True friendship remains even in hard times

I was saying last week that one of the reasons I became a Christian was because I saw Jesus as someone who stood against the status quo. I still love the way he really goes for the posh people in power and mixes with the ordinary people, that the posh people look down on. But although this would have made me admire him, as I might admire other historical figures, this would not have been enough by itself to make me into a Christian. No, what really attracted me was that this man Jesus, whom I admired so much, wanted to be my friend; and a friend who would be with me for ever, wherever I went, whatever I did. That’s why I love his saying “I do not call you servants any longer, but  I call you friends”  (John 15:15) and then the words “Remember I am with you always, to the end of time” (Matt 28:20)

Today’s Gospel (John 10:27-30) takes this even further, because it shows us what kind of a friend Jesus is. I remember when I was a student many moons ago, visiting a friend in hospital. He was so pleased to see me because, he said, I was the only friend who had come to visit him. He had lots of so-called friends, but I was the only one who showed true friendship when things got hard. It reminds me of some words from a poem that I love

“Every man will be thy friend

Whilst thou hast wherewith to spend” 

and then it ends

“He who is thy friend indeed

He will help thee in thy need

If thou sorrow he will weep,

If thou wake he cannot sleep.

Thus of every grief in heart

He with thee doth bear a part

These are certain signs to know

Faithful friend from flattering foe”

(from The Passionate Pilgrim)

 And this is why I follow Jesus. Because I see him as my truest friend, and a friend who is not just for this time only, but is a friend for ever, a friend who will be with me even beyond death, because he has already been there for me. That is surely why Jesus says of us who follow him as the Good Shepherd, “I give them eternal life. They will never be lost.”  And remember, as I have said many times before, this “eternal life” is something we have NOW. It is a relationship with him NOW. What a gift to be given! To be one with God, the eternal power underlying the Universe, and how? Not by some mystical incantation, nor by striving to be perfect, but simply by being friends with Jesus!

 And what a friend! Did you notice the final words from the 2nd Reading, (Rev 7:14-17) words often read at funerals? Jesus, “The Lamb who is at the throne”, will be our “Shepherd”..  and here are the crunch lines “He will lead (us) to springs of living water… and will wipe away all tears from our eyes.”And our link with him is more than ordinary friendship. Jesus says we are as close to him as are branches to a Vine. (John 15:5) What a wonderful and extraordinary gift! To be that close to Jesus, to be one with him, in union with him, so that whatever we face, we are never alone.

 You will be surprised to hear that despite the love for Jesus that I found as a teenager, and never lost, the last thing I wanted to be was a priest. When people said “You would make a good priest” I used to say “Oh yuk, Anything but that!” Not least because sadly, a priest to me was an establishment figure, someone rather proper and conventional – and no way was I going to end up like that! It was only later when I realised what a challenge the priesthood could be, a challenge to me, but also a challenge to society, a challenge to conventional ways of thinking and behaving, that I reluctantly began to look at the idea again.

Today, is the Sunday each year when we particularly pray that more men will think about becoming a priest, and pray for those who are now training to be one. I was at a Conference of priests recently where they asked us to write on Post-it Notes three things that we liked about being a priest, and then we stuck them on a wall so we could compare notes. You will not be surprised to hear that no-one said they enjoyed running a church building, coping with leaking roofs and damaged sewers, making sure enough money came in. No. We all wrote about the joy of serving all sorts of different people, and the wonder of being given time to pray and to support others in prayer.

 Prayer –not saying words at a distant God, and certainly not about sending up endless requests, hoping one or two might get an answer, How tragic that some people think prayer is like that! No, true prayer is the way we make explicit in our minds our eternal friendship with Jesus, and thus with God; our knowledge that we are in him and he is in us, and then to put all that glory into words and actions for others.

Homily on the ordinariness of God

When I was a boy, many moons ago, we used to transform sunlight into fire in the school playground. All you need is a small piece of paper and a magnifying glass. You focus the light until it is pinpointed on the paper, and soon the spot of light becomes fire and the paper is burnt up. I use this story because I want to talk today about how God transforms the bread and wine at Mass into his special presence. Note that I say “special presence”, because just as the sunlight is already present shining on the little bit of paper and shining everywhere to give us light, so God as Holy Spirit is already present in the bread and wine and in all created things, including and especially anything and everything that has life or is life-giving.

This is something we easily forget. We tend to want to think of God’s presence as something big and dramatic coming from outside that changes lives, and so it can be ; but we must never neglect his quieter hidden presence in and around us at all times. As St Paul says, when he first preaches in Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Notice in our 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:4-8) that Elijah has to be told not once but twice by God “Get up and eat”. Having experienced God’s dramatic power bringing down fire on a mountain, he has to be shown that God is also present in something as ordinary as food for the journey, and thus the story prefigures (as we say) the way Jesus will give himself to us in the simple sharing of bread and wine.  In the Gospel too (John 6:41-51) the people cannot believe the power that Jesus claims he has as the bread of life. They say “We know his father and mother. How can he now say “I have come down from heaven.”

So the presence of God as Holy Spirit is easily missed, and his special coming is so quiet, that we forget that the moment when the priest prays for the Holy Spirit to come in this way is one of the most important moments at every Mass. Some people think the bell rings just before the priest says the words of Jesus “This is my Body..” to wake us up and make us pay attention to something important that is about to happen! But actually, although indeed it may serve the purpose of waking you up, it rings because something important is actually happening! The Priest is praying that God’s Holy Spirit will work in this transforming way NOW; and if you can see the priest at this point, you will see him holding his hands out over the bread and wine as he says “Therefore, O Lord, by the same Spirit… graciously make holy these gifts… that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is, as it were, holding the magnifying glass for us, so that the power, already quietly present, can be focussed more precisely for this equally quiet transformation to take place.

It’s worth remembering at this point, that this is a power given to the Church as a whole, not just to an individual called a priest or a bishop. I do not celebrate Mass by myself. As a priest, I am linked to my Bishop and through him to all my fellow priests, and to the Pope and to the whole Church of which you are all a part. So when I, as a priest, hold my hands out over the bread and wine, it is not just me but the whole Church that prays in this special way. For it is the whole Church that has been promised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even if different people within the Church are called to a specific use of these gifts, as the priest is.

But the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s grace as we sometimes call it, does not just transform the bread and wine, it also transforms us. This is something I know that you all know, because when asked why you come to Mass many of you will say that you are like a car running out of fuel, or to use a more modern example like a phone that needs re-charging.  We all know how easily we let things slide, how easily we become obsessed with the next thing we want to do, rather than what God wants us to do. But again, just as we do not notice the Holy Spirit transforming the bread and wine, so we do not notice when we come to Mass that the Holy Spirit is radiating out from the Blessed Sacrament to transform us.

St Paul points this out in the 2nd Reading today. (Eph 4:30 – 5:2) He points out that the Holy Spirit has already marked us with his seal, and because we don’t notice that this has happened we go on with our silly ways. Clearly the Christians in Ephesus way back then were just like us, and so he has to tell them. “Never bear grudges against others, or lose your temper, or raise your voice…or call each other names, or allow any sort of spitefulness.”  Yes, the Holy Spirit comes to us in a special way at Mass, through God’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and through his presence in and amongst us gathered in prayer; but we have to realise this or it will make very little difference to our lives.

That’s why, sad as it may be, there are some people who will go to Mass every Sunday, and yet never allow God into any other part of their lives. Whenever we’re like that, we make God sad, we “grieve the Holy Spirit”, (Eph 4:30) or to use more violent language, we hammer nails into Christ crucified for us on the cross. That’s why, like Elijah we need to hear God speaking again and again, not just when we feel like coming to Mass, but again and again every Sunday. Because otherwise, we ever so slowly begin to slip away into nothingness. That is why we cannot just let the Mass happen in front of us and around us, as if it were a bit of religious entertainment. We have to PRAY the Mass, to allow what is happening to penetrate into our thick skulls and hard hearts, so that the Holy Spirit may truly be able to do his transforming work within us.

Homily on how to be a holy priest

On the 12th June, The Feast of the Sacred Heart, we have been asked to pray for the sanctification of all priests.. but what does that long word mean? What are we actually praying for?  The word “sanctification” means being made more holy, in other words growing closer to God; and it’s a process that all Christians are meant to be undergoing all the way through our lives, as we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in us. Of course, we are never fully sanctified, we die less than perfectly holy; but the process of sanctification is then completed by God after death, provided we are open to it, so that finally we can be one with God for ever. 

What I want to share with you today however is not how you can become more holy, but more specifically some ideas about how priests can become more holy, since that is what we have been asked to pray for ; and I thought I would do so by looking at the nature of God, of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and showing that what God is like might help to explain what we might expect every Catholic priest to aim for.

God the Father is, of course, God as the Creative Power underlying the Universe. I know a young man who is coming to study for a Doctorate in Astro-Physics here in Oxford next October who explained to me that he would be studying the formation of galaxies, and that there were hundreds of thousands of them – in fact he then gave me a figure so immense that I just lost the ability to understand how big that was. If we cannot grasp what the Universe is like in its immensity, how can we ever grasp what God is like? And that’s the point isn’t it? If we are to be like God, we must always keep in mind how holy, how much beyond us, God the Father is.

The Priest can easily forget this. He can get too familiar with the words he uses every day as he says Mass, and the other Prayers of the Church. If a priest is to be holy he needs to meditate regularly on the mystery and majesty of God that he is called to convey to others through the Holy Mystery that is the Mass. When a priest is ordained, the Bishop hands him the vessels in which the bread and wine are to be consecrated and says “Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate.” Powerful words! But easily forgotten as the Mass becomes more and more familiar. I find I have had to think of different ways throughout my time as a priest to bring to mind what the Mass is. At the moment I am trying to think myself into the person of Jesus as I say his words “This is my Body…This is my Blood.”, but before long I will have to vary this to keep myself thinking in new ways of the mystery of what I am doing.

Moving on then from God the Father to God the Son, we all know that we are meant to be more like Jesus, especially more loving and more sacrificial; but how does this relate specifically to a priest.  Most obviously it is is shown to us all on Holy Thursday when the priest washes feet in imitation of Jesus. Remember how horrified St Peter is at seeing Jesus doing the task of the lowliest slave? It’s all too easy for a priest to think of himself as something special. You laity are a bit like St Peter. If you see “Father” doing some lowly job, you are inclined to be a bit shocked. Some of you, not all, can easily put the priest on a pedestal. You honour his office, which is right, but somehow you can end up making a priest think he is more important than he is. To be like Christ means he must be a servant not a Lord, and people who are given power and leadership, as a priest is, can easily allow that to go to their head! This can come out in the Confessional too, as Pope Francis pointed out recently to some priests he had just ordained. How easy it is for a Priest to forget what he is there for. The Pope has clearly heard some horror stories of bad priests, as I have, when he said firmly “You are there to forgive, not to condemn!”

Finally we meet God the Holy Spirit within us, working in all sorts of ways according to what we are like, but always for one goal, as St Paul says,  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” – in other words for the good of the Church and its work in bringing God’s love to the world. The Priest can forget this. He has to run his Church, and he can get immersed in all the day to day administration that this brings – from making sure the sick and housebound are cared for to dealing with the sewers or the sound system when they go wrong. But the Priest is ordained principally to be the link with the Bishop and with the worldwide Church of which we are only a small part. He has to remember that when he says Mass, he does so not in his own power, but only in the power of the Church, and in the power of Christ as its Head. It is Christ who celebrates Mass, not the individual priest, and every priest needs to remember that! 

The priest also has to remember that when he preaches, he is called to preach the Gospel, not his own opinions. He may, indeed he must, use examples and illustrations that are personal to him, or to the people he is speaking to; but always in order to convey the Faith of the Church, not to promote his own bandwagon. Indeed some of the most dangerous priests are the most successful ones. Success can go to our heads, and can mislead the people, who faced later with a quieter less bouncy priest can drift away from the faith, because their faith has become too dependent on the personality of one priest. In a way, you need to pray that your priest will make mistakes, and own up to them, because then he is likely to be more humble and thus more holy.

Anyway I hope these thoughts have helped you with your prayers and given you some suggestions on how to treat your priest whoever he may be!

Using the Internet to speak of God

Taking up our cross for Jesus does not necessarily mean that we have to endure pain and suffering as Christians, although it might. The Christians of Syria never thought they would be driven from their homes, and some would be killed or die of exposure in the process, but it did. Hopefully we’ll not have to face such things, but all Christians do have to face the fact that sometimes, what we say and what we believe will lead to opposition and mockery; and that’s certainly the case here in Britain at the moment where being an atheist is the trendy thing to be, and believers are mocked as stupid or even dangerous! No wonder many Christians try to go to Mass without anyone noticing, and prefer not to let friends, or people at work, know that they are believers.

Our Readings today are therefore a great challenge to us aren’t they? Jesus makes clear in our Gospel (Matt 16:21-27) that if we follow him we have to take up our cross, and he’s pretty tough on those who are not happy about this, saying to St Peter “Get behind me Satan”, and to us “Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jeremiah in our 1st Reading (Jeremiah20:7-9) would love to keep quiet about God’s message, but even though it makes him “a daily laughing stock” – that speaking God’s word has meant for him “Insult, derision, all day long”, he knows he has to speak. St Paul (Romans 12:1-2) speaks more about making sure our behaviour is Christian, but he too knows how difficult this can be, when he says “Do not model yourselves on the world around you.” Yes, it is hard to be different from those around us isn’t it? But that is what Jesus means us to do when he tells us to take up our cross!

Each of you has to work out how best you can do this. There is no point blurting out things that simply annoy people, because our aim must be to try and share with people how good it is to follow the way of Jesus, and we cannot do that if we speak in extreme ways that stop people listening. I know this as a priest because I am also told to behave in such a way that people will think well of me. I must be “above reproach, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. Phew! How to challenge the world and yet be acceptable as a teacher? A very tall order indeed, and in a way it is the same for all of you.

I’ve set myself a particular task in the last few years by trying to teach and proclaim the faith over the Internet. This is partly because I discovered from when I worked with young people at University how much trivia, as well as how much that is plain wrong, is available there. I realized that some of us need to put good stuff on the Web to counteract all the rubbish. Anyway I thought I would finish by sharing with you how I try to steer this course there on the Internet – the same course I urge on you -between being acceptable – so people read or listen to what we say, and yet challenging – so the message of the Gospel is not diluted.

Obviously my Homily goes on there each week. Quite a few priests do this nowadays, as much for their own people to read, as for the wider world. But some of us also use Twitter where in 148 letters we try to say something good and relevant to the Internet world each. What I do is to first look at the readings for the Mass of the day and try to see what kind of message might be drawn from them that might make sense to a wider audience.

Given what I have been saying, perhaps I am not tough enough, but here are some recent examples. On August 23rd the feast of the martyr John Wall I wrote: John Wall was a priest in England for 22 years and then anti-Catholic hysteria led to his execution. We must not treat Muslims like this. Last Tuesday when the Gospel was Jesus attacking the Pharisees, I wrote So easy to worry about our surface looks & what we are wearing & forget that it’s what’s inside that really matters. It shows in our eyes. Sometimes however my Tweet comes from something that has happened or is happening, so because I was going to have a family lunch last Wednesday I wrote : To Gloucester today for a family lunch! Need to work at keeping in personal touch with family & friends & not just relying on the Internet. And sometimes I try to be amusing, as on my birthday when I wrote : The funny shaped carrot and the ugly creepy crawly are all loved by God. There is hope for me yet as I approach my birthday.

Back to the Bible however to end. On Thursday when Jesus said “Stay awake”, I wrote Keep awake today. There is always something to do for someone even if it is only a smile and a friendly greeting. Good morning!

Deacons are what?

Most Catholics know what a Priest is, but have little idea what Deacons are, even if, as in Eynsham, we have one appearing at the altar most Sundays! Today however in our 1st Reading (Acts 6:1-7) we hear how the first Deacons, were chosen and ordained by the Apostles with prayer and the laying on of hands, way before there were such things as priests! We see that too, when St Paul writes to the Church in a place called Phillipi (Phil 1:1) in Northern Greece. He writes to all the people, whom please note, he calls “saints”! ; and with them the Bishops and Deacons. The Bible refers to Deacons in one other place, in the 1st Letter to Timothy, where it says – and this may amuse you – Deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.” (1 Tim 3:8)

In our Western Church however, the Bishops later ordained Priests to represent them at the Altar, and for various reasons, and for hundreds of years, Deacons just disappeared, as the Priests took over everything they used to do. It is only therefore in modern times that our Roman Catholic Church has re-introduced Deacons. One of the reasons for this is that the Church has sought to preserve the special calling of a Priest by requiring him not to marry. The Church in modern times then woke up to the fact that it therefore had a pool of intelligent married men sitting there at Mass who could actually serve the Church in many special ways if they were trained and then ordained as Deacons. So if you are a married man over 30, you might consider whether God is calling you to this special role within the Church.

Many married men immediately say they are too busy, not least because they are fathers with young children, as well as fully employed. But children grow up, and many men who are faithful Christians, having almost completed the very important task of being fathers, then begin to consider what God might want them to do next. And that is how we get our Deacons; for, unlike priests, they carry on with their jobs, and train and then serve the Church in their free time.

But what exactly are Deacons, and what do they do? First of all, they can do many of the things a Priest does, for they are, like him, ordained ministers of the Church, and so wear the black shirt and the collar like a priest or a bishop. Because of this they can be an invaluable asset in a busy Parish, conducting Baptisms, Marriages and Funerals as well as Preaching at Mass. You will have seen from our 1st Reading that their special calling has always been to serve those members of the Church who are sick or in some other kind of trouble. Most Deacons therefore, as here in Eynsham, are often the person who organizes this work, especially making sure our sick and housebound folk are regularly taken Communion. Deacons are also often the leaders in teaching the faith to others, leading, or helping to run, Courses for Children or Adults etc. Each Deacon is different, of course, and a wise parish and a wise priest will hopefully encourage a Deacon in the ways in which he is most talented – gifted by God.

Did you notice that wonderful ending to our 2nd Reading? (1 Peter 2:4-9) We, the Church, are called “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God.”  Think about that for a moment. You are not at Mass to watch someone else doing things up here. You are at Mass to BE the Church, to BE the holy people of God singing God’s praises, and sharing God’s message of joy and love with others. And remember what I’ve often said to those who say they cannot sing. Sing in your heart if not with your voice. And to those who are too shy to speak about their faith. Live it! Quietly pray for others and if you can, quietly tell them you are praying for them.  But also, consider what else God may be calling you to do. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. You may not think you are clever or brave enough, but God can take you on the Way to wisdom and courage, as he requires, for He is Truth and Life

Stephen, one of those first Deacons, just thought he was going to help the Apostles in the ordinary ways described. But he was “a man full of faith”. and soon after he found himself in a position where he had to share that faith where there was much opposition. Thus he became the First Martyr of the Church, killed for being a Christian. Don’t worry, most of those called to be a Deacon do not end up like Stephen. But his death simply reminds us that God can do things in and through us that will surprise us, whether that is as a Deacon or a Priest, or simply as a faithful Christian.  As Jesus said “Trust in God”. Something we must all do!

The courage of the first Christians

The first Christians had to be very brave people, didn’t they? They had seen Jesus die in the most horrible way possible, and they had run for their lives; and yet now they were prepared, as we see in our 1st Reading, (Acts 2:14.36-41) to stand up in public, and actually challenge the very people that had arranged the crucifixion, and might well be plotting to arrange theirs. It is this book, the Acts of the Apostles, that describes most vividly the trials and triumphs that those first Christians went through, especially the work of St Peter. and then of St Paul.

These two might stand as a model for what anyone who called to be a priest might be like. We know of Peter not only as the coward who denied he knew Jesus, but also the one who got told off by Jesus a bit earlier for misunderstanding him. Paul was no better, because, as Acts tells us, he actually persecuted the first Christians, actively going around and seeking them out and arresting them, until he met the risen Jesus and was transformed into one of the most fervent of the early Christians. Both of them remind us that becoming a leader of the Christian Church does not require someone to be perfect and holy and good. God calls all sorts of people to serve him, and some of the best are those who know what it is to struggle with doubt, or fear, or anger as St Peter and St Paul had to.

But the Bible also shows us, that not only were they not perfect before meeting the risen Jesus, but even afterwards they had their struggles and difficulties. Paul describes one of his troubles as “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) that he agonized over in prayer, and finally had to learn to put up with – whatever it was. All of this reminds us that people should not dismiss a call to be a priest or a religious simply because they don’t think that they are good enough or holy enough. A young man is mistaken if he says “I couldn’t manage to be a priest. I would find it too difficult.” The answer is, so did St Peter and St Paul; and St Paul actually wrote comforting words for all Christians, not just priests, when he writes how God said to him in prayer as an answer My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

So this story today, of St Peter’s first public speech, should be viewed within the context of all that we learn about those first Christian leaders from the Bible. Acts tells us first about Peter, and how difficult he found it to break away from some of his Jewish prejudices in which he wasn’t even allowed to eat with non-Jews. It then goes on to tell the story of St Paul and his companions, and how they travelled around from town to town, in what we now call Turkey and in Greece, preaching about Jesus and his message. We are told that he always started with his own people in each town, the Jews. From them, he began to speak to those attracted to Judaism. He preached a new kind of Judaism open to all men and women, a Judaism that, as we also learn from Acts, would begin to be called “Christianity.” (Acts 11:26) We learn too that this led to much opposition and that Paul was often attacked and beaten and even imprisoned for this work. The story ends with his arrest by the Romans and him awaiting trial and eventually execution in Rome.

Despite all these troubles, the new groups of believers, began to meet in each town, gathering in the largest house that one of them owned, and celebrating what we now call the Mass. The Apostles always appointed someone to lead these new Churches in prayer, the people we now call Bishops, and it was these local leaders who later appointed others to help with the work. First they appointed Deacons (as we will hear about next week) and then the Presbyters – later called Priests.

Those first Christians had to be brave didn’t they? For almost 300 years, they were faced with persecution of one kind or another, and many men and women were killed and became the first Martyrs of the Church. (See the 1st Eucharistic Prayer) Despite all this, even because of it, the Church grew into what we belong to today. We may worry that the Church seems to be struggling, with so much opposition from outside, and so many failures from within. So it is worth remembering that this is not unlike the early Church; and if it survived and grew, so can we – not in our own strength but through the grace and power of God.

That’s why today all over the world we pray for more people to represent Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in this special way ; to respond to the call to be priests or religious, and so lead the Church forward just like Peter and Paul did so many years ago. Catholics in Europe are always worrying that there aren’t enough priests, but most people do not want that priest to be them, or their son or their grandson or their brother or nephew. And that’s the current problem that we need to pray about.