Fr John Hemer’s Key Note Address

At Invocation

I’ve been asked to suggest some ‘the key spiritual qualities or characteristics it is necessary to develop a) in order to be a good Christian, and b) to begin to hear and discover one’s vocation in a noisy and busy world.’

We hear a lot about spirituality, so I think it’s important to define terms at least a little. When someone says to you: “I’m a very spiritual person,” they can mean several quite different things. They may mean that they go to daily Mass, read the scriptures regularly, devote time to prayer and try to be as loving as they can to the people around them. Or being very spiritual may mean that they only wear clothing made by native Americans, have a dream catcher in their bedroom, eat only organic food, preferably grown by peasants who wear natural fibres and farm in synchronicity with the movement of the planets; always carry their lucky crystal with them, have their house regularly feng-shue’d in order to stay in harmony with rhythms of the universe, and always try to fill their living room with the fragrance of organic essential oils. (Funnily enough the first type of person is far less likely to call themselves ‘spiritual’ than the New Ager.)

I’m not talking about fads or fashions. When I say spirituality I mean the desire to live life with God, consciously following Jesus, with the practise and discipline that involves.
Our western world has been dominated for so long by the business of profit and production. It’s materialist in that people have been inclined to trust and value only tangible, material things. That tends to mean that almost anything which seems to go counter to that is deemed spiritual. Wind chimes and scented candles may make your environment more pleasant, less harsh; maybe even make you feel more ‘spiritual’ but they can be just as much a product of consumerism and the desire for profit as the latest fashions or the latest sports car.

We often hear people say: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Rather than start foaming at the mouth it’s worth noting that there might be a grain of truth in that idea. Spirituality comes before religion. We have all sorts of desires, longings, aches, we are restless in all sorts of ways. Spirituality is what we do with that restlessness. Whether people practise religion or not, whether they believe in God or not they have those longings. Sometimes they are clear and specific like when we fall in love and there is only one object to almost all our desires. Often they aren’t. We have a sense of wanting more in our lives. Spirituality is how we respond to our deepest desires, and the one that won’t go away is the desire for God. It wouldn’t go away even in the former communist block when responding to it was made illegal. It won’t go away in secular Britain when people try to ridicule you and make you seem weird if you go to Mass. So when someone says: “I’m spiritual but not religious” It’s like someone saying: “I can sing beautifully but I don’t want to learn any songs, because they are other people’s compositions, and it must be my voice. I refuse to learn music because having to force my voice into keys and bars and time signatures will take away its freedom.” Or it’s like someone saying: “I can dance beautifully but I’m not going to learn any steps or moves, it’s got to be my body and my movement.”

You may have a magnificent set of vocal chords, you may be a wonderful mover, but unless those things are channelled and disciplined they remain raw ability, raw energy and they are not much use. I was once talking to a very charming Dutch girl who told me: “I do believe in God, but in my own way, and I do pray, but in my own way.” To many that sounds more authentic and real than believing a faith someone else has put together. It may sound more honest and personal than using second-hand prayers. But when someone believes in their own way their God is entirely a product of their making, we could say made in their image. The answer to something like that is “Why not believe in the way God himself has shown us, when not pray as Jesus himself has taught us.” God hasn’t left us guessing about what he’s like. He’s revealed himself through Jesus and the Church.

So perhaps the first quality we need is the willingness to accept revelation; the willingness to be taught by an authority greater than me; the openness to learn and be taught. Just about everything that I use – the car, the TV, the phone, the computer has been invented and built by someone else. I use them because they work and I know they work because others have used them before me and I’ve tried them myself. I’d be a fool to say I’ll only use the things I make myself. The same is true with faith. And what’s more, we believe that our faith has been given to us by God Incarnate, God has taken the trouble to become one of us and die at our hands to show us who he really is and who we can really become, to give us a clear path to himself. When he’s done that, why on earth would anyone want to invent something of their own? If someone hands you a Mercedes with the keys and says: “It’s yours,” why on earth would you want to go of and build your own custom made car when you don’t have even the most basic ability to do that?

Secondly we need a sacramental understanding of life, a sacramental imagination. This is about far more than the seven actions of the Church we call sacraments. When Jesus says at the end of Matthew: Know that I am with you until the end of time (MT 28: 19) he is not just being theoretical.
It would be very odd of God to go through whole project of incarnation, to spend hundreds of years preparing people for the coming of his son, just to have him work for three years and go back to heaven and leave us with a few more books (27) The infant Church experienced the power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit and through the sacraments, they came first. The NT was written a generation later. The Church had been celebrating Mass and baptising and ordaining people for thirty years before the first gospel was written down. The Church had the sacraments before she had even one page of the NT. That’s partly why St. Paul calls the Church the body of Christ

Many times in the gospel Jesus heals people by touching them; lepers, Simon’s mother in Law, Jairus’ daughter. The woman with haemorrhage touches the hem of his garment. He touched the eyes of blind men, spat on the ground and made paste of clay for the man born blind in John 9. He did not need to do any of this. With the centurion’s servant he just says the word and the man is healed. He didn’t need to do any of those actions, but because we have bodies and in Jesus God takes on a body he uses that, he uses our physicality, to save us. He knows that gestures and touch are often more necessary and powerful than words.

In Genesis 1 at the end of each days God looks at what he has made and sees that it is good and on the sixth day we read:.

And God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good. (Gen 1:31 DRA)
That is never taken back, creation is never deemed bad by God. Things go wrong with it, but his creation remains good. It’s on the first page of Genesis because it’s an idea we simply can’t do without. Creation, the material world, is good.

In the second century the Church had a huge struggle with a group of people who thought the opposite. They were called Gnostics and they thought the material world was evil. Many good spiritual people have thought the same and Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism and even certain brands of Christianity have fallen into that trap. Some modern people who call themselves ‘spiritual’ suffer from Gnosticism and I suspect that within the Church some of the people you meet who want everything to be a simple and as plain as possible, who have no time for ceremony and beauty, no time for the senses are probably closet Gnostics. When the liturgy becomes mainly words, there’s usually a Gnostic around somewhere.

The basic thinking behind Catholicism is that Jesus used physical things, touch, gestures to save people and we continue that with the sacraments. Every sacrament involves an encounter between at least two human beings. There’s no do-it yourself communion and despite what you may have heard you can’t go to confession over your I-phone. In John’s gospel we read: The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us He’s here to stay. The Church makes that possible and through the sacraments. But we need to realize that the whole of creation is sacramental. All things, all circumstances, all people can communicate God to us. As Gerard Manley Hopkins said in his poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need to trust our human ability to allow things, creation, to speak to us about God. Matter matters.

That great teacher of the spiritual life, Ignatius of Loyola tells us to find God in all things. There is no situation which cannot disclose God.

During my 2nd and 3rd years in the seminary in Holland I went through a huge crisis of faith, and I found, very painfully that God wasn’t always where I wanted him to be or where I looked for him. I was in Antwerp one day and really longing for some sense of the presence of God but he seemed painfully absent. I went into St Paul’s Church near the harbour, it’s that peculiar Belgian mix of a gothic structure which had been given an over- the-top baroque interior. Statues, decoration, flourishes everywhere. It’s the product of very high fervent devotion. Dozens of angels and saints with holy expressions all adoring God. And it left me utterly cold, in fact I felt a certain revulsion for it and instead of experiencing the presence of God felt a little sick and wondered how, if there was a creator of the universe, and I really wasn’t sure, how he could be honoured by all this frippery. So I left. All around St. Paul’s is the red light district with women sitting in the windows and seedy cafes on each corner. This part of Antwerp was very run down and seedy. Quite unexpectedly, but quite definitely I knew I was in the presence of God and I knew God was present among those women plying their trade, and simply here on this streets of this rather grotty neighbourhood.

I think it was God teaching me that he was God. I would certainly expect to find him in shrines and churches, but he seemed to be showing me that he turns up wherever he wants, more, that if I insisted on finding him where I thought he should be I’d hit a brick wall, and my piety could easily become a subtle kind of idolatry. There were other events during that time where God kept showing me that he is present everywhere and shows up where he pleases and not where I want to pigeon-hole him.

It’s urgent that we recognize this. So many people associate God with religious things and at the same time are turned off by ‘churchy’ things and so think they have nothing to do with God. Aggressive secularism tries to marginalize religious belief into holy ghettoes. We must be careful not to collude with that. In Catholic countries we find roadside shrines and statues all over the place. They don’t make God present, they just remind us that he is truly there.

Thirdly, realize that the opposite of spiritual isn’t being a hell-raiser; it isn’t being someone who is always out clubbing or looking for adventure or stimulation. The opposite of being spiritual is being a couch potato, someone who does absolutely nothing about the fire the energy that’s within them, does so little that the fire just goes out. The person addicted to stimulation is looking in the wrong place for something that will satisfy his longings, but at least he’s aware of those longings and trying to feed them. The one who sits on the couch and watches TV all day has anesthetised his longings. Whatever God calls us to we must recognise our passion and our longings.

Having said that, we must be aware that we can’t live with too much intensity for too long. In all the classical forms of religious life there are, if you like safety valves. Sometimes very earnest young people can be put off by monks and nuns who seem a bit too laid back about the whole thing. Remember how at the transfiguration Peter James and John have this wonderful disclosure of Jesus in all his glory and Peter wants to stay there, he thinks it’s so fantastic. But he can’t. He and the others have to come down the mountain and go back to normal life, and in fact they walk straight into a very awkward situation where some of the disciples have been tying to perform an exorcism and have made a pig’s ear of it. The place they will encounter God is normal life. Now and then in the seminaries we get young men who are very idealistic and very intense and they find everyone else a bit mediocre. But you often find that those sort of people can’t stay the course. Or, with the help of God they learn a little humility, they learn about their own weakness. Otherwise it’s very hard to live with someone like that. I suppose in the end it’s that following Christ is a long distance run rather than a sprint. So certainly we need to be passionate about our faith. But we also need a degree of mellowness. We have to be able to live comfortably and relax with it. It’s something that I’ve found young Catholics tend to do rather well. They know how to love Jesus and they know have to have a really good time, and they know that the one is not in opposition to the other.

Thirdly, humility. The prophet Micah said famously:
what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8 RSV)

That walking humbly is essential and it’s not always the easiest thing to do when we believe we are right. As Catholics we don’t claim to possess the truth, but rather the whole of Catholic life is allowing ourselves to be possessed by The Truth. Unlike many modern people, our lives do revolve around The Truth. We believe that in Jesus we have access to the whole truth about life and its meaning. In that sense we can say, heads held high: “We are right”. But we all know how easily the conviction that they are right can make people quite unpleasant. As e.e. cummings once said: “When men are right, they are not young.”

One of the things we must avoid at all costs is knowing that we are right because someone else is wrong. I don’t prove I’m on the right side by not being on the wrong side. We’ve probably all said to ourselves, one way or another: “I’m glad I’m not one of those people, that group, whoever that group happens to be. But we must realize that this is what we call self-righteousness and that it is the opposite of being Christian. What puts me in the right isn’t not being in the wrong; it’s being in Christ, clinging to Christ. Jesus didn’t say: “Blessed are those who’ve got it all right.” He said: Blessed are the poor in spirit. I worked among the Luo people in western Kenya and if you translate that literally into their language, it can come out as: “Blessed are those whose livers are confused.” That’s obviously not what Jesus meant although it probably describes some of my best friends. So in their translation it reads: “Blessed are those who know they are not perfect in the sight of God. Now that’s an interpretation rather than a strict translation, but it’s a very good one. That recognition that we are all a work in progress, that we depend on God’s mercy, is essential for all of us. We begin every Mass with a penitential rite; we recognize that we are not perfect.

An awful lot of the unpleasantness in modern society is brought about by people insisting they are right and can’t be corrected, can’t be reproved. But it’s understandable. Once you stop believing in God and trusting in his mercy, if you can’t convince yourself that you are just about perfect then you’re in an awful mess and there’s no way out of it except dogged self improvement which becomes an intolerable burden. So many people today insist on being right because without God, they have to be. As Christians we can relax a bit. Our understanding that we are loved and forgiven sinners, not driven perfectionists helps us do that. The opposite of poverty of spirit is cockiness, the kind of self-assurance that makes a person less than vulnerable to God and therefore less open to others.

Fourthly, back to the prophet Micah. The first thing he says is essential is: Do justice or act justly. The reason I mention this is, well it’s there, throughout the scriptures, throughout the Church’s teaching. But I have detected sometimes among some people concerned with Catholic Truth a rather negative attitude to these issues. If you remember during the papal event at Hyde Park last September before His Holiness arrived there were various presentations about the Church’s concern for and involvement with the poor and disadvantaged. Later I read a criticism of this part of the event saying it was one-sided and driven by people pushing “left-leaning issues.” Concern for the poor, not just giving them charity, but concern about why they are poor, concern about just wages and a just distribution of this world’s goods is not a preserve of the left or the right. It is absolutely central to the Bible and therefore absolutely central to the Catholic Faith and for well over a hundred years successive popes have given clear and powerful and sometimes very challenging teaching on these issues. So we can’t be Catholic and ignore these things.

It’s her concern for justice and honesty and integrity that very often gets the Church into trouble with the world. Jesus said: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18 RSV)

There are two communities that have always suffered hatred and prejudice. The Catholic Church and the Jews. Anti-Catholicism and Anti-Semitism are the two most enduring prejudices. Don’t be surprised or worried about that. Jesus promised that it would happen, but then he tells us why. It’s because both communities are, in their own way, God’s chosen vehicle of salvation for the world. The fact that people hate and ridicule us means that we stand for something, that we provide a real live-able alternative to the negativity and aimlessness and nihilism that eats away at our society. You know when you’re in the mood for sitting down and doing nothing, maybe you’re even feeling a bit down and someone wants you to come out with them and do something energetic and you’d really like to be left alone with your mild depression and so you get angry at the person who’s offering you a way out of this lethargy? Well, lots of people see no great purpose in life, that’s why they get angry at Christians who seem to have more to live for. They get angry at Catholics in particular because we are the only Church which doesn’t just change its teaching because the world around it changes.
And now a few pointers about discerning our vocation. When we first get that little suspicion, that intuition that God may be calling us to priesthood or religious life, or a very particular way of serving him, there are a few things to bear in mind.

First, one of the signs that you are being called is that you want to do it. That doesn’t mean you have to be immediately all gung-ho and ready to sign up tomorrow. But God doesn’t ask us to do things that we would hate to do. Twenty something years ago I was vocations director for a short time for Mill Hill. A young man here in Birmingham got in touch and said he would like to meet me. So I went to his house and he told me that he’s been dreading my visit all day. He was a good Catholic in all the usual senses of the word and had this terrible fear that God wanted him to be a priest, but he didn’t want to and didn’t think he had it in him. I told him that one of the signs of God’s action in our lives is joy and if the idea of priesthood plunged him into abject misery, God probably wasn’t calling him. We met once more and I was able to put his mind at rest.

Please note there are people who struggle for years to accept a vocation, that’s something different. I think of a priest-friend of mine who kept hearing God knocking gently for something like eight years before he eventually gave in and realized he had to do something about it. And although he lots of questions about celibacy and his own suitability and would he be OK, he had a deep sense that this was the right thing for him. And it is.

Secondly, I would say in general, don’t hang around for ever. This is a generalization, but it’s true to say that people today are often afraid of commitment. They are less likely to choose a career path for life, less likely to get married, less likely to join political parties and organizations of all sorts. And that of course has an effect on the way people view life-long commitment to God. So perhaps a very particular aspect of our witness to the world is that there still are people who will take on these commitments, stick at them, and, surprise surprise be happy and contented in them. When you’re discerning your vocation, don’t take the young St. Augustine as your role model. It took Augustine years and years to come to Christ and he dabbled in various things along the way. That part of his life finds echoes in the modern fear of commitment. We mustn’t romanticise that and we mustn’t romanticise our own hesitation. If God is knocking, answer the door and be confident that letting him in will never diminish us, can only lead to our flourishing.

So do give it a try. For some people getting in touch with a vocations director, spending time discerning and either realizing themselves or being told outright: “this is not for you” is an essential step on their journey. Or some people are afraid if they go to the seminary it may not work out. There are no guarantees. But if we don’t try we never find out. And lots of people do try and it works. It’s a basic principle of faith. When God calls Moses to lead the people out of Egypt he asks God for a sign and God says basically: “here’s the sign, give it a try, and when you have tried it, then you will know that it’s me and I’m reliable.” Fear holds lots of people back. That’s why we hear the words fear not or do not be afraid so often in the scriptures.
A third thing, people.

In the priesthood, in the consecrated life you have to like people. And that applies as much to contemplative life as to the apostolic life. I don’t mean at all that you have to be an extrovert. Nor do I mean shy, retiring people need not apply, no. There is room for a huge variety of temperaments and people; the consecrated life is lived out in hundreds of very different ways. But if you don’t somehow like people it will be a burden for you and those around you.

Fourthly and finally, A seminarian said to me a couple of years ago: “I’ve come to realize that my vocation isn’t my property.” Especially when someone is beginning in this life, they talk a lot about what they want to do, their hopes and ambitions. That’s perfectly normal and good. But gradually you come to realize that this is not your project. Your vocation isn’t yours – which is why some people hesitate so long- it’s not their ambition at all, it’s God’s.

I’d been four years in the seminary when I was sent out for a year’s full-time placement to a parish in Wembley. Towards the end of that year my superiors at Mill Hill invited me to apply for perpetual oath and Diaconate. That’s, as it were, the point of no return. I was discussing this with the parish priest and I remember saying: I really want be a priest and I really want to be a missionary, but if I’m honest I just wonder if I’m up to it all. He looked me straight in the face and said: “no, you’re not.” I thought for a moment he was telling me to leave the seminary. But he quickly went on to say: “You’re not up to it, but neither am I. No one is up to it. And if you think you are think again. But if you put you can put your hand in the hand of Christ and say if this is what we want me to do help me, he will give you all the help you need.” Tomorrow I’ll be 28 years a priest. I can tell you that what he said was true. I couldn’t imagine a happier or more fulfilling life, although there have been huge ups and downs. I thank God every day for calling me to this. Perhaps he’s calling you as well.


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