Come Dine with me…

A Homily for St Matthew’s-tide

come_dineIt is a great privilege to be here this weekend, as much today as last night. Thank you again to Fr Naylor, and to all of you, for your warm welcome. It is a joy to preach here at St Matthew’s, at St Matthew’s Tide, and to stand where one of my great heroes of the faith, Fr George Campbell Ommanney, once stood. And I bring you greetings and prayers from the people of my own parish, Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, in Wolverhampton. 

Before I begin, I need to check – is there anyone here today who has anything to do with the television programme ‘Come Dine with me’? Please say no…

‘Come Dine with me’. What a contrived load of nonsense that programme is. If you haven’t seen it (and that would indicate good taste on your part) it consists of four people being invited for meals in each other’s houses, and carping about the standard of the food, the decor and the hospitality. There is an irritating man doing a voiceover who tries to convince us that this is somehow a terrible serious and life-changing business. Whoever gets the highest marks for their dinner party gets a cash prize. And that’s it. An hour of your life you will never get back.

But today is different. ‘Come Dine with me’ says Matthew to Jesus, as well as to his tax collector pals. And it must have felt a little strange. Up until now he has been seriously outcast – a tax collector, someone who took his own cut off the top by extorting just a little bit more than his Roman overlords required, and was therefore doubly unpopular – doing the occupying power’s dirty work for them, and feathering his own nest into the bargain. Such a one was not only  unpopular. He was shunned by polite and orthodox Jewish society, because he was impure.  But he follows Jesus, the one who accepts sinners as they are, with no preconditions, and he throws a dinner. And a lot of his friends from his professional circle drop in at the same time, and there’s a room full – a roomful of sinners, outcasts, those beyond the pail. And there is Jesus. It is a public relations nightmare, a real Daily Mail moment, just waiting to happen. And happen it does, because those stern, vigilant and observant Pharisees, for whom purity is all, point out that this really isn’t respectable company for a rabbi.

Jesus gives them short shrift.

If in your self-centred arrogance you believe that all is right with your world, sufficient for you to spend time policing others;

if you really feel yourself to be healthy, and at rights with God, then so be it. You’re wrong, but so be it.

You probably won’t be interested in what Jesus has to say – you certainly won’t want to dine with him.

If, on the other hand, you are humble enough to recognise that all is not entirely well in your life – that you are frail, and foolish, and prone to sin and error – if that is your view of yourself, then come and sit down, pour yourself a glass, and tuck in, because you are the people Jesus lived for, and died for, and rose again for.

I don’t know if Fr Naylor experiences this in Sheffield, but one of the most frustrating aspects of Mission I have ever encountered is when someone says to me that they don’t feel that they are ‘good enough’ or ‘virtuous enough’ to go to church. How did we manage to convey to people that church was a place of impossible standards for people, when in fact it is a hospital for sinners? How did we communicate such a false message?

Your patron saint looks on, with a bemused expression, in heaven, whenever people decide that they are not good enough to come to church, and, even worse, when we set ourselves up to be better or more virtuous than others. It is a damning indictment on the church, and has no place in our understanding of who Jesus is and why he took flesh in the first place. A Christian gathering has three common features: love to be freely shared, grace to be received, and sins to be forgiven. There are no exceptions. We learn to love one another, and we learn to recognise our sin and we learn to allow Jesus to deal with it.

Why else did this Mass begin today with an opportunity to contemplate and confess to one another and before God our sins and shortcomings?

Why else does the Mass say ‘Before we start, and so that we can praise and worship God properly, and receive all he longs to give us, let’s clear the decks of all obstacles.’ We commit sins, we aren’t perfect, but we don’t need to fear sin. Because of Jesus, and what he does for us, sin has no hold on us. Our God is merciful.

Paul reminds us that we were called – all of us, called by God, into one and the same hope – priests, prostitutes, Scousers, Lancastrians, even people from Yorkshire, EVEN the man who does the voiceover on Come Dine With Me. We are all called into one and the same hope, hope in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, ascended, glorified; because the Jesus who called Matthew to follow him calls us to do the same, and to live in the same hope that the Jesus who calls us will save us to be his in heaven.

There isn’t a person who has ever lived who has been somehow not good enough to be part of the church. There is no-one to whom we can say ‘I’m sorry, but you just don’t come up to our standards.’ Everyone has a place here. We are not bound by the regulations which governed the way the Pharisees lived their lives. We have no place, no time, no reason to worry about whether the person sitting immediately to our left is free from the stain of sin.

Matthew followed Jesus. He abandoned his former life. He turned his back on the past, recognising the Jesus was the one who could free him from all that he had done. And that is worth celebrating, as he did, because the love of God is the only love worth having – all other love flows from it, is a reflection of it.

So thank God, from the bottom of your heart, for the taxman, who followed him, and who threw a dinner. Party long and hard, with brass bands and singing and with joy. For through him we learn the story of how one sinner found his way not just to the dinner table, but the heavenly banquet: and how we, who honour Jesus this day might do the same. St Matthew, our glorious patron, pray for us!

Preached at the Church of St Matthew, Carver Street, Sheffield, Saturday 24th October 2016 

The Holy Spirit and Priesthood

An Address given to the Priests of the Fulham Jurisdiction

The work of the priesthood is done on earth, but it is ranked among heavenly ordinances. And this is only right, for no man, no angel, no archangel, no other created power, but the Paraclete himself ordained this succession, and persuaded men, while still remaining in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. The priest, therefore, must be as pure as if he were standing in heaven itself, in the midst of those powers. (St John Chrysostom)

To have been touched by Christ, we must first have been touched by the Holy Spirit. Thus says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In speaking today I am conscious that priesthood is generally and rightly construed as being intimately concerned with the person of Christ; that it is Christ’s priesthood we are granted to share; but that the most critical encounters of our lives involve the invocation of the Holy Spirit, who is, after all, the Spirit of Christ. The first of these moments is at ordination, when the Bishop invokes the Holy Spirit upon us for the office and work of a priest. The second, and repeatable, moment, is when we ourselves invoke that same Spirit, over bread and wine, to make present the very Body and Blood of the one whose priesthood we share, and thus participate in the eternal offering of the Son to the Father. As if that wasn’t sufficient, without the action of the Holy Spirit our preaching is barren and fruitless. In truth, there are so many dimensions to the reality of what Chrysostom states that no one paper can hope to be comprehensive on the subject of The Holy Spirit and Priesthood. I aim to say a little about the role of the Holy Spirit in our pastoral and sacramental ministry, and how this shapes our participation in the divine mission which we are called to share. I will also reflect on our submission to the Holy Spirit in the matter of our preaching and in the the sacrament of confession; and maybe uncover the odd elephant trap along the way.

Personal and Corporate Understandings
Priesthood is rooted in the mysterious and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. The Anglican ordinals show the spirit to be at the heart of our understanding of ordination; ‘Receive the Holy Ghost…Send down the Holy Spirit.’…those ordained to a ministry of the Spirit must therefore like every Christian trust also in the hidden purposes of God.

We who have embarked on the priestly life have done so trusting in these hidden purposes. We have pledged ourselves, body, mind and soul, to the loving purposes of God and to do whatever must be done to see God’s reign triumph. Benjamin Gordon-Taylor, who I quoted a moment ago, goes on to quote a priest who has been somewhat influential in the lives of many of us – Fr Richard Benson. Benson wrote to a newly ordained mission priest encouraging him to

‘…recognise the presence of the Holy Ghost. Whom we receive, as accomplishing in us the work of the priesthood, so entirely beyond all human power – at once miraculous in its extent, and mysterious in its character.

The priestly life can be characterised as a life of invocation and response; we invoke the Spirit to act and transform; and it is the same Spirit upon whom we wait, in silence, in discernment, offering to his direction the small and large moments of decision which characterise the priestly life, be they pastoral, evangelistic, administrative or personal. We are bidden as priests to co-operate, in intimate relationship with this Spirit, recognising the presence of that same spirit in the college of priests, united around the Bishop, and indeed among the whole people of God. There is a personal dimension to our relationship with the Holy Spirit, of course, but it is framed by this broader, relational understanding which binds us together.

Forming the Spirit in our own image
I suspect that despite these truths we don’t reflect upon our relationship with the Holy Spirit as perhaps we ought. If I hesitate slightly at this point, it is because of an increasing awareness of an abuse in the church, and an arrogant abuse at that. Pneumatological language and discourse is open to grave manipulation; there is a great readiness to appropriate the Holy Spirit to pet causes within the church; saving the confession of personal revelation and rigorous enquiry, we exist in a church where the Spirit’s activity is discerned and claimed in an irresponsible and blithe manner. It’s important that in all our reflecting upon our relationship with the Holy Spirit we begin from a place of humility, and from the a place of recognising that we might be wrong.

This is a serious pitfall, and one which can manifest itself in a number of ways – certainly in preaching, and most often in personal conversation. We begin, then, with the realisation that in our creature hood and particularly in priesthood we are the servants of this Spirit, and that discernment is a core activity and investment for the priest. Just as we exist as priests receiving and invoking the same Holy Spirit, so we are both formed and assist the formation of others through our fidelity to the Spirit of God.

That said, Yves Congar (1986) writes most respectfully of the ways in which personal revelation can produce great fruit. In a chapter entitled Autonomy of the Spirit, Congar reminds us that the very nature of the Holy Spirit lends itself to personal initiative, to charism and prophecy – indeed, part of the structuring principle of the church, as opposed to a divine wild card which seeks to frustrate institution rather than to fulfil it. Power reinforces this when he writes ‘The Spirit is the one breathed forth to reveal the freedom and fruitfulness of a love beyond understanding, and to reveal the inwardness, the testifying power, the glory and pure autonomy conferred by that love.’

The Holy Spirit
Put simply, the Holy Spirit is the continuing gift of God of himself to the church, promised by Jesus as the comforter, the advocate, who would lead us into all truth and be with us continually. The analogies we use for the Holy Spirit are elemental ones; fire, wind, water. Common to each image is a prevailing sense of movement, activity and momentum. The work of the Spirit is never static. There is never a time when we as priests can be content with what we have in the exercise of priesthood. There is always more, always a fresh horizon.

The Holy Spirit is himself a bringer of gifts, both as listed in Isaiah 11 and also those theological and moral virtues which will be the focus of a later address. Suffice it to say at this time that these gifts, alongside the theological and cardinal virtues, are implanted at baptism, not ordination. This draws us back to the vital contemporary role of the parish priest who is so often in pole position when it comes to discerning these gifts flourishing in the faithful. This is so often where vocations to the ordained and religious life begin, and where the flourishing of lay ministries so vital to the life of the local church are found and nurtured. We co-operate with the work of the Spirit when we accompany those who are searching for meaning and truth, as well as those who are discerning some form of Christian ministry, mission or vocation. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that this Spirit perfects faith through revealing the meaning of scripture and spiritual reality, thereby enabling us to encounter God. The priest co-operates with this bringing to perfection through patient pastoral accompaniment, through teaching and through spiritual counsel. The interior life of the priest is therefore crucial both in sustaining priesthood but also in proclaiming and revealing the truth of the Gospel in the worshipping and wider community.

The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the priest is most apparent through the ministry of word and sacrament: The initiation rites of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, and through Confession, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Unction. Through these means we have the core of gifts by which the Holy Spirit, active within the church, continues the mission of Jesus. Married to the breaking open and proclamation of the word, these are the means by which we are enabled to live in hope, trusting in God’s promises, while being conformed further and yet further in the image of Christ. In other words, it is the Spirit who brings growth – both personal and corporate – in the priestly life, rooted in discipleship rather than mere admiration, granting the strength to witness in what can feel like an increasingly hostile world. As I speak I am conscious that we are six weeks, and 150 miles, from the martyrdom of Jacques Hamel. Who but the Holy Spirit could have sustained him in his final moments?

This same Spirit is the one who continues every aspect of the Mission of Christ to its eschatological fulfilment. We have been called by that same Spirit into the service of this goal, a continuation of the miraculous and scandalous truth that God acts through frail human flesh to enact his will. To accomplish this we are renewed, and granted the desire and perseverance to ‘go deeper’ in the intimate relationship we enjoy as priests. All of us will have known, at some point, the immense spiritual dryness which can affect the life of any praying Christian, but more acutely the life of the priest. When this is so we cling to the received truth which Paul offered to the Romans the remarkable concept of the Spirit, animating our own prayer even when we cannot: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’. Given that we ourselves are instruments by which the Spirit guides the church toward holiness, and that as stewards of the mysteries of salvation in Jesus Christ, we do well to remember this, and to balance the high bar which St John Chrysostom set at the opening of this talk with a recognition that we are frail, and vulnerable, and most certainly unable to accomplish things in our own strength. Not for nothing does the Ordination rite remind us that it is precisely at these moments of recognition that we should ‘pray earnestly for the gifts of the Spirit.’ There can be moments of great anxiety and frailty, particularly at the altar, when saying Mass, in my experience; these moments are invariably set aside at the epiclesis, when this foolish priest remembers that the Holy Spirit is effecting the miracle. St John Damascene writes ‘By the power of the Holy Spirit the transformation of the bread into the Body of Christ takes place’. Indeed, the words of the epiclesis save us from any sense that the Mass, and indeed, the sacramental economy, is in any way routine, or (even worse) a chore. And, of course, there is to be no heading to the other extreme – by thinking more highly of ourselves than servants should. ‘The Catholic Sacrament of Orders’ writes Dermot Power, ‘with its insistence on the Spirit’s gift through the hands of the Apostles’ successor leaves no room for any sense of human merit or achievement.’

Pastoral Ministry and Spiritual Life
That said, there will invariably be moments in our lives when the sense of routine overwhelms us, and we go through phases of repetitive conversation and action in the routine of the parish. That is inevitable, and unavoidable. To seek renewal in our relationship with the Holy Spirit is to seek to re-animate these experiences, so that we are encouraged to do all things well, and not to be tempted to short-cuts. The same applies to the tasks which we find difficult or distasteful, the people we find mad, tedious or troublesome and the work thrust on us from other places when the diary is already over-full. And in seeking, and persevering in this way, we are continually formed – equipped to tasks while being shaped for the future.

It is a well-rehearsed dynamic that the parish priest today is dealing with a great deal more than his predecessors. We are spread more thinly, with additional responsibilities, and with the demands of bureaucracy all around us. The pattern of our lives has changed so much! We are also, thanks to technology, much more available than clergy of a previous generation. And there is always the temptation to phase out, by degrees, the things which actually animate the interior life and enable the intimacy with the Spirit which enables fruit to grow through the hidden purposes of God. And it is worth remembering that there is no corner of our lives which is somehow immune from, or cut off from, the Spirit’s activity, if we truly take the risk of faith and trust and open the entirety of our existence to the work of grace. And how do we do as we are so often bidden by the planners and the strategists, to prioritise and use our time wisely and fruitfully? This is a place where we need the activity of the Holy Spirit more than ever.

Devout Submission
One of the temptations of priesthood is to substitute experience for grace. As time goes on it is tempting to rely more and more on our own resources, as if we have somehow acquired enough grace already to deal with the specific situations we encounter. This is where the disposition of humility, indeed, of submission, to the Holy Spirit is so important, and that we renew this sense every day. In addition to this, Holy Order does not eliminate sin- in fact, it seems to magnify it – and our fragility is with us always. But our consciousness of sin is itself evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit, and we are able to fall back on the healing of wounds and the forgiveness of sins which lies at the heart of the Spirit’s ministry to priest and people alike.

It is the presence of the Holy Spirit which renders preaching a converting ordinance. There are so many factors which feature in our sermon preparation: our immersion in scripture, animated by the Spirit; our experience of those who will listen, and how they will respond; our use of illustration, carefully selected to illustrate the point we are trying to draw from the readings. Preaching is most certainly a potent opportunity for the proclamation of the gospel. It is also fraught with temptation. To preach is at once to be powerful and vulnerable, and it is easy to forget that our task is to make Jesus known, in the power of the Spirit. Everything else is submitted to this goal – to reveal the mystery of Jesus Christ, and to do so in depth. Here is an opportunity to reflect upon the saying of Jesus, with all their promises and challenges. And, as ever, this is an activity in which we become increasingly aware of the Spirit’s dynamism and influence.

Paul reminds the church in Corinth that his own words are not to be taken as conventional wisdom, but rather ‘in the demonstration of the Spirit and power’ (1 Cor 2:4). Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium of the overall importance of the transmission of joy, but also of the importance of seeing preaching as a process of partnership between preacher and Holy Spirit. The exhortation refers to a first step of personal dialogue which acts as an overture to the casual enquirer. Whilst preaching comes some way after that stage, there is no doubt to hear the Word of God broken open by a preacher is a significant step, and very often transformative. Speaking of the Homily, Pope Francis writes:

‘We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies; the laity from having to listen to them, and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.’

Francis goes to great lengths to remind us that the liturgical context of the homily is all important, especially with regard to the balance and rhythm of the liturgy; the climax of the breaking open of the word is the reception of communion. But the purpose of the homily is the engagement of the spirit of love, to teach and to learn, to correct and to appreciate the gifts of God afresh. This Spirit – the same spirit ‘who inspires the gospels and who acts in the Church also inspires the preacher to hear the faith of God’s people and to find the right way to preach at the Eucharist’.
It goes without saying that we should pray before preaching, and we should pray thoughout the process of sermon preparation, to make real the intimacy of the Spirit and to claim his gifts and promises.

The Holy Spirit and Sin
The Power to forgive sins is intimately bound up with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ appears in the Upper Room. ‘Peace be with you’. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, and then, breathing on them said ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (Jn 20:21-23). It is hard to think of any words, or any area of priestly ministry, which is so awesome in its import and requires such care and discernment on the part of the priest. We serve communities which have, to a great extent, lost any sense of sin – something which runs parallel to a sense of alienation from God and a lack of desire to engage in any Godward enquiry with any positive sense. Our Anglo-Catholic inheritance is full of stories of queues to the confessional – a world in which penitence held a far more important place than it does today. This presents us with a frustration – that we cannot minister as we feel that we ought. Part of the solution lies in the making of our own confessions, and the rigour with which we examine our consciences – a huge part of the journey towards a renewed relationship with the Holy Spirit. Again, we pray for the activity of the Holy Spirit, inspiring us and the people we serve to a greater sense of our flawed humanity, in need of mercy and forgiveness.

Let me conclude with these words of the Coptic Monk Father Matta El-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor) who writes of the Holy Spirit thus.

The Holy Spirit is by nature meek and calm; His voice is never heard and His form never seen except by those that meet with one accord in the intimacy of loveland await the promise of the Lord, those the open their hearts and lift their eyes to where Christ sits, demanding the right of children and seeking the face of the Father. To these the Spirit manifests himself as a light for the inner eye and a fire that fills the heart so that every mouth overflows with the praise of God. The young shall see the “Light of the World” in their visions, and the old realise him in their dreams.

Damian Feeney

Given to the Priests of the Fulham Jurisdiction at the Maison Diocesaine d’Accueil, Lille, France, Tuesday 6 September 2016

Further Reading
Congar, Y. (1986) The Word and the Spirit Chapman, London
Von Balthasar (2007) Priestly Spirituality Ignatius, San Francisco
Schoenborn (2010) The Joy of being a Priest Ignatius, San Francisco
Power, D. (1998) A Spiritual Theology of the Priesthood
T&T Clark, Edinburgh
St John Paul II (2002) Letters to my Brother Priests Scepter, Princeton
Matthew the Poor (1989) The Communion of Love St Vladimir, New York
S John Chrysostom (1977) Six Books on the Priesthood St Vladimir, New York

The Walsingham Assumptiontide Lecture 2016

Mary as Proto-evangelist: What does she teach the church about Mission? A Lecture given in the Parish Church of S Mary & All Saints, Little Walsingham, on 13 August 2016

Our Lady has a lot of titles. Hundreds of them. Each refers to a specific virtue, an intimacy with her Son, or indeed to the site of a place made holy by her visits. This place is among them, of course, and it is a joy and an honour to be here. Thank you to Father Andrew, and to your churchwardens for your kind invitation to give this lecture. I began with a reference to the titles of Our Lady because there is one that is either missing or certainly not in popular use. I refer to the term ‘proto-evangelist.’ She is, indeed, Queen of Evangelists, but that has an altogether different and more nuanced meaning. She is also, according to Evangelii Gaudium, Mother of Evangelisation[1], because she is ‘the Mother of the Church which evangelizes.’ Each title carries with it a specific nuance – in the course of this talk I want to explore the importance of Mary, proto-evangelist, and see what this might uncover in application to our present missionary situation.

William Abraham, in ‘The Logic of Evangelism’ defines Evangelism as

That set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people in to the Kingdom of God[2].

Recent literature in the field of evangelism has given us a bewildering variety of definitions, but Abraham’s definition is as helpful as any. The term we are using today – Proto-evangelist – refers both to time and eminence. Mary is the first evangelist, because she is the first to receive and proclaim the definitive good news concerning the salvation of the world through the message of the angel. She is the first to discover the particular form God’s plan will take. Anything that comes before this falls into the category of prophecy. So, Isaiah’s pronouncement in Chapter 7:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel[3].

This is a revelation of another order all together. Isaiah points in prophecy to a future hope. Mary, on the other hand, is speaking from direct experience of God’s activity within her soul, her mind and her body.

Mary is also the first evangelist because her proclamation has so many facets to it, and so much fruit. Without Mary, there could be no Christ, no Gospel to proclaim. It may seem a strange claim, given that scripture records so few of Mary’s words; but that is to presuppose that evangelism is merely a verbal activity. There is certainly a verbal component to evangelism, and it is indispensible – but it is far from the whole story. Mary’s evangelism, her proclamation, her invitation to us to love her Son, is part of her very being, from the moment she assented to the message of the angel.

Mary hears the divine plan, and she accepts. She receives and internalizes the Word in the most intimate and physical way possible, through Divine overshadowing. She does things which are not understood either by casual observer or professional health visitor – not really the time to undertake a six month journey to see your cousin – and that’s before the needs of the Roman Empire fall neatly behind God’s plan and vision by directing Mary and her wonderful spouse to Bethlehem, the seat of the House of David, where the Christ was to be born. Then to Egypt. We discover that Mary isn’t just an evangelist; she is an itinerant, wandering evangelist, travelling from place to place, and from country to country, before the Holy Family is able to settle in Nazareth. And she travels with the living God inside her, for the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her. She is Word-Carrier, Word-Sustainer, Word-Protector. We are bidden here to recognize the astonishing truth that here God’s plan of reliance upon the human condition is total. Into your hands, O Mary, God commits His Spirit.

The nature of that overshadowing is mysterious and profound. It is a type of the overshadowing described in the Creation narratives in Genesis: indeed, it is a type of the reality of overshadowing by which the New Covenant is to be made real among God’s people. Here is the New Covenant’s Ark – that of which the author of Exodus describes in Chapter 4031-35 is in fact the forerunner of Mary herself.

‘When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He set up the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen at the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’.[4]

Mary is the tabernacle filled by the glory of the Lord. In this, and in so many other ways, Mary is a walking, wandering narrative of salvation, especially and poignantly in the time between the visit from the Archangel and the Nativity of the Lord.

Mary is recorded as saying relatively little in scripture, but what she does say is dynamite. Nowhere is this clearer than in the period of her pregnancy. In the Lucan narrative she visits Elizabeth, who is also with child, and responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the words we now know as the Magnificat[5]. It is as if the very presence of the Christ child within her womb opens up for her a dynamic revelation to rival anything said before, or since. Luke reveals the reasons why Mary praises God in such glowing terms – what he has done for her, what he is doing for all his people. And, yes, this flows across the whole human existence – what he has done for Mary he will do for us all. He will raise up the lowly, scatter the proud, dethrone the mighty and powerful. It is, as Denis McBride points out, the hymn of a Cinderella people[6]. It is a powerful statement, combining as it does evangelical testimony of what God has begun, and even now moves towards eschatological fulfillment in her own womb. And this does not merely apply to Mary herself, but to the whole of the created order of which she is part.

But Mary’s role as proto-evangelist goes way beyond her own verbal proclamation. She is at once Tabernacle, and Ark of the Covenant – a place where the mystery of all existence resides, a portal of wonder. The words of proclamation are there, for sure: Praise and magnify God, work for justice, do whatever my son tells you. Here, however, is a proclamation which goes far beyond the verbal: it proceeds to the ontological, the mystical, the supernatural, to the very heart of all existence. And wherever and whenever there is devotion to Mary, there is devotion to her son, because our love of Mary is contingent upon our adoration of Jesus. And it is in our own stillness, our own silence, mirroring Mary’s own, that we are able to comprehend the length and the breadth, the height and the depth, of God’s love shown for us both in his divine self-emptying and his human being; and in the prior impulse of God to seek the co-operation of one of his own, wonderful beings, as the lynch-pin of the economy of salvation. And because in Mary we can ponder the mystery of the divine plan, the reliance on the created and the human, we are led further and further into what it means to be invited by God to share fully in His divine life. It is not merely in the fact of the incarnation but in its processes: For in Mary we discover the astonishing miracle that God takes human flesh and associates it with divinity. It is the beginning of the scandalous process of the theosis, the deification of humanity of which both Iraeneus and Athanasius were to write in the centuries to come. Mary’s very being proclaims this to the world, and through that proclamation we are made aware of God’s intentions towards humans and indeed, the whole created order.

Mary’s proclamation is implicit, then, in her very being. She who was conceived without sin was thus prepared for the task of God-bearing. And at a time and in a place where her pregnant state could have been the cause of gossip, scandal and even execution under the law, Mary uses it as a springboard, possessed as she is by the interior knowledge and truth of her encounter with the Archangel. Mary’s evangelism is verbal – she proclaims the ultimate Good News to a people who had been waiting for centuries for the message she carried – and it is far more than verbal, but implicit in her very being through the enfleshing of God within her.

Mary is proto-evangelist, certainly, but we must contend that she also sets the bar high for evangelists in other ways. An evangelist must be, first and foremost, a disciple – a follower and pupil of the Master. We are reminded of the consequence of all this in Luke 8.21 when Jesus seems to cast a preferential familial status to discipleship rather than consanguinity – something which may seem hard for a mother to bear, but in fact reminds us that Mother is also faithful disciple.

‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’[7]

Mary is not only the first evangelist, but offers a model of evangelism which is far removed from the traditional images which mar our understanding of this important area. In his closing meditation ‘Mary the Evangelist’ in his book The Abundance of the Heart, Bishop Stephen Cottrell remarks

Sometimes evangelism is seen as either the shallow end of faith – the preserve of the mindlessly enthusiastic – or the macho branch of the church – tub-thumping proclamation and feverish activity. Mary presents another way. Her Magnificat shows that the proclamation of salvation is properly bound up with the proclamation of the Kingdom and that the two should not be separated. By her example we learn a contemplative approach to evangelism.[8]

A further aspect to Mary’s proclamation comes through the various apparitions and statements attributed to her in holy places and shrines. Indeed, the role of proclamation in places such as this lies at the heart of Shrine ministry, as it does in Fatima and Lourdes, to name but two. Those apparitions, miracles and messages granted through Our Lady in these and other places are further signs of grace, signs of proclamation and challenge. Pope Pius XII’s 1957 encyclical Le Pelerinage de Lourdes points this out:

Everything about Mary directs us to her Son, our only Saviour, in anticipation of whose merits she was immaculate and full of grace. Everything about Mary raises us to the praise of the adorable Trinity; and so it was that Bernadette, praying her rosary before the grotto, learned from the words and bearing of the Blessed Virgin how she should give glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[9]

More specifically, the encyclical goes on to quote Pope Pius X:

The unique glory of the shrine of Lourdes lies in the fact that people are drawn there from everywhere by Mary to adore Jesus Christ in the august Sacrament, so that this shrine – at once a centre of Marian devotion and a throne of the Eucharistic mystery – surpasses in glory, it seems, all others in the Catholic world.[10]

What does this have to teach the church? There are a number of specific points for us to consider. Firstly, the nature of evangelism is both verbal and non-verbal, and neither component is dispensable. The Church has been done great harm by the misquoting of St Francis of Assisi, who is alleged to have said ‘Share the Gospel at all time, and if necessary, use words.’ This has been used with glee and a certain relief for those for whom the prospect of verbal faith sharing is an unattractive one. David Hyams[11] quotes a sermon of St Francis, in which he debunks any preference for ‘silent evangelism.’

‘Once you have made a sincere confession, bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. I tell you again, if you are ungrateful for these gifts, and return to your vomit, the disasters will return, punishment will double, and even greater wrath will rage against you’. These are not the actions or comments of an evangelist hesitant to employ the spoken word.

So, the articulation of the story of our salvation is critical. We would not know of the great things God had done for Mary if she had not proclaimed them. It is vital that every Christian is able to be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.[12] Paul VI reinforced this when he wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi

‘The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed’[13]

In Mary we meet one whose own overshadowing leads directly to this proclamation of the gospel of her son. Her opening exchange of greetings with Elizabeth, as mothers and sons meet, cannot be contained. She does not have time to return Elizabeth’s personal greeting (‘Hello, cousin! How wonderful to see you…’) but cannot contain the praise of God that courses through her.

Secondly, whilst our words are important, so equally is our witness. Mary carries the child Jesus in her womb. Here at Walsingham she shows her infant son to the world. At Cana she exhorts us to obedience, and cajoles her son into a slightly untimely action which was surely his most instantly popular miracle. She stands at the foot of the cross, wordless now, immovable in the face of heart-rending grief. She waits with the apostles after the Ascension for the further overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. She is there. She is the silent witness. The Church has always wondered what her words might have been, but they are not recorded, perhaps because the time for words is past; only the witness of a life intimately linked to her Son and thus God’s will do. Pope Paul VI again expands on this type of witness as being the only thing which offers distinctive and effective evangelization in the contemporary world:

One can never sufficiently stress the fact that evangelization does not consist only of the preaching and teaching of a doctrine. For evangelization must touch life: the natural life to which it gives a new meaning, thanks to the evangelical perspectives that it reveals; and the supernatural life, which is not the negation but the purification and elevation of the natural life[14].

Thirdly, evangelism is borne not merely of words or conviction but of ontological reality. The church is called, in a supernatural sense, to be the outward face of Christian evangelism. In this, we are drawn to her Son by Mary, who is (as Lumen Gentium quoting St Ambrose of Milan states) herself a type of the church.

As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ[15]. For in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother. Through her faith and obedience she gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, not through the knowledge of man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, in the manner of a new Eve who placed her faith, not in the serpent of old but in God’s messenger without waivering in doubt. The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first born among many brethren (Rom. 8:29), that is, the faithful, in whose generation and formation she cooperates with a mother’s love.

This passage from Lumen Gentium stresses virginity and motherhood, faith and obedience, and finally cooperation. If, however, Mary is a type of the church, it would be seemly to add her role as evangelist. If Mary is a type of the church, she is our model for inviting people to share the banquet of her son. Pope Francis acknowledges this in Evangelii Gaudium when he writes of the Church having a ‘Marian style of evangelization’[16], which encompasses both the contemplative and active virtues. The virtues traditionally ascribed to Mary are irenic, and sometimes described as passive – that isn’t a bad thing, and of course Cottrell speaks of Mary as ‘Contemplative Evangelist’ – but surely in her exemplary life of faith and witness we encounter confidence, bravery and radical Kingdom Theology.

Finally, there is the message we receive from the cult of Marian apparition: that the call to mission is a supernatural call, and with supernatural consequences. Not merely in word, but in divine plan, the church is called from the merely temporal and temporary into the concerns of the Kingdom of Heaven. Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje and, indeed Walsingham are vibrant signs of Our Lady calling the people of God back to the first call – to hear the voice of the Lord God, to seek the restoration of original innocence, and to dwell once more in bliss.

In my introduction I mentioned the title used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium – that of Mother of Evangelisation. This follows on more from the typology issue mentioned earlier, but also reminds us of Mary’s rather enigmatic presence with the disciples at Pentecost.[17] Accordingly the praying shared with the disciples ‘made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost.’[18] She whom the Spirit overshadowed ultimately invoked that same Spirit upon the church, just as, with the beloved disciple, she had received the Spirit at the foot of the Cross[19].

Ultimately, God is the evangelist, and it is God’s Mission in which Mary – and all of us – participate. But none, before or since, have offered themselves so completely to the plan of salvation, assisted it so miraculously, and – even though of relatively few recorded words – have proclaimed it so thoroughly. I conclude with the prayer offered by Pope Francis at the conclusion of Evangelii Gaudium, which sums up all that I have tried to say.

Mary, Virgin and Mother,

you who, moved by the Holy Spirit,

welcomes the Word of life

in the depths of your humble faith,

as you gave yourself completely to the Eternal One,

help us to say our own “yes”

to the urgent call, as pressing as ever,

to proclaim the good news of Jesus.


Filled with Christ’s presence,

you brought joy to John the Baptist,

making him exult in the womb of his mother.

Brimming over with joy,

you sang of the great things done by God.

standing at the foot of the cross

with unyielding faith,

you received the joyful comfort of the resurrection

and joined the disciples in awaiting the Spirit

so that the evangelizing Church might be born.


obtain for us a new ardour born of the resurrection,

that we may bring to all the Gospel of life

which triumphs over death.

give us a holy courage to seek new paths,

that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.


Virgin of listening and contemplation,

Mother of love, Bride of the eternal wedding feast,

pray for the church, whose pure icon you are,

that she may never be closed in on herself

or lose her passion for establishing God’s kingdom.


Star of the new evangelization,

help us to bear radiant witness to communion,

service, ardent and generous faith,

justice and love of the poor,

that the joy of the Gospel may reach the ends of the earth,

illuminating even the fringes of our world.


Mother of the living gospel,

wellspring of happiness for God’s little ones,

pray for us.


Amen. Alleluia[20]!

Damian Feeney


[1] Evangelii Gaudium 284

[2] Abraham, W. The Logic of Evangelism, Eerdmanns 1996

[3] Isaiah 7.14. All quotations from Scripture are from NRSV.

[4] Exodus 40.31-35

[5] Luke 1.46

[6] Mc Bride, D., The Gospel of Luke: A reflective commentary Dominican, 1991, p. 30

[7] Luke 8.21

[8] Cottrell, S., From the Abundance of the Heart, DLT 2006, p. 133

[9] Le Pelerinage de Lourdes, 1957, 23

[10] op.cit: quoting Brief of April 25, 1911: Arch. brev. ap., Pius X, an. 1911Div. Lib. IX, pars I, f. 337.

[11] Hyams, D. Silent Evangelism: Misunderstanding St Francis’ Exhortation at (referenced 26.07.2016)

[12] 1 Peter 3.15

[13] Evangelii Nuntiandi 22

[14] Evangelii Nuntiandi 47

[15] Lumen Gentium,, quoting S. Ambrosius, Expos. Lc. II, 7: PL 15, 1555.

[16] EG 288

[17] Acts 1.15

[18] EG 284

[19] John 19.25-30

[20] EG 288

The Spirit of the Lord God

A Homily for a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit: The First Mass of Fr Tom Wintle, Curate of the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin and Ss Mary & John, Camp Hill, Nuneaton

Readings: Isaiah lxi.1-3, 6, 8-9; Ps. civ.1, 24, 29-30, 31, 43; 1 Corinthians xii.3-7, 12-13 John xx.19-23

‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me’. (Isaiah 61.1)

Or, more specifically tonight, on you, Father Tom, because that Spirit was invoked upon you by the bishop last night, for the office and work of a priest, that you may help us to discover further the ministry of service and abandonment to the divine will which is bestowed upon the church – that you may be a visible and demonstrable sign of that will, and church’s response to it. I know it is a great day for you, and for your family, and you have been waiting for today for many years. It is also a wonderful day for those who have been privileged to be part of your journey thus far. For priests here this evening, ordinations and first masses are great events not only because of the gift of a new priest, but because it reminds us all of our own ordinations, our own first masses. Priests are recalled to what made us respond to the call of God in our lives, to the time when we fell in love with our loving God. We ponder our own journeys of faith since those moments, and (if we are wise) resolve to capture again the great feeling of joy which you demonstrate tonight as you invoke the Holy Spirit yourself upon us, and upon bread and wine, so that Christ may be truly present, and so that we might be equipped to play our part as the children of God.

What does the Spirit enable? What is there that was not before? Isaiah give us some examples of what we might expect. The Spirit enables you to be a bringer of Good News – and how we need it in the turbulent present. You are enabled to be a healer, a binder up of wounds, one who tells us that we are no longer in slavery to sin and evil. You are to proclaim comfort for the sorrowful, and to renew the dead ashes of human endeavour with a flowering garland. Oh, yes, and you have to continue to attend your IME Training.

You may be familiar with the type of lizard known as a chameleon. A chameleon is clever. It can change colour to suit its surroundings. You may know the old joke that cruelty is best defined buy the act of placing a chameleon on a tartan rug and watching it die of over exertion.

Priests are sometimes called to change colour, to become part of their surroundings, in order to serve that place better. We are called, as Pope Francis reminded us, to ‘smell of the sheep.’ But at the same time, a priest must remain distinctive, able to speak the prophetic, and sometimes unpopular word – to his people. You are called to live your life within a community and yet be called apart from them.  This is the very essence of priesthood, and is the total preserve of our Great High Priest Jesus Christ, in whose Incarnation we rejoice. Totally human, blended in with his people, yet the colourful, sharp-edged and distinctive word of the living God among us. The part we play in receiving the grace for this is to be found in a patient and deep rooted listening – listening to our communities, listening to ourselves, but listening in a disciplined and devoted fashion to God.

This listening is the beginning of our obedience, the beginning of priestly living. Listening to God, listening to others. We must listen from the uncluttered space of the heart. It’s a very radical and subversive notion. We live in a world of background noise, of supermarket musak, of traffic noise, of the telly in the corner, endless chatter, manipulative words, the words which mask the truth, the aggressive hard sell. This noise, these wasted words, create pressure. Real silence is rare, and it’s no wonder that we can find it difficult to hear that voice within, the voice of our God, calling, guiding us home. All Christian people – not just priests – are called to carve out such spaces for silence in our lives, because it is in that silence when the ways of God become open and apparent to us. ‘Cut off from me’ Jesus said ‘you can do nothing’. And we become cut off from Jesus if we do not seek the places where he is to be found, and especially in the silence of the heart.

Father, every relationship you have ever known expands tonight, and your capacity to hold all these before God is an essential part of the life you now live. And you must hold them serenely, calmly, before God in the stillness and silence of your heart, not replicating their fear and anxiety but presenting them to God through Christ, whose priesthood you now share. Your life is now a sacramental focus of the school of excellence in loving and being loved, and enabling others whose capacity to love and trust has been damaged by the challenges of life to trust and love again. This is a great deal of what it means to heal and to reconcile. It is costly, it is God-centred, it is, Father, privilege, sacrifice and joy.

Sacraments can’t stay on the altar, just as the Word of God cannot stay in the pulpit. These are the greatest gifts of all, and they are to be shared freely, recklessly, because they spring from the heart of Love itself. And when you give your heart to people, to families, and to your community, it is that Word, those Sacraments, which will make you stand out not only as priest but as someone intimately involved with the mission of Jesus.

Brothers and Sisters, may I encourage you to be prepared for God to act in this community, in your heart and soul, at this moment, tonight, and in the days, months and years to come. Be prepared to be challenged by goodness, by grace, by forgiveness, by the Kingdom of God which turns the world upside down. For if we truly knew the power of what we do this night, Father, you would not do it lightly. We would be issuing hard hats for protection, and distress flares, not hymn books and orders of service. We come to the Mass not in the hope, but in the expectation that Jesus will change us, and we should be ready for that, and glad of it. In offering us this gift of a new priest, God bestows privilege: but with privilege comes responsibility. Fr Tom stands before us tonight as one who has heard the call of God in his life. So what of you and I? Are we listening? Are we attentive to the call of God? Is there an unattended corner in your heart which longs to respond to God? Might God be calling you, to a new and different life?

May we open our hearts to the riches of God’s grace, and open our minds to the possibility that who we are tonight is not the finished article. And may the Spirit of the Lord, so active tonight in and through Tom Wintle, priest, awaken and enliven all our hearts, that we may live as citizens of heaven.

Radiance and Intimacy

A Sermon for a Votive Mass  of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest: The First Mass of Fr Keyvan Dominic Cyrus, Curate of S Michael and All Angels, and Holy Cross, Tividale

Readings: Hebrews x:12-23 Psalm xxxix:6, 9-11 Luke xxii.14-20

Fr Keyvan Dominic Cyrus is a priest in the Church of God. How glad and grateful we are! We are twice grateful: Grateful to Fr Dominic who has responded to the call of God in his life, setting all else aside, for  he and Rashin have sought to live in the light of God, as signs of his generosity. And we are grateful to Almighty God, in whose praise we gather here this afternoon. A new priest is always Good News, not necessarily because of anything he may bring to the priestly life, but because this grace is a sign that God continues to care for his people through the ministry of the priesthood which belongs to Jesus Christ, and which we who are priests are privileged to share. And today Fr Dominic does what new priests do; he hastens to the altar, here to make present the eternal offering of the son to the Father, for the first time, with newly anointed hands and heart. It is an explosion of joy, and you may suspect that his face is even more radiant than normal! If that is so, it is no surprise. Father, since you have been called to this office by God, and so you are ever closer to the person God has called you to be – as Blessed John Henry Newman put it, closer to the ‘final me’ – the one you are called to become. A new priest is a sign and a challenge for the whole people of God, in our own vocations, because we are all called by God in particular ways: and so I take this opportunity to ask the question, of each and every one of you gathered here: What is God calling you to be, to do? Who is the ‘final me’ as far as you are concerned? It is a question each of us should face, and answer, as we journey towards Christ, and listen carefully for the answer.

Father, you have exercised with great joy and dignity, the office of a deacon, proclaiming the Word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Now God calls you to a yet more intimate form of service: intimate with Christ, and with the members of his Body. The great mystery we share today underlines this intimacy, as you celebrate this Mass of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that it is the action of Christ, in offering himself freely and willingly, which makes the difference for his people. We speak of a priest’s ‘First Mass’ and yet on one level there is only one Mass, one offering – that of the Son to the Father. This Mass participates in that perfect and eternal offering. And just as this Mass participates in that offering, so you are granted a priesthood which is not your own, but which is a share in the great High Priesthood of Jesus Christ, enabling you to perform the wonderful works of God.

Father, in the course of your life as a priest you will use many words as you seek to give God glory, and for the upbuilding of God’s people. But among these words, the most critical and significant will be the words of the Mass you offer. Thomas Merton says of these most special of words

In speaking the words of the Mass, the Priest is not only ‘speaking for the people’ he also ‘speaks to God’. Critically, these words are not his own words. ‘In a few simple sentences which are the words of God’ give us by Christ, these words unite us with God. To be precise, what is pronounced when the dominical words are spoken is the ‘Word that is uttered by the Father (and so) cause the Word to be present in time, in a special state – incarnate and sacrificed.

Words are precious, and the world in which we live has become too fond of words. We are bombarded with them, and they are too often careless words, words which destroy rather than build, words which denigrate rather than encourage. The words of Fr Dominic today are the most important words a human being can ever utter, because they are words which invoke the action of God, in His world, words of astonishing power which draw God’s people into an intimate communion with Him. And if he has any sense (and he has) Fr Dominic will know the power of these words and perhaps be a little nervous; but Father, do not be afraid, for God is most surely with you, for he has called and chosen you, and so will equip you for this task. May you truly ‘have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus’.

Father this is your First Mass; or, more properly, the first which you have celebrated for us, for your people. May it be the first of many hundreds, thousands, of Masses! And may you, each time you approach the altar, feel as you feel today; nervous, because of the importance and solemnity of what Christ works in you; excited, because of the privilege of standing in the footmarks of Christ; and radiant wth joy, because you know that through the actions of the priest among his people lives are transformed out of all recognition, people are healed and reconciled, and captive souls are set free. Yes, may you always feel what you feel today, and may your face from this day forward shine with a radiance which comes from the intimacy which God has ordained in you: and may you continue to give yourself with joy and abandon, until our Saviour Christ is all in all.

Mercy and Mission

An Address to priests of the Society of the Holy Cross: Milton Keynes, 15 June. 2016

“Lord Jesus Christ, you are our merciful God become Man to redeem us from our sins. Open our eyes to the debt of love that we owe you for your unspeakable merciful love for us. Open our hearts to give ourselves to you through those whom you place into our lives, so that by our mercy toward them we may win mercy from you and, dear Jesus, cooperate with you in the redemption of a sinful world. Amen.”

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me to be with you today, and for the opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the place of mercy in the mission of the church. Mercy is a characteristic of our loving God, and therefore our understanding of mercy increases as our knowing God increases. And because mercy is a characteristic of God, inseparable from God himself, we are engaged in the business of proclaiming something which is part of God’s very nature. Given the broadest possible interpretation of the word ‘Mission’ as the task which God originates and shares with his church, we should be able to recognise that if we proclaim God, we proclaim His Mercy, which is itself the archetype of all acts of mercy in the course of daily living. 
Of course, the great quasi-liturgical and spiritual motif of this Year of Mercy is that of passing through a door which has been opened for the purpose, betokening entry into a new phase of life in Christ. The message is clear: whoever you are, whatever you have done, there is always a way back to Christ. The door is always open. Mercy is in this regard a close companion of hospitality – that our doors are open to anyone, anywhere, in an infinite number of contexts. I believe it was Augustine who said that there is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future. 
As I look back over my life as a priest so far, I am both saddened and amazed by the number of times people have said to me that they felt themselves to be irrevocably cut off from God because of something they had done in their past, or because of something about them which they believed ruled them out either of entry into the church, or indeed, access to salvation, and to Christ himself. And I find myself asking ‘What have we done?’ How have we portrayed ourselves, both overtly and covertly, to make people of whatever history, walk of life, or disposition, believe that the church was not for them, that the mercy promised them by Jesus Christ was somehow not available? Either through action or inaction, words or silence, dispositions or through pure co-incidence, the church has done much that is wrong in the lives of individual people. We often have to cut through the misassumptions and misrepresentations among which people live if we are to offer people a wholly positive message – a message that they are loved by God, that God is anxious to show mercy to them, and that mercy is but one facet of the supreme and constant outpouring of grace which is the inheritance of those who seek to live close to him. Perhaps the first and most pressing connection between mercy and mission comes in our seeking of it as individual priests and as the church catholic. 
We might contend, then, that mercy is something which has to be sought, by ourselves and by others; for the dynamic of mercy and forgiveness to be fully effective, there needs to be acknowledgement of sin and the nature of the estrangement. It is indeed a two way process, and I wouldn’t want anything I say be taken to mean that I think there’s such a thing as cheap grace! Far from it. But sometimes, when a person is at the beginning of the journey towards divine mercy, they are not aware of the nature of the estrangement, nor have their lives been shaped by the moral norms and dispositions which we as a group of Catholic clergy take for granted. Indeed, the language we employ in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus is critical if we are to make any sort of headway with the estranged soul. We are well used to the stereotype of evangelism which preaches sin before it preaches mercy. There’s a reason why it doesn’t work, and that reason is that it starts from a negative assumption about the human condition. Good News, if it is to appear Good, needs to start from a far higher place, encompassing hope, optimism, love – God must love humans – he became one. It’s like the difference between First Aid and major surgery – what happens at the beginning of a process isn’t necessarily what needs to happen as the pilgrimage proceeds. Awareness of sinfulness, and the need for mercy, is generally a gradual process, an awakening, for the individual soul, and our preaching about mercy needs to touch on this simply, and to ensure that people know that support, love and mercy are present, both in the informal setting of the companionship of the community of faith and the more formal setting of the sacramental life of the church. 
The people we serve are very often people shaped by culturally malignant forces. Everywhere we are served up the rhetoric of corporations, consumption, propaganda, advertisement, and the constant and insistent white noise of social media. These in no small measure account for the swift abandonment of things that we would take to be moral norms and which have occasioned, in a generation, such a crisis of identity and confidence in the church and in western culture. Different parts of the church have answered this crisis in particular ways, either through cultural relativism, and trying to look as culturally relevant as possible, or through standing to one side, observing pharisaically the tendencies of a wayward world, and calling itself ‘counter-cultural’. Both of these paths are fraught with difficulties. Become indistinguishable from the world, and we have nothing distinctive or transformative to offer: become separate from the world, and we have no means of connection or communication with which to offer love and mercy to a world which is needy but does not know that need. There is a third way; the way of living in and being part of the world without seeing the world’s concerns as our prior claim. Rather, we are part of God’s plan of salvation for the world he loves, and longs for. We are in the world to reveal the Kingdom of God.
Our life is a joy-filled discovery of what it means to see the world through the eyes of the Living God. We as priests are called to seek that place of divine observation, of placing all our dispositions at the service of God, and to be part of the agency through which God works. This means modelling divine mercy in our lives, both as an indication of the present reality of God’s mercy and as a foretaste of the mercy to come within the realm of God’s judgement. We know and believe that God’s impulses are always prior to, and greater than, our own – the impulse of love, the impulse of joy, the impulses of mercy and forgiveness. We recall the words of the first epistle of John:
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4.10-12)
Of course, all of God’s attributes are in fact God, one and the same. To say that God is ‘merciful’ is not to subdivide God according to attribute but rather to describe yet another wonderful facet of God. So we can say with St Faustina that ‘Love is the flower, mercy the fruit’ (Diary, 948).’

The story is told of a Bishop from the Southern Bible-belt United States spending Holy Week at a famous shrine of Anglo Catholicism in London (no names, no pack drill). At the gin fest which followed the High Mass on Easter Day, one of the rather nice young servers smarmed over the the Bishop on the pretext of refilling his glass, and said ‘I suppose, Father, that all of this has been a bit extreme for you?’ The Bishop didn’t skip a beat. ‘Son’ he said, ‘When I think of what ma Lord and Saviour did for me, nothing I could do for him could be too extreme.’
I tell that story because what the Bishop had done was to understand the length, the breadth, the height and the depth of God’s mercy towards him and towards the whole human race expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The side bar to it was that it was a tremendous put-down. Our own understanding of mercy depends on the same process, balancing our understanding of our sinful state against the overwhelming grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds the Romans that 
‘…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5.20-21)

So, however sinful we may be, there is, in Christ, always grace to cover it, to beat it. Accordingly, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. (Romans 8.31 foll).
 We will, as ever, assist others to recognise their own need of mercy by recognising ours: the tools given to us in the Society Rule enable us to do this. Frequent examination of conscience: frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One thing is for sure. This generation knows that priests are sinners, for the newspapers tell us so! That place on the pedestal of parish life never was a good place to be, but was where misguided idealists – lay and ordained – placed us. We need to vacate it, fast, if we haven’t already, because only Jesus belongs there. Our stewardship of the share of priesthood granted to us is best tended by humility, and by assisting others, gently and with sensitivity, to come to an understanding of their need for mercy. This manifests itself through a preaching ethos of encouragement, and through testimonies and stories from ourselves and from others. 

Mercy, then, is rooted and grounded in love. It cannot be otherwise. Samuel Crossman’s great hymn ‘My song is love unknown’ makes this point well with the wonderful lines in the first verse ‘love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. I remember meeting with a couple in Lancashire in the course of organising the funeral of his mother. They were delightful, and spoke in articulate fashion about Mother, her living and her dying. It transpired that they both visited her every day in the nursing home for a number of years, and had dog’s abuse from her every day in the process. She was hard-bitten, cynical, and thoroughly world weary, and he was most upset at the thought that he felt he had not, could not, love her as he should have done. I reminded him that the act of visiting, day in, day out, even in the face of an unpromising encounter, was a wonderful act of love. Had he not loved, he would have said ‘Well, stuff it’ (or similar) and not bothered. But bother they did, and visit they did. I quoted the Samuel Crossman lines to him. When we love those who are loveless, we embody divine mercy. Then we love our enemies, we embody divine mercy. When we love, and receive bile in return, but still love, that is divine mercy at work. 
This bring us back to our understanding of salvation history as being one overwhelming act of divine mercy. God did not have to create, but did so. He did not have to become human, but did so. God sis not have to send his Spirit, but does so. God pours out love, and grace, and mercy on us, his undeserving poor. The link between mercy and mission, therefore, lies in our capacity to recognise our own need for mercy, to so animate our communities with self-understanding that they might do the same, and hence for this to form the understanding in the wider community of what the church founded by Jesus Christ is about. Mercy is what happens when the Lord God makes the choice to overlook our sins, because of what his Son did, and because our sin in the end makes us love him all the more, as we become increasingly aware of the fact that ‘between our sins and their reward, we set The Passion of Thy Son our Lord.’ Mercy is what shapes and forms us in our understanding of the generosity of God – if we and our people know mercy, then we know what is the debt of love that we owe to God, and live our lives in the freedom of that love. 
Finally, I think there is a temptation when engaged in the language of business of mercy, that we must be careful with the emphasis of what we say. The Church, in proclaiming mercy, is emphasising a characteristic of God which people have not suspected. We hear tales of an angry God, a judgemental God, and tyrannical God. My experience of God, in scripture, in the Mass, and in the store of my life, is that he is merciful to a sublime degree. But how careful we must be not to sound as if this were merely some largesse which the church had decided to distribute to her people, as if we were the moral arbiters of the piece. All we can do is speak of God’s mercy, embody it in our relationships with parishioners and the wider community, and issue the invitations whereby those who see themselves as beyond mercy can in fact come and experience it for themselves. 
“Lord Jesus Christ, you are our merciful God become Man to redeem us from our sins. Open our eyes to the debt of love that we owe you for your unspeakable merciful love for us. Open our hearts to give ourselves to you through those whom you place into our lives, so that by our mercy toward them we may win mercy from you and, dear Jesus, cooperate with you in the redemption of a sinful world. Amen.”
Damian Feeney

Thee we Adore

A Homily for Corpus Christi 2016

Readings:  Genesis xiv:18-20 Psalm cix:1-4 , 1 Corinthians xi:23-26 Luke 9:11-17

Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore: O make us love thee more and more.

When you think about it, the church treats the Last Supper in a slightly odd way. The Last Supper, when Jesus took bread and wine, and said ‘This is my Body…this is my Blood’ – all this took place the night before Jesus died. And yet the gospel reading on Maundy Thursday doesn’t mention it. It focuses instead on Jesus doing the work of a slave, washing the feet of his friends. The institution of the Mass gets no coverage. To remedy this, and after a long period of lobbying, the church decreed in the fourteenth century that this feast – in honour of the Body and Blood of Christ – should be celebrated to give us the chance to ponder what it means for Jesus to be present with us, through the action of the priest with his people, in the outwards forms of bread and wine.

Every Sunday – indeed, every day the Mass is celebrated here – Jesus is made present among us, in this particular way. We do it because he told us to: ‘Do this in memory of me’. We do it because it is what we are for. The words and actions of the priest, in the presence of and on behalf of the people (and you need both).’ Send down your Holy Spirit on these gifts, and on these people. Bread and wine is transformed, for a second time. First of all, wheat and grapes are gathered from creation, and are crushed, to be turned into flour, and the juice of the grape. Bread ferments through yeast, grape juice through sugar. Bread is baked, and wine is allowed the gift of time to transform it from grape juice into glorious, delicious wine.

And then the second transformation – by God’s Holy Spirit – that bread and wine become body, become blood, of Jesus Christ himself. And behind me, the tabernacle on the high altar, where the Body of Christ reposes, marked by a candle, suspended from on high, to remind us when we come into church that Jesus Christ is here, in our tabernacle, on our altars, in our hearts. Only on one day of the year is the candle extinguished – on Good Friday, when the death of Jesus leaves us bereft, pining, waiting for that same Holy Spirit to act, in raising Jesus from the dead.

And, as at every Mass, we will be fed – fed by the Body and Blood of Jesus, Corpus et Sanguis Christi. Jesus feeds us, not with bodily food like those five thousand, but with heavenly food, a food which becomes part of us, which nourishes us, with the indwelling Christ. And at the end of Mass today we will kneel, and we will adore, Jesus, on his throne of glory, and in this Holy Sacrament. This is life itself – your life, my life, fed with his life. And how right it is that we the the chance, with all of our being, to be brought to our knees by Jesus.

We use the word ‘adore’ too loosely. I adore Fiona. I adore the children. I adore seafood. I adore the dogs. (sometimes). I adore Mozart, and roast lamb, and the smell of lavender. I adore ‘Poetry please’ on Radio Four, and a really good cup of tea. But the truth is that I don’t. If I adore, I worship, I am brought low before you. I am driven to my knees because that is the only way I can show the depth of how I truly feel. (And even if you can’t kneel down any more, you can kneel down in your head, in your heart).

We kneel down to say ‘You are greater than me. You are God. I love you this much.’ Our calling as Christian people is to fall in love – to fall in love with one another, for sure, but mainly to fall in love with God. And one of the ways we show this is that take time to adore him, just because we can, and it’s wonderful. When we love someone, we long to be with them, to be close to them, to be in their presence. This applies to Jesus, only more so. Think of the words of the hymn

Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore: O make us love thee more and more.

We adore Jesus in this sacrament, and we ask that he will grant us the gift of loving him more and more. We don’t choose who we fall in love with – it happens, and it is a gift from God, because God is love. So we ask God to help us love him more.

A little while ago we sang these words.

We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.

Praise. Bless. Adore. Glorify. Thank. These are the sensations that should be on our hearts as we worship. Sometimes that is hard, and we don’t make it, and we come to church even though it’s the last thing we want to do but we know we should so we do. And this is why. Because we know we should praise, and bless, and adore, and glorify. And we know we need to be forgiven, and healed, and encouraged, and that Jesus longs us to have all these things, and more. But this is not merely something we turn up and consume. This is, in fact, who we are. A groups sinners who smile because we at least know our need of God and have been found by him. And he is here. Right here. He is always here. And he is always with you, if you will take him with you. He will be in your hearts, your homes, your places of work, if you will be good enough to take him with you. Please. Don’t just leave him here, with only a candle for company, because unless you take him from this altar, this church, into the world, he will not be able to do the same for others.

Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore. O make us love thee more and more.