are not overtly persecuted in that way, but there are many other ways we are encouraged to conform to what the State says is good for us, when deep inside, we know it’s not what God wants. We are Christians trying to live the gospel in an increasingly non-Christian world, in which the Law does not always respect objective morality, favouring instead, a pick and mix variety to suit the individual taste. This has made many things socially acceptable, which were once seen as antisocial and thereby opposed to the common good.
So, how do we reconcile our conscience with what the State does in our name, if we don’t agree or believe in it, like a war we consider to be unjust? Borrowing from philosophical methodology, we know God has endowed everyone with reason; we can think and use logic in order to judge and choose a course of action. Other faculties like imagination and memory also help us to arrive at a decision. Will power enables us to give or withhold consent to what our reason has proposed. That’s the same for everyone, believer or non-believer alike. What’s different for us, is that we also have the gift of the Holy Spirit, who informs our conscience, through the clarity of gospel and Church teaching, as to what is morally right or wrong, thus helping us to make the right choice in rendering to Caesar what is his and to God what is his.
Never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit. Eg, if you go to Ephesus, you’ll see a large beautiful city full of ruined pagan temple, so, on paper, Paul never had a chance in his attempt to establish Christianity there. Nevertheless, he preached that “Jesus Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven, far above all power and dominion or any other force that could be named. God has set him above all things as head of the church which is his body”. So, being the body of Christ, and thereby animated by the Holy Spirit, the church in Ephesus became one of the most important in early Christianity. The remains of the first basilica, in which the Council of Ephesus proclaimed the dogma of ‘Theotokos’, the official teaching of the church that Mary is the mother of God, are still there, and on a hill in the distance is a huge cross looking down on the city. No paganism there now.
So, seeing what the power of the Holy Spirt can and has achieved over the centuries, why would we think that in our time it should be any different? The Holy Spirit and his power is with us still. You can see that in Pope Francis, whose latest encyclicals to the whole world, on the environment as our common home, and the fact that everyone is a brother or sister to everyone else, the Holy Spirit is working to change hearts and minds about narrow-minded nationalism, and the fact that we’re all in this together. On a personal level, like Jesus, we too can find ourselves in tricky positions, and there may well be a conflict of loyalties. But we also know from today’s gospel, that if we truly believe something is immoral or against our faith, we cannot simply go with the flow and conform to the prevailing ethos. God must always have first place in our lives.
11.10.20 ~ 28th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~ click here)
After Mass on Thursday, Paul Latus said to me, “You know Father about the group of six? Well last weekend Liverpool let in seven!” I laughed of course, but I shouldn’t have really, knowing that the day before United were thrashed 6-1. But I did! Talking of groups of 6, this week we got another set of rules from our Bishops for what the Government calls “life-cycle events”. So, for weddings we’re allowed 15 maximum for both the service and the reception. Baptism outside of Mass just 6, while funerals stay the same. A far cry from the way we normally celebrate such important milestones, and a world away from the sumptuous feast described in the first reading from Isaiah today. Two things to notice are a) it takes place in the open air – “On this mountain I will prepare a banquet” – and b) that it’s “for all people”. No shielding, lockdown or social distancing here!
You will, of course, be very familiar with this reading, because it is often chosen for funerals with its invitation to the joy of heaven, once death is destroyed and there are no more tears to be shed. But, as with all scripture, it is a living word, and therefore relevant to us while we’re here on earth too. From a mountain top, you can see forever, but to have that vision you first have to climb it. Unlike me, who always takes the easy way up by ski lift, anyone who has climbed a mountain will tell you it’s not easy. But boy, is it worth it! A panorama of sumptuous views of the beauty of creation.
The interesting thing, I think, is that today’s gospel story is about a royal wedding, something we in England are very familiar with, and which is announced publicly a year or more before it takes place, so that the whole country knows. With all that time to prepare, re-arrange diaries, buy new outfits and all the other things guests have to do, there’s no excuse, barring illness, for not turning up. As in last week’s gospel, Jesus is talking directly to the chief priests and elders of the people, and inviting them to climb the mountain of the new covenant he is bringing from God. But they reject his invitation, reacting like the farmers and businessmen in the story, with indifference or outright hostility, for which they have no real excuse, since they’ve known it was coming for centuries.
Many Christians have a similar attitude to Our Lord’s invitation today. For example, it’s that time of the year when I get parents, most of whom I have not seen since the child was baptised 10 years ago, asking for a copy of their child’s baptism for entry to our Catholic High School, Cardinal Allen. It’s fairly soul destroying, but very much in line with what Jesus is describing in the gospel today. All have been invited to the Eucharistic feast, but all have found an excuse not to come. I just pray that Christ our King will be more lenient than the king in the story. Many are called but few are chosen.
A person who is Christian in name only, often has a sense of self-righteousness, believing that simply being baptised, entitles you to a place at the Lord’s table in heaven, yet, as we see, without wearing the proper garment, you’re out. If you accept the invitation to the wedding feast (which is a sign of the Eucharistic feast), there is a condition. You must be clothed appropriately with works of faith. What really counts is living as a baptised person, not the certificate. Baptism without faith is useless.
Practicing your faith as you make your ascent to God’s mountain is not always easy, but St Paul gives us a pointer as to how to tackle the climb. “There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the one who gives me strength. I’m ready for anything, full stomach or empty, poverty or plenty”. The one who gives him, and us, strength is the Holy Spirit. He it is who invites everyone to the Messianic banquet. He is the one we receive in Baptism, the one promised by Jesus, to be our comforter and guide, when he said he would be with us all days till the end of the world. St Paul climbed a bigger mountain than we will ever have to do, suffered more than most - shipwrecks, floggings, hunger and hostility over many years, yet kept the faith, ran the race to the end, and achieved the crown of glory at the Messianic banquet in heaven. The Holy Spirit did it for him, and he’ll do it for us, if we let him.
04.10.20 ~ 27th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
(To hear audio file ~