Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King / 34th Sunday (A) : Homily / Sermon

I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink ... (Matthew 25:35)


One of the features of living in a Presbytery in a city centre is that we have a steady stream of “callers" at the door. I wouldn't wish to exaggerate. We don't have a caller every day, and perhaps not even once a week, but nevertheless from time to time there are those who turn up at the door and ask for help or assistance in some way.
It is usually money they want - but we have a general policy not to give them money. (I've been told often enough that this is the worst help we could give). Often callers have a drink or drugs problem, and money is not going to make that any better.
So, we always offer them a cup of tea, and if possible something to eat - usually a sandwich, or a pie or something similar. One winter we tried giving out pot noodles, but were told more than once that they didn’t like them.
Sometimes the situation is shocking. I recall a caller at the door, now sleeping rough, who turned out to have been, just a few years before, a school friend of one of our sons. One another occasion, a caller turned up on the doorstep with a child - his grandchild, he said - who he threatened to put into care if I did not give him the money he needed.
Frequently callers have tried in other ways to turn a conversation around to their need for financial assistance. Sometimes we are asked for help with bus or a train fare or help in paying for accommodation. The story is often quite complicated, relating to a seriously ill or recently departed relative - But an offer to buy a ticket is generally unwelcome - there is always a reason why money is needed in the hand, now. I had a caller recently who claimed to have been sleeping rough for days, who I subsequently discovered has a flat in Hanley. On another occasion the caller claimed to know such an such a priest in another town, who would vouch for them, and this proved to be entirely false. In all these cases I was sure they had a real need for cash, though the story they give is intended to impress or persuade, rather than give the truth.
Sometimes the stories though are quite true - a man who had been caught in a fatal house fire and who turned up on the doorstep with just the clothes and slippers provided for him while in custody with the police, and on another occasion, a man sleeping rough who arrived at our door during a downpour, to whom we gave a coat and a sleeping bag. These callers are not always men, though they usually are, and if they often give me an untruth, it probably doesn't diminish their desparation and need.

And we have a saying in our house, which recalls the story of today's Gospel, "just remember, it could be Jesus".

It is a reminder which is important, because I will confess that even if they provide me with a number of eye-raising and even amusing stories like the ones I can tell to you, I do not embrace this particular part of my priesthood with unbounded joy.
The doorbell may ring early in the morning and late at night. It is certainly not according to appointment. Callers might interrupt a film or a meal, or disturb me from a particularly important task. I am always mindful of the two or three priests I know who have been attacked on their doorstep, in one case stabbed and killed. We try to be consistent, fair and helpful in our limited way, but we also set limits. We generally do not answer the door when it is dark, and we warn the grandchildren never to answer the door themselves.
I'll be entirely honest, it is the one thing, perhaps the only thing, about being priest living in Hanley, which does not bring me joy. I often feel torn - guilty that I do not help enough, and also frustrated that I have been exploited and used.
But the Gospel, today's Gospel is and should be to all of us an encouragement and a challenge. You see the point isn't that it might indeed be Jesus himself, disguised in the form of a beggar, but that these people - whatever story they tell, whatever ruse they concoct, whatever misery they have fallen into - are human beings made in the image of God, with a dignity and a value which they themselves, and I myself, (I am ashamed to admit), find it difficult to recognise. My small act of assistance, however insignificant and inadequate, is perhaps the presence of Christ in me, despite my reluctance and irritation, and it recognises Christ in those who perhaps have lost much sense of their own self-worth.
It is small support, makes meagre difference, yet it is, I hope, a tiny light in the darkness, a small sign of hope, and an act undertaken by Christ himself to those in whom (despite their appearance and our blindness) he also dwells.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

33rd Sunday of the Year : Homily / Sermon

To one he gave five talents, to another two, to a third one; each in proportion to his ability. (Mt 24:15)



When we discuss or consider the Christian life - what it means to live as a faithful member of the Church, to follow Christ, to keep the commandments - we are likely to focus on a few things which we must do and a few other things which we are supposed not to do. The commandments make it fairly clear. They speak of our responsibility to God: to pray, to go to Mass, to honour his name; and to our neighbours: to tell the truth, do no harm, be faithful in relationships, respect others’ property, to avoid envy. It is not always easy to keep to these precepts, but they are straightforward yes/no do/don’t requirements. To use a very modern phrase, we can approach them with a tick-box mentality, and people often do - a bit like the rich young man who came to Jesus. Yes, we might say, I’ve been to mass,  not robbed any banks or committed adultery, told no really bad lies. Surely (we might think) we’ve met the admission criteria, haven’t we?


But in today’s parable Jesus invites us to take a further step. Here, in the Parable of the Talents, he is telling us that living as a Christian, imitating Christ, walking in his way, is much more than just a matter of whether or not we meet a set of criteria. It is about using the gifts which God has given us to our fullest potential. It is about making a better world, about exploiting the gifts which he has given us to their fullest extent. 


Jesus says that God have given to each “in proportion to his ability”. We are all different, with different skills, different abilities, different aptitudes - and to follow him, to serve him, is about fulfilling the potential which he has given us. 


It is about living life to the full - which is not simply about enjoyment or pleasure - but about our impact on those around us. 


So the Christian life It is not simply about whether we have stolen, or lied, but about whether we have improved the lives of others, respected their dignity, helped those who are in need. It is not simply about whether we have been faithful in our relationships, but whether we have treasured those closest to us, put their needs before ours, been attentive to their concerns. It not simply about whether we have done no harm, but whether we have done good, improved our environment, made our own contribution, however small, to the good of our neighbours, our communities, and the rest of mankind. 


It is, quite simply, not about how many talents, abilities or aptitudes we have, but about what we have done with the gifts that God has given us.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

28th Sunday of the Year : Homily / Sermon

“Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, …  everything is ready. Come to the wedding.”  (Mt 22:4)

Ea01207b fd39 4ef0 b3ea 4949d5fab7d7 460x276

As I guess we all know, the Cardinals and Bishops from all over the world have been meeting in Rome over the past week, and this extraordinary synod” will continue into next week. They are joined by a number of other people, including a few married couples. 

This is because their topic, their theme is the Family, the Church’s teaching about all these difficult issues, practice and rules over the family: sex, marriage, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and so on. 

These are big, important and serious issues, and there is a lot expectation surrounding them. 

And while people, particularly people in the press, are looking for sweeping changes in the Church’s teaching - communion for those who are divorced and remarried, marriage in church for those who have been divorced, the blessing of homosexual unions (“gay marriages”, as they may be called), a less censorious attitude to sex outside marriage, heterosexual as well as homosexual - I think they are likely to be disappointed. 

However, perhaps the issue, and therefore the outcome, will be less about changes to the Church’s teaching, and more about changes to the Church’s attitude.

Img00213 20110130 10321

In many parts of the world homosexuality is still illegal and punishable in law, sometimes even by death. In some places sex outside marriage (fornication) is illegal, and divorce difficult if not impossible. Children of such relationships are unwelcome in faith schools and disadvantaged in society. And these attitudes, perhaps in a lesser way, seem to affect the Church. We hear of stories of priests who refuse to baptise children of unmarried couples, for instance. Or who put obstacles in the way of those who are living together from having a wedding in Church (though I have to say I find the logic of this rather impenetrable). There have even been claims that there are Churches in North America with signs at their doors saying “Gay Couples not Welcome Here”. 
[However - it may be that the picture (above) indicates that the sign was left by a protester, rather than being a message coming from the Church].  

Yet, While we may regret many of the changes in attitudes and moral standards we find in our own society, much of this hard, discriminatory and frankly unkind attitude would be quite unacceptable to us. We might understand why it comes about: if something is wrong, as one of the Cardinals said last week, can we do “moral backflips” and pretend that it is not, but generally, I think, we want to show charity, rather than express rejection. It is a dilemma many of us have had to face in our own families, and we hope that the Church will be able to develop a similar compassion. 

So - let’s get back to today’s Gospel. It hints, I think, at a way forward. 

The King, like many families, is having problems with his guest list. Some he has invited are really too concerned with other matters to accept. There are more than a few empty places. So he casts the net further, and invites those who we might least expect. It is a story about a marriage feast, but it is really a parable about the invitation not to an earthly feast, but rather the heavenly one. 

And what does it tell us - firstly, God calls everyone into his Kingdom. The self-important, the self-righteous, the holier-than-thous had better beware. Those who think, or indeed know that they are better than others might be in danger of missing the boat. The rich, the wealthy, the influential, the clever, the successful - they are in danger of thinking themselves too good. The invitation is for them, but also the poor, the destitute, the weak, the uneducated, the failures of life, the sinners and the despised. It is not just an invitation for those who can keep to the churches teaching about marriage, divorce, and sexuality but also those who struggle with it, or fail to follow it, or find it does not fit with their own experience or circumstances. They are invited too. And their partners are invited. And their children, too. 

And there is a second point, which at first may seem to jar. It's to do with this strange detail of the man without a wedding garment. You see, while the invitation is open to everyone, this does not mean it is without conditions. Christ invites sinners, (in fact, he only invites sinners) but they must be  sinners who wish to live a new and renewed life. He invites all to his Wedding Feast, with open arms and without condemnation, and accepting the invitation means accepting a faith and a way of life which changes and transforms us. In entering the Feast we become a new person - the Wedding Garment is the robe of our baptism, which symbolizes a new life in faith and trust and honesty and compassion and love. We must love as we are loved. We must forgive as we are forgiven. We must give as we have received. As we have been invited, we must invite others. As we enter the Feast, so we put on a wedding garment, leaving behind pettiness, and ingratitude and self-interest.

And here perhaps is where this great synod, this wonderful initiative of Pope Francis will lead us. Not to tear up the rule book, but to send out the invitations; not to forget about the challenges of the Christian life, but to open the doors to the kingdom; not to wag our fingers, but to open our arms in welcome. 

… So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Mt 22:10)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

25th Sunday of the Year : Homily / Sermon

It is sometimes said that there are two topics of conversation which should never be aired in polite company. One is politics and the other is religion. So, to bring both religion and politics together is especially dangerous.

Some recent research, published in the newspapers underlies this. While most people believe that everyone has a right to believe what they wish and practise whatever faith they wish, this is all best kept to themselves, and in particular religious leaders should not ‘meddle’ in politics.

Yet they do. In America, where Church and State are separated by the Constitution, there is much discussion of the influence of the ‘religious right’, and whether Catholics can support politicians who vote in favour of abortion.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of policies, and the Church in England and Wales, while often speaking on political issues has never - so far as I can remember - supported one party against another.

So let’s look at principles, because that is what today’s Gospel helps us to do.

I have always been struck by what CS Lewis wrote about this. He was asked whether a truly Christian society would be left wing or right wing, socialist or conservative, and he answered that he believed there would be something to both please and annoy both sides. In terms of family life, individual morality and so on, the Christian society would look quite conservative, promoting marriage, children, families, the sanctity of human life. Conservative values. On the other hand, in terms of social policy, economics, education, health care, the Christian society would look quite socialist, providing generously for the weakest in society, and taxing the richest to provide equal education, health services for all. And so when the Christian votes he or she needs to put both considerations in the balance.

And so to the Gospel.

Here we have the labourers in the vineyard paid the same rate whether they worked all day or just for one hour. Now the political mind looks at that story in terms of fairness and justice. On the one hand it could be said that the parable underlines the rights of the employer, the vineyard owner, to do what he wishes with his money - to pay what he likes to whom he likes when he likes. No place for unions or regulations or a minimum wage here. But on the other hand another political mind may disagree and say that the parable underlines the need for all to be supported, everyone to receive a basic wage, all to be given a living income whether work is available or not.

Which is right? Well both and neither. The Gospel deals with political issues, but also does far more.

Political life and questions are about fairness and justice, about rights and entitlements. They are all important in their own way. The Church supports struggles for justice, the promotion and protection of human rights – the right to a living wage and the right to own property.

But the Gospel does not stop there. The Gospel is not about rights – but about responsibilities. It is not about justice and fairness, but about love. It is about doing what is right, but also about doing more than is needed.

The Good Samaritan does not only stop to help, but he takes the wounded man to the inn. The man who owed a great sum of money does not only give the debtor time to pay, but wipes out all the debt. The vineyard owner does not only find work for those seeking it – but pays them more than they are due.

The Church must challenge politicians. It must promote human life, human rights, peace and justice – but it can never be restricted to them. For God’s love is greater, more generous, than any legislator or political policy could ever be.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Easter : Homily / Sermon

Whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself - he will perform even greater works - because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

RomeIn some ways this statement may appear to be a little shocking. The apostles, the Church, we will do even greater works than Christ himself? Surely not?

And indeed as we believe that Christ is not only a great teacher, but also entirely free from sin, who has made the ultimate sacrifice. God Incarnate. How could we possibly do greater works than him?

And surely, Christians and non-believers over the ages have taken comfort in pointing out to us the perfect teaching and perfect life of Christ, alongside the failings and rivalries and sometimes even cruelties of those who claim his name. It is not just that he is a challenge to Christians, but is almost as if everything started to go wrong the moment after he had ascended to heaven.

And yet, here are the words of the man himself - we will do even greater works.

And think about it, and we will realise that of course it is true. He did not say we would be sinless - no, he said we could be forgiven our sins. He not say his followers would never get things wrong - no, he warned against charlatans, and he prayed for unity rather than division.

But consider what Jesus himself achieved. It may seem so little. As is often remarked, he never led any armies, or founded a nation, or even wrote a book. He never travelled more than a few miles. When he died he was deserted by his followers.

Yet he did not fail - not so much for what he did, but for what his followers did.The recording of his words, and the development of teaching based upon it. The establishment of the Church. The spread of learning across Europe and beyond. Thousands of hospitals and schools. The development of social care for the disabled and the vulnerable. The rehabilitation and education of those convicted of crime. The very concept of human rights. And the science of the "Big Bang". The abolition of slavery - first in South America by Catholic Missionaries, ever before its abolition in this country. Extraordinary artwork and music and architecture. For all its flaws and human shortcomings, the Catholic Church is the largest international organisation in the world, and the Papacy the oldest institution. The Church works with more sufferers of aids than any other non-governmental organisation in the world. There is a presence in almost every city of the world, and in this country a chaplaincy for every hospital and prison, and for many many schools.

All these have been the work of followers of Christ - those who have done and are doing even greater works.

Of course, many of these are not only the works of the Church or of the followers of Christ alone, but do not be misled into thinking that these are not the continuing works of Christ or that his works and his ministry are somehow set in the past, captured in aspic, beautiful to behold yet static and remote.

Far from it. Christ is at work today. In the Church, in you, in us. It is not that we are greater than him, of course. It is that he is so great, that risen from death, and ascended into heaven, his work continues and flourishes.

And he will do yet greater works. Through us.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Divine Mercy Sunday : Homily / Sermon

For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ (John 20:23)


This is an historic weekend, as on Sunday both John Paul II and John XXIII are raised to the altars of the Church, as they say, or are canonised, or, to put it most simply and most obviously (though least accurately) made saints.

Actually they are not being made saints at all. Though from this weekend we will call them “Saint John Paul II” and “Saint John XXIII”, what the Church does is not make them saints, but rather recognise them as saints.

In Scripture all faithful believers are saints. When St Paul writes to the churches he addresses them all as saints - “to the saints in Rome”, “the saints in Corinth”, “the saints in Ephesus”. In fact St Paul uses the word 39 times. And each time it a reference to the living. Paul never uses the word “Christian” nor indeed “Catholic” - everyone is just a saint.

But this doesn’t mean that everyone in the Church was good, or perfect. Paul’s letters to the saints often chide and rebuke them. He points to their failings, and challenges them to greater virtue.

And even though they were all saints, he tells them that are also, all of them, sinners. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he says (Romans 3:23).

So how can they be saints, none the less?

We might say nowadays, with some good reason, that he is using the word in a different way. He does not mean “saint” in the way we, and indeed the Church uses it. But do not be too hasty, because Paul continues “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). They are saints, we are saints, not because they are perfect, but because they know the need of God’s grace. This is the forgiveness of sins which we hear of in today’s Gospel. This is the Divine Mercy, which gives its name to this day, the devotion which was so important to Saint John Paul II.

So the Saint is not the one who lives the perfect and blameless life. No. The Saints are the ones who know their need of the Divine Mercy. It is only by knowing our need of God’s mercy that we can receive it, but if we close our hearts and say we have no sin, then, as Saint John says “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:7) This is what holiness means - to know our need of God.

Now when the Church recognises someone as a saint, she is telling us two things about them. That in the holiness of their lives on earth they can be an example to us, and that in the holiness they enjoy in heaven, we can call upon them for their prayers. Both of these are important. They are not just holy celebrities, the heroes of faith, story book inspirations - but they are part of what the letter to the Hebrews calls the great cloud of witnesses who encourage in the struggle of the Christian life, as an example of how a good life may be lived - and by their continuing prayers for us as we are bound together in God’s mercy.

And the Church here provides us with two saints who we knew in this life. Most of us will remember Pope John Paul II - and many of you will also recall John XXIII - good Pope John, as he was often called. We have seen them, not just on television - but in real life. They enthused us, inspired us, encouraged us, and gave us a sense of God’s presence and his love. They are certainly towering figures in our faith, and important in the life and history of the Church in recent times.

Yet they are commended to us not because they were perfect, or flawless, or always right - but because the Church recognises that the Divine Mercy shone through them in this life, and that God has perfected them in the next.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Homily for Lent 4 (Year A)

He spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, [and] put this over the eyes of the blind man. (John 9:6)

We are well aware of many miracles in the Gospels, and amongst them many stories of healing. There is the story of the paralysed man who is lowered down through the roof of the house in Capernaum. There is the healing of Peter’s Mother in law who is sick in bed. There is the healing also of the elderly woman who for 12 years had been suffering from a haemorrhage. The servant of the Centurion is healed without Jesus even needing to enter under his roof. We are told also of those who had what may sound to us like epileptic fits, who had the demons cast out of them. There are stories too of those who appear to be revived from death - the 12 year old daughter of Jairus, the son of the Widow from Nain, and of course, his dear friend, Lazarus.

And there are several accounts of the giving of sight to the blind. There is, for example, Bartimaeus, who calls to Jesus from the side of the road, and after whose sight is healed, gets up to join Jesus and his disciples on the road to Jerusalem, where he will see things he could never have imagined.

And here in John’s Gospel, is the story of the man born blind. Again, we read just the shorter version - and again, the full account, in John 9, is well worth reading at home. It deals with many issues, not least the nature of suffering and redemption, the person of Christ, and the opposition which he faced.

It is clear that in all the Gospels, the stories of the healing of blindness are seen as themselves a kind of commentary upon the contrast between light and darkness, between good and evil, between understanding and ignorance. The blind man sees, yet the Pharisees remain blind to the truth.

But this doesn’t mean that this story is just a myth or a legend. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It certainly doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t perform miracles.

But miracles can be a problem for believers and non-believers alike. Non-believers like to point out to us that miracles just don’t happen - the stories are lies, or hallucinations, magic tricks or just plain coincidences. People don’t just suddenly get better, still less rise from the dead. And so we might say - “Yes, you are right normally that is the case - but this is different. Jesus is the Son of God, God himself, he can work miracles.” It seems an answer, but the trouble is that the non-believer might easily reply that if this is so, why doesn’t Jesus heal everyone who is blind, every person who is paralysed, and cast out the so-called demons from every poor epileptic. And come to that, why do people get sick in the first place? If this is a loving God, then why on earth do people need healing at all?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and they may trouble us. We feel uncomfortable, inadequate if we can’t find a response. Yet in reality, these are questions for the philosopher and the student of theology. They are interesting and important questions, which need proper consideration, but - to use a phrase - they won’t butter any parsnips. They are interesting, and serious, yet however much we discuss them, they won’t heal any one who is sick, comfort anyone who is bereaved, give sight to the blind or mobility to the lame.

So, let’s get back to the Gospel. And let’s consider not only what Jesus says, but what he does.

‘He spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, [and] put this over the eyes of the blind man’

Why did Jesus do this? It sounds a bit like a medical procedure, yet of course it isn’t. Surely couldn’t Jesus just have healed him? Said the word? Screwed up his eyes and made it happen? Perhaps he could have done, but he didn’t. Jesus decided to act. Vividly. In a very physical manner. He gets his hands dirty. And surely this is the point.

It’s the way the sacraments work too. We can pray for God’s healing for the sick - and he does - but we also anoint them with oil. We ask God to free us from original sin - and he can - but we also immerse new Christians in holy water. We ask God to be close to us - and he is - but we also share in his body and blood through the transformed gifts of bread and wine. And what Jesus did with spit and soil, and we do with oil and water, bread and wine, we should do also with our hearts and our hands and our feet. We can easily express compassion for the poor, sympathy for the sick, concern for the incarcerated - but it doesn’t amount to much unless we feed the hungry and thirsty and visit the sick and those in prison.

Pope Francis wrote to the Bishops of the Church, in his letter “Gospel of Joy” and said that the Shepherds should get their boots dirty with the smell of the sheep. It’s a message for the Bishops of course … and the priests … and all of us.

Jesus gets his hands dirty … we should too.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Feast of the Presentation (Purification, Candelmas) : Homily / Sermon

"Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised." (Luke 2:29)



In today's Gospel we are presented with a contrast between the youth of the Christ-child, just 40 days old, and the seniority of those who greet him in the Temple - Simeon and Anna. 

It is no coincidence that Pope Francis has chosen to make his prayer intention for this month for those advanced in years - "that the Church and society may respect the wisdom and experience of older people.”

Age is of course a relative matter ... 

But wisdom and experience are not words our society most naturally associates with the elderly. We are far more likely to describe those over a certain age as "grumpy" and "cantankerous". 

We live in a society which adores a cult of youth, of novelty, of glamour and celebrity. Certainly there is beauty in old age, but people don't expect to find it there. Beauty is with the young - at least that is what people think. 

So what is the difference between an experienced and wise old person and a grumpy and cantankerous one? Well, perhaps it is little more than that the words of wisdom and experience are listenned to, given attention, whereas the words of the grumpy and cantankerous are ignored. 

But there is another thing. What is it that makes Simeon and Anna wise and experienced? Is it just the accumulation of their years? No - there is something else. 

These two old people, though they had seen much and can remember much do not look back to the past as a golden age, and complain about the present. They don't say - "it wasn't like this in my day" and "I don't know what the world is coming to". Their words, their joy, their worship because they can see that something they had always believed, something they had always hoped for, something at the core of their faith was about to come to fullness. As they prepare to leave this world they do not regret the loss of the past, but rejoice in the promise of the future. 

They are full of hope. Their lives are complete, because they have the vision to see that what they have lived for is not passing away, but is present amongst them - and their last words prepare the way his first words.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

3rd Sunday of the Year in Ordinary Time : Homily / Sermon

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. (Matthew 3:2)

NewImageIt would be foolish, I think, for anyone to suppose that religion is less important in human society today than it was in the past. I’ll admit the place of the priest in the local community or the Bishop in Society is not what it might have been. The respect and deference which many of us may remember as children is certainly much less than it ever was.

Yet when we watch the news and consider attitudes it is certainly not the case that religion has gone away and crawled under a stone. Look at the tremendous interest in everything Pope Francis says, and the way people look for hints of changes ion direction and emphasis. Consider the interest placed in England in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury when he speaks about the economy. And also notice - and this is especially interesting - the voices against religion, those who campaign against the ever popular faith schools, or who complain that religion is the sources of all ills. Be sure of this - while you’ve got critics and enemies then you are still a force to be reckoned with.

And notice too - though this is not always a good thing - the important role which religion plays in local and global conflicts - not necessarily the cause, to be sure, but certainly an important factor in war and peace, in poverty and international aid, in the building and staffing of hospitals and schools, in the eradication of ignorance and disease.

And yet, there is more difficult aspect to the role of faith in our society, especially in Europe, particularly in Britain.

There will be many, including those who don’t believe, who will allow that religion is important - important to know about - important to understand people’s beliefs and motivations - but not important to follow or embrace. In this very enlightened and positive attitude to religion the keywords are respect, and understanding - not Faith, or commitment.

And let’s be honest about this, because it is an approach to the issue which probably affects most of us too - we tend to see religion now as about individual choice and preference, rather than community identify: people see the good aspects of religion to be not about truth or eternal values, but more as a matter of comfort and culture. It’s positive power is in its ability to soothe, and encourage, and pacify - rather than as a call to conversion to change, to commitment, to salvation.

We see it in areas of public life too. In our prisons and our justice system, Religion - and especially Christianity is now no longer about reform and repentance, it is instead about supporting and comforting those in distress. It is not about challenging behaviour anymore, but about caring for those in trouble. It is no longer about values, but has become a support service, like education, or dentistry.

And we see it nowadays in the hospitals too. The sick have a right to ask for their chaplain to visit them - but the chaplain has no right to seek out those who have not asked … or who didn’t realise they had to ask.

And this attitude infects our relationships with other Christians and other faiths and those of none. “That’s your opinion” people are likely to say. You have a right to practice your faith … but no right to persuade others that they should follow it too. It leads to some of the ludicrous examples we come across from time to time - like the resistance of public bodies and state schools to have Christmas Cribs and Nativity Plays. And it leads also to an idea that when we talk about God’s love, and God’s love for everyone, it is taken to mean that God blesses us wherever, whenever and whatever we do.

Now, of course, faith is about comfort. And it is welcome, I am sure, that we nowadays concentrate more on praising God than being paralysed by the fear of offending him. And people should be protected, especially when most vulnerable, from harassment and emotional pressure. It is certainly good that different faiths and none can enjoy mutual respect and not fear persecution.

But it is a very sorry day when we forget that the first instruction of Jesus to those who followed him was “Repent”, Change, Commit. And the second instruction he gave was that we should be fishers of men, calling others to join us, to follow the same path. It is regrettable when we suppose God’s love for the sinner means that he does not want the sinner to change. It is unfortunate when we speak only of heaven, but never of purgatory and still less of hell. It is sad when the message of the Gospel is stripped of its challenge, and faith - which is always a source of comfort - never becomes anything more.