08 May, 2016

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (C) - Praying for the new evangelisation

Acts 7:55-60
Stephen said ‘‘I can see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’’ (Acts 7:56)
As you know the Archbishops have asked the entire Church of England to pray very fervently for a new evangelization of these isles in the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. And here we are. During this time we retrace what the Apostles did in the company of the Virgin Mary and the first disciples; when, after Jesus ascended to the Father, they immersed themselves in prayer waiting for Spirit of God. This is the time when we must pray passionately for the Holy Spirit to descend with power once again over this land; a land that has fathered many great and venerable saints over the centuries. This is the time to align this nation to the Holy Spirit through our prayers; the time to make a way among our people for God’s desire to be fulfilled – that everyone might come to salvation in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But when we ask for the Holy Spirit to descend in this way, what are we really asking for? “Please, God, evangelise this country?” “Please, God, make everyone Christian by tea-time?” No. I would suggest that when we pray for the Holy Spirit we ask God for a two-fold gift, a gift that will involve both us and the people outside these walls; we ask the Spirit to give us courage in manifesting our faith through words and actions, and to open people’s heart to the message of the Gospel.

In our first reading we find a little representation of how evangelisation sometimes works when only one side is open to the action of the Holy Spirit. On one hand we have Saint Stephen, a follower of Christ, who after being cornered and questioned, affirms his faith in Jesus. His speech is summed up in one verse by the reading, but if we looked up this passage in Acts we would notice that Stephen actually speaks for a whole chapter guided by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we have a group of people who strongly oppose the faith, and who do everything they can to avoid hearing about the Lord. In fact, we read that after Stephen affirms his faith these people ‘shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands’ (Acts 7:57) to prevent them from hearing the Christian truth. Their hearts are hardened and closed to the voice of the Spirit. But this representation is not confined to the Bible. I am sure many among us have witnessed situations where we have been ignored or belittled because of our experience of faith, because we have spoken about Jesus and about his Church. Even now many people ‘shout out and stop their ears with their hands’ not wanting to hear about faith; their hearts too, may be hardened and closed to the voice of the Spirit.

Our fervent prayer for evangelisation is the only way to address situations like this and open people’s heart to the action of the Holy Spirit. Through this prayer we ask that we ourselves might be more like St Stephen; that we might have courage to hold fast and to proclaim the faith, to share the joy of knowing Christ with others. Secondly, we ask that people might become more receptive to the Christian faith and to the ministry of his Church, because only the Spirit can break down people’s indifference or resentment towards the Christian faith. “Come, Holy Spirit!” Through this twofold prayer we will receive strength to be the vehicles of a new evangelisation and we will prepare people’s hearts to receive the Gospel with joy.

Come, Holy Spirit!
Pour upon us your gifts of wisdom and knowledge to inspire us;
your gift of understanding that we may desire to deepen our faith;
your gift of courage to help us sharing the faith with others.
In moments of hesitation, remind us:
If not us, then who will proclaim the Gospel?
If not now, then when will the Gospel be proclaimed?
If not the truth of the Gospel, then what shall we proclaim?

Come, Holy Spirit!
Pour upon this land your gift of counsel to reawaken longing for you;
your gift of wonder to breakdown indifference for the faith;
and your gift of devotion to nurture in true religion.
Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.

07 May, 2016

Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (C) – One of us in heaven

Luke 24:46-53
As Jesus ‘blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.’ (Luke 24:51)
If you’d search on the internet for information about the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon you would probably also encounter suggested questions linked to your search. A few typical ones are “How many times have we been to the moon?” or “When did we land on the Moon?” Remarkably most of these questions employ the plural pronoun “We”, even though none of us has ever been near the Apollo spacecraft, let alone setting foot on the actual Moon itself. Similarly, think for a moment how sport fans talk about the teams they each support; “We won on Sunday!” or “We lost to Leicester City”, even though actually doing sports may be the last thing on their minds. Here is that word again. “We”.
It seems that whenever extraordinary things are achieved or whenever something exceptional happen, we as humans feel an innate sense of commonality and kinship with the people who were actually involved in these events.

Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord to heaven, the moment when Jesus left the disciples to return to the Father. Through this mystery we know that our human nature, the very stuff of our being, which Jesus shares with each one of us, has also been taken up to into the Father’s glory with him. Then, we ought to feel a renewed sense of commonality and kinship with Jesus because just as our own death has been destroyed through his resurrection, so our human nature has been given a new horizon, a new end, by his ascension. No more condemned children of earth, in the ascension of Christ, we are revealed as creatures destined for the vision of glory in heaven.
As Archbishop Justin put it today quite concisely,
‘The risen Jesus represents our humanity in the heart of God. One like us is in heaven, praying for us and blessing us always.’

03 May, 2016

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (C) - Praying for bishops

Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Quite often when we think about the past, we may be tempted to recall distant events with rose-tinted glasses, thinking that “back then” was much better than “now”. This can happen within the Church as well anytime that we look back, with our highly selective memory, on a particular time as the only possible pattern for being Christians. And what better time to hark back to than the Church described in the Acts of the Apostles; life may have been difficult then because of persecutions, but at least everything seemed straightforward, united, and simpler… Well, we may think this, but it would be a big mistake; in fact this would be a twofold mistake. First, we cannot compare different ages of the Church and apply to the past what we take for granted now… St Paul ordered women not to speak in church; would we be comfortable with that? The Apostles required the disciples to share all they owned – and I do mean all – with the Church; how would we do on this? 
But perhaps more importantly, thinking that the Church then was better then than she is now would be a mistake because even in the Apostolic period there were divisions and thorny issues to be addressed just as we have them now – oftentimes relating to the simple questions, “Who is in, and who is out of the Church?”

In our first reading we are told of one such disagreement, probably the biggest disagreement of the time, and about the solution which the Apostles proposed for it, under the instruction of the Holy Spirit. The issue was, as we have heard, whether believers of pagan origins should be circumcised before baptism; or in other words, whether pagans should convert to Judaism – taking on the huge burden of the Jewish Law –before being admitted into the Church.
This debate may not mean much for us because the Church is not a strand within Judaism anymore; but this dispute fractured the Early Church for some time, causing short but painful divisions among both the Apostles and “average” Christians. The solution to this problem, which we can see in the second part of our reading, came as the result of a formal meeting of the Apostles, the first many similar meetings since then, known as Councils. At the Council of Jerusalem the Apostles, seeing the signs of the times and what the grace of God was doing among all believers regardless of their origin, decided not to impose Jewish Law on pagan converts, but to lay out instead basic rules for all Christians to follow.

Both as a national Church and as the Western Church more broadly, we are experiencing fundamental disagreements that still relate to the questions “Who is in, and who is out?” Our arguments have moved away centuries ago from Jewish identity and circumcision; they now focus on sexual orientation, gender, and our engagement with an increasingly secularised society. Yet, little has been done to address these debates in a real and loving way. Our bishops, the successors of the Apostles, need courage to rise up to the challenges posed by our disagreements and need charity to deal with the painful divisions they generate. They need discernment to recognise the signs of the times and what the grace of God is doing among believers from every walk of life, as the Apostles did at the Council of Jerusalem. The time for vague words of support used to soften the blow caused by policies of exclusion is over. 

As you know, we have been asked to pray for the evangelization of Britain in the run up to Pentecost by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. During this time we should also pray for all our bishops that they may be docile to voice of the Holy Spirit as they guide the Church through the rough waters of disagreements; may they be generous and open in their decisions – as the Apostles were; and may they steer our Church towards inclusiveness of those cast to the margins and reunification with the other branches of the Church.
Let us pray.
God, eternal shepherd,
you tend your Church in many ways
and rule us with love.
You have chosen many of your servants
to be shepherds of your flock.
Give them a spirit of courage and right judgment,
a spirit of knowledge and love.
By governing with fidelity those entrusted to their care,
may they build your Church 
as a sign of salvation for the world.
Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

25 April, 2016

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (C) - The Heavenly Jerusalem

Revelation/Apocalypse 21:1-5
‘You see this city? Here God lives among men.
He will make his home among them;
they shall be his people, and he will be their God’ (Apocalypse 21:4)
For the last two weeks I have been speaking about “cooperating with Jesus”, meaning that our common vocation as Christians is to endeavour to follow the directions and commands Jesus gives us in whatever we do. But at certain points in life, perhaps after a bereavement or when we experience severe difficulties, a few simple, yet niggling, questions may come to cast doubts on our commitments; “Why am I doing this?”, “Why should I cooperate with Jesus?”, or more to the point for some, “What am I going to get out of this?” Oftentimes these are legitimate questions and a possible answer to them is provided by our reading from the book of Apocalypse, also called book of Revelation.
The answer to our moments of hesitation lies in the vision described by the Apostle John of the heavenly Jerusalem as the common dwelling place for both God and his people. And this answer sounds like this, “We try to live faithfully the Christian life because we want to get to that heavenly city God promises for those who love him.” And “We daily do our best to cooperate with Jesus, because we are looking for a new heaven and a new earth.”

The word Apocalypse means literally “to uncover”, or “to reveal”, and this is precisely what our reading does in order to dispel our doubts with its poetic description of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is as if a veil is suddenly lifted, and for a few precious instants we catch a glimpse of what lies ahead for us: a safe space, a truly happy place, a reward for our commitments. Behind this veil we find the unimpaired vision of God for everyone who now endeavours to seek him with a true heart. 
But in reflection this moment of revelation has also something very powerful to say about our human condition. As when drawing back the curtains on a bright summer morning we are bathed in radiant sunlight, so in our reading as the veil is suddenly lifted we can see ourselves drenched in the brightness of the heavenly Jerusalem; in this light we see ourselves not as earthbound creatures but as inhabitants of that promised country, as pilgrims travelling towards a true homeland. That’s our journey’s end. That’s what we are working for.

Outside these walls people have other aims in life, they work for other things and they have other purposes they want to achieve, and consequently they order their existence towards the attainment of their goals. Likewise, if our ultimate goal is indeed the heavenly city; if our journey is a long trek even beyond the grave – as Jesus shows us in his resurrection; then we should do everything that is within our powers to reach our aim. We should daily amend the way we live; rejecting those things that hold us back – such as greed, envy, and resentments – and little by little grow in faith, in courage, in patience, and in service to others; and so inching our way home.

My (possibly) all-time favourite hymn is called O What Their Joy and Their Glory Must Be, and it sings about that heavenly city; in one verse it lays out a plan for us,
Now, in the meantime, with hearts raised on high,
we for that country must yearn and must sigh,
seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
through our long exile on Babylon's strand.

May God, the Sovereign of that heavenly city, sustain us with his grace as we journey on. And may Our Blessed Lady, Queen of Heaven, assist our efforts with her prayers. Amen.

23 April, 2016

Address on occasion of HM The Queen 90th Birthday - "I Serve"

Matthew 20:25-28
(An extract of Princess Elizabeth 21st Birthday message to the Commonwealth was read after two readings from Scripture.)

The greatest among you must be the servant of all. (Cf. Matthew 20:26)
The Coronation Supertunica
This instruction Jesus gives to his followers is echoed in the words of promise spoken by a young Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday. As future Queen pledged to serve her people, little would she have known that 69 years later – after many dramatic world events – her people would still be wishing her “Happy Birthday”. Yet, at that time Princess Elizabeth knew that although God was calling her to the highest and most prestigious office of all, her core vocation was to serve.
“I serve”, she said, and undoubtedly Queen Elizabeth has been true to her pledge. Through the decades she has fulfilled her duty without wavering; she has provided understated counsel to 12 Prime Ministers in this country alone; she has shown inspiring resilience in the face of both national and personal crises; and, it ought to be said, she has remained true to her word even when the Crown was being attacked by disloyal subjects.

All these examples of service to her people would be reasons enough for giving thanks to God. Yet, there is another aspect about the Queen’s promise to serve for which we should thank God all the more, and this is her faith. In her service Queen Elizabeth has pointed out that faith in Jesus Christ, the Christian faith, is the only sure foundation upon which to build our lives. 
Let me remind you of few examples. In the words we have just heard, the Queen’s pledge to service is made in prayer and complete trust in God. Years later, as her Coronation was approaching, she prepared herself through prayer and personal devotion for a whole month to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit as Sovereign. In her broadcasts she has spoken about the life of Jesus Christ. And finally, throughout her life the Queen Elizabeth has been faithful in attending church services.
As a faithful leader and servant, the Queen points out to Christ as the only source of life and stability; and her faith remains an example for us all.

The second verse of the National Anthem sings,
‘May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen’
On this joyful occasion, as we look back over 90 glorious years of a life devoted to service, we can see that Her Majesty has indeed given us many reasons to sing with heart and voice, “God save the Queen”. And for all these, may God – the almighty Sovereign of all – always be thanked and praised. Amen.

17 April, 2016

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (C) - Vocation Sunday - Priests and Pastors

John 10:27-30
‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice;
I know them and they follow me’ (John 10:27)
Last week we saw how we should learn to “cooperate with Jesus” just as the first disciples did on the Sea of Galilee. By working with Jesus these men succeed in what they previously failed to do, when they worked without the Lord to direct them. Cooperating with Jesus is the vocation common to every Christian, regardless of personal circumstances.
Today we celebrate Vocations Sunday and we turn our attention to the sacred priesthood, as a particular way, but by no means the only one, of cooperating with the Lord. Today we are asked to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for generosity in responding to this call.

It seems that for years the Church of England has wandered in the wilderness with regards to praying for an increase of vocations to the priesthood. Behind this uncertainty there was a pervading idea that singling out one type of ministry might make lay people resentful, belittling their irreplaceable efforts within the Church. Yet, thankfully, this aimless wandering seems to be at an end, and finally the Archbishops are both calling upon all the faithful to pray earnestly for vocations, and committing the Church to form more priests in the coming years. I say “thankfully” because we should never think that putting particualr emphasis on one type ministry would equal to disregarding other ones. Both lay and ordained ministries are vital to the Church, they shouldn’t be poised in competition with one another, and neither of them could exist without the other. As St Paul writes
‘there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord’ (1Corinthians 12:4-5)
Priests do not exist in a vacuum; priestly ministry is inseparably linked to caring for the people of God, by feeding the faithful with his Word and the Eucharist, by administering forgiveness, by providing leadership and focus for mission. Likewise, the people of God work with their priests to share his redeeming love with everyone; their individual ministries in the world are many but they find unity in the celebration of the Eucharist people offer with their priests. But there is more. Congregations play a crucial role in fostering vocations to the priesthood because whatever type of vocation is needed within the Church it necessarily arises from among the people of God – that is to say, priests do not grow on trees. Vocations arise from faithful people praying for them; they are fostered within the parish context, they come to flourish through the loving support of local congregations.

An example of this close relation between priests and their congregations can be found in the title of “Pastor” which is sometimes given to priests who hold responsibilities for a local church community. The word “pastor” comes from the Latin for “shepherd” or “feeder of the flock”: the one who leads the sheep to pasture. As we see in today’s gospel reading, the chief pastor is Jesus himself who shares this ministry with those whom he calls to be priests among his people. As the prophet Jeremiah affirms, ‘I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding’ (Jeremiah 3:15); or as the KJV Bible says, ‘I will give you pastors according to mine heart’. At the moment of ordination, priests are conformed to the pastoral heart of Jesus, and the shepherd-like character of the Lord is branded indelibly on their souls. Then, they are sent into specific congregations or flocks to care for them on his behalf. So without flock the priests’ ministry as a servant and shepherd of God's people could not be entirely fulfilled – they would be wandering shepherds without a flock – and without priests the people of God would be deprived of food and leadership.

On this Vocation Sunday let us pray that the Lord may raise from among us, more and more shepherds to feed and to guide his people so that each of us, through our own individual ministries, may be enabled to share God’s redeeming love with everyone.

May Our Lady Mary, Mother of Priests, pray for every priest that they may always be shepherds after the heart of her Son, and may she gain an increase of priestly vocations for all the Church. Amen.

12 April, 2016

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter (C) - Cooperating with Jesus

John 21:1-14
“Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something.”
So they dropped the net, and there were so many fish that they could not haul it in. John 21:6
If you remember the concluding verses of the last week’s gospel you may also remember the reading ending abruptly and hinting that that could also have been the end of the book. It read,
‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah’ (John 20:30-31).
That was chapter 20, but today as we read together chapter 21 we see that the story continues – at least for a little while longer. The encounter between Jesus and the 11 disciples in the seclusion of the upper room we saw last week was not the end of the story; Jesus has more to offer, more things to do. So, it is as if an alternative conclusion was appended at the end of the previous chapter describing events that occurred later on. Biblical scholars have speculated about the reasons behind this editing choice, but without descending into these theories, we can probably find a spiritual meaning for this continuation of the gospel for ourselves.

At the beginning of the reading we see that Peter has returned to his fishing profession; the disciples are not in Jerusalem anymore, they are back in Galilee, on the shore of the Lake where all had begun a few years before (Cf. Mark 1:16-20). And if we took a careful look at the story we would notice that, although according to John this is the third time that the risen Lord appears to his disciples, there is a clear feeling that this encounter happened quite sometime after the other two meetings, perhaps even weeks later. Overall the story appears under a different, brighter light than when Jesus last met with Peter and the other Apostles. Unlike in those previous encounters it is not evening anymore, and Jesus’ arrival on the scene coincides with the breaking of day.
Reading between the lines we see how the disciples, headed by Peter, have grown tired of waiting around for something to happen, and have taken the matter – in this case their very own livelihood – in their own hands. They go fishing – which is what they did before, and which we already know from the other evangelists as a metaphor for bringing the gospel to the waiting world (Cf. Mark 1:16-20). They go fishing, but they go without waiting for Jesus, and their night on the lake doesn’t yield anything. As a testimony to their physical efforts Peter is naked because garments would impair his labours on-board. And yet it seems that, even though all of them work skilfully and very hard, all their efforts are fruitless. It is in this moment, as the disciples are discouraged and the morale in the boat is inevitably low, that Jesus comes on the scene. But he arrives, not a superhero swooping in to save the day, but as a friend calmly advising the disciples to do things differently; as a friend commanding enough trust from them to cooperate with him.

‘Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something’, says Jesus; but casting the nets from a different side of the boat can hardly make any real difference when you have spent all night fishing but you have caught nothing. So, what is it that causes this miraculous catch? I would suggest that it is the trust the disciples place in Jesus’ advice. It is because they cooperate with Jesus, that they finally achieve what they set out to do. [And ultimately it is this trust and cooperation that leads them to fully recognise Jesus as the risen Lord.] Because the disciples cooperates with Jesus, rather than working without him ‘the darkness is overcome by light, the fruitless work becomes an easy and abundant catch of fish, the feeling of tiredness and loneliness is transformed into joy’ (St. John Paul II) 

As the church here in Houghton Regis we are about to embark on different projects under the loose heading of Restoration and Renewal. For example, we have this holy building – standing to the glory of God and as a reminder of God’s presence in this area – and it needs to be extensively restored and renovated. We have a vocation to grow in number and in holiness that we must fulfil. And soon we will have new neighbours in our town; more people for us to love and with whom to share the joy of knowing Christ. Like the disciples we can’t do this just through our own efforts, we can’t take the matter simply in our own hands, or our work will not yield fruit, and we would labour on our projects in vain. As today’s gospel shows us we have to start with Jesus by trusting and cooperating with him. More specifically still, we have to start by sharing his food through our frequent encounters with the risen Lord at the Mass.
Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’
...Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them. (John21:12-13)