Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sermon / Homily for Easter Four (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday - the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
It is perhaps a difficult time for vocations to the priesthood. We know that the numbers of those going forward for the priesthood are much smaller than they ever used to be. We know that the average age of priests is increasing, in some places alarmingly so. We are often told that the great woes of the Church are the fault of the clergy, of clericalism, of celibacy, of the secrecy and privilege which surrounds the priestly life. It was hardly surprising to read the other day of one American Bishop asking ‚”Why would anyone want to be a priest at present”? It might have been intended to be a rhetorical question ... though I can’t be sure.
Why would anyone want to be a priest?
Why do I want to be a priest?

[Now admittedly I am not your run of the mill priest: I am married and have not only a wife but children and grand-children. Some say this makes a priest more sympathetic or knowledgeable of people’s lives. I’m not so sure. I think celibacy has great benefits to the Church, and is an indication of the sacrifice of himself that every priest must make. If being a family man gives a certain insight - which is arguable - then celibacy gives a certain freedom, and that is certain. I would never argue against the norm of a celibate priesthood.
But actually the focus of the priestly life is elsewhere. And the joys are found everywhere. ]

So why am I priest?
Because this gives me the greatest privilege any person can ever have: to share something of people’s lives, and in doing so bringing the grace of God to them.
Every week I sit and talk with those who are bereaved and distressed. Every week I discuss the struggles of prayer and daily living with those who come to confession. Every week I am asked for advice by those in difficulty. Every week I am challenged to justify what I believe in. Every week I have the joy of sharing what I hold to be true and I try explain it. Every week I visit homes, schools, hospitals and sometimes prisons and meet the young and the old, the working and the retired, the healthy and the sick, the good and the not so good. I frequently share with a family the joy of the gift of their child, by celebrating baptism with them. And I am part of the preparations of a family as they approach the joy and excitement of their wedding. I am called out to anoint the dying and pray with them, to console their relatives, to bring some little comfort in a difficult time. I chat with young children, talk to teenagers and converse with adults. On occasion I meet the homeless, the desperate, recovering alcoholics, parents separated from their children. I sit on committees and boards and governing bodies and have the responsibility and privilege of sharing in decisions which affect people’s lives.
And most of all, I celebrate, with joy, the sacraments and especially the mass, the supreme sacrifice in which bread and wine become His body and blood, in which grace touches our lives, in which heaven touches earth.
And this is the point - the real point. Because I know there are many things I’m not so good at. I talk a bit too quick and I’m always a bit too busy. I’m late starting mass and sometimes forget appointments. It is often difficult to know what to say to those in distress, and to know how to help those in trouble. I make decisions which sometimes work out, but sometimes don’t? Sometimes people are upset, or hurt, or overlooked. I forget people’s names ... I’m sure you could add to the this.
But here is the amazing thing. When I have struggled with my words or an answer, or discussed for a long time a difficult problem someone says to me, “Thank you so much Father, I feel so much better” or “your words are really helpful” or even “I enjoyed your homily” or the words I wrote for the Sentinel or said on the radio some other extra-ordinary and unexpected words of compliment.
And I know I don’t deserve them. This is not me who has done this. I know that. This is God working within me. This is heaven touching earth. This is the operation of grace. The grace of holy orders.
This is why I am a priest.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Homily for the third Sunday in Easter

Do you love me?

The simplest questions are sometimes the hardest. Do you love me? It could be the question a wife asks a husband, or a mother a child. It could be the question for the eve of a wedding, or after decades of marriage. And it is such a heavily laden question, not because of the answer, but because of the reason for asking.
It is a question which seeks reassurance, which yearns reconciliation. Normally, love asks no questions: Love only declares itself. I love you, wife and husband, mother and child say to one another. But to turn this into a question - now that is unsettling.
And we know why Jesus asks. Why three times he asks. Not because he doubts Peter’s love. Not because he needs to be reassured. No, in this case it is not the questionner who has needs to be put at ease, but the one who is asked the question. Three times Peter denied Jesus. Three times Peter refused to acknowledge him. Three times he spurned his allegiance to him. And when the cock crowed, Peter wept. Wept for the love he had denied. Broken hearted, like any rejected lover - yet the act of rejection was his, and his alone.
This threefold declaration of Love is Peter’s penance, his forgiveness, his reconciliation. Each protest of his love is the healing of his offence. And this wounded and broken apostle is exalted to such great trust and responsibility - feed my sheep, Jesus says. The task he is given is a measure of his restoration: because only those who truly know their own weakness and frailty, only those who know their sins and show contrition, they, only they, are fully ready to receive the wonderful Gift of his Risen Love, and share that great gift, as a shepherd cares for his flock.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday / Easter Two

Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe. John 20:29

It was that very wise man, author and wit, GK Chesterton, who about 100 years ago, said “When people cease to believe in something, they will believe in anything.” They are prophetic words, because we live in a world and a society where there is no lack of belief at all - for people will believe in almost anything provided is different or novel or unusual.
People will believe in astrology and tarot, and take part in séances. They will embrace homeopathic medicine, chiropracy and acupuncture. They will tell you that God is an astronaut, that Leonardo Da Vinci was part of some historic consipiracy, that Jesus married Mary Magdalen, had a large family and retired to Spain, and that he was gay, of course. They will tell you that the earth is flat or hollow, that man never landed on the moon, that Kennedy was assassinated by Martians ... and goodness knows what else. The more shocking the idea, the more likely it is to be believed. And of course there may be some truth in some of these ideas, and perhaps occasionally some merit - but not all at the same time, surely.
Yes it’s true. We do not live in an unbelieving world, but we do live in a credulous one, and there is a very big difference between faith and credulity. It is good to have an open mind, provided it isn’t open at the bottom.
But Faith is not about fancy or novelty. It is not without foundation in fact, or in history. Thomas and the Apostles see the risen Christ not so that we can believe blindly, but so that they can be witnesses to the truth - so that we can hear the message they preached, the truth which they taught, the vision they received.
Faith’s firm foundation is the Good News, the amazing message of what really happened, and the power of Life and Love which still dwells amongst us, full of grace and truth.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Homily / Sermon for Easter Day

Homily for Easter Day

The well known children’s writer and atheist, Phillip Pullman, has a new book published this weekend. It is called “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”. The basic idea behind the book is that Jesus was a good man, a teacher of sound morality, who lived an exemplary life and died a terrible and undeserved death. St Paul, however, created something very different, a god-like figure of worship, Christ, in whose name much cruelty and wickedness has been committed.
No doubt many people will be attracted by this idea. Don’t think it is a new or original idea. This idea that Jesus was just a good man and all the rest made up has been around for a long time. It is much the same as what Muslims believe. It was the popular subject of many books in the 19th Century. Social reformers have often seen ‘the good man Jesus’ and his sermon on the mount as an inspiration in their struggle for justice.
But there is a big flaw in the argument, a whopping great fly in the ointment, and that is our belief in the resurrection, the Christian celebration of Easter. Pullman’s ideas, and of those who hold much the same, separates the good man of history from the worship, and the miracles and the more than anything else, the resurrection.
And yet, the resurrection is a historical event. It changed history. And it is based on solid historical fact.
The first historical fact is that Jesus truly died on the cross. We are told that when the soldier put the spear in his side ‘blood and water’ came out. This proves Jesus had suffocated.
Secondly, everyone knew where Jesus’ body was placed. The women visited the tomb. They knew who the tomb belonged too. Soldiers even guarded it.
The third historical fact is that even the enemies of the first Christians agreed that the tomb was empty after his death. It would have been easy to prove he’d not risen if his body could be found. It couldn’t. It has disappeared.
And the fourth historical fact, and the fact which shows the change in history is what happened to the disciples. When Jesus was arrested and crucified his disciples fled in fear for their own lives. One of the had betrayed him. Another denied he ever knew him. Yet in three days they were transformed from fear to joy. No longer afraid that they might die, they were ready to give their lives for what they had seen. And their message has spread throughout the world ever since.
The very fact that we celebrate today not an abstract belief, but an event in history is proof beyond all prejudice that the Good Man Jesus is the Risen Christ.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Homily for Mandy Thursday

In some places the washing of feet is controversial. Some people argue that it should not be only men who are chosen, but women too - after all, don’t live in an inclusive world? To leave a group of people out goes against all sense of equality and fairness - doesn’t it?
I knew a parish which was sensitive to the washing of feet for another reason - good old English squeamishness and reserve - and instead, in that place, to save the blushes of the people and the awkwardness of the priest, all the congregation were invited to come forward to wash their hands.
This odd custom alerts us to an important point. Symbolism does matter. The actions and ceremonies of the faith are not simply quaint customs, but they have deep meaning and power.
It is not of course the disciples who wash their hands, but Pilate. And Pilate washes his own hands, rather than has them washed for him. These are not just details. They make a difference. The one is an action of service and sacrifice, the other an abdication of responsibility. Symbolic actions are more than just symbols - they action enacts what it represents.
And so with the other symbols of this night - the bread and wine at the meal, the incidentals which for the rest of history overshadow all the other items shared and consumed. Bread which brings his Body to us, Wine which bleeds into our own hearts. Not the symbols of an absent Christ - but the bearers of his love. Where charity and love are, there is God.