My homily for the 31st Sunday 2016

31st Sunday of the Year (c) 2016

Two weeks ago tomorrow, I was in Manchester to watch the Olympic parade. All those athletes, including the para-Olympians, from Rio, with their various medals of bronze, silver and gold, paraded on top of open-decked lorries. I got their early to ensure I got a good viewpoint from where to watch the parade. I had walked almost the whole route when I saw a place that looked perfect. There were already people standing behind a railing that was on top of a wall right next to the route. This meant that if I could get onto that wall I would have a good view of the athletes as they went past. However, the wall was a little too high for me. I tried twice to jump up but without success. I had to be helped up by two people on either side of me. So embarrassing. It made me realize that I wasn’t getting any younger; ten years ago I could have jumped up there no trouble. It was worthwhile, as I did get a great view of the athletes as they went past. I even caught Katherine Granger’s eye; she, the greatest British female rower of all time.

I mention this in context of the gospel reading, and particularly that Zacchaeus climbed up a tree to see Jesus. It is only a small point but it struck me that Zacchaeus was quite young. He must have been to get up that tree. He certainly wasn’t my age. It’s the kind of thing I did when I was a child. He, like me, went to a lot of trouble to get a good view. He didn’t catch Katherine Granger’s eye, no, instead, he caught the eye of someone much more important: Jesus Christ.

I wondered why he did it: why did he climb that tree? We are told at the beginning that though young, he was wealthy and that he wasn’t a nice man: at least, that is to say, he was a tax collector. He collected taxes from his own people to give to the Romans, and made a nice profit out of it. The Jewish people hated him and his type; they saw him as a sinner, and would never be seen dead in his house. And yet Jesus did. Not only did he go into his house he stayed in it for the day. Much to the astonishment of the people, who looked on Jesus as being a holy man.

We are not told why he wanted to see Jesus so badly. What we are told is that ‘He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was.’ He’d obviously heard about him. He would have seen the crowd around him. But he wanted to see him face to face, to see ‘what kind of man Jesus was’. And what did he see? Not an athlete. He must have been shocked when the man spoke to him. He even called him by his name, Zacchaeus. That would have been a shock: “how did he know my name”? We don’t know what his impression of Jesus was, all we know is that when Jesus spoke to him he ‘hurried down and welcomed him joyfully’.

This is an unusual but lovely story about forgiveness. It doesn’t have the drama of the prodigal son but it does have a change of heart, a prerequisite for forgiveness. Indeed, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham”. Zacchaeus is a changed man. This encounter with Christ has changed his life, and he is now, we can presume, a happier man.

The gospel ends with the words from Christ’s lips: “the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost”. He has come for this; this was his mission: to seek out and save what was lost. Zacchaeus was a success story. In Jesus lifetime there would be others, and even after his lifetime. Indeed, down through the centuries there have been wonderful stories of Jesus seeking out someone who was lost. We still don’t now why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly. But we can presume that he wasn’t happy with his life. He wanted to see a man who was happy. Maybe this man could change his life, make him happy. And this is exactly what happened.

Even in our days people can be lost. How often do I meet people who are lost in one way or another. They are unhappy people, lost in their own selfishness and pride. We can’t help everyone, but maybe God is calling us to help some; especially those closest to us. We have, if you’ll believe me, we have to be Christ for them. One day they may come looking for us and want to know ‘what kind of person are you’; ‘what makes you tick; why are you happy’? Then it will be our turn, like Jesus, not to condemn but just to sit down and listen, to give them time. If we do this much, God will do the rest.

So, you can see, we have a lot of work to do. No one else is going to do it if we don’t. It is our responsibility. However, be patient with people, with those you know who are lost. Maybe the time is not right. But it is always right for us to try to live a good life; if we do, then you can be sure that these people who are lost will come to us one day to ‘see what kind of people we are.’

My Week on Iona

I just got back from a week on Iona. Someone asked me today: “Where’s Iona?” Well, it’s off the west coast of Scotland. I took a train to Glasgow from Preston, changed stations in Glasgow to go to Oban. At Oban I caught a ferry to Mull, a large island about 45 minutes from Oban. At the port on Mull (Craignure) I caught a bus to the small port of Fionnphort, a journey of 75 minutes. Then a short ferry ride to the tiny island of Iona. In total it took my from Preston to Iona 9 hours.

I went there for my annual retreat. The journey is itself the beginning of something special. You pass through some of the most barren yet beautiful country in the British isles. Iona is quite extraordinary, though small there is a very varied landscape; there are hills and plains, valleys and high rocks, beaches with sand and beeches with pebbles. The sand is white and the colour of the sea a variety of different shades of blue and green, were the sun hot you might think you were in the Caribean. It is an artists paradise.

I keep coming back to Iona. This must be my sixth visit. People I meet there tell me that when you have been once you will come back again. When I asked one lady why she comes, she thought for a long time, then said, “it’s a bit like coming home”. Iona has a deep effect on people. I certainly let the place speak to me. I am not someone who analyses too much but am content to sit on a rock beside the sea and just watch the waves coming in or going out. The rocks are remarkable. They are so old; the oldest in Britain.

When I first land on the island I make my way to the north end; a 20 minute walk. I sit down on a bench which had been dedicated to someone who ‘loved Iona’. This year I read St Teresa of Avila’s great classic, ‘The Interior Castle’. What would have Teresa thought had she known her writings would have been read somewhere so very different and so far away from her native Castile. It was the perfect place to focus on the soul; for this is what she writes about. The place makes my senses come alive, including my spiritual senses. I read about God’s workings in the human person. What great dignity is ours. There is so much potential in the human soul, if only we realised this. I finished the book some days later in the old abbey church, the largest building on the Island, built 1200 years ago. And yet it isn’t so much to the Benedictine monks that I feel drawn but to the much older Celtic monk, Saint Columba. Maybe because I am a Celt myself.

Sr Jean runs a wonderful catholic centre and house of prayer. She feeds the body with her wonderful food. I tried to paint the view from my room. Going out of the doors you will meet sheep eating the grass just yards away. There are few fences, and you can get the impression that the whole island belongs to you. This time of the year there are not many tourists and fewer pilgrims, so when the last ferry leaves about 6.30 pm the place is all still again. There are only about 130 people living there, few cars, but lots of sheep.

I decided to go without my iPhone. It was a good decision. I didn’t have too many distractions. Each day I walked to a different place. In some places I did not meet anyone else. I can see why Colomba settled here and made it his home. Indeed he died here. I visit the place where he was buried. I could go on but it is getting late. I will go back to Iona again, God willing. I might even do a sabbatical there, in the winter months, when there are no priests on the island; at least while I am there mass will be celebrated. We shall see.

Iona is a great place for thinking deep thoughts. I often think of my family, my father especially; not sure why. He would have loved to sit and gaze. As I child I watched him do this sometimes. He looked contented when he did this. One thought I had was to write about discernment of vocations. I should do that in the not too distant future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My homily for 30th Sunday of the Year

30th Sunday of the Year (c) 2016

John’s gone all holy’!

Meaning: that he isn’t the same as he used to be: that he is no longer like the rest of us.

And it was true: now instead of lying in on a Sunday morning I used to go to Church. I belonged to a Legion of Mary Group; helped in the Parish Youth Club. None of my friends did this.

I had become different from my friends. Did I look down on them? I don’t think so. But this was a temptation. There is the temptation for the religious person to look down on others.

The Pharisee in the parable is a religious man. And what he does is clearly admirable: he thanks God for making him the kind of person he is: not grasping, nor unjust and certainly not adulterous. And to be like this is no mean achievement: such an upright person would be praised today: it can never be easy to be honest and pure of heart.

Over and above these admirable qualities this man also fasts, not once but twice a week. What discipline this must take. It cannot have been easy when everyone else is eating and drinking normally, just to drink a glass of water. He must have stood out among his family and friends who knew he fasted: not just once but twice a week. And if that were not enough he says he pays tithes on all he gets. These ‘tithes’ were to the Priest. It must have been easy to keep something back, especially as other people, even good people did. But, no, not this man: he was honest as the day is long.

But for all this man’s so called holiness, he was missing something essential. He had little or no humility. On the contrary: he prided himself on being virtuous and despised everyone else. All his fasting and honesty has taught him nothing. In fact, they were an obstacle. Because as long as he practised these things he thought he was pleasing to God. But he wasn’t. Not only is he not pleasing to God, but God is not happy with him.

This is a sad man but only because he cannot see his sadness. And it would be so easy for him to change, to become pleasing to God. All he would have to do is not judge others who have not been given the same opportunities and graces that he has. He just needs to acknowledge that ‘but for the grace of God go I’. But for this to happen a real miracle is needed. Because such men and women do not listen to others; even to God.

Pride is in us all. Sometimes it is so deep rooted that we can’t see it. We should recognize it by our attitudes. And the more religious we are the more humble we have to become. Humility is truth. I cannot look down on anyone else: my constant attitude must be: ‘but for the grace of God go I’.

And when I say “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner”, I must believe it: first, that I am a sinner, no matter how good others may perceive me to be; and, second, that the Lord, is merciful; especially to those who turn to him in their sinfulness.

And so, ‘to be holy’ does not necessarily mean being different from others. The holiest people are often so ordinary you could overlook them. ‘Holiness’ is not immediately obvious.

My homily for 29th Sunday of the Year

29th Sunday (c) 2016

A friend of mine told me a story that happened to him a long time ago, when he was thirteen years of age; today he is over seventy. His parents asked him to go to town to buy something. Just as he was boarding the bus his native village, a local businessman who loved to gamble on the horses asked him to put on a bet: £5 to win and £2 for a place on a horse called ‘Blue Butterfly’; it was running in a big event in the afternoon. The horse odds were thirty-three to one. The winnings would come to around £200, which was a lot of money in those days. A few hours later, my friend was at a counter in the town when he heard the race on the radio. ‘Blue Butterfly’ was flying at the head of the field and the money for the bet was still in his pocket. In panic, he started to pray, ‘Please Lord don’t let him win! Don’t let him win!’ But winning he still was, streaking towards the finish, kicking his heels up at heaven. My friend prayed and prayed again. The winning post was coming closer with every stride. Then with fifty yards to go and another anguished burst of prayer, a wall of horses came sweeping into contention and in a final flourish of short heads ‘Blue Butterfly’ was fourth. My friend breathed a huge sigh of relief. He looked round but there was no one to share his deliverance with except God. And He thanked God very much.

This is a nice story because it has a happy ending. The trouble with prayer is, or can be, that so often, it doesn’t appear to have a happy ending. How often have we prayed for someone we love to get better and they haven’t? Often we don’t pray for ourselves, or if we do it is sometimes half-hearted, but when someone we love needs prayers then we pray with all our might. Many people go to Church, light candles, ask the priest to say a mass for this person’s intentions, and ask other people to pray, good people, people who are known to live good lives. And yet, how often it happens that even these prayers are not answered.

Jesus knew this very well, this is why he told us the parable we just heard in the Gospel. It begins with the words, ‘Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never to lose heart.’ I presume he did this because, like us, his disciples had prayed for things but their prayers were not answered, or at least, they did not appear to be. This is then why Jesus told the parable. He saw for himself the difficulty with prayer and the tendency to give up when prayers weren’t answered.

The parable is about a widow who is seeking justice against her enemy. Now we don’t know anything about this woman. We don’t know if she was god fearing or even if her case against her enemy, as she called him or her, was a just one. No, the attention in the parable is focussed on the judge. In his case we learn he wasn’t a good judge. We are told ‘he had neither fear of God nor respect for man.’ Indeed, later Jesus would call him an ‘unjust judge.’ The woman gets what she wants because she keeps pestering the judge; she shouldn’t have to do this but in this case, because he wasn’t a good judge, she had to. And we see why he listens to the woman, not because it’s his job but because she would persist in coming to him and worry him to death.’ In some ways this parable has a modern ring about it.

Jesus uses this parable to encourage his disciples, and through them, us, not to give up in prayer. Clearly in my experience it is still a problem today as it was in Jesus day. People need to be encouraged not to give up. There are, of course, reasons whey people stop praying, or don’t ever start in the first place. Perhaps the main reason is a sense of self worth, or to be more precise, in the eyes of God a lack of self-worth. There is the false belief that God does not listen to their prayers because they are not worthy; they are bad people so why should God listen to their prayers. And so such people go to a holy person, as they see them, to a priest or nun and ask them to pray for them, with the tell tale words, ‘God will listen to your prayers’, in other words, he won’t listen to mine.

But this woman who kept going to the judge, we don’t know if she was a good person or not; just that she wanted justice. What Christ stresses is that her prayers were heard because she did not give up. Christ makes the point in the gospel that ‘will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night even when he delays to help them?’ In other words, Christ is saying, no matter who you are, even if you are not the best of Christians, when you pray to Him for justice your prayers will be heard, though you may have to wait.

But why not straight away? Because in the very process of praying we are putting our faith in God. We are saying to God, I believe that you want to do this, I believe that you can do this. This requires perseverance, and it deepens our faith. We should never give up because our prayers do not appear to be heard; we should continue to pray, in the certain knowledge that the Lord always listens to our prayers. He is not like the unjust judge. He listens because he loves us and wants to give us justice.

Homily for 28th Sunday of the Year

28th Sunday of the Year (c) 2016

Leprosy: ‘chronic infectious decease…characterized by the formation of painful inflamed nodules beneath the skin and disfigurement and wasting of affected parts. Sounds nasty; and is! ‘ It’s not very common these days, especially in Europe; thank God. Can you imagine having leprosy, with its disfigurement and wasting away of the affected parts. Because it was infectious the lepers weren’t allowed into towns or villages, but had to stay outside in special colonies; they weren’t allowed to come near people. It must have been awful the day you realised you had leprosy. I suppose it could be compared to the day someone learns they have cancer, or some other possible terminal decease. It would be a life changing moment. The only person a leper can now mix with are other lepers. He daren’t mix with his/her own family in case they are infected.

We are told that the ten lepers in the gospel were all cured. We don’t know what the other nine did but we are told that one of them, finding himself cured, praised God at the top of his voice. I am sure the others did something similar. However, only one of them went back to thank Jesus; and look at the way he did it: he didn’t go up to him and shake his hand, no, we are told, he threw himself at the feet of Jesus.’ That’s such a humble gesture. When you are on the ground you can’t look up. But he thanked Jesus for what he had done.

Now the irony of the story is that this man was a foreigner, not a Jew, like the other nine. They would have gone to the priest because that is what the law said they should do when cured. But they didn’t turn back and thank Jesus. And Jesus notices this. He asks: “were not all ten made clean? The other nine, where are they?” We don’t know. Scripture doesn’t tell us. Probably celebrating somewhere. We christians have been taught to say thank you. Not to take anything for granted but to show gratitude for favours granted. Such an experience can be life changing. We don’t know about the other nine but we know that at least one of them did not take it all for granted. It was a life changing experience for him. As you could imagine. One day you are dying slowly of the most appalling of illnesses, the next you are completely healed.

I’d like to think that it changed this samaritan’s life. In fact, I’d like to believe that he was the one who helped the man who had falled into the hands of thieves. You know they story. Jesus tells us of the good samaritan who did a good turn for someone who had been beaten up; how he dressed his wounds and put him up in a kind of hotel and paid for his accomodation. We are not told why he did it, but wouldn’t it be nice to think that he was the leper who was healed miraculously by Jesus. We don’t know if he was but we do know that both men were Samaritans.

I suppose in our own lives we don’t suffer from lebrosy, so we don’t experience miracles. However, God in Christ is healing us all the time. We don’t have lebrosy but we do have sins, and sins are like a desease; only you don’t see them on your skin. Sometimes our sins can be really bad; then can be destroying our lives and the lives of those closest to us. Jesus wants to heal such sins as much as he wanted to heal the ten lepers of their leprosy. All we have to do is to ask him, and say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner”. He will hear our prayer. However, what is important is to thank him afterwards, not to take our forgiveness for granted. The 9 lepers were healed but it didn’t appear to make any difference to their lives; the Samaritan was also healed but his healing changed him. He gave thanks to God in Jesus Christ.

Most of us don’t have big sins, at least not really big ones, but we do sin, and on a daily basis. That’s not my insight that comes from scripture: the just man, it says, falls seven times a day. To be aware of our sins is important, because then we know how merciful the Lord has been to us. And knowing that we should thank Him. It is the person who is aware of his sins, but also his healing, who will do great things for the Lord. Because he or she will be humble; and God can do great things through the humble person. He wants to do great things through all of us and the more we are aware of His mercy, the greater things we will do. You see, we are not here to be like the other 9 lepers, we are here to make a difference; and by my healing I know that God is being merciful to me; I therefore, must go out and be merciful to others, like the Good Samaritan.

Report on the Come & See Day, 1st October 2016, Kensington ODC Priory

‘Come & See’ Day

1st October 2016

ODC Carmelite Priory Kensington

The Day didn’t begin well when the lady who said would come with the Carmelite Sisters didn’t turn up! I was anxious as only two people had responded to the ads in the local diocesan newspapers, the ODC Vocation’s website, my WordPress, and the National Vocation’s website, and the various posters. I was beginning to wonder if it was worth all the expense: I must have spent close to £1000. But then first one young lady came, then the Carmelite missionary sisters came, in the form of Sr Vivienne, with two young ladies, then Maria came and finally, Greg came: the only male. Two other ladies turned up but they had misunderstood the nature of the day, thinking it was a pious retreat, but it was good to have them all.

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After morning prayer and welcome, we all introduced ourselves. Each religious said something about their own calling. This was wonderful to hear, a real privilege. Everyone follows a different path but it is the same God who is calling us all. What strikes me is the normality of the people called to Carmel. I am sure that the average layperson considers religious to be, if not odd, then very pious. This we can be at times, in the good sense of that word, but we remain very down to earth for the most part; the kind of people that St Teresa of Avila wanted in her Carmel.

Then Fr Jim Noonan OCD, spoke about discernment. Jim had come specially from Ireland for this day. How can I know if I have a vocation? What are the signs to look for? Jim has a wealth of experience, both as a former Provincial, and from his recent year long course on formation in the USA. His talk was followed by Sr. Mary of St Joseph OCD describing what life is like in her Carmel. She focussed on the areas of prayer, work, enclosure and community. We were so privileged to have Sr Mary of St Joseph, plus three other sisters from Notting Hill Carmel. Normally, they would never leave enclosure, except in exceptional circumstances. We then said midday prayer together before tucking into a delicious buffet. The rest of the Kensington community joined us for this.

After lunch I gave a PowerPoint presentation on some of the Carmelite Saints. We are all called to holiness, so these carmelites can be role models for us. Then Fr. Paul, from our Malabar Province in India spoke about life in Carmel from a male perspective. Of course the culture in India is very different to Europe but there are many similarities. Our final talk was by Sr Vivienne from the Carmelite Missionary Sisters. We learned just how carmelite, how prayer centered, the missionary Sisters are. The day finished with evening prayer.

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So after a bad start the day picked up. It is worthwhile organising these events, even if the results are not what one hoped for, because the fruits can often be hidden. We pray to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into the harvest. He does His bit, so to speak, and we do ours. I suppose we could do more, but we must not get too anxious. It is all in God’s good hands. So, I am grateful for the day. It is the first time that I have done anything like this. Let’s pray that the fruits don’t remain hidden, but come forth abundantly. So, to anyone who was praying for the success of this day, I say, “thank you”.

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My homily for Sunday 27thWeek of the Year (c)

27th Sunday of the Year (c) 2016

Did you notice how, in the today’s gospel, Jesus took slavery for granted? He doesn’t get upset at the situation of a man owning a slave, who works for him in the field then in the home prepares his meals. He seems to take it all for granted. Nowadays we would be appalled by this. Was Jesus wrong? Or was he, as the Incarnation implies, a man of his time, first century Palestine, when slavery was acceptable?

Does anything else surprise us about the gospel today? What about the last part, and those words, ‘I’m just doing my duty’. I shouldn’t, therefore, be thanked. Last week I was at a parish where almost everyone was charismatic…hands in the air at the Gloria and other songs of praise. The congregation applauded me at the end of my homily. Now, in all my 34 years as a priest I have never been applauded before for preaching a homily. I don’t expect to be applauded. I don’t preach to win applause; I do it because it is my duty.

We Christians were brought up to be good. Our mothers taught us to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. And if someone does us a favour, or a good turn, we must remember to thank them. And if I do someone a good turn then I expect the person I helped to say ‘thank you’. It makes me feel good to do a good turn for someone, but also it makes me annoyed when someone doesn’t say thank you. But, you know the good christian must be prepared to do good for others without getting thanked. That will be a real test of our motivation. Do I do good to others because it makes me feel good, or do I do it for God’s sake, because I am a christian and that is what I am supposed to do, thanks or not?

Poor people won’t always thank you. Elderly people won’t always thank you. Do you get angry and say, even under your breath, at such times, you ungrateful so and so? Or, do you just shrug it off as one of life’s experiences? Have you ever had the experience of being rewarded ten times over for doing something that cost you very little? Then have you had the opposite experience: of going out of your way to help someone, but get little or no thanks? This is a real test of our faith: why do I do good to others: to earn a reward, or, because it is my duty as a Christian?

What I do for others, the good I do, is my duty; as a Christian I am called to imitate my Master, Jesus Christ. He did good for others, without expecting a reward. And we should do the same. Sometimes, for one reason or another, some people just don’t know how to say thank you. How sad is that. I used to give out food to the homeless in London. Not all of them said thank you, but most did. It doesn’t matter what they say. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I do my duty, which is to help other people.