Sunday, 28 December 2008

Feast of the Holy Family, Year B, Shaftesbury

Today, the Sunday after Christmas, is always kept as the feast of the Holy Family, namely, the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Christmas is a time when we typically think of families: many people meet up with their families. I’ve got my own family staying with me at the moment –and let me tell you, that presbytery is fine for one man but it is not fine for a family of 8!
But there are deeper reasons to think about the family at Christmas, theological not just social reasons, and that’s why the Church gives us today’s feast of the Holy Family.
“Family Values” are not fashionable these days, in fact, the Catholic Church gets strongly attacked for being the only body left in this country defending the traditional family.

Today’s feast of the Holy Family reminds us of the simple fact that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were a FAMILY. When the Lord Jesus Christ, eternally existing before time began, when He chose how He would become human, He chose to be born in a FAMILY.
He chose to be raised by a couple who had given themselves to each other in marriage, in a lifelong commitment, a commitment that gave the child Jesus a secure environment to live in.
He chose to be raised by a couple that were married in a heterosexual union, parents that would offer the complimentarily and differences that a man and a woman bring.
He chose to be born amidst a nation and people, God’s Chosen People, a people that God had chosen and formed so that its heterosexual, exclusive, committed, notion of marriage and family life would be the place where He would dwell.
He chose, more particularly, to be raised by a couple exceptional in holiness and virtue. Our Lady, we know as Catholics, was Immaculately Conceived and lived sinlessly all her life, “full of grace”. St Joseph, too, Tradition teaches us, was noteworthy in his goodness, as the examples we see in the Gospels show.

Jesus chose such a family as His home to do two things for us:
To give us an example of what family life is;
And, to make family life holy, to make family life a place where Jesus Himself can come to meet us and help us.

Now, none of this makes family life easy or simple. Though Christ wishes to reign in our families, and wishes to strengthen and help us live family life, this doesn’t happen automatically. But one of the things that today’s feast should remind us is that it is the HOLY Family we should turn to when we need help with our own families. Struggling to be a father? “Go to Joseph”(Gen 41:53): go to his example, go to him in your prayers. Similarly with Our Lady.
In as much as fail in family life, let us remember that Mary and Joseph had their difficulties too, and as we struggle and fail they will help us remedy what we can. They struggled to find a place for Our Lady to give birth –in the stable! They had to flee to Egypt to escape the wicked King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
The Church promotes what is sometimes dismissively called ‘traditional’ family life, but she does not promote this because she foolishly thinks it is easy. No, she promotes it because it is easier than the alternative. Easier than the ever increasing breakdown in society that we see around us. And though the effects of that breakdown effect each of us, by turning to the Holy Family we can help maintain some of those values in our own families.

To conclude, I want to ask you all to join with me in praying for family life, and for our own families in this parish. On Vocations Sunday I asked you to join me in a novena, in 9 days of prayers for priestly and religious vocations. Today, I ask you to join me in a novena for family life. We’ll say this pray at Mass for 9 days, please also say it at home and with your families.
By ourselves we struggle, but with their help Christ can happily reign in our homes too.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas, Shaftesbury

There’re always a lot of films on TV over Christmas, and one of those on recently was the classic Disney movie “Dumbo”, described in the TV guide as “a heart warming tale”. It’s a movie I’ve watched many times and it is, indeed, a heart warming tale. For those of you who can’t remember, it’s about a baby elephant who wants to fly, and learns that it can fly if it just believes it can, and flaps its ears. Victory over the impossible by having faith.

And I say this because many people think that Christmas is like that. A lovely heart-warming tale. But no more true than elephants being able to fly. In fact, a recent survey showed that the majority of people in our now godless nation believe that Christmas is little more than a fairy tale. However, we’re NOT gathered here just because of a STORY.

Now, this, said, it’s true that even as a story, Christmas IS certainly a heart warming tale –all the images of the Christmas accounts make up a good story: Mary and Joseph struggling to find a place to stay, finally being welcomed into someone’s stable, with the cattle lowing. The angels appearing to the shepherds to tell them about the new-born baby boy. The star appearing and guiding the three wise men from the East to come and worship the little boy.
It’s natural that children should hear and understand this tale, natural that Christmas should be especially a time for children. The Christian story has often been referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told” -and it is.

But we’re not gathered here tonight because it sounds beautiful. The early Christians didn’t die for the Faith because it sounded beautiful. The Christian Faith didn’t spread throughout the Roman Empire and to this very land just because it all sounds so sweet. We’re here because it’s TRUE.

We all know that the most inspiring stories aren’t inspiring because they are good stories, they’re inspiring because they are true. Stories about REAL heroes saving REAL people in need, and sacrifices made for others –the BEST stories are those that we know are TRUE.

The REAL reason that Christmas is The Greatest Story Ever Told is that it’s TRUE. And not only is it true, but in hearing it we recognise the elements that can show us what we’re truly looking for as human beings.
In the long prophecies of the Old Testament, we hear of how the Jews were waiting for a Messiah –just as each of us are always longing for something more in life.
In the many miracles and signs we hear of the sort of clear and definite guidance that we all want in life –don’t we all want a star to point us in the right direction?
In the humility and weakness of the little child’s birth we hear an echo of how each of us knows that we are weak, not as strong as we would like to be.
In the struggle against the wicked King Herod, and the rejection when there is no room at the inn, we see our own struggles in life –and we hear that this child is at one with us in them.

Despite the scoffing of unbelievers, the Gospels are one of the clearest and most historical of all written records. They record huge wonders with mild understatement -the way you record facts not fairy stories. Even Jesus’s enemies acknowledged the miracles and proofs he worked. And his greatest miracle was to fulfil his promise to rise from the dead –he said he’d do it and he did. Not just a heart warming tale but a work of power and wonder.

It is no ordinary child whose birth we celebrate today –he is the Lord God himself come as one of us. Not just a tale, but the truth that all creation has been longing for.
“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light… unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”.(Isa 9: 2; 6)

Sunday, 21 December 2008

4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Today is the final Sunday before Christmas, the final Sunday for us to prepare ourselves to be ready for it.
In order that we might prepare ourselves well, every year, on this final Sunday, the Church focuses our intention on the person of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the one who welcomed Christ into the world 2000 years ago, and she is the one who can help us welcome him into our hearts today.
And I want to pick out ONE thing in her that we can take as a role model: her humility, in particular, her humility in doing the will of someone else.

Jesus speaks a lot about humility in the gospels. In fact, humility is the one thing that He tells us to learn from Him, “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart”(Mt 11:29), He said. Humility is a virtue that is put to us repeatedly in the gospels, and in the very life of Jesus. He showed us humility in action in putting others before himself when He washed His disciples feet. He showed us His humble willingness to suffer insult and shame by His death on the cross. He showed us humility in becoming a tiny baby in the manger of Bethlehem. And He showed His humility in the agony of the Garden, in Gethsemane before he died, when He sweated blood but nonetheless said, “Not my will but Thine be done”.
In the Old Testament we hear how God used to come to Moses, and spoke to him face as face, as with a friend, because Moses was humblest man on earth. In today’s gospel we heard how God came in a unique way to Our Lady, she who was humble and obedient, who said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord”(Lk 1:38). When she agreed to do not HER will but the will of someone else, of God.

Jesus does not come to everyone:
Jesus comes to those who have a heart like His heart, a heart that is humble. He doesn’t come to the proud, He tells us that they will be cast from their thrones, while the humble and meek will inherit the earth.

Humility is also what we need if we what there to be peace in our homes this Christmas. A family where everyone is thinking of themselves only can be a nightmare at Christmas. But a family where everyone has the humility to think of other people before themselves, to think of what other people need and what other people want, is a family where there is peace. In fact, a family where just some of the people of thinking of others is peace: we can’t wait for everyone else to be humble before becoming humble ourselves: “I’ll think about what they want when they start thinking about what I want”. No. Jesus was humble first.

In His mother too He showed us humility. She was humble enough to accept the will of God. She was humble enough to accept the will of God before her own. How? Because she was humble of heart there was room in her heart for God to come and dwell. And if we are humble then He will come and dwell in us too. As we sing in the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in”.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Isa 61:1-2.10-11; 1Thess 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8.19-28

Every December I get to the stage where I am now. It’s already half-way through Advent, but I haven’t got half the presents I need to get, I haven’t sent half the cards I need to send. This year I haven’t got any presents and I haven’t sent any cards. And like every year, a panic starts to set in, and I wonder if I’ll manage to achieve it before the big day!

In the midst of that panic, every year, the Church sends us this Sunday called Gaudete Sunday, a name that means rejoice, a name derived from the ancient entrance antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say rejoice”.
The cynic in me says, “Why should I rejoice?” I’ve had a hard day, I’m tired, and I don’t need someone with a smiling face telling me that I should be happy.
But I also know that there is a reason why centuries of tradition have focused this 3rd Sunday of Advent on the need to rejoice.

As we in the Church wait for the Lord’s coming in glory, and we’ve been waiting for 2000 years now, we can get just a little bit tired. We can forget that even though the Lord is not with us yet in glory, he is with us. Not in glory, but he is with us. John the Baptist had to tell the people that, “There stands among you –unknown to you- the one who is coming”. And it is the same today, even though we can so easily forget it.

As we plough through the crowds in Somerfield for our turkey and Christmas cake, as we wait in the post office queue for the stamps for our Christmas cards, as we buy the fancy chocolates from Tescos, the Lord is with us.
We may have forgotten who it is that gives us the strength to face another day, we may have forgotten who it is that gives us the grace to experience every little joy and happiness that comes our way. But the Lord has not forgotten. He is here with us every moment our lives. He sends our guardian angel to watch over us, he accepts the prayers of the saints on our behalf. He himself is the one who sustains us.

Here in this Mass we are given the clearest expression of Our Lord’s abiding presence -because he comes to us in Holy Communion. Very soon the bread and the wine will be changed so that they are no longer bread and wine but are The Lord Jesus Christ himself, fully present for us, body and blood, soul and divinity. And even now, at this very moment he is present in our tabernacle, present “in his physical reality”(Paul VI)–and how easily we forget!

His presence for us in the Eucharist is not an isolated event in our lives. His perfect and unsurpassed presence here is only a sign to us of the fact that he is continually present to us in many other ways in our lives. If only we would see him –if only, as the call of John the Baptist says, we would recognise the one who is among us but unknown to us.

As we continue to prepare for Christmas, as we continue to wait for his coming in glory, let us remember that he is already here with us. And let us rejoice.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

This week I celebrated by 10th Anniversary of priestly ordination, and there are a number of things I’ve learnt over these last 10 years. And one of the things I’ve learnt is that there is a rather odd truth about the priesthood: to be more of a priest you have to be less of yourself. And this is like St John the Baptist –he said: “I must decrease and He [i.e. Christ] must increase”.
This notion stands in direct opposition to a lot of contemporary thinking. Many people today speak as if the ONLY important thing in life is to “just be yourself”.
But, for a priest, I am nothing UNLESS I am, not myself, but someone else, namely, Christ.
I made this point on Wednesday, speaking about the Mass:
Whose body do I feed the people with? Not mine but Christ’s.
Whose words do I say in the consecration? Not mine but Christ’s.
And as I stand at the altar as the intermediary between God’s people and the Father, in whose person do I stand and whose prayer do I offer? Not mine but Christ’s.

In as much as I am a TRUE priest, this holds for ALL that I do. When I teach, when I preach, when I visit the sick, when I bless a home. If I am doing this things IN REALITY then it is not I who do them but Christ, with me as His instrument.
Of course, it is possible, and easily done, for me to do all these things NOT as Christ but as myself. To fill my sermons with myself, to make my conversation about myself, and, even when I am trying to be helpful, to give MY advice not Christ’s advice.
But in as much as I do that, I am not a real priest.

This, actually, holds true for ALL of us as Christians. We are ALL called to have Christ “formed in” us, as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 4:19).
We were created by Christ, and for Christ, so we can only ever be completed IF we are formed INTO Christ.
By ourselves, we are weak, and small, and insignificant.
But if we are formed into Him then we are formed into something incredible.

(pause) Now, this is something of a mystery. And the mystery is this:
When I die to myself and let Christ be formed in me, instead of ME being destroyed in this process, in fact, I become more fully MYSELF.
As a Christian, I am called to have Christ become incarnate in my own flesh. But he doesn’t do this by destroying my personality, by making me speak with a Palestinian accent or speak the Aramaic he spoke 2000 years ago, or by making me have the same skin complexion and colour that He had.
Rather, He becomes incarnate in my flesh by using my own personality, my quirks, my character, my language, but elevating them and purifying them so that they become something more than they would be by themselves.
So dying to self is truly, as Christ said, dying to self is the only way to come to life.

Let us think of John the Baptist again. He said that he was not the Messiah. He said that “Someone is following me... who is more powerful than I am”. He said, “I must decrease and He must increase”. He said that he must “prepare the way”, prepare the way not for himself but for someone else.
But all of this actually made John the Baptist MORE than he was by himself, it made him more because he found his true orientation in Christ. And it made him MORE because CHRIST is so much more.

Advent is the time when we are called upon to “prepare the way” for Christ to come. And that means prepare the way for Him to come in our very lives. As long as we are proudly insisting on “being ourselves”, then we cannot let Him in us or let Him be formed in us. But, if we seek to die to sin, die to self, die to all in us that is not Christ, THEN we will find all that we are created to be.
And it is only then that we will be happy and satisfied, and the message of “console my people console them” that we heard in our first reading from Isaiah, it is only then that consolation will be ours.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

10th Priestly Ordination Anniversary Mass 3rd Dec 2008 (Anniversary itself was the 2nd), Shaftesbury

It’s wonderful to have you come here and join me for this celebration. At the risk of self-absorption I’d like to share with you some of my experiences of the priesthood these ten years.

Many people talk about how things in their life were unexpected. After a marriage people often say it’s not what they expected, or after getting a big job.
But, I’d have to say, for me, priesthood has been largely what I did expect. Now, that said, I was looking towards my priestly ordination from about the age of 5 –one of my earliest memories is kneeling during the Mass, watching the priest offer the Mass, and thinking: I’m going to do that one day.
The priesthood has been much as I expected. I expected many difficulties, and I have had them. I expected long hours praying in cold churches, and I have had them. I expected late night calls to anoint the dying, I expected uncomfortable seats in the confessional, I expected difficult parishioners, I expected that many things that I’d start would fail, and in all these things and more: the priesthood has lived up to my expectations!
But I knew that life has difficulties, that the priesthood would have difficulties, and it’s been as expected.

But there are two things that I didn’t really expect: first, that God’s generosity would exceed anything I had budgeted in from Him, and second, that I would change how I feel about the Mass.

I knew that God promised and promises that “my grace is sufficient for you”. I knew that the Providential ordering of God directs all things and that no difficulty would come to me but those difficulties that the Lord would prepare me for and strengthen me to bear. I knew that wherever the Cross comes the opportunity of the Resurrection comes with it. And I knew that the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and rewards him.
But my experience of these realities has far surpassed the mere statement of these doctrines.
There were many things I feared, in my own weaknesses, that I have been given the unexpected strength to not only cope with but live as if those fears had never existed in the first place.
And for every difficulty that has come there have been joys and satisfactions that made it all seem right.
So, while I knew this as a baseline doctrine, and kind of expected it, my experience opf God’s genroisty has been that it has greatly exceeded what He promised.

But there was second thing I said I didn’t expect in my priesthood, and that was how I’ve changed how I feel about the Mass.
Today it is ten years since I offered my First Mass. And I’ve come to realise that the Mass is much more important than I ever thought.
I always knew that the Mass has infinite value, infinite merits as Christ’s Sacrifice of Calvary made present continually on our altars and offered for us to the Father.
But I have experienced, more and more, that the Mass is what the priest is about.
In one direction: The Mass is what the priest is about because only the priest can offer the Mass.
But in another direction: The Mass is what the priest is about because the priest qua priest is not about what he is doing but about Christ. Whose body do I feed the people with? Not mine but Christ’s. Whose words do I say in the consecration? Not mine but Christ’s. And as I stand at the altar as the intermediary between God’s people and the Father, in whose person do I stand and whose prayer do I offer? Not mine but Christ’s.
And, in as much as I am a TRUE priest, this holds for ALL that I do. When I teach, when I preach, when I visit the sick, when I bless a home. If I am doing this things IN REALITY then it is not I who do them but Christ, with me as His instrument.
It is true that I also am at work, that His presence becomes incarnate in a certain sense in my flesh and in my humanity and my personality –and even in my personal quirks His incarnation becomes manifest in those.
BUT in as much as I am priest qua priest, I must be Christ.
And in as much as ANY Christian is a Christian qua Christian, we must be Christ.
And it is the Mass that SHOWS this most clearly, and by His gifts of grace, makes it POSSIBLE most directly.

So, in this anniversary, I am grateful to you for coming, grateful to God for the priesthood, and grateful that His gifts have even exceeded even what He had promised.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

1st Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

I want to say a few words about ‘hope’, REAL hope. Because it seems to me that there’s not a great deal of hope around in the modern world.

I’m part of a generation that doesn’t really believe in hope. We’re not BAD people, but we just don’t think there’s much to hope for. We heard of the naive idealism of the generation before us, of flower-power and hippies, a generation full of an idealism that thought it would make a new world, but we saw that the new world didn’t happen. And so my generation is typified by a kind of practical cynicism: thinking that there is no grand ideal, there’s nothing to live for but myself, and my immediate friends. Not setting out to be evil, but not living with a vision of hope.
And our modern world has little hope because it has little faith.

To journey in hope means to set out in the expectation of something better. That holds for a kind of everyday worldly hope, but also for a grander supernatural hope –to be setting out expecting something better.
Faith, divine faith, is when the intellect grasps the awesome end-goal of human existence that Christ revealed.
Hope, takes that vision of the end goal that Faith has perceived, and then sets out for it.

When I wake up in the morning, if my day is heading towards a joyful goal that evening, then I live in hope. My activity works towards that goal. I do my activity well because I want the goal that the activity is heading towards.
This can hold for some ordinary good thing, like meeting friends and family. The joyful goal means that I live in hope: hope pervades every part of the activity that leads to that meeting.

I say all this today because this is what Advent should be about: rekindling our hope.
Because there is a goal in my life, not just a goal for this evening, but a goal for my whole life, and a goal for the whole of human existence, a goal that the whole of the cosmos is yearning towards.
Advent prepares us for Christmas. But it starts by reminding us not of Christ’s first coming in Bethlehem, but of His Second Coming.
The cosmos was created for a goal, and that goal was Christ: that physical matter would evolve, be infused with a spiritual soul in Adam, and that Christ would come as a descendent of Adam to enter His creation, uniting it to Himself.
But even that goal, Jesus told us, was but a step towards the final goal when He would come in glory.
We live NOW in the time of opportunity. We live in the time when Christ has been made manifest. We live in the time when it is possible to know Christ, to love Christ, to live as he asked us, and to be supported in all this by the sacraments He established for us in the Church –so that we are fed with His very Body, fed with the Bread of Heaven as we live here yearning for Heaven.

And this means that we should be living in HOPE.
When I wake in the morning, the hope-filled joy that should motivate me through each day is the possibility of living this day with Christ and for Christ. That He who came before and will come again can come TODAY in my life IF I make HIM the goal of my life and of my day living and of my working.

But all of this can only happen if we are awake to what is going on, awake to where history is heading, awake to the coming Return of Christ:
“And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!”(Mk 13:37)

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Christ the King, Year A, Shaftesbury

Today is the feast of Christ the King. There aren’t many kings around today. A hundred years ago there were many kings.
When some of our congregation were born Germany had a kaiser, but there is a kaiser no more. Austria-Hungary had an emperor, but that emperor is no more and he went the same way as his empire. Italy had a king. Spain had a king, then didn’t, then did.
Earthly kingdoms come and kingdoms go, and this world's kings come and go with them.

It was in midst of this Twentieth Century falling of kings that the Church instituted today’s feast of “Christ the King”. And the Church did so for a very definite reason: to say that though earthly kings come and go, Christ is King FOREVER, His Kingdom will not fail, and that we are FOREVER called to pay homage to Him.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory” (Mt25:31).
‘escorted by all the angels’ –now that is a key indicator about kind of king he is.
Queen Elizabeth, for all of England’s grandeur, pomp, and circumstance, Queen Elizabeth is not escorted by angels. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is not king become the opinion polls show 77% support a continued monarchy.
He will be ‘escorted by angels’ because He made the angels, He made the cosmos, He made our planet, and He made us. He has a claim to the throne that exceeds anything else imaginable. He made the throne, He established the Kingdom, and though He has seen fit to leave us free to abuse His domain, ONE day, He tells us, He will return as Lord and Judge and His Kingdom will be evident for all to see.

His Kingdom is His and will be His because He has the power.
But, as today’s readings remind us, His kingdom is not about power, at least not about power as we usually think of it.
St Paul tells us about Christ’s rank over “every sovereignty, authority and power”(1Cor15). BUT the basis of the claim that St Paul indicates is that Christ died and rose for us –which is not a normal basis of a claim to the throne. It is His love and active CARE for His dominion, for us, that is the deepest claim he makes to demand our allegiance.
He will judge us not merely because He is our creator and sustainer;
He will judge us because He loves us and died for us, and will ask us how we have loved others in return. As today’s gospel indicates (Mt25), He will ask if we did the things He did: did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and welcome the stranger.

And His requirement that we care for others is not just indicated in the historical fact that He cared for others when He walked in Palestine 2000 years ago,
Or just indicated in the present fact that one of the ways He cares today is through the good members of His Church,
But it’s also indicated in His promise that He WILL care in a definitive way for the needy of those judged worthy to be with Him at the end of time, as we heard in our first reading from Ezekiel, “I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will show them where to rest –it is the Lord who speaks. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong... I shall be a true shepherd to them”(Ezek 34:15).

We have gathered here today, as the Lord calls us to gather and worship Him every Sunday,
And we may not have come here thinking of Him as “king”,
But He IS king, He WILL be king, and His kingdom will not fail.
And we’d do well to remember that fact.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

We’re now in November, the month when the Church particularly calls our mind to thoughts of the dead. Last week we had Remembrance Sunday. And, I want to say a few words about the importance of PRAYING for the dead.

Jesus told us, as we all know, that we must “Love our neighbour”, and, in reflecting on this command over the centuries, the saints have noted that there are both needs of the body and of the soul. And one of the 7 “Spiritual Works of Mercy” is ‘praying of the dead’ –this is one way that we ‘love our neighbour’.

But WHY should we pray for the souls of the dead? Protestants don’t. However, the Jews of Jesus’s time did. We read in the Bible, in the book of Maccabees about how Judas Maccabees, a great leader of the Jewish people in the 2nd Century before Christ, arranged for a sacrifice to be offered in the Temple, a sacrifice to atone for the sins of those who had died, so that “they would be released from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45). And this stands as a clear written record of the belief and practice of centuries of Jewish, and then Christian thought: the belief that the prayers of the living can be of help to those who have died. And there are two ways that the prayers of the living can help the dead: (i) in the judgement and (ii) in help through Purgatory.

In the Gospel we just heard Jesus say how he will come as judge(Mt 25). He will want to know how we have used our talents. Now, on earth, I can pray for someone who is living, and I can pray in particular that someone be judged leniently. And, after death, this remains true: I can pray for someone who has died, pray that God will judge him leniently. And this is the first reason we pray for the dead.

The second reason is to help souls while they are in place that we call “Purgatory”, to help them on their way to Heaven.
It is a self-evident fact that most of us when we die are not ready for Heaven. Hopefully, we are not so bad as to merit Hell. Yet, we are not really pure enough for Heaven. The Bible tells us that Heaven is a place of perfection, and if imperfect people went there then Heaven would not be perfect. So, we must be purified to be ready for Heaven. And, if we have not purified ourselves enough on earth, then we must be purified in the place called “Purgatory”.
Now, purification is not easy, it involves change. We all know that to change ourselves on earth is not easy, to break bad habits and so forth. Change in Purgatory is not easy either, and that is why the prayers of the living are important –to help them in their process of purification, of purgation, in “Purgatory”.
And this is a CONSOLING doctrine, a doctrine that I take both pleasure and pride in as a Catholic. It is consoling because it gives us hope for all those who die imperfect, like me.

That is why praying for the dead is an act of mercy, a way that we love our neighbour.

But how long should we pray for someone who has died? For a week, for a year? Well, on my Mom’s side, Grandma died 15 years ago and Grandpa 12. On my Dad’s side, Grandpa died when I was just a child. That was YEARS ago, but I STILL pray for them. God is outside time and hears ALL my prayers and are all used to help them. And so I keep praying.

A final thought: WHO should I pray for in praying for the dead? We should obviously pray for our friends and family. But loving our neighbour means also praying for the stranger. The Christian tradition puts an even greater emphasis on the need and value of being a neighbour to those who have no-one else to care for them. And so we pray for those who have no one else to pray for them –it’s how we love our neighbour.

So, in November, when we think of death and of the dead, let us not feel powerless before it, let us use the power God has given us and PRAY for the dead “that they might be released from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45).

Sunday, 2 November 2008

All Saints, Shaftesbury

When most of us think of saints we can tend to think of rather unusual people. People who performed miracles, saw visions, and so on. But what we celebrate today, on the feast of All Saints, should remind us that the truth is that most saints are ordinary, normal people, people like you and me.
Saints only become extraordinary by their good lives, by their holiness, and because of the glory that awaits them in heaven as a result of it.

When we think of the most famous saints here in our own England, we naturally think of the martyrs of the ‘Reformation’. In some countries most of their saints, especially their martyrs, were priests. But one of the most glorious things about the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales is that they came from every walk of life, every sort of social position or job. Men and women, laypeople and priests, lawyers, housewives and doctors. People from the big city in London, people from the country in Dorset. People who ruled the land like, and people who worked on it.

They are most famous to us because of the glorious end they gave to their lives in martyrdom, but they witness to the fact that everyone is called to the same vocation to holiness, the same loyalty to our Catholic Faith in God. The glorious death of a martyr rarely springs from out of a vacuum, it comes at the end of life that has dedicated itself to God –after all, it was the very faithfulness of that lifestyle that led to people martyr them.

The fact that the martyrs of our country came from every walk of life shows us that Catholicism once filled the whole culture of England, and it was only removed by force. If it filled the whole of our society before, then it can do so again, and it can do so in us.

Jesus Christ came to call sinners because he knew that each and every one of us is a sinner (except for his Immaculately Conceived Mother Mary). What he calls us to be is the opposite of being a sinner: being a saint. A call addressed to every human being, something that is possible for everyone -regardless of what they do in life. With the grace that Jesus Christ gives us from the Cross, we can all repent of our sins and live a life of holiness.

To live a life of holiness we must make every aspect of our life holy. We must be able to offer every single thing we do to God. We must sanctify every moment of our day. Our work, our rest, our joys, and our sorrows. We must welcome God into the whole of our lives, and never allow ourselves to be comfortable with habits of sin, even if they only seem to be in certain parts of our life. God made the whole of life, and we can enjoy and offer the whole of it back to him –but only if we avoid sin.

When we think of the feast of All Saints we should be thinking of ourselves, or at least of what we can be. Because you and I can be saints, we can have glory of heaven, we can be holy, we can have the happiness of fulfilment. This feast day of All saints is a day that can belong to each of us.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:34-40
We’ve just heard what is almost certainly the most simple and yet beautiful of all the Commandments of our religions: To love, to love God and to love our neighbour.
Yet, people sometimes say that this seems vague.

So, I want to offer a brief thought on one of the connections between loving God and loving our neighbour. In particular, to comment on how to make this command specific, precisely because people say, “Oh, that’s nice, but ‘love’ is rather a vague concept”.
When we think about what it means, specifically, to love God, then we can think of a number of specific commandments:
To attend Mass each and every Sunday, because it’s THE prayer he left us, “Do THIS in memory of me”;
To pray to Him every day;
To never curse or abuse His holy name;
To always seek His forgiveness each time we sin, and in seeking His forgiveness to resolve to never sin again.

But, in many things, it can seem like the specific commandments, the specific obligations that we owe to God in Himself are relatively few.
In practice, if we want to know what God is asking of us, what He is commanding us, we need to look to our neighbour.
Our neighbour has been made in the image and likeness of God, and Scripture tells us that loving God means loving our neighbour.
“If any one says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”(1Jn4:20)

So we need to constantly ask ourselves whether we see God in our neighbour, and whether we hear the commandments of God in the needs of our neighbour –because this is how God frequently and specifically communicates His commandments to us.

When a child is behaving in an obnoxious manner, and the parent feels the anger welling up inside him, he needs to think: the image of God is inside this child, God is commanding me to respond to him with love. God has made that child in His image in such a way that the child can be loved in a way that a plant or an animal cannot be loved. And, in particular, in specifying the general command to love, the child’s very obnoxiousness is the specific command calling to the parent.
When your mother or father is asking you to do something, you need to remember: the image of God is in my mother and father and the command to love God means to love them and love them in the very thing they are asking me to do.
When the car driver in front of me is going is a steady 30 in a 60 zone, the command to love the image of God in him commands that I put a restraint on my impatience.
And when I’m at my wit’s end because my computer screen has frozen from the 30th time in ten minutes, and then, at that minute, three people call me on the phone, then the command to love God means that each one of those callers gets to be treated as what he or she is: someone made in the Lord’s image, and I must put aside how I’m feeling about something else.

It is often not easy to love my neighbour, he can seem to be a rival to my time and energy –do I satisfy his needs or mine?
But if I can remember that my neighbour is in the image of God, and if I can remember what God has done for me and that he deserves to have me love Him, then I can acquire an additional motive for loving my neighbour, loving the image of God in my neighbour –remembering that God loves this person and so should I.

To return to my initial thought: loving God can seem like a vague concept. But if we recall that God has made my neighbour in His image, then the specific ways I must love God are very often manifestly precisely in my neighbour.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Isa 45:1.4-6; Mt 22:15-21
I want to say a few words about Gordon Brown. This week Mr Brown has been hailed as the “saviour of the world” and he is not the first political leader to be hailed as such, and his rescue plan for the banks may indeed prove to be a great act.
This month, however, will also be when Mr Brown forces through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that will extend experimentation on embryos –increasing the treatment of them as objects and commodities.
While political authorities sometimes receive our praise and admiration, sometimes hero-worship, they often also incur our wrath, our hatred, our scorn.
Today’s readings encourage us to ponder the proper way to relate to them.

Our first reading referred to the mighty leader Cyrus. Like Mr Brown, Cyrus was hailed by some as the saviour of the world. In particular, he was hailed as the saviour of the Jewish people –which is kind of curious because he wasn’t a Jew and wasn’t particularly concerned about the Jews. Cyrus the Great was emperor of Persia when the Jews were slaves in exile in the Babylonian Captivity. Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and when he did so he let the Jews return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and be restored as a people in their Promised Land.
None of this was because of any special concern he had for the Jews, rather, it was how he treated all people had been previously enslaved by the Babylonians. Yet, Scripture speaks of Cyrus as a great saviour, as the Lord’s “anointed” one, His instrument of salvation.

The Church gives us the reading from Isaiah about Cyrus the same Sunday it gives the Gospel text about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The connection is that both can be seen as God’s instruments, instruments of His rule –which is kind of remarkable because both were fairly brutal men, not known for their virtue. In particular, with respect to the Jews, the Roman Caesars had been violent and harsh in the subjecting them. Yet, Scripture speaks of them as somehow being instruments of God’s rule. We are called upon, as St. Peter’s epistle states, “Fear God and honour the emperor”(1 Pet 2:17), to ‘Honour’ the emperor who, in many things, has done evil.

This can seem an odd teaching. And many have accused Scripture of being naive, naively offering support for government that can be abused when government is bad. However, if we remember the context they were living in, a context when government was almost ASSUMED to be tyrannical, it is actually a teaching that is very far removed from naivety –rather, it’s a teaching that faces a difficult double truth –the truth that the need for government is a basic human need, and that any particular government will do some things we do not support, sometimes very serious things.

Now, when I was young, I used to something of an anarchist, or, really, a Libertarian (which is an anarchist trying to sound clever). I thought that all government was wrong, or at best an evil to tolerated, that all property was theft, and that taxes were government stealing from the people.
But the truth I have come to realise is that we need government. We are not isolated privatised individuals. We are socials beings and anything humans do involves interaction, that interaction needs coordination, and that government is a part of what it means to be human. And this is what the Church’s social teaching teaches us today.

Our need for government means that we must respect those who govern; that unless a tax is so manifestly improper that it is immoral then we must pay our taxes and not cheat on our tax returns; that we must we heard Jesus say, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

The Jews accepted the pagan emperor Cyrus, and Jesus accepted the pagan rule of Caesar, because both recognised that someone must rule.
While it may not make for an exciting conclusion to a sermon, respect is owed. Gordon Brown is not the “Saviour of the World”, someone else before us in the Tabernacle holds that title! Mr Brown has enacted many policies contrary to the law of God, but, he is Prime Minister which means he deserves to have us treat him as such. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Sunday, 12 October 2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:1-14; Isa 25:6-10; Phil 4:12-20
Some of my weeks are very eventful, and some of my weeks I wish were a little less eventful, and this last week was an eventful one.
By Tuesday my ‘to do’ list for the month seemed it had become too long to be manageable;
On Wednesday I realise that the Icelandic bank with my savings had declared itself insolvent;
On Thursday by car broke down on the A303 at 11pm in the dark;
And on Friday I wondered what was going to happen next –live seemed pretty uncertain!
I say this, in part, because I know that this has been an uncertain week for many people, including many of you –stock market worries mean that pensions and jobs are all causes for concern.

So I turned on Friday to our readings, to prepare a homily for you.
I normally look at the readings and start thinking about them on Monday;
And I realised that if I had done that THIS Monday my experience of the week would have been different. My bank would still be insolvent and my car would still be broken down, but my EXPERIENCE of these events would have been different.

The prophecy in our first reading from Isaiah is of the Messianic banquet that God will prepare. Our Gospel had Jesus, the Messiah, give a parable telling how ALL people will be invited –even though we have to get ourselves ready by holy lives (thus the allusion to the need of white weddings garments).
The Messianic banquet is the standard Scriptural image of the happiness of Heaven –a place where every present need will taken care of, where every present difficulty will be ended.
This is the promise of “pie in the sky”. It’s a promise that is mocked by sceptics and attacked by Marxists as delusional. And, it must be said, if there is no ‘pie in the sky’ then the promise of it is a great injustice.

However, if there IS a Messianic banquet then it does change many things: Why is it that my present worries distress me? In part, because they are real problems. But more fundamentally, because I begin to fear that they will never end. That these problems will only be replaced by other problems, and those by yet more problems –and HOW can I go on?
The promise of Heaven changes this by telling us of a time and place where this chain of problems will DEFINITIVELY end. “The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek”(Isa 25:8). And if I know that there WILL be an end to my problems them it radically changes my ability to confront them.
My knowledge of Heaven IS knowledge and not mere fantasy because He who is the greatest authority, the greatest source of fact, has died and returned from the dead and told me it is so.

Of course, none of this makes my present difficulties vanish –Jesus did not promise us an easy ride. But, as we heard from St Paul, He did promise to be with us on the way and help us on the way. Thus St Paul says, “There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength”, and with this help St Paul is able to calmly if not joyfully say, “I know how to be poor and know how to be rich too” (Phil 4:12).

My car has now been repaired. The government now tells me my savings are, somehow, guaranteed. Many items on my ‘to do’ list are less vital than I sometimes tell myself. And I feel a little calmer about life.
But if I had started my week with a clearer focus on my destination, on Heaven, then I would have remembered in each problem that these problems will not last forever, they will end. And, if I have been good, if I appear before the Lord in a “wedding garment” fit for the banquet, then this vale of tears will open up to the bright promise of immortality.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Harvest Festival, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 21:33-43; Phil 4:6-9
We’re keeping Harvest Festival today, which means that someone today is almost certain to accuse me of being an Anglican. I don’t often get accused of being an Anglican, but ‘harvest festivals’ are often seen as stereotypically Anglican affairs. But, if it’s a good idea –why not run with it? This is a rural area, we have farmers and plenty of farms in our parish, so it makes sense.

In our offertory today we’re offering fruits of the harvest.
In our Gospel parable today, we heard of a vineyard: a vineyard where the tenants who worked on the farm were expected to render to the owner the fruits of the harvest.
These are both reminders that we owe it all back to God.

Now, sometimes, to hear it said that everything comes from God and we owe everything back to God can seem like we lose out, like we’re worse off for realising this truth, and we’d be better off denying it and hording it all for ourselves.
-and I want to say something about that.
Because, to acknowledge God as the source of all good things is also to have Him to turn to, to help when things don’t seem so good.
For farmers, this has been a wet summer, and has meant a poor harvest for many.
For the economy in general, results seem shaky and the future seems unsure.

What then do we do when we feel we have less to thank God for? When we don’t even feel in the mood for thanksgiving?
We have a choice: complain about what we don’t have, or, thank God for what we DO have.
To thank God for what we do have, even when it is less, is an important thing to do.
It’s important because we OWE thanks to Him.
But it’s also important because to thank Him for the little we might have reminds us that it is TO HIM that we can turn in our desire for more.
St Paul reminded us in our second reading: “if there is anything you need, pray for it” (Phil 4:6).
-we can only do that if recall what we recall when we give thanks: that He is Lord.

Giving thanks in our labours, when we labour under difficulty, is also important precisely when we WORK in difficulty:
Often when we work it seems like we labour alone –and this is major part of why we tell ourselves that the harvest belongs to ME.
But if we are giving thanks to Him for the results of our labours then it helps us remember that we do NOT labour alone, He labours at our side, His grace labours IN us –if we will but call on Him and let Him.
-giving thanks is an important way of remembering that and making it happen.

Two other brief things to recall today:
(i) Every autumn we’re called on to have a particular fast on a Friday, and I’d encourage you to do that this Friday. To help spiritualise the harvest, to recall those hungry:
(ii) Our retiring collection, as we recxall those without food.

So as we think of the harvest today, let us recall that we do not labour alone, that we labour in His vineyard and with His help, and as we offer fruits of the harvest to Him let us thank to God for them

Sunday, 28 September 2008

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 21:28-32

You’ll sometimes hear people say, “I just can’t help myself”.
Now, this phrase is used about a great many things. It might be said while eating not the first but the THIRD chocolate ├ęclair, “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help myself”.
Or maybe while sitting slobbed out on the couch, “I know I should get up and do some exercise, but I just can’t help myself”.

But it’s also used about more serious things, “I know I should help my wife more, but I just can’t help myself”; or, “I know I should be more patient, but I just can’t help myself”.

I imagine many of us here have used this phrase many times, and maybe not that long ago.
And like all aspects of our lives, it’s good to measure it against the standard of the Gospel –what would Jesus do?
Well, we know Jesus was God, and that even though He suffered and had His moments of exhaustion, he was nonetheless sinless. So to ask, what would Jesus do, is obvious, he wouldn’t do what we do, he’d do better. He wouldn’t say, “I just can’t help myself”.

The REAL question, however, is what would Jesus expect US to do? What DOES He expect us to do?
Because there is a mistaken view of human sinfulness that says we are powerless before sin, that says we can’t do better, that says, “I just can’t help myself”.


If we say we can’t do better, then we make Christ’s call for us to repent and change meaningless. We say that His death of Cross is powerless to save us, powerless to win us the grace we need to do better –and that is the important point.
We sometimes think that our good deeds are done my our own power, but they’re not, they’re done by HIS power –but that’s the good thing, because it means His power is available for us to rise in other things too, to do those things that truly LOOK like they are beyond us. They might be beyond us, alone, but they are not beyond Him.

Jesus gave us a very simple example in today’s parable. A son, a good for nothing son, was asked a simple thing, to go into the vineyard, and he said no. He just couldn’t help himself. He didn’t offer any excuse, he just couldn’t help himself.
BUT, after, he “thought better of it and went” –and that is sign to all of us that it is possible to ‘think better of it’ and do what we haven’t yet done, to live how we haven’t yet lived, to live better.
Don’t we each have times we can recall when we ended up being better, doing better, than we said or thought we would –we were more generous, or patient etc.

St Paul tells us elsewhere how the words of the Lord came to him when he felt powerless, “My grace is sufficient for thee” (2 Cor 12:9). And Scripture repeats this promise to each of US, many times in many ways: His grace is sufficient for me and sufficient for you too.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to be good,
it doesn’t mean you won’t fall many times while trying to rise,
but He does give us what we need –what we need to be good.
God asks us, commands us, to be good. And God does not ask us to do what He will not give us the grace to achieve –what we need is: to let go of our self, trust in Him and His grace, and so act.

None of us need to say, “I just can’t help myself”, because with the Lord, we can do ALL that He asks of us: we can be more considerate to our spouses, we can even be saints, and we certainly resist that third chocolate ├ęclair.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Isa 55:6-9; Mt 20:1-16
I was called to Dorchester hospital last week to give the Last Rites to someone, and it’s always a great honour for a priest to do that: to prepare someone to go to meet the Lord. To hear someone’s confession and absolve him of his sins; to anoint him to be healed of the ultimate wound, namely death itself, healed in that: grace can overcome death so that death is not a disaster but is instead the entry into eternal life.

Sometimes, I’m called to someone who has lived a long life in close union with the Lord –and that’s a pleasure to behold.
But other times, I’m called to someone who has wandered, wandered long and far from the path of God. Someone who, at the last minute, reaches out and calls for the priest, and, actually that’s something that can be an even greater pleasure for a priest. It can be a living example of the truth Christ taught that, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick... I came not to call the righteous but sinners, to repentance” (Mt 12:13).

Now, this raises a curious question of justice, the one we heard Jesus addressing in today’s parable (Mt 20:1-16). The parable had those who worked only the last hour of the day rewarded just as those who had worked the whole day, ‘under the heat of the sun’.
And it would be possible for me to raise a similar complaint against those who seek a last-minute return to the Lord. I could say that I have made no dramatic wanderings into sin in MY life; I have ALWAYS been a Mass-going Catholic. Why should someone who last showed his face at Mass 50 years ago get eternal salvation too?
While this complaint gets phrased in different ways, it’s a common one, and it deserves addressing.

Well, before I or any of you feel self-righteous about some sinner making a last minute dash for salvation, we need to recall what is true of EACH of us:
I too have sinned. I too stand in need of God’s forgiveness. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn 8:7).
Forgiveness is God’s gift and receivers of gifts cannot complain about who they are given to or that someone else gets a bigger gift. As Jesus said of his giving forgiveness: “Why be envious because I am generous?”(Mt 20:16)

We also need to remember that repentance IS possible and CAN be genuine –this is what Christians are expected to believe!
Sometimes people are suspicious of other people’s sincerity in repenting because they think that change isn’t really possible –but Jesus came because it IS possible -He came that by His death and saving grace it might BECOME possible.

People sometimes talk as if they were afraid that someone might be about to ‘cheat’ God by getting to Heaven with a death-bed conversion. And in this, we need to remember that God is no fool. If we fear that someone might be getting into Heaven by a fake death-bed confession, well, God knows the difference between a phony repentance and a genuine one. A true repentance wishes to have never sinned, says that if he could go back he would not do what he did. You can fool the priest, and the priest typically gives people the benefit of the doubt –but you cannot fool God.

But there is a final point to address: People sometimes complain about a death-bed conversion as if they resented the fact that they themselves had been virtuous, as if they had ‘missed out’ by being good. They’ve missed out on all the fun of sinning and yet they think they’ll be no better off that the ones who did the fun sinning –and this seems to be behind the notion that “it’s not fair”.
But people who make genuine death-bed conversions often give the clearest counter-witness to this, they often have a KEEN sense that THEIRS is the wasted life.
Sin has its attractions, and at a puerile level it can seem more fun, but sin does not satisfy. It is an empty life.
And, if we resent that we’ve been living a virtuous life while others have been sinning, then we probably haven’t really been living a virtuous life –we’ve got something seriously wrong in the motivation and manner we’ve been living it. Even though the good life has its difficulties, its moments when it feels like we are ‘labouring under the heat of day’, nonetheless, the good life is a GOOD life, and we’re better off for having lived it –better off even in THIS life.

And, of course, none of us is as good as we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we are: We ALL need that last-minute conversion. The basic point is that God is ALWAYS ready to welcome us home, no matter how late we return. What matters is that we DO return, and that is why I as a priest am happy to be always waiting at the end of the telephone: God is always ready to welcome the repentant sinner.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Exultation of the Holy Cross, Shaftesbury

Phil 2:6-11

Today’s feast of the exultation of the Holy Cross might seem a little odd, especially to the outside world: today we honour and celebrate Jesus being killed on the Cross.
So it’s important to recall a few things about why this is important to do.

First, we need to do it just to remember that it happened. I can remember, when I was child, I had a non-Christian friend come around to the house and I can remember him seeing my crucifix on the wall, and he looked at it like something new. He said, “Is that how they killed him?”
He didn’t know who Jesus was and he didn’t know how Jesus died.
If we don’t recall the crucifix then Christ will also be stranger to us we will forget how he died.
When a friend does something or us we should remember it. Many of us I’m sure can remember debts of various kinds we owe to others.
And Jesus, our best friend, died for us, and we need to remember that
-and that is the first and foremost reason to celebrate the exultation of the Holy Cross.

But we also celebrate this feast to help us more deeply understand WHO Jesus is.
The disciples who followed Jesus around 200 years ago in Palestine THOUGHT they knew Jesus, but they didn’t really, they only PARTIALLY knew Him.
Though many of them grasped that He was the Messiah, they didn’t understand what that meant. They frequently thought of Him as a WORLDLY leader, with worldly power. And so even at the end of the gospels we find them asking, “Lord, will you NOW restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

Jesus, however, in order to be REALLY known, wanted to be known from the Cross. There were many times when He told people NOT to make Him known as the Messiah –why? Because He could only be FULLY known as what He was on the Cross:
On the Cross we see power seeking to be service to others;
On the Cross we see love pouring itself out in sacrifice;
On the Cross we see suffering proving the depth of that love.

And because we know of the Resurrection, we know that all of this was what He had the power to stop, the power to resist, we know that He is and was truly God and that the Cross was not weakness overcome but power choosing to be weakness for the sake of others, for the sake of us.
Read from the second reading (Philippians 2:6-11):
“The state of Jesus Christ was divine, YET he did not cling to his equality with God
but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are;
and being as all men are, he was humbler yet,
even to accepting death, death on a cross.”

It is only if we regularly look to the crucifix, if we regularly exalt the Cross in our minds as we do on this feast day, that we will remember WHO He truly is.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Rm 13:8-10
Catholics sometimes have a reputation for being a little smug in looking down on our non-Catholic brethren. While there is a genuine sense in which the See of Rome does stand above the others, nonetheless, smugness is not a virtue. And I’d have to confess to having been guilty of smugness at times, and I’m reminded of that in particular whenever I hear the Ten Commandments as we just did in our second reading from Romans, because it reminds me of an incident in the seminary.

Some of you may recall that there was a survey done of clergymen in the Church in England that showed that the vast majority of them did not know the Ten Commandments! That survey came out while I was in seminary, and I can remember a group of us sitting around and laughing about it –laughing about the Church of England. And we laughed for quite a while. We laughed, that is, until someone asked, “What are the Ten Commandments?”
(pause)
-and I’m afraid to say that a rather long silence followed. It turned out that not one of the 6 of us could list the Ten Commandments. Even worse, even when we clubbed together, we could only come up with 9 –and I think a couple of those were bogus!

Now, why am I telling you this? Because I suspect what was true of my friends is also true of many of us here today:
It is very easy to think that the world outside has forgotten about what right and wrong are, that we are Catholics and we know.
But we live in this world, and it influences and corrupts the way we think –it reduces our own capacity to tell right from wrong. That means we need to continually be striving to think straight –to think as good Christians, to look to Christ and what His Scriptures and His Church teaches, to look to Christ and not to Oprah Winfrey or the BBC.
If I asked you all to take out a pen and paper and write out the Ten Commandments, how would you score? And if Christ asked you 20 questions about specific rights and wrongs in your own life, are you confident you’d know what he asks of you this day?

As Christians, we know that Christ asks us to love. Few people in our society would disagree with that. We just heard St Paul reiterate the command to love and tell us that love sums up all the commands. So why do we need to know the commandments?

Its important to note that it was AFTER St Paul said that love fulfilled ALL obligations that he then re-listed the Ten Commandments. He did this because we need to know what love looks like –love has a form and a structure. There are certain things that are in accordance with authentic love and certain things that are opposed to it.
Love is not just a vague fuzzy feeling, love makes demands, and those demands are specific.
As Catholics, in particular, we hold that love and WISDOM must go together in order for love to be true love, otherwise love is not GOOD love.
The Ten Commandments itemised the essential structure of love, the skeleton all other commandments relate to:
The 10th Commandment is to not covet your neighbour’s goods, and all sins of envy and greed are subdivisions of that.
The 6th Commandment is to not commit adultery, and various sins against chastity and purity are subdivisions of that. And so forth.
Love has a structure and we need to use our REASON and the wisdom of Christ if we are to know it.

As I started by saying: I smugly made jokes about other people forgetting the 10 Commandments not realising that I too had forgotten them. I was influenced by the world around me, and so are you. If we would know what true love is then we need to remember the Ten Commandments.

1. I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me;
2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain;
3. Honour the Sabbath
4. Honour you father and mother;
5. You shall not murder;
6. You shall not commit adultery;
7. You shall not steal;
8. You shall not bear false witness;
9. You shall not covet you neighbour’s wife;
10. You shall not cover your neighbour’s goods.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 16: 21-27: "If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me."

In this Gospel Jesus is talking about CHOOSING suffering, which might seem odd: One of the universal features of humanity is that we all want to avoid pain. Who here if faced with the choice between pain and pleasure would choose pain? No one.
There is of course a name for those who suffer from that sickness, that perversion of the mind, that loves pain: masochism –those who harm themselves because they get a tragic perverse pleasure out of pain.

So, WHY does Jesus let us to love suffering, why does he tell us we MUST suffer if we would be His disciple: “take up your Cross”?
Does He hate us? Is this why He wants us to suffer? No.
Scripture teaches us, and our Catholic Faith holds this as a pivotal truth, that God never wanted suffering for His creation. He created His world perfect. Suffering only entered the world as result of Original Sin.
But after suffering entered and damaged His creation, God did not reject His creation but took that suffering and made it the instrument of our Redemption –on the Cross.
And if we want to share in the Redemption then we have to share in the Cross.

Many people look at Christ Risen and say, “I want a share in that”.
It’s very faddish to have an image of the RISEN Christ.
But what was the road that Jesus took to get to the Resurrection?
It was the Royal Road of Calvary
And if WE would share in the Resurrection then we must walk that same path, we must seek to share in the Cross –“the disciple is not greater than his master”(Mt 10:24).

Of course, suffering comes to all of us anyway. This is because we live in a Fallen world tainted by the effects of Original Sin.
But we can take that with Christ on the Cross, and find grace and salvation,
Or we can suffer alone and in frustration and gain nothing.

Jesus told us to “take up our cross” and there are two ways we must do this: passively and actively.

Passively, taking up our cross means accepting the difficulties of life. We can grind against them in anger and impatience, or we can accept them. That doesn’t means we shouldn’t see the doctor, but it does means that when we reach that limit of what we can control we ACCEPT our limits and accept them as the cross the Lord would have us carry –and the particular cross that each of us is given is, in providence, weighed and measured for our own strengths and our own needs, to be for our good: what we CAN bear and what is GOOD for us to bear.
Some of this cross is illness and old age. Some of it is the difficulties of bearing with others, patiently.
But whatever our cross is, “taking it up” means taking it with Christ, means having HIM with us to bear it –His grace and strength.
It also means, if we carry our Cross well, it also means being gradually purified and transformed of the disorder in our passions, having new virtues build within us so that we love more freely and discover that the crosses we struggle to bear alone can be fruitful of borne with Christ.
More than anything, carrying our Cross means union in love with Christ, being transformed in the burning but purifying crucible of suffering with our Beloved –and this bears fruit.
I know of this transforming grace more from reading the saints than from my own growth in holiness, but I know it nonetheless, and I know that a priest who fails to say this because it’s awkward to talk of the cross is failing his congregation not helping it.

Finally, there is a second way that we must ‘take up our cross’, and this is actively. In order to be more FREE in accepting our passive suffering we must step that step further and SEEK additional suffering. This proves our willingness to take up the cross, and more than proof, as a habit it makes us more FREE taking up the cross.
This is why we find ALL the saints enduring more than the minimum.
For ourselves, it might be talking longer to that person who bores us, working harder for the person who we know will ignore our labours, or denying ourselves pleasures in the way we do especially in Lenten Penance.

If we would be His disciples, then we must actively SEEK the Cross, because there is no other way to find Him who was crucified, to find and be united with Him who loves us and chose to suffer for us. We must seek the Cross.
To back to where I began, does this means we are masochists, loving suffering or its own sake? No. What it does mean is that we love it in as much as it brings us to Christ and brings us union with Christ.
"If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me."

Sunday, 24 August 2008

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 16: 13-20
We just heard the greatest question ever to be asked in the history of mankind. And it is a great question only because the ANSWER is great.
The question was: WHO is Jesus.
If the answer had been: A saintly man, like Francis of Assisi, or, a wise teacher, like Buddha;
Then, it would not be the greatest question.
But because the answer was: He is God –this man walking around is God,
Then, it was the greatest question ever asked and the greatest answer.

Now, generally, when someone claims to be God he gets locked up in a mental asylum. The Lord Jesus, however, was taken seriously. To understand why he was taken seriously we need to recall the series of events that was building up to this question, and to appreciate why everyone must have been asking this same question: WHO is he?

So what had been happening in the build up to this question?
He had taught so wisely that huge crowds came to Him in the wilderness;
He had fed 5000 with just 5 loaves and two fish;
He had walked on water and calmed the storm –WHO can do that?;
He was the one that people said of Him: “He has done all things well” (Mk 7:37)
He was the one that people said of Him: “He taught with authority” (Mt 7:29)
He was the one that the first time that soldiers were sent to arrest Him they returned empty handed saying merely: “No one has ever spoken like this man” (Jn 7:47)
More significantly, He claimed to do things that only God was allowed to do:
He claimed the authority to forgive sin (e.g. Lk 5:21)
He claimed the authority to change the Law of Moses (e.g. Mt 12:8).
WHO is he?

So Jesus claimed to be God, and, rather than being locked up in a mental asylum people took Him seriously. What must the force of His personality have been for that to hold?
To meet God-made-flesh must have been quite an experience!

(pause)
It was St Peter who identified Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, the one who is both fully God and fully man.
But by coming to know Christ, Peter came to know much more.
Christ, as the God-man, both fully reveals God to us AND fully reveals perfect humanity to us, and this second thing is very important too. As the great Pope John Paul II put it, quoting the Second Vatican Council: Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself.

By knowing Christ, St Peter knew everything that every Pope in history would ever need to teach and preach, and that is why this proclamation was the basis for Jesus appointing him the Rock on which he built His Church.
By knowing Christ, perfectly God, he knew all mankind will ever be able to say of God;
By knowing Christ, perfectly human, he knew all mankind would ever need to be taught about what it means to be human: the whole moral life, from the immorality of cheating on your tax returns to sexual immorality; from the need to rest and enjoy wine at the feast at Cana to the need to suffer and sacrifice for others on the Cross.
By knowing Christ, the first Pope knew everything he as Pope needs to know and teach.
I’m not going to preach on infallibility today, I’ve given you that handout, but it is this text that explains why the Pope is infallible.

For ourselves, we each need to be certain we have understood the import of that question: “But you, you do you say I am?” If we have not recognised that He is both God and man, that He is the long awaited Messiah, the one all creation as yearning for, then we have failed to grasp the significance of the greatest question ever asked.

Infallibility: What does it mean and does it matter?

This can alkso be viewed as A4 pages at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/4911852/Infallibility-What-it-is-and-why-it-matters

‘Infallibility’ is the term that is used to describe the fact that the Catholic Church teaches the truth and the way that it teaches the truth. Without it we cannot know the truth with certainty.

The Mission to Teach to Truth
Jesus Christ declared Himself to be “the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6)
He came to teach the truth. Christ willed that the truth be known by all peoples and so He appointed His apostles to go out and teach the truth:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:18-20).

The Catechism points out that the Church’s mission is the same as the mission of Christ and was founded by Christ for this very purpose:
"The Church's mission is not an addition to that of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but is its sacrament" (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 738).

This teaching mission was entrusted in a particular way to the 12 Apostles who Christ singled out for this role, and these Apostles appointed the bishops to continue this role. The Church thus has a structure that was given to it by Christ:
"The Lord Jesus endowed his community with a structure that will remain until the Kingdom is fully achieved. Before all else there is the choice of the Twelve with Peter as their head" (Catechism n. 765).

The Promise that Christ would Guide the Teaching of His Church
Christ not only commanded His Apostles to teach the truth but He promised that when they taught they would teach faithfully:
“He that hears you hears me; and he that rejects you rejects me (Lk 10:16).

By the gift of the Holy Spirit the Apostles were promised to know the whole truth:
“When the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth” (Jn 16:13).

The Apostles thus teach accurately not by their own ability or wisdom but by the Holy Spirit. This was the same with the first pope, St Peter, who recognised Jesus as the Christ only by the power of God:
"Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).

Authority and Division
The teaching authority in the Church was given to us by Christ in order that we might have a focus for unity when divisions come. Christ knew that divisions would come (e.g. Mt 24:24).

Pope Clement in 96AD wrote:
“Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full knowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these would die, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office” (Corinthians, n. 44).

When divisions come we should listen to those who hold proper authority. It is the pope, as the successor of St Peter who possesses the fullness of Christ’s teaching authority. It was St Peter who was appointed as the visible head of Christ’s Church:
“And I tell you, you are Peter [‘Rock’], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).

The bishops as individuals do not all possess the full charism of infallibility. They possess it if they speak in union with the pope and in as much as they speak in union with the pope:
“the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's Successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teachings concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely” (Lumen Gentium n.25).

What does ‘Infallible’ mean?
Literally, the dictionary definition of infallible is: "incapability of error or deception".
This means that when the Church teaches authoritatively it is not capable of error, i.e. it is protected by Christ from teaching error.
Similarly the Bible is called ‘inerrant’, free from error.

However, neither the writers of the Bible nor the popes are free from sin. The promise of Christ concerns their role of teaching and is restricted to their role of teaching -it does not concern their personal lives.

Note also: being free from error does not necessarily guarantee that the pope will be courageous in his teaching and it does not even guarantee that he will teach beautifully –but it does guarantee that he will teach free from error. This means that we can listen to the pope with confidence and believe what he teaches.

Is everything the pope teaches infallible?
The pope’s infallibility relates only to those acts by which he is acts as pope. i.e. there are certain conditions that must hold for his teaching to be infallible.

Vatican I and II taught that there are four conditions for a papal teaching to be infallible: The pope must be speaking "ex cathedra" ("that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority…."); he must be defining something (in “a definitive act”); it must concern “faith or morals”; and he must be teaching something that "must be held by the whole Church". i.e. a ‘definitive’ act is not just a casual comment or even a usual Sunday sermon.

The bishops met in union with the pope in Council, or in a Council authorised by the pope, teach infallibly when they define doctrine under the same conditions. The bishops and pope also teach infallibly outside of a Council when they re-iterate what the Church has always taught.

Bishops or church leaders who have separated themselves from the authority of the pope lack the authority that would otherwise give them infallibility. They thus do not have this guarantee of truth. It is thus unsurprising that the Protestant ecclesial communities that have separated themselves from Rome divide again and again over doctrine. Present divisions in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality and women bishops are a tragic example of this.

Does it matter?
It matters to us that the Church teaches infallibly because if the Church is not infallible then there is no secure means by which we can know the truth. If we cannot know the truth then we cannot know Christ.
If the Church is not infallible then Christ’s mission to teach the truth was only successful for His own generation. Conversely, because the Church is infallible then the truth of Christ can be known in every age by all those who choose to recognise the authority of the Vicar of Christ, the pope, the successor of St Peter and Christ’s voice on earth.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 15:21-28
Today’s gospel text contains one of the most bizarre passages in the Gospels: In it Jesus speaks words to a woman in need, and yet His words seem inexplicably harsh. He first seems to refuse her request for a healing. Then He compares her to a ‘house-dog’ because she is a Canaanite not a Jew. Though, finally, he commends her faith and grants her the miracle, yet, His rude harshness seems bizarre. How can the God-man who normally looks on the crowds with compassion, who seeks our and saves the lost, how can he speak like this?

There are two meanings to this event:
One, for the Israelite apostles who were listening, so that they might see the faith of a non-Israelite and see the truth of the teaching that Christ came to save the gentiles too;
The second, for the woman herself –a test of her faith, a tough test.

Many commentators note that the text records His tough words but does not record His tone of voice and does not record the look on His face –both of which may have very significantly altered the way the words came across.
Yet, regardless, His words are tough.
However gently said, they are clearly a TEST of her faith, and test that seems tough.

Rather than attempt to explain the motives and intentions of Our Lord, I’d like, instead, to note that His testing of the woman in many ways parallels the testing he sees to make of each of us in our lives.
We might ask: WHY did He test the woman’s faith?
We might also ask: Why does he test OUR faith? Why is life difficult? Why does God knock us about so? Or, rather, Why does God allow life to knock us about?

A partial answer to the reason of why life is difficult is not hard:
Suffering is in the world because of the effects of Original Sin –not because of God;
Suffering is in our lives because we each need to carry the Cross as Our Lord did;
Suffering is in our lives because there is no road to purification, no road to the Resurrection but by the Cross.
But, still, suffering is a test to our faith.

If we look again to this Canaanite woman, How did she respond when her faith was tested?
She held on: She did not say, “I do not understand why Jesus is saying this, therefore I will walk away”
In effect she said, “I do not understand why Jesus is saying this, but I do still know that He is a mighty miracle worker, he is clearly the Messiah, therefore I will continue to come to Him because there is nowhere else for me to turn”

The simple lesson we can learn from this woman, is that, We, too, when life’s events seem to test our faith, we need to hold on to the basics, the basics of our faith:
God does exist
He is a good God
He is in charge of life and of my life
He is with me and for me, even if I don’t see how.

Though on one level today’s gospel seems bizarre:
One of the key messages of today’s gospel is that we must hold on even when our faith is tested, and, if we do, faith will be rewarded with grace in this world and eternal life in the next, just as the Canaanite woman held on and her faith was rewarded with the very things that she had asked for.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

There is a very simple question that we need to repeatedly focus on: is God REALLY active in our world and in our lives?

I ask that question in the light of today’s Gospel account (Mt 14:13-21) of the feeding of the 5,000. Because there are sceptics alive today who say that such a miracle could not have really occurred –“God doesn’t do such things” they say. And, more certainly, “God doesn’t do such things in OUR lives –he’s not active now”.

Well, such an attitude fails to treat the people of Jesus’s time as real people with real brains of their own. Because those people were people just like us. For them, too, God’s activity could seem distant and remote:
They heard of signs and wonders of the Old Testament, but they probably didn’t really expect such things to happen still.
They heard of miracles in distant places, but they probably didn’t expect one to happen in THEIR town.

So when the Lord Jesus Christ somehow fed a crowd of over 5,000, those people would have been amazed. They were not fools, they would first have wondered: Did he have a stash of food hidden that we didn’t see? Did lots of us actually have our own food hidden? These would have been their first thoughts. These would have been the first thoughts of the 12 apostles too.
What left them all amazed and in awe of the Lord was that it was evident to them that some MIGHTY deed of God had just been worked.
And like any of US, in such a situation, they must have been left thinking: God does actually work deeds in OUR day and in OUR place and in OUR lives.

We, today, like them 2000 years ago, hear of miracles and wonders and signs.
We hear of them from long ago, in the Bible, in the lives of the saints.
We hear of them far away, things that even today we hear of every year in places like Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje.
But the truth, my friends, is that God was not only active long ago, and is not only active far away, but he is active now and active here and active in your own life.
And most of the time he seems to do little for us, is because we refuse to see it or refuse to let Him, as the sad refrain from the Gospels often said, “He worked few signs there BECAUSE OF THEIR LACK OF FAITH”.
God is active in our lives by His guiding Providence, by the strength of His grace, by the nudges and calls He makes to us if we will but be open to them. He may not be active doing what we would tell Him to do –but that does not mean He is not active.

There is one activity of God, in particular, that I want to refer to, and that is in the Eucharist.
The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament said that God would come and feed His people. We need to be fed in the body. But EVEN MORE we need to be fed in the soul. We feeding of the 5000 was a sign of the feeding of the Eucharist that Christ was to institute in the Mass. If you listened to the words of the Gospel, it echoed the words we hear in every Mass, words of the Last Supper: He took the bread, he raised His eyes to Heaven, He blessed the Bread, He broke it, and it gave it to them –THROUGH the ministry of the apostles, as He does now through the ministry of His priests.
The Lord knows what we need, and in every reception of Holy Communion He gives Himself to us not just as Himself, but with the specific graces we need for this time. He is always everything, and I am never fully open to Him.
But He always knows the graces I need, and that is what is available to me.
Will I need patience today? This Holy Communion will come with the graces for it.
Will I need strength today? This Holy Communion will give me that.
But only if I believe it, and only if I open myself to it.

I started by asking: Is God REALLY active in our world and in our lives? If we have the faith to say yes, then it is in this Mass that we will find Him, and find His activity for us.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

St Therese of Lisieux, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, St Therese

As you may have noticed, I’ve been away, and as part it, I was chaplain to a pilgrimage to Lisieux in France, home of St Therese of the Little Child Jesus, also known as ‘The Little Flower’.

St Therese became an enclosed nun, a Carmelite, which meant that she dedicated her whole life to prayer and penance, isolated from the world.
If you go to Lisieux you can see the heavy metal door, in dull grey, that marks the entrance to the Carmel. She entered at the age of 15 and did not leave until she died. Humanly speaking, she was pretty, rich, and exceptionally intelligent. And there are no doubt many who would say that it was a terrible waste, a waste of a life.
And I want to say a word about that, because it beautifully illustrates what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel.

In the Gospel, Jesus referred to ‘The Pearl of Great Price’, the thing that once found was worth selling EVERYTHING else in order to get it.
He used another image: the hidden treasure buried in a field that someone finds and then realises that it’s worth selling everything else in order to get the field, and thus get the treasure.
Both images make it clear that that there is something that we have to value above all else –it’s not that the other things didn’t also have value, but that their value did not compare with the Pearl of Great Price.

The Pearl of Great Price that Jesus referred to was Himself –He is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in person and to possess Him is to possess the Kingdom.
And that means that we must be willing to put aside all other things to have Him.

Back to St Therese: She knew that many people think that an enclosed life as a nun is a waste of a life, but she also knew something more important: She knew Jesus Christ, and she knew that anywhere and anything that would better enable her to be with Him was a sacrifice worth making.
She compared the enclosure of the Carmel with the desert referred to the Old Testament prophecies where God says that He will lead His people out into the wilderness in order that He might speak to their hearts. Why, you might wonder, did he not just speak to them in the city or place where they were? A good question. But God’s example in His workings, and our own experience, show us that it is only when we withdraw from the hustle and bustle of the world that we can be quiet enough to hear God and be with Him. Those soaked in the pleasures of this world rarely even become aware of the subtler but better and more lasting pleasures of the Lord.

That is why St Therese left the world: to be with her Beloved, with the One who loved her and who she loved.
And the Beloved that she entered Carmel to be with was a lover like no other: the One who is Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
She sacrificed much to be with Him, as people often sacrifice things to be with the one they love, but she gained much more than she sacrificed –not so much in this world but in the next. Those who loved most in this world are the most glorious in the next. And those who love the RIGHT things are those who love with the purest and greatest hearts.
Our first reading about Solomon makes a similar point: It was true wisdom, God’s wisdom, that Solomon valued above all other things –and because he valued the first things first so many other things were showered upon him. His worldly rewards for setting his priorities right are a sign of the eternal rewards that come to all who set their priorities right.

So was St Therese wasting her life when she cast all aside to enter Carmel?
To those who do not know of the Pearl of Great Price, it seems so.
But to those of us who have recognised the Pearl of Great Price, the Lord Himself, St Therese’s calling to put all aside to enter Carmel is a sign to all of us to set our priorities right in pursuit of the One thing that truly matters.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, St Edward

I want to say a few words about St Edward, our parish patron, whose feast day it is on Monday. In particular, I want to say a few words about why he is called a “martyr”, and why it is right to call him a martyr. Because people sometimes say it doesn’t make much sense to call him a martyr. In fact, lots of people have said this to me. In fact, if I had a penny for every time someone has said this to me, I’d have enough money to rebuild the Abbey!

Well, to start with, What does the word, ‘martyr’ mean? It means ‘witness’, a witness to Christ.
Now this doesn’t just mean that you must die DIRECTLY for Christ Himself -in fact the Tradition has always acknowledged that to die for what Christ asked of us, to die for His laws, to die for His Gospel, to die for Church, is truly to die for Him.
So, from the very beginning, the Church has used this title ‘martyr’ for those who were killed for what Christ taught. For example, in Britain, we frequently hail our martyrs of the Reformation, who were killed for their devotion to the Mass and to the Papacy –two things Christ gave us. Another example, St John the Baptist was killed because he witnessed to the fact that adultery is a sin, and Herod was committing adultery, and Herod killed him. And this was martyrdom, because CHRIST asks us to be moral and to die for the moral life is to die for Christ.

Many people respond to good people by being edified by their goodness, inspired by it. But it is also possible to look at a good man and feel angry, spiteful, vengeful. To cover up our own sin by hating someone who does NOT sin. “The wicked man plots against the virtuous and grinds his teeth at him”(Ps 37:12). We heard an example of that in our first reading from Jeremiah 20:10: “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” Why? Because Jeremiah was living a good life and called on others to do the same.
To be killed out of this form of hatred is one of the classical forms of martyrdom. That’s why a great many of the early martyrs were hailed by the people of their time as martyrs even though it was their LIFESTYLE not necessarily their words that led others to kill them.

When St Edward was killed, the people of his day might of reacted in many ways. They might have said, ‘Well, that’s one more rich selfish king dead.’
But instead, they hailed him as a ‘martyr’ –and I think the people of his day knew his context and the motives behind his killing better than we can claim to know them today. And they could see two clear motives behind his death:
(1) The people of his day recognised that he was killed by EVIL people who hated him for his saintly life.
(2) Further, they recognised that he was killed by people who hated the fact that he stood with the Church and for the Catholic Church despite the many political manoeuvrings of his day against the Church.
To die for loyalty to Christ’s Church, to die for loyalty to Christ’s gifts of the Papacy and the Mass; to die for the moral life Christ calls us to –all these are examples of dying for Christ. All these are examples of martyrdom.

Where is St Edward now? Well, his bones, as we know, are a matter of dispute.
But his soul is in glory in Heaven, and he witnessed, he martyred –because martyr means witness –he witnessed to the truth of what we heard Christ say in today’s Gospel: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt 10: 28). Despite being a young man, he was clearly “not afraid”, or least he overcame his fear, and lived as he ought.

What does St Edward teach us today? Not least, he teaches us the reward of a good life, and that to live a good life publicly is to witness to Christ.
St Edward lived a good life “in the presence of men” (to use a phrase from the Gospel), and because of that Christ declared Himself “for him in the presence of [His] Father in heaven”.

It is never easy to live a good life, even though a life of sin brings even more problems and difficulties, even so, it is never easy to live a good life. But to live a good life for Christ will bring its rewards for us just as it did for our parish patron: St Edward, King and Martyr.

Accompanying Newsletter item:
SAINT EDWARD, KING AND MARTYR, b. 962; d. 18 March, 978
Feastday: June 23rd (formerly, March 18th)
St Edward, son of Edgar the Peaceful, and uncle of St Edward the Confessor, became king at the early age of 13 and reigned for only 3 years. He was murdered outside Corfe Castle by his stepmother. He was considered to be very saintly and on his death was hailed by the people as a martyr.
Why is he called a ‘martyr’? It might be thought that only those who are killed by unbelievers can be called martyrs for Christ, however, many of the ‘martyrs’ died for the Christian Faith in a broader sense. Thus St John the Baptist is called a martyr because he died proclaiming that adultery is a sin. Similarly, the English Reformation martyrs died for the truth about the Mass and the Pope, not explicitly for Christ. In a similar vein, there are two reasons why the people of his day recognised St Edward as a martyr:
(1) He lived a holy life and was killed by those who were unholy. As Scripture repeatedly recalls, the wicked hate the virtuous and conspires against him because the life of the virtuous is a reproach to the sinner and fills him with envy: “The wicked man plots against the virtuous and grinds his teeth at him”(Ps 37:12).
(2) He defended the Church and it was the enemies of the Church who opposed him and ultimately killed him.
In considering the appropriateness of the title ‘martyr’, it is reasonable to conclude that those who lived then and knew both him and the circumstances of his death were better placed than we are to judge that it was right to declare him ‘martyr’.
His stepmother later repented of her evil deed and embraced a life of prayer and penance, ending her days in a monastery. This surely stands as a magnificent example of the possibility of repentance, presumably wrought by the prayers of the young martyr himself. Many miracles are said to have been obtained through his intercession.