400 years ago, the Catholic Church in Britain was virtually destroyed, as the Protestant State made it illegal to be a Catholic, and priests and those who sheltered them were executed if they were caught. The few Catholics who carried on, did so in hiding, using rooms for Mass in the houses of rich Catholics, with hiding holes for the priests.
It wasn’t until the late 18thC that the Catholic Church slowly began to grow again in Britain. This was because of Irish immigrants coming to work on the railways and in the factories of the new industrial society. This history has meant that the Church here has tended to concentrate on survival, and the priests, protected by their people – often literally – were expected to spend their time caring for those who were Catholics, and leaving the rest of the British people well alone.
The idea of converting Protestant England back to the Catholic Faith was therefore a defiant one. Until the 1960’s, Catholics who mixed with Protestants were frowned upon, and were certainly forbidden ever to go inside a non-Catholic Church! Those who became Catholics were warmly welcomed but the idea of going out there and actually telling non-Catholics about the faith was not really part of British Catholic culture.
Still today, Catholics are surprised if their priest spends more time with non-Catholics or even atheists. “He doesn’t visit” they say, meaning he doesn’t visit “us” – even if he does visit others.
At Brookes where I used to run a stall fortnightly in the Foyer, some people would say “But what are you doing here Father?” as if the idea of a priest actually going out there and publicly talking to people about the faith is a bit strange. Of course, part of this suspicion is because, quite rightly, Catholics do not want to be like some Christians who push their faith on people on doorsteps or in the street with slogans like “Repent or Die!” But avoiding this kind of attitude does not mean we should never attempt to draw people into the Church, as I think our Gospel today (Luke 15:1-32) shows.
In three stories, Jesus shows us what God is like. A shepherd searching for lost sheep. A woman who will not give up sweeping the house, until she finds a lost coin. And most famous of all, the father who we see watching and hoping that one day his son will return. Listen again to what he does then, “He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.” A bit earlier Jesus has already said some important words “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”(Luke 6) Now he illustrates what that compassion should be like. Like the shepherd, the woman, the father, we must always be searching for those who are lost.
Sometimes it may mean going out there into the wild world like the shepherd. Sometimes it may be a quieter but just as insistent search like the woman sweeping. Or sometimes it will be like the father ever watchful, ever hopeful, that his son will return.
But who is the son? We easily tend to think that in our context this means lapsed Catholics – those brought up in the faith who’ve wandered away for some reason. But of course God doesn’t have favourites. Every single person, whether baptised or not, is still part of the human race that God loves, and that Jesus died for. Part of my job as a priest is certainly to try to identify those who are Catholics and show them that they can come home to the Church if they want to, but along with you, I also have a mission to everyone else. Like the father we must always be watching for the signs that will bring them into the full knowledge and love of God in his Church.
Notice that the father doesn’t spend his time sending messages of condemnation to the son who is wasting his money on wine and women. Like him, we may be sad to see people ruining their lives, thinking that the next pleasure is all that matters. But we are called by Jesus to be “compassionate”. “Do not condemn and you will not be condemned” warns Jesus, for as we are told in our 2nd Reading (1 Tim 1:12-17) “Jesus came… to save sinners.” – and that includes us!
So let us be a bit more like God. To share with others the love and forgiveness we receive from God. To long for everyone to know that love as we do. The Catholic Church believes that every human being, whatever their religion or none, in the best of what they do, is already responding to the God we know and love in Jesus. To want them to know this, is never to condemn, but always to long that they may find their way to a fuller realisation of that glory, the glory that we meet and celebrate here at Mass.