24th Sunday

24th Sunday 2019

Exodus 32:7-11 13-14; 1 Tim 1:2-17; Luke 15: 1-32

Gloriously encouraging readings today, speaking to us of God’s willingness to forgive—or rather, of His eagerness to forgive. The Book of Exodus relates how, in answer to Moses’ prayer, God forgave the Israelites their sin in making the golden calf. The psalm is part of the Miserere, the greatest of the penitential psalms, admitting our sins and seeking forgiveness, while St. Paul reminds us that the whole purpose of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was to save sinners. Finally, we have those three parables of mercy from chapter 15 of St. Luke’s Gospel: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.

I used to be puzzled by the story of the lost coin. I couldn’t understand why the lady threw a party which probably cost her more than the value of the lost and found coin, until someone pointed out to me that this is the very nub of the parable: that God has spent on us the life of His Son, who is worth more than all of us put together.

It became even clearer when something happened to me. It occurred in January 1977, during the long hard winter which followed the long hot summer of 1976. I was on the staff of the Junior Seminary at Upholland, responsible for the first years (Year 7 in new money: Underlow as they were known there). On a Monday afternoon we teamed up with the second years (aka Low Figures) for football, but in that freezing January, with the snow lying thickly on the pitches, footy was out of the question.

So instead we made a virtue of necessity, and went out onto the nearby golf course to sledge and hurl snowballs, spending a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half in “winter pursuits”. Come half past four or thereabouts, it was time to return to the college for tea. As we were leaving the confines of the golf course, I pushed back my cuff to check my watch and—horror of horror of unspeakable horrors—my watch wasn’t there. At some point in the last hour and a half it had slipped off my wrist, and was lying somewhere out there in the snow—and now in the dark.

I was devastated. This wasn’t just any old watch: it had been my 21st birthday present from my mother and father, and to lose it was unthinkable; but lose it I had. I spent a wretched evening and night, thinking, planning, worrying. I couldn’t afford to buy one similar, and even if I could, I would know that it wasn’t THE watch. I pestered St. Anthony fit to bust, whilst realising that it was asking a bit much, even of St. Anthony, to find a watch on a golf course in the snow.

The following morning I gave the lads Latin class off, and set out with them to search for my lost watch. Crazy wasn’t it? The proverbial needle in the equally proverbial haystack would have been kids’ stuff in comparison. Of course we didn’t find it, and I was trudging back miserably for the next lesson when I heard footsteps padding through the snow behind me.

“Father, Father, is this your watch?” and there was Bill Butterworth holding out my watch, none the worse for its night in the snow.

The lady in the parable had nothing on me. I bombarded the Lord, His mother, and St. Anthony, with “thank you” prayers. I gave the lads “prep off”, much to the disgust of the Headmaster who found them running around the place when he thought they should have had their noses to the grindstone. Could I have cared less what the Headmaster thought? Could I heck as like! Finally, I arranged a trip out for the lads on their next free afternoon, no expense spared.

Ever since then, I have understood that parable—the sheer jubilation which that lady felt on finding something precious which she had lost. And that, says Our Lord, is a pale imitation of the jubilation which God feels when he can forgive a sinner, throwing a party for the angels. You can’t beat it, can you?


Posted on September 15, 2019 .

23rd Sunday

23rd Sunday:    Love and hate

Wisdom 9:13-18; Philemon 9-10,12-17; Luke 14:25-33

For the second time in recent weeks we have a particularly difficult Gospel, one which puzzles us as well as presenting us with a challenge. What on earth do we make of “hating” our closest family members, and how do we reconcile the call to carry the Cross with parables which seem to urge caution and calculation?

Before we face those questions, there is something else worth noting: this passage in St. Luke’s Gospel follows immediately upon the parable of the great banquet to which all are invited, brought in from the highways and byways, the streets and the hedgerows. So the “great crowds” which are mentioned at the beginning are likely to be hoi polloi, the odds and sods who are gathered in from here, there, and everywhere, with an invitation to the banquet of the Messiah.

Now they are effectively being told that there is no such thing as a free lunch, as Jesus spells out the implications of accepting the invitation, which is truly an invitation to follow Him. What are the consequences? They involve a radical self-surrender, a wholehearted commitment to Him.

That is where the “hating” comes in. Of course, Jesus is not actually telling us to hate anybody: that would contradict the whole essence of His message, which is a call to love. The word “hate” here is a typically Semitic exaggeration, used to underline a basic point. The clue to the real meaning of the word comes in the final sentence of the passage, where Our Lord calls us to give up all our possessions. In other words, “hate” here means not to be possessive of, not to cling onto, not to make a god out of.

The follower of Jesus must not prefer anybody or anything to Him—must, in fact, obey the First Commandment, which is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In a strange, paradoxical way, the call to “hate” is actually a call to genuine love, because to love someone involves allowing them their freedom, not attempting to control or possess them, not to cling onto them.

Possessiveness is the real obstacle to discipleship, and we can be possessive about all sorts of things. You may know people who are possessive of their children, who won’t allow them to grow up. The law of the land now recognises that there can be a destructive possessiveness in relationships, and has made “control and coercion” an offence. If any of you are followers of “The Archers”, you may recall the story of Rob and Helen, a few years ago. He was possessive and controlling of his wife who eventually stabbed him, and was acquitted. The whole story line was introduced to highlight the problem of control and coercion.

We can also be possessive of our time, of our routine, of our own way of doing things, and the irony is that, when we think that we are controlling these things, we are actually being controlled by them. Consequently, the call to “hate”, the call to take up the Cross, is actually a call to freedom, a call to liberate ourselves from the desire to possess, a desire which actually possesses us, which prevents us from being free.

This call to freedom is a radical call, one which affects the very root of our being. That is the reason for the two parables which follow, the parables which urge us, like the tower builder and the warlike king, to weigh up the consequences of our actions. Are we ready and willing to respond to the call of Jesus, the call to take up the Cross, the call to free ourselves from possessiveness? We may hesitate, but if we are wise we will answer “Yes” because this is a call to true freedom, a call to become the people whom we were created and called to be, a call to alleged hatred which is, on the contrary, a call to full and genuine love.

Posted on September 8, 2019 .

22nd Sunday

22nd Sunday 2019

Ecclesiasticus 3:17-20, 28-29; Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Every so often it happens that there is a single word which seems to encapsulate the Mass readings. I would suggest that today is such an occasion, and that the key word is “humility”. The passage from the Book of Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) contains both “humbly” and “the humble”, while the concept of humility is contained in Jesus’ instruction to take the lowest place, and to invite the outsider to one’s own parties.

What do we mean by humility? As I have mentioned before, it is connected to the Latin word “humus” meaning “soil” or “ground” , and involves being “grounded”—not as children are “grounded” when confined to barracks (the modern equivalent of a clip around the ear or a kick up the backside)—but in the sense of “having our feet on the ground”.

This entails recognition of our weaknesses and limitations, but also of our strengths. It means recognising our status in relation both to God and to our neighbour, realising both that we are dependent upon God AND that we are His beloved sons and daughters: seeing our neighbours as our brothers and sisters beloved by God, and recognising the beauty of each of them as a child of God.

During pastoral studies in the seminary, I remember examining Transactional Analysis, of which the guiding principle is “I’m OK, you’re OK” as distinct from the various other options (“I’m OK, you’re not OK;” “I’m not OK, you’re not OK; “I’m not OK; you’re OK”). Genuine humility involves recognising the intrinsic goodness both of yourself and of the other person, and being at ease with that.

This is light years away from the false humility of self-abasement, the cringing mock servility of Uriah Heep, who was proud of his humility, a humility which masked a devious, plotting nature. That sort of false humility is often a cover for a loathing of, or contempt for, the other person, as brought out in the old Jewish story of the rabbi, the cantor, and the synagogue cleaner.

The rabbi stood at the front of the synagogue, and beat his breast, exclaiming “I am nothing, I am nothing.” Next to him stood the cantor, who beat his breast, exclaiming “I am nothing, I am nothing,”. And at the back stood the little cleaner, who beat his breast, and exclaimed “I am nothing, I am nothing.” And the rabbi turned to the cantor and said “Just look who thinks he is nothing.” For rabbi, cantor, and cleaner, read priest...........

We can guarantee that this mythical rabbi would not have invited the synagogue cleaner to his party, since his professed humility scarcely disguised a pride in himself and a contempt for others. Only a genuine humility, based on an honest assessment of our standing before God, enables us to recognise the intrinsic worth of every other person and to realise that s/he is well worthy of an invitation.

I remember a school group of 15-16 year olds attending a residential week at the Diocesan Youth Centre at Castlerigg Manor. In the group was a girl who stuck out like a sore thumb. She was plain, not very bright, and socially inept. Shortly after they had returned home, I received a letter from one of her room-mates from the week, who, among other things, mentioned how, during the week, she had come to recognise the good qualities in this particular lass. How much that owed to our input, I have no idea, but I suspect that, when they returned to school, there would have been far more involvement of this girl in their plans and activities. I hope that they may even have invited her to their parties.

So what about us? What is the state of our humility? How do we stand before God, and how do we regard other people? Are we free from both cringing and contempt? Do we recognise our own God-given worth, and that of others? And whom do we invite to our parties?

Posted on September 1, 2019 .

21st Sunday

21st Sunday 2019

Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7,11-13; Luke 13:22-30

Last week’s readings, if you recall, were somewhat disturbing. Today, we have something of a mixture of the encouraging and the disturbing.

We begin with an uplifting text from the Book of Isaiah. The prophet foresees people pouring into Jerusalem from the whole of the known world, being accepted among the people of God, serving Him as priests, ministering at His altar.

So far, so positive, and in many ways we see this prophecy being fulfilled. God’s people do indeed come today from the whole world: we have a Pope from Latin America, and several religious orders are now centred in Africa or Asia, rather than in Europe. Forty years ago, it was earth-shaking when a non-Italian was elected Pope: at the last papal election, short odds were offered on an African Pope.

There is encouragement too from the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who reminds us that we are sons and daughters of God. Perhaps we need to ponder that thought more often than we do. To be a child of God—to be able to address God as our Father as we do every day—is an awesome privilege from which we should draw consolation and joy.

This positive message, though, comes with a caveat, a warning. As sons and daughters of God, we are subject to God’s discipline: in other words, we will have to carry the Cross. “Suffering is part of your training” we are told. If Jesus the Son of God, had to suffer, then we, as His adopted brothers and sisters, will suffer in our turn, and the closer we draw to Him, the greater will be our share in the Cross.

That word of caution is spelt out still more sharply in the Gospel, where Jesus urges us to enter by the narrow door, and warns us that, if we have not truly tried to know Him, then the influx of outsiders will be at our expense.

It seems ironic that, for the second successive week, the most disturbing words come from the Lord Himself, the Redeemer, the lover of humankind, and that they are reported by St. Luke, the scriba mansuetudinis Christi—the one who writes of the gentleness of Christ. There is no place here for the “Smile, Jesus loves you” approach to living the Gospel: we are being called very firmly to know Jesus intimately, and this will involve the discipline to which the writer to the Hebrews referred; it will entail carrying the Cross.

We need to be conscious here of the setting in which Our Lord is speaking. He is, says St. Luke, “making His way to Jerusalem.” Luke has previously described Him as “setting His face toward Jerusalem” almost as if He were gritting His teeth. Jesus is under no illusions: He is aware that this is a journey to suffering and death, and those who wish to enter into life must make that journey with Him.

What does this entail? Remember that those who are cast out are people whom Jesus does not recognise, who have not made the effort to get to know Him. We need to be people who know the Lord, and who are known by Him. This means that we must be people of prayer, people who have met Him in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our neighbour, and in the silence of our hearts. We must be people who seek His will in the events of every day.

Finally, we must be people who are prepared to take up the Cross, to unite our sufferings to those of the Lord for the salvation of the world, to recognise that our status as God’s sons and daughters requires us to share the sufferings of the only begotten Son. We should be heartened by all the encouraging aspects of today’s readings but, having been encouraged, we must be prepared to accept the more difficult aspects of our call.

Posted on August 26, 2019 .

20th Sunday

20th Sunday 2019

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12:49-53

Not the most comfortable or, indeed, comforting set of readings: Jeremiah is persecuted and almost killed, the writer to the Hebrews speaks about fighting to the point of death, and Jesus, perhaps most shockingly of all, declares that He has come to bring, not peace, but division.

In Jeremiah’s case, we encounter cowardice on the part of the king. When the so called leading men approach him, demanding Jeremiah’s death, Zedekiah fails completely to stand up for what is right. “He is in your hands, as you know,” he replies, “for the king is powerless against you.”

Does that remind you of anyone? It makes me think of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of responsibility for Our Lord, taking the line of least resistance. I am afraid too, that it reminds me of certain bishops, failing to stand up for falsely accused priests, hiding behind their Safeguarding Commissions, stating untruthfully “My hands are tied”.

Cowardly bishops have been a plague on the Church in recent years, and we must hope and pray that recent appointees are made of sterner stuff. We should remember, though, that this is nothing new. In the time of Henry VIII, of all the English bishops only St. John Fisher had the courage to stand up to the king, and he paid with his life.

Before we point the finger too eagerly though, we need to examine ourselves. Do we always stand up for what is right? Are there times when we take the line of least resistance, when we settle for comfort rather than truth or justice, the quiet life rather than possible confrontation? Of course, we shouldn’t go looking for confrontation, seeking to stir trouble, making a stand through obstinacy rather than a concern for truth, but there are times in all our lives when we must be valiant for truth, when we have to find the courage to say “This is what I believe to be right” and to hold to it.

I have mentioned previously my classmate from the Boys’ Grammar School who is a Methodist lay preacher. He and his minister are deeply troubled at present because the Methodist Conference has recently approved a motion accepting the validity of gay marriage, and seeking to conduct such marriages in church. Geoff and the minister sincerely believe this to be wrong, and must work out the consequences of their belief.

As Jesus points out, though, it is not only within churches that a concern for truth—and remember tht Jesus is the truth—will bring division, but also within families. I remember a lady informing me that, when she informed her family, many years ago, that she was becoming a Catholic, they put her out of the house. That story was not uncommon at one time: much more recently, a young man from an atheist background provoked a similar reaction when he announced that he had become a Christian.

A religious vocation too may provoke anger, distress, even rejection on the part of a family. Cherished parental hopes may be shattered, and the reaction may be a bitter one.

For all of us, the call to follow Jesus is a call to take up the Cross, and the Cross comes in many forms. When Our Lord speaks of a baptism which He must still receive, this evokes memories of His question to James and John: “Can you drink the cup which I must drink, and be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?” Their positive answer led James to martyrdom and John to exile. Our “yes” to Jesus will lead us where He alone knows, but we would be very foolish to assume that our path will be strewn with roses.

Posted on August 18, 2019 .


Assumption of the BVM 2019

On 14th August, 1972, very late at night, I arrived in Athens, having travelled by train and boat. On waking the following morning, I made my way into the city to find that everything was closed: it was the Feast of the Dormition of Our Lady, the term which the Orthodox use for the Assumption, and Greece was holding festival.

And so it should—and so should we, for this is our feast. It is our feast because it is a feast of Our Lady, and she is OUR Lady, because she is ours.

More than that though: it is a feast of the Church, because Mary is a member of the Church. She is the first member, the first to bring the Son of God into the world; the only truly faithful member. Mary represents the Church—indeed, IS the Church, at its best. She is always what we are called to be—what we shall be, in eternity.

Thus, the Assumption is not only about Mary: it is also about us, the Church. What we believe about Mary, we believe about the whole Church. Mary has been assumed body and soul into heaven, and we ARE TO BE assumed body and soul into heaven. Elizabeth pronounced Mary to be blessed because she believed that what was promised her by the Lord would be fulfilled. We are blessed if we believe that what has been promised to us by the Lord will be fulfilled, that we shall be raised from the dead.

In the Assumption of Our Lady, we see the fulfilment of that promise, for she is the first of the redeemed, the representative of the Church. The woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, is Mary, but she is also the new Israel, the Church, personified in her. She has been raised to share her Son’s glory, not simply on her own behalf, but on ours. She is what we are called to be. Rightly we rejoice in her feast because she is ours, she is us, and her feast is ours.

Posted on August 15, 2019 .

19th Sunday

19th Sunday 2019

Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48

I have always had a liking for the absurd: my humour, such as it is, is rooted in the paradoxes and sheer insanity of the Goons. Hence, it is not surprising that I cherish the memory of a car sticker which I saw years ago, and which read simply “Be alert! Your country needs lerts.”

Daft isn’t it—gloriously so? Yet “be alert” could almost be the summary of today’s Gospel. What is the point of our alertness? It is simply that we shouldn’t be taken by surprise by the coming of the Lord.

What, though do we mean by “the coming of the Lord”? There is the coming of Christ as judge at the end of time, and there is the moment of our death. The latter is something of which previous generations tended to be more aware, because they had a closer acquaintance with death. Not only were there two World Wars, with daily reports of casualties, and, in many parts of the country and the world, the possibility that a bomb would bring a premature end to earthly existence;  there were also many diseases which were likely to have fatal consequences. I remember, as a child, three lads in the neighbourhood  losing their fathers to sudden deaths within a very short time of each other.  These would have been men in their thirties who had, presumably, returned from war service. Devastating though these deaths must have been for their families, they were treated in a matter-of-fact way, as something which simply happened, by the neighbours.

I also recall that, over my parents’ bed, hung a papal scroll, promising the grace of a happy death to my grandfather and his family, provided that, if unable to receive the sacraments, we at least invoked the name of Jesus. My grandfather and father both died suddenly, I suspect without time to utter the Holy Name: perhaps that was in itself a response to their lifelong prayer and state of alertness. My mother was suffering from dementia by the time of her death, but was still able to invoke the name of Mary, perhaps calculating that Our Lady might have more leisure than her Son to respond to prayer.

Incidentally, both my parents died while I was offering Mass for them, which has always struck me as an answer to prayer, though a friend of mine did comment wryly “Well, if I become ill, please don’t offer Mass for me.” Finally, there was the lady, now in her nineties, who told me the story passed on by her mother about the latter’s wedding night. The newly weds knelt down for their night prayers, but when the new wife began a prayer for a happy death, her husband broke in with “Nay, dammit lass, we’ll pray for a happy life.”

Yet our death is not the only occasion when the Lord will come into our lives, and we need to be alert to recognise His presence daily and hourly. He comes to us in our neighbour, both the neighbour whom we encounter in person, and the distant neighbour whom we shall never meet, but who has a right to demand our prayers, and our practical concern for his/her wellbeing.

As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews suggests, the Lord also comes to us, as He came to Abraham, in those situations which call for faith, when we need the courage to step out into the dark, to follow where God is leading us, even though the road may be unfamiliar. He may call us to sacrifice our time, or our cherished projects, trusting that He will see us through, as He led Abraham fruitfully and positively through the ramifications of the call to sacrifice Isaac.

There are the times too when the Lord is calling us to prayer, which itself entails a stepping out in faith, as does the call to join our brothers and sisters in that greatest of all encounters which is our weekly or daily celebration of the Eucharist.

If we are truly alert, we shall realise, gradually or suddenly, that God is, in fact, coming to us in every moment and in every situation; and, if we are wise, we shall learn to respond to Him in love.

Posted on August 12, 2019 .

18th Sunday

18th Sunday 2019

Ecclesiastes: 1:2; 2: 21-23; Colossians 3:1-5,9-11; Luke 12:13-21.

It must be around forty years ago that I read a newspaper article about a man who had effectively worked himself to death, slaving every hour God sent in order to raise the money to send his daughter to a private school. He succeeded in his aim, but suffered a fatal heart attack brought on by overwork.

The newspaper in question was full of praise for his self-sacrifice: I have to say that I was appalled. I am sure that his daughter would gladly have binned her new school place to have her father back—or even to have had his company at home during all his hours of overwork. Unlike the man in the parable, this father was not guilty of avarice—he wasn’t seeking personal gain—but his sense of priorities was equally disordered.

In certain parts of the world today, there are still people who must work desperately long hours in order simply to put food on the table, and modern slavery is a widespread phenomenon. This is a grave injustice, and we have a duty to do all in our power to change the situation. Our own desire for cheap food, cheap clothing, cheap commodities is partly to blame , and we need to be more discerning than we are about the working and living conditions of those who produce the food and goods that we buy; we must be more concerned that our greed does not come into play, making life more harsh for our brothers and sisters. Was it CAFOD, or some other organization, which coined the slogan “Live simply, that others may simply live”? Whoever devised it, we need to take it to heart, but, I suspect, we rarely do.

The situation of those who are forced to overwork in order to survive is very different from that of the tragic father whom I mentioned at first. His was a case, not of necessity, but of mistaken priorities. His daughter did not need the advantages, real or imagined, conveyed by a private education: what she needed was the presence of a loving, caring father.

For more than a century, beginning with Pope Leo XIII, the Church has been building up a body of social teaching, which is often ignored, if not unknown altogether. For so many who would love to wield power in the Church, and who are appalled by the present Holy Father, social justice plays no part in their understanding of morality, which is concerned purely with sexual ethics, and with who should, or should not, be allowed to receive Communion. I could not help rising an eyebrow a few year ago on leaning that, in one seminary, candidates for the priesthood were studying Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, on the subject of birth control, but not his far more important Populorum Progressio, on “ the progress of peoples”.

Does the Church’s emphasis on social justice, which has been a preoccupation of all the twentieth and twenty first century popes, detract from St. Paul’s injunction “Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on things that are on the earth”? Far from it: if people haven’t enough to eat, if they are exhausted by overwork, it is very difficult for them to contemplate the things of heaven, and one of the most heavenly instructions that we have is the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we are not striving for the well-being of our neighbour, then we are failing to give proper thought to heavenly things, no matter how regularly we worship; and, in fact, if we are serious about our prayer, then we will not be able to continue to be indifferent towards those who suffer.

All three of today’s readings make it clear that our chief preoccupation must be building up our life in God, fulfilling God’s call to us. That call entail a concern for justice: it does not entail a concern for relentless material advancement.




Posted on August 4, 2019 .

17th Sunday

17th Sunday 2019

Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-24; Luke 11:1-13

Have I told you about Terry? Even if I have, I am going to tell you now. Terry was a sad character who used to do the rounds of the Preston presbyteries, though I have seen him as far afield as Carlisle. I suspect that he had fallen through the net of care in the community.

When he rang the doorbell, Terry always had the same request: “Some tea—in a cup.”

One night, I was awakened by the doorbell. I switched on the light, and looked at my watch: it was half past eleven. Slipping on my dressing gown, I went downstairs, and opened the front door. There stood Terry.

“Some tea—in a cup.”

“Terry, I am not making tea at this time of night.”

“Some tea—in a cup.”

“Terry, it’s half past eleven. You have woken me up. I am not making tea now.”

“Some tea—in a cup.”


“Some tea—in a cup.”

Terry got his tea, in a cup. When I went into the sacristy next morning to prepare for Mass, I give you one guess as to the Gospel of the day. Admittedly, Terry was half an hour short of midnight, and he wasn’t asking for bread, but as far as I am concerned, the parable was spot on.

But does it work in terms of our prayer? Does the one who asks always receive? Does the one who searches always find? Does the one who knocks always have the door opened? I wouldn’t mind betting that you have prayed for things and haven’t received them.

Sometimes, of course, you would probably admit with hindsight that it was better that you didn’t receive what you asked for. That relationship which you were anxious should work would have proved toxic, and was replaced by something better. That item which you were sure you needed was superfluous if not harmful. You may have thought that you were asking for an egg, but it would have turned into a scorpion, and given you a painful sting. Parents know full well that it is not always good to give their children what they ask, and God is the wisest and most loving parent of all.

And yet...and yet...There must have been times also when you prayed for something which seemed unarguably good. It may have been the recovery of a sick person who died despite your prayers. It may have been prayer for a young person who took a self-destructive path. I suspect that all of you could think of examples when your prayer struck a brazen heaven, to quote the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

What response do we make to that? Firstly, I think we have to be careful not to be glib, not to come up with specious reasons why God should not have answered that particular prayer. That is insulting to the person who has prayed, who may be deeply wounded, and does no favours to God, who doesn’t need us to defend Him.

Sometimes we have to admit that we do not know. God has His reasons, which we cannot always fathom. On occasions, it may help if we remember that God sees the whole picture of our lives and our eternity, whereas our own vision is limited. Sometimes, as the Book of Job points out, we have to remember that God is God, and that we are not.

 It may also be worth drawing attention to the closing words of today’s Gospel: “How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” Perhaps rather than an egg or a fish, or even some tea in a cup, God is giving us the Holy Spirit, a deeper understanding of His ways, a less self-seeking attitude, a greater surrender to His will.

The answers are not always straightforward. Keep asking, searching, knocking. And don’t forget that we belong to the communion of saints. We are one body in Christ not only with those around us, but also with those who have gone before us—the Holy Souls, the Saints, and especially Our Lady, who will also pester God on our behalf. I often find that the Memorare encourages the Blessed Virgin to give God a nudge.

Posted on July 28, 2019 .

16th Sunday

16th Sunday 2019

Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

Have you ever been to one of those gatherings where they ask you to quote the piece of scripture which speaks to you particularly powerfully? I knew of one priest who would invariably reply “A vain hope for safety is the horse”: if I had ever had the misfortune to be made a bishop, I would have taken as my motto “He stinketh, for he is four days buried”.

Taking the question seriously, though, I would opt for the opening sentence of today’s Second Reading: “I rejoice to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ, for the sake of His body, the Church.”

Is that because I welcome suffering? Is it heck as like! I loathe and fear suffering as much as the next person, but I also know that suffering comes: there is no avoiding it. Consequently, I find it consoling to know that it is serving some purpose by being taken up into the redemptive sufferings of Christ, and therefore helping to redeem the world.

As a child, I was taught, if something was painful, to “offer it up”. For a time, that sort of spirituality went out of fashion; I suspect because it was thought to glorify suffering. That I am sure is a misinterpretation: the phrase “offer it up”, with which I grew up, was expressing in a simple way the response which Paul described more eloquently and more accurately as helping to complete the redemptive suffering of the Christ.

We are able to do this because, as Paul states a little further on, Christ is en humin, which is here translated as “among you”. Inevitably, I am reminded here of the late Bishop Brewer, Fiery Jack, who was not redhaired for nothing.  His finger would stab the page and he would declare loudly “Christus IN vobis—Christ IN you”.

Bishop Brewer had a point, though he wasn’t 100% correct in objecting to this translation. The Greek en, like the Latin in can be translated “among” as well as “in”, and maybe a degree of ambiguity is fruitful here: Christ is among us, in the gathering of His people, and He is also in us, dwelling within us with His Father and with the Holy Spirit. Either way, or indeed in both ways, Christ is present, deeply and abidingly, giving us life, and giving value to our suffering.

Mention of the indwelling Trinity provides a link to the First Reading. There is a famous icon which depicts the three men who visited Abraham, and which sees them as, in some way, representing the Trinity. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages the early Christians to practise hospitality because, he says, “by doing this, some people have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). He probably had Abraham’s visitors in mind, and it is worth remembering that, in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) there is often no clear distinction between the “angel of the Lord” and God Himself.

Abraham’s hospitality is linked to the hospitality shown to Jesus by the two sisters. Abraham may have entertained God: Martha and Mary certainly did. Why then does Mary receive a gentle reprimand?

Her problem is that, whilst she is keen to welcome the Lord, she fails to consider how He wishes to be welcomed. His desire at present is more for her company and her attention than for her meat and potato pie. I can’t help thinking of gentlemen of the road and others who have called in the past at my presbytery door. They too are Christ, yet I tend to see them as a nuisance. Rarely have I given such people time and attention, rather than a quickly assembled food parcel, or even a couple of pounds, which I have heard described as “bugger off money”.

Yet it is not only such callers who come to us as Christ. How much attention do we give to anybody, and are we sometimes too eager to leap in with our solutions to what we see as their problems? May the Christ who is within us (and among us) teach us to respond to the Christ who comes to us seeking.......what? We will have to listen to find out.

Posted on July 22, 2019 .

15th Sunday

15th Sunday 2019

Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37

Has it ever occurred to you that you should read this Gospel standing on your head? You see it is upside down. The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbour?” and Our Lord is making the point that everyone is my neighbour, and that the lawyer must love, and go to the aid of, everyone in need. We might have expected then a parable in which a lawyer, or at least an observant Jew, goes to the aid of an outsider, a Samaritan. Instead, the positions are reversed, and it is the outsider, the outcast, the heretic, in the person of the Samaritan, who does the helping, who shows the love, who fulfils the commandment.

I wonder whether we have realised quite how shocking this is. The Son of God is saying that the one who does not have the true faith may be fulfilling the commandments better than the chosen people, and is, presumably, being saved thereby. This should kick into touch the claim of the extreme evangelicals that only those who “have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour” are saved. This has always struck me as too individualistic to fit in with the life and the teachings of that same Jesus Christ, and this parable explodes it completely. The Samaritans were heretics, yet one of them is used by the Saviour as the paradigm for the fulfilment of the commandments.

Do such things as right doctrine, membership of the chosen people, membership of the Church, not matter then? Indeed they do. The First Commandment is still the demand that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and God formed a people, and sent as Saviour His Son, who established a Church, and who declared Himself to be the truth. Love of God, then, demands that we align ourselves as fully as possible with all of that, and I don’t think that we need to give serious consideration to the childish cliché which did the rounds a few years ago—“Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, and it was the Church that came”. That is simply adolescent smart-alickry.

Nonetheless, we need to be aware that right opinion without love of neighbour is not love of God; we cannot fulfil the First Commandment if we are not fulfilling the Second. We do not need to go back into history to realise that some who profess to love God and to follow Christ can be among the harshest, the most intolerant, the most unloving of all. Again that doesn’t mean that we have to accept every daft idea, approve every lifestyle, which comes along. It does mean that our attitude must always be based on love, and that the language of condemnation has no place in our vocabulary.

As in so many things, Pope Francis has shown us the way, embracing the self-professed gay man who, accompanying a group on a televised visit to the Vatican, at first refused to meet the Pope, as he assumed that he would be condemned, only to be reduced to tears and to be completely won over by Francis’ Christ-like attitude.

A few years earlier, Francis fulfilled the Lord’s command “Do not judge” by saying to another homosexual man who approached him, “Who am I to judge?”, which caused uproar among the present day “lawyers”, the neo-Pharisees, who are based largely, though not entirely, in North America, and who are horrified by the Holy Father’s desire to make the Church more Christ-like. Of course we must not judge them, but it is difficult to avoid the feeling that, if Jesus were to return, they would crucify Him anew.

We can never afford to be smug, though. The lawyer spells out the commandments of love of God and of neighbour, and the parable hammers them home. Every day, we must be striving to fulfil both of them, well aware that they cannot be separated.


Posted on July 14, 2019 .

14th Sunday

14th Sunday 2019

Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20.

During my time in seminary, one word which cropped up was “pre-evangelisation”, which in effect meant preparing people to hear the Gospel. It is a word which assumes that we are dealing with people who are not yet ready to encounter Jesus the Christ, but stand in need of some degree of preparation. In a way, it is what John the Baptist did, preparing a way for the Lord, and it is what the seventy two disciples are sent to do, visiting towns and villages to prepare the groundwork for Jesus’ own mission.

Increasingly, it seems to be the task of the Church in the Western world today. Successive Popes have called for a new evangelisation—a new preaching of the Gospel—yet so many in the West seem to be at an even earlier stage. So great has been the drift away from faith, and from knowledge of the things of God, that groundwork has to be done even before the Gospel can be preached. It is ironic that a self-professed atheist like Richard Dawkins has deplored the ignorance of the British people with regard to the Bible and to Christian culture.

There is still a vague link to Christian life, belief, and practice in many quarters, but it is becomingly increasingly tenuous. Many people still want to have their children baptised, even though their next visit to church will be when those same children are presented for First Confession and First Holy Communion. A smaller number come to be married in church. In my early days as a priest, it was a cliché that we preferred funerals to weddings, because there was more faith to be found there, but even that scarcely holds true today. As the generations have passed through, it is increasingly the case that, even if the person in the coffin had faith, it has not taken root in their children and grandchildren.

I remember, almost thirty years ago, celebrating a funeral Mass for a lady to whom I had taken communion daily during her final illness. At the requiem, it was noticeable that none of her children came to communion, because they knew that they were lapsed, but that all of her grandchildren did: they didn’t even realise that they were lapsed. I strongly suspect that, when their time comes, those children (and certainly the grandchildren) won’t even bother with a church service, especially now that funeral directors are offering home-made cremations, with whatever music, readings, and tributes the bereaved wish, with the undertaker conducting the entire proceedings, and with no need to approach a priest, or to incur the imagined cost of a religious funeral.

So if we are, as I presume, in a condition of pre-evangelisation, what are we to do about it? Firstly, no doubt, we take to heart Our Lord’s instruction to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to His harvest”. Incidentally, it may be worth recalling the rather scathing rebuke delivered by a colleague of mine on the Junior Seminary staff many years ago to a sixth former whose principal interest appeared to be in dressing up and playing at liturgy: “The Lord wants labourers for His harvest, not fairies for the bottom of His garden”.

Yet, even if we find these labourers, how are they to go about their task? Eighteen months ago, I spent a weekend looking after a parish on behalf of a priest, a member of the Neo-Catechumenate, who, together with his Neo-Cat brethren was, for a fortnight, taking literally the words of today’s Gospel. They were being dropped off, in pairs, the length and breadth of the country, with nothing in their pockets but the return half of a train ticket. They were to spend that fortnight knocking on doors, relying on the hospitality of others. Whether that is the right way to go about things I do not know. What I do know is that it is amazingly courageous, and that I could not do it.

So what can I, what can you, what can anybody do? Is it a cop-out to say that we do what we are able, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves? For a monastic community, in addition to prayer, this will entail hospitality, and a compassionate presence, for those who appear at the door. For me, in my school chaplaincy days, it meant having an open door and a listening ear, and delivering assemblies about wrong buses, scarlet knickers, and girls with beautiful legs.

It means seizing opportunities when they arise. A priest told me, a few years ago, that he had been called in to prepare a funeral. On visiting the family, he was presented with a set of readings (secular) music (secular) and tributes. “There doesn’t seem to be much space for me,” he commented: “You don’t really need me,” and off he went.

I can’t help feeling that he missed an opportunity, however small, for doing something, however little. In general though, what should we be doing? Praying? Of course. But what else? Answers on a postcard.

Posted on July 7, 2019 .

St Peter and St. Paul

Saints Peter and Paul 2019

Acts 12:1-11; 2Tim 4:6-8, 17-18; Mt 16:13-19

Throughout the Catholic world, there are many churches dedicated to St. Peter. The first which comes to mind is obviously St. Peter’s Rome, but we shouldn’t forget our own Cathedral in Lancaster. I love the humorous conceit of one of the smaller stained glass windows in the Cathedral, which depicts St. Peter holding, in one hand, St.Peter’s, Rome, and in the other, St.Peter’s , Lancaster.

I am not sure that there are as many Catholic churches dedicated to St. Paul. There is the Roman basilica of St. Paul’s-outside-the-walls, but are there many others? I decided to run a check of this diocese by way of the Diocesan Directory, but didn’t learn a great deal, as it scored two and a half to a half. In addition to the Cathedral, there are St. Peter’s, Lytham, and Ss. Peter and Paul, Preston, so not much either way.

If, however, my hunch is correct, why might it be so? Clearly, there is considerable Catholic devotion to St. Peter, who is claimed as the first Pope. Why might there be less devotion to St. Paul?

Perhaps Paul suffers in the Catholic mind because Martin Luther was such an enthusiast for him, and it has been said with some justification (if you will pardon the pun) that there is an element in extreme evangelicalism which seems to attach more weight to Paul’s words than to those of Jesus. Certainly, Luther drew heavily on Paul in insisting on justification by faith, but properly understood this is sound Catholic doctrine, and there is enough in St. Paul’s writings to show that for him, as for the Church, love is of the greatest significance: that, in effect, as the Prayer for England expresses it, we are justified by “faith, fruitful in good works”. Nonetheless, it is possible that, in the Catholic mind, Luther has, to an extent, tainted our view of Paul.

Another factor may be the personalities of the two saints. Peter comes across as the struggling sinner, almost as a lovable rogue, constantly getting things wrong and needing to seek forgiveness. Paul, on the other hand, may sometimes appear insufferably arrogant, proud of his own virtue (despite his protestations to the contrary) and intolerant of the shortcomings of others.

One of the antiphons in the Offices for this feast claims “they loved each other in life” a statement which never fails to raise eyebrows. There are times when Paul seems almost contemptuous of Peter’s standing in the Church, and there is Paul’s cringeworthy description, in the Letter to the Galatians, of his dressing down of Peter for the latter’s moral cowardice in bowing to pressure from the Jewish Christians and withdrawing from table fellowship with the Gentiles. Certainly Peter was in the wrong, but it was a very human failure, and less reprehensible than Paul’s behaviour in publicising it in direct contradiction of the Lord’s instructions on fraternal correction. Given Peter’s fairly robust personality, it is to his credit that he didn’t respond by giving Paul a good crack in the mouth: it is tempting to wish that he had.

These were two towering individuals, with huge virtues and huge failings. Peter had that touch of cowardice which, in addition to his fall out with Paul, led to his threefold denial of Jesus, again a failing of which any of us might have been guilty. He also had a tendency to promise more than he could deliver, as when he vowed to die for Christ, and in his attempt to walk across the water. Yet there was an openness and honesty about him, a genuine contrition, a profound love of His Master, and in the end, the courage to die a martyr’s death.

Paul was touchy to the point of paranoia, prone to boast while denying that he was doing so, and lacking in social skills to the extent that, sooner or later, he fell out with everyone. Yet he had immeasurable courage, could write sublimely about love and about our Eucharistic unity in the Body of Christ, and almost singlehandedly spread the Gospel throughout the then known world. Like Peter, he was in love with the Lord.

These were two giants, with both the strengths and weaknesses of giants. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that we owe the existence and survival of the Church to them. Rightly are they honoured.

Posted on June 30, 2019 .

Corpus Christi

The Body and Blood of Christ: 2019

Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 109; I Cor 11:23-26; Luke 9:11-17

Today’s readings take us on something of a magical mystery tour: three very different readings, all important, but not obviously connected with one another. We are taken back in time to the encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek; then forward to the Cenacle, the room of the Last Supper; finally we go back to the field where the five thousand were fed. What do we make of these readings, and how do we link them?

Let’s begin with Melchizedek. He is a somewhat shadowy figure who appears in three books of the Bible: the Book of Genesis, the Book of Psalms, and the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. His meeting with, and blessing of, Abraham is his only appearance “in the flesh” as we might say. He appears, bringing bread and wine; he blesses Abraham (or Abram as he still was at this point); he receives a tithe of everything; then he disappears as suddenly as he came.

Who was he? He is described as both a king and a priest. Does that ring any bells? “Of course it does,” I hear you cry, “Jesus the Christ is both king and priest (and prophet as well). Furthermore,” you add, “the Messiah is described in today’s psalm as ‘a priest for ever, a priest like Melchizedek of old’.”

So Melchizedek foreshadows the priesthood of Jesus, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is at pains to point out. How does Jesus exercise His priesthood? He does it by bringing His own self-sacrifice, says the writer, His own body and blood, into the presence of God.

There is yet another connection with Melchizedek. He brought bread and wine. Who else brought bread and wine? “Don’t ask silly questions” you say: “obviously Jesus, who changed them into His body and blood.” So Melchizedek connects, not only with the priesthood of Jesus, but also with the sacramental exercise of that priesthood, as the body and blood which Jesus offered in sacrifice are made present and offered under the appearances of bread and wine.

So here is our link with the Second Reading, which is Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, the making present of Christ’s sacrifice for us, through the sacramental offering of His body and blood.

There is another point to note: at the moments of consecration, St. Paul, in what is assumed to be the first written, as distinct from oral, account of the institution of the Eucharist, reports Our Lord as saying, over both body and blood, “Do this as a memorial of me”. The people responsible for the current translation of the missal have been very naughty, and deserve to have their legs sharply slapped, for rendering this as “in memory of me” as if we were merely recalling a past event. The Jewish concept of memorial—anamnesis in Greek—is much richer than this, and means the making present here and now of a past event. So, in the Mass, we are not merely remembering the past: we are making the past present.

We have a link, then, joining First Reading, Psalm, and Second Reading. Where does the Gospel fit in? The feeding of the five thousand foreshadows the Messianic banquet described by the prophet Isaiah, when God’s people will feast with the Messiah in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet it also foreshadows the miraculous feeding of God’s people with the Lord’s body and blood, a miracle more glorious than the feeding of the multitude on the Galilean hillside. The Eucharist is itself a foretaste of the heavenly Messianic banquet, and so the feeding of the five thousand is a foretaste of a foretaste.

Perhaps we should note one final point. Before multiplying the loaves and fishes, Jesus says to the apostles “Give them something to eat yourselves.” They cannot, until He intervenes, but His command may serve as a reminder that we, who are fed by Him with His body and blood, have a responsibility, with His help and by His grace, to feed others both materially and spiritually.


Posted on June 23, 2019 .

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday 2019

Proverbs 8:22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

The liturgy professor of my seminary days, never one to mince words, used to refer to today’s feast as “a liturgical sore thumb”, by which he meant that Trinity Sunday doesn’t celebrate one of the great events of salvation history, such as the Nativity, the Epiphany, the Resurrection, or the descent of the Spirit, or even the events of the great Marian feasts: instead, it is inserted into the calendar to remind us of a doctrine. Admittedly, it is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, but it is a doctrine nonetheless, and not an event.

Or is it? Perhaps the Holy Trinity is best understood as an ongoing event: the Father, continuously and from all eternity, generating the Son in and through the Holy Spirit, who is the love and the power between Father and Son, and that love and interrelationship within the Trinity being the power which sustains the universe.

Perhaps we might express it in these terms: if there were no Trinity, there would be no love and no life. Without the ongoing relationship and activity of the Trinity, the universe would be cold and dead: in fact, it would cease to exist. Everyone is familiar with the saying “It’s love which makes the world go round”. In the case of the love within, and emanating from the Holy Trinity, that is literally true.

We can see this in the practice of our faith, if we consider the Third Eucharistic Prayer, where we observe that everything is rooted in the Trinity. The new translation of the prayer isn’t entirely helpful. The former translation began “Father, you are holy indeed”, making it clear which member of the Trinity we are addressing, whereas the present version uses the term “Lord” which is slightly more ambiguous.

However, as the prayer continues, it becomes clear that the term “Lord” does indeed refer to the Father. The prayer rejoices that the Father “gives life to all things and makes them holy” through the Son, “by the power and working of the Holy Spirit”. Thus it is the Trinity, with each member working in unity, through whom not only holiness comes, but life itself.

In particular, the Mass is shown to be wholly Trinitarian. The Father is asked to make holy the gifts by the Spirit, so that they may become the Body and Blood of the Son, with whose self-offering to the Father we are united. Then, after the consecration, the Father is asked that “we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with His Holy Spirit, may become one Body, one Spirit in Christ.” All the Eucharistic prayers conclude with the doxology (“though Him, with Him, and in Him”) the great proclamation of praise of the Trinity.

Rudyard Kipling makes one of his characters speak of “your cold Christ and tangled Trinities.” Christ is certainly far from cold, and whilst the Trinity may appear tangled, its interweaving is in fact the source of life, of love, of all that exists.

Posted on June 17, 2019 .


Pentecost 2019

Acts 2:1-11; 1Cor 12:3-7, 12-13; Jn 20:19-23

I can’t help feeling that you have to have the gift of tongues to get through that first reading, with its list of peoples who heard the first teaching of the apostles. It is an impressive list, but somewhat challenging for the reader.

Moving on, I have to confess, to my shame, that I am easily irritated, and one of the things which irritates me is to hear or read that, until the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, the disciples were cowering in fear. If you do hear anyone say that, thump them, pummel them, knock them down, and sit on their heads, because it is unmitigated drivel.

Why on earth would they have been fearful after the Resurrection and Ascension? When they returned to the Upper Room after the latter, it wasn’t to cower, but to fulfil the instructions of the Risen Lord. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke wrote: “When [Jesus] had been with them at table, He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised,” and in his Gospel Luke states that, after the Ascension, “they worshipped Him and then went back to Jerusalem FULL OF JOY; and they were continually in the Temple, praising God.”

There is not the slightest hint of fear. Furthermore, in the first chapter of Acts, St. Luke describes what they were doing in the Upper Room: “they joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with His relations.” Are people suggesting that Our Lady was cowering in fear? What a load of nonsense.

Why then do people suggest it? I can only assume that they are misunderstanding, and in fact misplacing, today’s Gospel which does indeed speak of the disciples’ fear. When, though, is this Gospel passage set? Anyone who is reading it with half an eye should be able to recognise that this is an account of the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples on Easter Sunday evening, and strictly speaking has nothing to do with Pentecost at all.

Yet the mistaken view seems to have taken deep root in people’s perceptions. After I had explained everything very carefully in a previous parish, a lady—a former deputy head of a Catholic primary school, no less—came up to me after Mass, and asked triumphantly “Who is right then? You or St. John?” Presumably she had spent her teaching career telling her pupils that the Pentecost disciples were cowering in fear, and she wasn’t going to allow the odd fact to stand in her way.

So why is this Easter Sunday Gospel used today? It is to remind us that there is more than one way, and more than one time, for the Spirit to be given. The Easter Sunday Christ breathes on the disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is a gentle outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a far cry from the spectacular manifestation at Pentecost.

Also the Easter gift of the Holy Spirit is for a different purpose. The Spirit descended at Pentecost in wind and flame to empower the apostles for the preaching of the Gospel: that same Spirit was breathed into them at Easter to enable them to forgive sins.

This is in keeping with St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians which we heard in the Second Reading, “working in all sorts of different ways in different people” and again “the particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose.” The Charismatic Renewal Movement gave the Church many gifts, but it sometimes conveyed the impression that, if you weren’t having spectacular experiences, you hadn’t received the Spirit. Clearly we can see from the scriptures that this is not the case. I can’t help feeling a degree of sympathy with the Shrewsbury  priest who attended a charismatic meeting many years ago in the USA. At some point, a large lady standing next to him turned to embrace him, whereupon he exclaimed “Oh no! Please don’t! I am British!”

We have all received the Spirit. May we respond to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by using the gifts which we have been given, as we pray for a new outpouring of the Spirit on ourselves, on the Church, and on the whole of creation.

Posted on June 10, 2019 .

7th Sunday of Easter

7th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 7:55-60; Rev 22:12-20; Jn 17:20-26

Our Gospel today forms part of what is commonly known as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, and because of its setting in the context of the Last Supper, it may be regarded as His Last Will and Testament. In this prayer, Jesus commends His disciples to the Father: those disciples who were with Him at table, but also those millions of disciples who would join Him at table throughout the ages, including you and me. So this prayer is a prayer for us, something which we must bear in mind as we reflect upon it.

In case we should doubt that, Our Lord spells it out. “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who, through their words, will believe in me.” So what is the prayer of God the Son for us?

His prayer is that we should be one, not only with each other but with the Father and the Son. So we are to be united with the Father and the Son, an awesome thought if ever there was one, and also with our fellow disciples in a unity so deep that it replicates the unity within the Holy Trinity.

Ponder that for a moment. The unity between Father and Son is so complete that it generates the Holy Spirit. Our unity with God is to be as intense as that. How are we to achieve it? Clearly, WE are not: this is God’s work. All that we can do is to be open to being drawn into that unity.

Likewise, we are to be drawn into an equal unity with one another. Once again, that is going to have to be God’s work, a work which demands openness and prayer on our part. And bear in mind that unity, like charity and measles, begins at home. Unity for us must begin in God and be manifested among the people with whom we live, whether that be community, family, or whatever.

What does unity mean? It has become a cliché that unity does not mean uniformity, but even clichés are an expression of an underlying truth. We are not called to become Stepford Wives, gliding robotically and harmoniously through life, wearing fixed smiles and waiting for the explosion which will reveal our unreality.

We are individuals, with different characters, different opinions, different approaches. Genuine unity will not eradicate these differences, but will entail their contributing to, and enriching, the group.

At the root of this must be charity, the love poured into us by that Trinity with whom each of us must first be in unity. This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, yet if we are honest we will have to admit that it has not always been the case. Any diocesan priest can relate tales, whether at first or second hand, of “curate-breaker” parish priests, who apparently set out to damage if not destroy their assistant priests: many religious sisters will know of harshness, if not downright cruelty, within convents. My late primary school headmistress, a member of a teaching order, once told me ruefully of the difficult character of the Reverend Mother of those days, whom we, as children, had been taught by that same headmistress to regard with awe.

So do you and I contribute to unity within our immediate circle? That question presupposes an even more fundamental query: are we driven by love, a love infused by the Trinity, who dwell within us, with whom we dwell in unity? If that unity with, and indwelling of, the Holy Trinity is not the driving force of our lives, then our desire for unity with one another will be hamstrung from the start. Unity without the love of God will be a pretence, a cold charade.

Our Lord underlines this at the end of His prayer, asking that “the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them.” Thus love may give rise to unity, beginning at home, but spreading throughout the Church, throughout the body of Christians, and throughout the world.

Posted on June 3, 2019 .

6th Sunday of Easter

6th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 15:1-2,22-29; Rev 21:10-14,22-23; John 14:23-29

“If anyone loves me, they will keep my word.” What does it mean to keep Jesus’ word? It means to retain it, to absorb it into ourselves, to let it become part of us, to live by it. It is less a matter of knowing it by heart—a parrot can do that—than of taking it to heart, making it live within our heart.

“And my Father will love them, and we shall come to them, and make our home with them.” To be loved by the Father and the Son is all that we can desire: to have Them make Their home with us is more than we can desire.

God loves us and makes His home with us. Are you and I conscious of the presence of God with us, of His dwelling within us? It may feel that God is far away, that He hides His face from us, yet in reality He is dwelling deep within us. The sense of His absence is the greatest indicator of His presence, for it is a sharing with us of the Passion of His Son, the fullest sign of His love. No matter what our feelings may suggest, the reality is that God lives with us and in us, and that He will keep us from harm.

“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit is constantly at work in us, reminding us of the words of Jesus, reminding us of His presence, constantly confirming us in the love and service of God. We are drawing near to the feast of Pentecost, when we pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, yet we should never forget that the Spirit is poured out on us very day, literally inspiring--breathing into—us, charging and recharging us with God’s life.

“Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you—a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you.”

What is this peace which Jesus promises? It is not peace as the world sees it, not an absence of struggle or stress. During the week, Abbot Cuthbert quoted Cardinal Basil Hume’s Episcopal motto “Pax inter spinas”, peace among thorns, and our own Bishop has taken as his motto some words of Blessed John Henry Newman: “Sanctitas praeter pacem”, holiness before peace.

Jesus’ gift of peace is indeed HIS gift: it is not something of our manufacturing. Nor is it something which we should be looking for as an end. As Newman said, what we should be looking for is holiness, the fulfilment of God’s will: Jesus will bestow His peace as and when He chooses, and it will probably come among thorns, entailing struggle, difficulty, and what may seem to be the opposite of peace.

If our aim is a peaceful life, we shall end up settling for mediocrity. If our aim is to live the life of God dwelling with us, then Jesus will give us His peace, though we may not recognise it as such.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Sometimes we are like Martha, worrying and fretting about so many things when, as the Lord said, “few are necessary, indeed only one.” What matters is that we should be seeking God’s will. Then, He will not let us fall out of His hands, however much we may feel that we are making a mess of things. We need to hold onto that conviction, which should banish fear.

“I am going away and shall return.” The Lord HAS returned, not yet in glory, but in His gentle indwelling, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, standing with us in the turmoil and the pain of life, sharing with us His own puzzling and not always immediately recognisable gift of peace.

Posted on May 27, 2019 .

5th Sunday of Easter 2019

5th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5; John 13:31-35

“They shall be His people and He will be their God.” So says the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. How often have we heard that same promise in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament? And now the promise is fulfilled: we ARE His people and He IS our God. His name is indeed God-with-them—Emmanuel: that was revealed to St. Joseph by the angel in St. Matthew’s Gospel. God is with us.

God is with us because He has become one of us, in the person of His Son. He is with us because that same Son has sent us the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Why then does God often seem far away from us?

Part of the answer lies in the words of Paul and Barnabas to the disciples: “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the Kingdom of God.” These hardships are a sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and the closer we draw to Him, the greater our share in His suffering.

Perhaps the greatest suffering of all is the feeling that God is absent. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins summed it up in the words “My prayers must strike a brazen heaven” and in one of the so called “terrible sonnets”, the one beginning “No worst, there is none, pitched past pitch of grief” which continues “Comforter, where, where is your comforting? Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”

Likewise, throughout history, the saints have experienced the apparent absence of God. St. John of the Cross saw the night of the senses and the dark night of the soul as essential stages on the individual’s journey to God. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had wallowed in the sense of God’s love for her, wrote, towards the end of her short life: “What I have written is what I hope is true: for some time now, I have had no feeling of it”, whilst St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta apparently spent forty five years of her much longer live deprived of all awareness of God’s presence.

The late militant atheist Christopher Hitchens who, for some reason, nursed a particular loathing for Mother Teresa, claimed that her feeling arose because she had discovered that there was no one to pray to. If he had known anything either of scripture or of Christian history, he would have realised that precisely the opposite was true. Mother Teresa herself would have known that she was being given a particularly deep share in the Passion of Christ, experiencing at close proximity His sense of desolation in Gethsemane and on the Cross, when the Son of God Himself cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Yet, as Jesus Himself declared at the Last Supper, this very sense of abandonment was His glorification, the revelation of His identity as God. Being betrayed, deserted, raised up on the Cross was His glory, completed and not reversed by His resurrection.

In His glorification, Jesus had one commandment for His followers, those with Him at the supper table: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Couples often choose this or a similar reading for their marriage service. “Love one another” is an appropriate basis for marriage. I wonder, however, how many of them recognise the sting in the tail:”Just as I have loved you.”

Married couples, and the rest of us, must love as Jesus loves us, with a love which took Him to Gethsemane and to the Cross. What He calls for is a self-emptying love, not only for God, but for those whom God puts in our way. Are we capable of that self-denying love? Of course we are not, or rather, we would not be were He not our God and we His people; were He not Emmanuel, God-with-us. Only in and through Him are we capable of loving one another, and of loving God, even when He seems far away.

Posted on May 19, 2019 .

4th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30

“The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” comments the Acts of the Apostles. These are, by and large, Gentile disciples, non-Jews, as the Gospel begins to be preached to the Gentile world. This outreach to the Gentiles was foreshadowed in the journey of the Wise Men to worship the infant Jesus, Gentiles adoring the Son of God. The disciples of that Son now return the compliment, as it were, bringing the light of the Gospel to the nations, as prophesied by Deutero-Isaiah and by Simeon at the Presentation in the Temple.

We are the descendants of those first Gentile disciples. Are we filled with joy and the Holy Spirit? What is joy? It is a deep-rooted conviction which blossoms in the good times, but which also sustains us in the difficult times, the times of darkness and near-despair. It is, in fact, the indwelling Holy Spirit. Are we conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to endure both light and dark, revealing Himself as that joy which, ultimately, nothing can destroy?

The root of that joy, the presence of the Holy Spirit, is a manifestation of God’s infinite love for us. Jesus speaks of that love today in His role as the Good Shepherd.

He begins by saying “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice”. Do we listen to the voice of the Lord? When and where do we hear it? We hear it daily in the scriptures. Do we allow the scriptures to soak into us? Do we sit with them, chewing the cud with them, allowing them to penetrate our whole being?

We hear the voice of the Lord too when we make time and space for prayer. We hear it also in the teachings of the Church, not least the Social Encyclicals, which lay before us our responsibilities to our neighbour.

Do we also hear that voice in the tones of our neighbour, in his/her challenge, his cry for help, her words of encouragement? I remember from pastoral lectures in the seminary the suggestion that we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other, interpreting each in the other’s light.

Our Lord continues with the words “I know them and they follow me”. He knows us: do we strive to know Him, to follow Him in all the events and situations of life?

Then Jesus goes on to say “I give them eternal life”. Notice the tense—present not future—“I give,” not “I will give”. Eternal life is a present reality if we allow the Holy Trinity to dwell within us.

“They will never be lost, and no one will ever steal them from me.”These are encouraging words, words to banish fear and anxiety. The greatest disaster which could befall us would be to be lost, to fall out of God’s hands. This, promises Jesus, will not happen. We can live without fear, secure in God’s love for us.

Why is this? It is because “The Father...gave them to me.” We belong to the Father, and the Father has given us to the Son. We are held secure by Father and Son in their mutual love and complete unity which is the Holy Spirit. “The Father and I are one” says the Lord, and we are held firm within that unity.

All of this explains why we should be filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. We have total grounds for confidence, no reason to fear. Consequently, we can follow boldly in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, carrying out His will, proclaiming His Gospel, because “no one can steal from the Father”—or from the Son.

Posted on May 12, 2019 .