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The greatest gift is love

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on Trinity XIII

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"Some consolation", Pierre van Hanselaere (Ghent, 1786–1862), 1825The commandments are summed up in this sentence, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

With these words, S. Paul echoes Christ in placing love of those around us, along with love of God, as more than some mere optional extra; but rather as the highest aim of our lives — as the fulfilment of the law. There is just one problem with this — we often seem to have very odd ideas about what this love means.

Society presents us with many images of love, and to be fair many of these have significant amounts of truth within them; but for us, the marker of what true love is can only be found in one place — God. Everything which God has done to and for humanity over the centuries has been an act of love — our creation in the very first place, was so that he could love humanity; the giving of the Old Testament law was an act of love to guide the ancient Israelites in their relations with each other and with God; above all, the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, was an act of love. God is pure love, it’s not merely that he is loving, but he is love itself; and so everything which he does is love.

If we look at God’s works, and Christ’s teachings we come across a fuller and better understanding of love than we find presented by society. S. Paul gives us a good start today when he says that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour’ — the essence of loving somebody else begins with doing them no wrong. This expands to give us a basic definition of loving somebody, which is to want them best for them for their own sake. That is, by loving somebody we want them to have everything good; and we do this simply because of the love we have for them. If we want good for other people because of what it will do for us, then that isn’t this complete and God-like love.

Showing love to others will often make us happy, they may well respond in kind and show love back to us — being friends with other people certainly brings happiness to us. But if we are to have God’s love this can’t be why we do it. If we are to have God’s love, then we should do good to others even when we know that they won’t or can’t return that good to us. So often the Church exhorts us to do good to the poorest, the weakest, the most vulnerable — this is because they are those who are unable to give us anything in return.

But wanting the best for others isn’t always easy. It can make hard demands on us, and we are given a particular example of that in today’s Gospel. We hear Christ talking about a brother, that is somebody close to us, somebody we should be loving, who sins against us. What he says to us is more than a little bit challenging. We are told that we should confront this brother. At first we might look at this and think that this conflicts with the repeated instructions not to be judgmental — but the important point is love, this has to be the motivation. The love which wants the best for others, includes wanting the best for this sinning brother.

In confronting them we shouldn’t be trying to be harsh, we shouldn’t be judgmental — if we do this rightly, then we are showing love. We are calling them back to that place where they will be better off, where they will be in a right relationship with God and with those around them. This is one of the hardest demands which love makes of us. It is only if we look at it from the perspective of God’s love that it makes sense — if somebody is straying severely, then they are damaging themselves and their relationship with God (which is the very best thing to have); we cannot love somebody in that position and not want them to turn back and restore that relationship with God.

How can we do this? It’s very difficult, to say the least. As humans we do find it almost impossible to do good things without allowing our own sinful tendencies to creep in — to call somebody back from sin without being judgmental requires a strong purity of mind. Something which we cannot manage by ourselves.

We need to remember that God is the source of love, we love because he loved us first. The love we try to show to those around us is God’s love. He gives us the example, certainly — but he also gives us the strength to show that love, and the guidance to know when and how to do so. It is only by union with God that we can hope to begin to show love to others. Above all, by reflecting on Christ’s example of love — the way that he reached out lovingly to all around him, including when he spoke harsh words to those who needed to be roused from their sinful misguided ways. Finally, by uniting ourselves to that place where God’s love was shown more fully than anywhere else — on the Cross, where Christ offered his life out of nothing more than love for every single human.

Make no mistake: love really does hurt, it really is difficult — but it is the place where we become most united to God. Let us ask him for the strength to show his love to all of those around us.

Take up thy Cross, the Saviour said

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on Trinity XII

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Greek Orthodox icon (Modern, anonymous, from what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

We all like to share a bit of good news. The end of the madness relating to this ‘pandemic’ would be nice, perhaps the birth of a child, good exam results and university places or job appointments.

The ‘good news’ encountered at the heart of the Gospel message is to be shared for the salvation of our souls. However, this ’Good News’ is counter-intuitive and therefore difficult for the disciples, especially Peter to get his head around.

The good news of the Gospel is simple. To be a disciple of Christ is to embrace the cross and the suffering that goes with it. We might have some sympathy with Peter and his response to the shocking nature of what Our Lord had to say. Who would not want to prevent a loved one from suffering and death?

Yet the rebuke Peter gets from the Lord is astonishing in its forcefulness. In a moment Peter goes from being named ‘The Rock’ upon which the Lord will build his Church to being told ‘get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me.’ More accurately ‘you are a stumbling stone to me’ our Lord makes a pun of his name. Peter’s thinking moved him from being the rock to build on to being a stumbling stone in the way.

The cross that our Lord says we must embrace is an instrument of torture — the cruellest form of death available to the Roman occupiers. In modern parlance we might say embrace the guillotine, the firing squad, the electric chair or even more controversial, the Liverpool Care Pathway.

The strength of Our Lord’s response to Peter is in measure to the consequence of his actions. The only means of salvation for humanity was for our Lord to go to Calvary. To oppose that was to stand in the way of God’s will for the salvation of the world, and unwittingly side with Satan. It is corrupt human thinking.

A disciple then is one who primarily follows his master. Yes, it requires knowing the faith and assenting to correct doctrine, as Paul states in our reading from Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We should engage our brains, but the emphasis of the disciple is that he is a follower.

The following of Christ is none other than the way of the Cross. There is no escaping this path if we wish to save our lives. Of course our natural response is to flee from hardship, suffering and especially when we are asked to give up our lives, but that is exactly what our Lord asks of us, to take up our cross and follow him.

Here is the paradox Christ reveals to us.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

The Greek for the word that is translated as life is ‘psyche’. It can be translated as soul and carries the meaning of the whole of our being. So we should read, ‘What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul or very being.’

Why would you give up your soul for the world, beautiful though it is; the world that is temporal, here today and gone tomorrow? What sort of madness gives up his eternal soul for that which is passing away?

Ask any older person and they will tell you that life is very short, some days may linger but the years pass with worrying speed. The physical world cannot save our souls and is incapable of providing us the happiness that our entire being longs for.

There is only one way to live, to follow Christ, fleeing conformity to the spirit of this world. We do this by taking up the cross, dying to the self — the old Adam — so that we might be made alive in Christ. And as St Paul says: “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

His mercy is on those who fear him

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady

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Assumption of Our Lady, Guido Reni (1575–1642), 1617For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

When Our Lady first said those words, ‘he who is mighty’ had only just begun to do great things for her; today we celebrate the conclusion of those great things which he did for her. Almighty God had given her the particular grace of being immaculately conceived, and then had preserved from all sin; she had been given the gift of motherhood (despite an apparent vow of virginity); but then at the end of her life, everything else was brought to completion, she was taken body and soul into heaven. She had so many great things done for her, and as we contemplate them we give thanks to God, and we rejoice to call her blessed.

As we reflect on the text of the Magnificat, we cannot fail to notice that everything is about God. Our Lady speaks the great praises of the one who has done things for her and to her — has indeed done great things. She knows that everything which she has, all of the many gifts which have been given to her, are because of God and his goodness. By herself she does not deserve anything — but by the grace of God working in her, she receives so much that all generations acknowledge her as ‘blessed’.

This reflects one of her most powerful qualities: her humility. She begins her praises of God by placing herself on the lowest rung — she calls herself his mere handmaiden. She knows that everything which she has comes as the free gift of God, and because she trusts in his great love for all of humanity, she is happy to be called his lowly servant…because she knows that this where she can have his love poured out into her.

She acknowledges her need of God, she acknowledges that it is only by his grace — his free gift to her — that she has anything. And it is through this humility that receives everything which God gives to her. It is through that humility that she now reigns as Queen of Heaven, that she has a throne placed in the heights next to her Son’s own throne.

She is not chosen by God because she is already powerful; not because she already has some great merits to her own name…but because she is the one who is willing to show this humility. She is the one willing to call herself the handmaid of the Lord; she is the one willing to accept God’s mission for her, simply because (however confusing it must have seemed) it was God’s mission.

Today, that willingness to accept God’s plan, that humility before him, comes to its completion. It finishes in her glory — her glory, which is won by humility, which is won by trust in God.

When we contemplate Our Lady, we naturally give thanks for everything which she has done, and for everything which God has done through her. Now that she has been raised on high, we ask for her prayers to assist us in our own journeys with Christ, her Son.

But we can also see a path which we should follow.

Our calling from God will not be the same as Our Lady’s — but it will need the same response from us. A humble acceptance of God’s plan, and a willingness to embrace it; an acknowledgement that everything good which we have comes from God, rather than our own merit.

If we have that same attitude as she had — then what she received today, we will receive in due course. The Assumption of Our Lady is not just something given to her, it is also a promise made to the rest of humanity. When Christ was raised from the dead, death had its power destroyed; when Our Lady was assumed God showed that this destruction of death meant that heaven is open for all of us who trust in him and follow him. Our Lady is the pre-eminent disciple of Christ, she is the model for us all in following him…by being assumed, she shows that heaven is an option for us all.

This doesn’t mean that we will be assumed in the same way — she has gone first as the proof to the rest of us. Our bodies will be laid to rest in the grave, and will then (we pray) be reunited with our souls in heaven at the end of time. And when we get there, she will be waiting to greet us as her beloved children.

What we need to do now is follow her example. Be faithful to her Son, seek to be as pure and sinless as she was, have the same humility as she had, and accept the plan which God has for us.

If we decide to follow her example, then she stands ready to assist us with her prayers. Let us always turn to her, and ask for her aid in following her Son.

Take heart: It is I

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Video | Order of Mass

Jesus holds the sinking Peter on the sea, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld; pub. Die Bibel in Bildern, Leipzig: Georg Wigands, 1860. Hathi Digital Trust Library, Getty LibraryWhen Peter saw the wind, he was afraid, and began to sink.

When we think about S Peter’s venture out into the water we can readily sympathise with his fear. We know well the story about Christ walking on the water, but of course he was God incarnate and so being able perform miracles isn’t overly surprising…but for S Peter to get out of that boat required a powerful act of faith, and so it’s hardly surprising that his nerve failed him.

But this story isn’t just about S Peter, it’s about all of us, and the journey which we make walking with Christ having stepped out from our own boats — not physical boats on literal water, but still a journey which requires a great deal of faith for us, and a great deal of perseverance.

It is a common theme in the Gospels that Christ’s miracles were connected with the faith of those affected. Think of lack of miracles when he returned to his home-town — he was recognised, and so people didn’t accept that he was special; they remembered him as a boy playing in the streets, helping Our Lady and S Joseph, and this gave them a blockage which stopped them from having faith in his power. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the power, but that the miracles were the joining of his supernatural power with the faith of those in need. At the opposite end of the scale, he met people who were not even Jews, but who nonetheless expressed strong faith in him and in his power, and so they were graced with powerful healing for those whom they loved, those on whose behalf they approached Christ.

The same principle is at work in today’s Gospel. Having seen Christ walk on the water, S Peter in one of his typically impetuous moments of faith calls out for Christ to summon him. S Peter has a strong powerful faith, he knows at that moment that Christ’s power is enough to support him outside of the boat. He climbed out and his faith was proved right, he walked to Christ on the water. This is where we are all supposed to be too. Christ has come near to us, we have seen him, and have been called by him. Climbing out of the boats of our normal lives, we are walking on the waters towards him.

If only it were quite that simple though. S Peter walked towards Christ, but there were wind and waves around him. He saw those, and suddenly that faith which had kept him from sinking seemed to melt away. Remember that Christ works his miracles through the faith of those who need them. S Peter’s faith weakens, and so too does his willingness to receive Christ’s miracle…he starts to sink. He stops looking towards Christ, and rather starts to focus on the challenges to his relationship with Christ. Rather see the work which Christ has done, and is doing in him, he allows his fears to invade. He starts to sink.

But at the last moment things get sorted out. As he begins to sink, it would be so easy for the fears, for the wind and waves, to become even more overwhelming…but deep down, his heart still belongs to Christ, and so he turn back in desperation and calls on Christ to save him. In doing this, he makes a sort of mini-profession of faith — he shows that he knows that Christ can save him.

How this applies to us can become clear. We are walking amid those waves, we have that wind blowing in our face. Not the same literal wind and waves, but for us this is everything which would draw our faces from looking solely towards God. Everything which would weaken our trust in God — the many challenges in our lives, the pains of this world which make us wonder where God is. There hasn’t been a single Christian who hasn’t had these challenges, there hasn’t been a single Christian whose trust in God hasn’t been challenged.

What we need to do though is keep our eyes fixed on Christ. He is the one who is supporting us; he is the one whose strength is enough for us. As soon as our eyes start to move around, to ponder those challenges, to wonder whether we can truly survive all of these dangers…that’s when we become like S Peter and we start to sink.

When this happens, we need to become like S Peter again. We need to turn straight back to Christ, and cry out from the depths of our hearts ‘Lord, save me’. Christ is always there, he is always walking with us, and he wants us to walk with him. He gives us so many gifts to help us in that walk — most of all the Sacraments, with the grace which they give us. But if, even with all of these supports, the challenges of our lives and of the world around us start to overwhelm us…then Christ still stands there ready to help us.

S Peter already had a deep love and faith for Christ by the time he walked on the water, we too have been given the gift of faith in our Baptisms — we just need to keep out eyes fixed on Christ, and then we need not fear the wind and waves, we can know that Christ stands there ready to give us whatever help we need.

Current arrangements for worship

Public worship has resumed with Ordinariate services at St Agnes’ Church and Christ the King, and also Masses at St Joachim’s and Our Lady of Ransom. Details of Ordinariate services are in the calendar and sidebar here; others are published on their own websites: Christ the King/St Joachim and Our Lady of Ransom.

Churches are generally open for private prayer before Mass, and for extended periods on some days during the week. These extended periods aren’t possible at St Agnes’ Church, but for other churches please see their websites.

In an emergency which requires the sacrament of anointing for the dying, a priest will be available whatever the circumstances. Other pastoral visits can also be arranged. Sacramental confession is available where appropriate social distancing and safety can be observed. If you’re still shielding and this isn’t possible for you, do make use of an Act of Perfect Contrition.

If you can’t get to Mass, services continue to be streamed — see our Video page — and we publish Homilies here too. Our resources for Liturgy in a Time of Crisis continue to be available.

It’s now a legal requirement to wear a face covering in church, although if there is an exception for you in shops then it will also apply in church. Social distancing is now at the so-called “1m+”. Our protocols for opening St Agnes’ Church are published on this site; other communities and churches have their own which they will publicise as appropriate. Currently, groups in church must have no more than six people unless they are all from the same household or support bubble. We also offer the opportunity to provide details for the NHS Test & Trace programme.

At a time when most of the country is returning to something like normal, it is imperative to continue to think of the most vulnerable — who may now be less noticeable — and continue to have a eye for our neighbours. If you can help in any way, please do ring the office phone or Fr Neil’s mobile. And if you need help yourself, do not be afraid to call.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Video | Order of Mass

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

Anonymous, via pxhere.comPaul asks this question in his letter to the Romans and provides one of the most beautifully reassuring passages of scripture.

This section of Romans 8 is often chosen at funerals to speak of the never failing promises of God. “If God is for us who can be against us?” The answer is that nothing in heaven or earth can separate us from the love of Christ.

These beautiful words of assurance however mustn’t slip into a naive Protestant mind set, based on a misunderstanding of the text. What this passage is not saying is that, once we’ve given our life to Christ and been baptised, salvation is guaranteed no matter what you or I do with our lives from here on in. This is to abuse the scriptures and misrepresent Paul and his spiritual reflection on the salvific work of Christ.

Paul makes it very clear in Galatians 5:19–21 that there are indeed actions that we take that can deny us heavenly glory.

Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

The only thing then that can separate us from Christ is ourselves. However, even if we fall and fall badly, our Lord always provides a way back for those willing to take it.

The sacrament of confession allows us a way back into the promise of God’s never failing love and assurance of salvation. As Paul says, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

To understand what Paul is actually saying here in Romans, we need to look at the list of things which he says cannot separate us from Christ in response to his rhetorical question. The first list asks: “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Paul is writing to the Church in Rome who are beginning to experience the persecutions and martyrdoms that will mark so much of the Church’s life throughout the centuries. Paul’s emphatic answer is “No!” Things external to ourselves cannot undo what God has done. Whatever may happen to the body through persecution by ridicule, rejection, torture or even martyrdom cannot undo Christ’s work of salvation in us.

What to the world might look like an absolute disaster and failure in a battered and persecuted Church, is in fact none other than a reflection of Christ’s journey to Calvary and an act of atonement for the salvation of the world. All who follow Christ are called to pick up their cross and follow him — an element of suffering is to be expected.

Paul’s theology of the cross doesn’t end with the atonement, important though that is. He sees more going on which is revealed by his second list of things that cannot separate us from Christ:

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul’s also sees the Cross as a moment of victory, a victory against all principalities and powers. A victory over Satan and his corrupted angels, the demons. Here Paul shares a common thought with John who carries the theme throughout his gospel of the Cross being the place where Christ is lifted up to glory. We are victors with Christ over the demonic elements that once held us in slavery to sin and death having been over come by Christ on the cross.

In Colossians 2:14–15 Paul says:

having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

We may well often have to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” as we have given into temptation but what we cannot claim is the devil made me do it — he doesn’t have that power over us anymore.

Although our sanctification then is played out on the back drop of the spiritual warfare in the heavenly realms, we can be assured that nothing in heaven or earth can wrestle us out of the arms of our Lord. Therefore we have a wonderful promise that we should remind ourselves of and treasure in our hearts. The love of God, revealed in the sacred heart has not passively waited for our return but actively sought to find us, bear us home and restore us to an even greater dignity than we had before.

This is love and it is this perfect love that drives out all fear. The fear of death, hell, the principalities, powers and eternal separation from Christ. The depth to which we know of such love will reveals the faith or lack of faith we see in our Church at the present time.

However, for those who have grasped these spiritual realities we trust that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”