Monsignor John Armitage – Headline Act at Invocation Festival
List of saints many of whom are the reason why you are here today!
1 Being a Saint – Becoming who you are!
“I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.” Pope Benedict at St Marys Twickenham
- For me to be a saint means to be myself.
- Being holy means being true to the person God created me to be.
- To become Men and women of great desires, we must become men and women of great heart.
- “I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet I was sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.)
2 The story of the Rich Young Man Mark 10 17 -21
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.’
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him steadily and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact
And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, you are ever with me, and you will
never leave me to face my perils alone.
“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.
Do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us, but remember the gifts that we gained through our sufferings. Comradeship, loyalty, courage and the greatness of heart that has grown out of all of this.. When they come to be judged, let the fruits we have borne, be their forgiveness.”
1 The Annunciation
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’* 29But she was greatly troubled by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
2 The Hound of Heaven Francis Thompson
3 Story of Soul (Ch 12) St Therese of Liseaux
Perfection – being complete / a struggle/conflict
“Should all the saints and angels in heaven join with all the members of the church on earth, both religious and lay, at every degree of Christian holiness and pray for my growth in humility. I am certain it would not profit me as much, nor bring me to the perfection of this virtue as quickly as a little self-knowledge. Indeed, it is altogether impossible to arrive at perfect humility without it. And therefore, do not shrink from the seat and toil involved in gaining real self knowledge, for I am sure that when you have acquired it you will very soon come to an experiential knowledge of God’s goodness and love” Cloud of unknowing
Importance of daily examination of conscience and regular confession
So how do we come to self-knowledge?
Choices not feelings: Progress towards God is indicated much more by actual choices that by pious feelings” Fr Herbie Alphonso SJ
The Personal Vocation
To live you must choose – not just let things happen
To love you must encounter – you must know that human encounter is the only authentic way to know and love
To grow you must suffer You must know that suffering is a vehicle of growth, a chance of redemption a way to turn ourselves to the outside.
6 A style of life that is has something of the life of the apostles:
It gains meaning from a style of living, which is described as apostolic in the sense that something of the ministry of the apostles is to be found there. A man does not choose only celibacy he chooses a style of life which involves celibacy among other ideals.
- Obedience – free for, and open to the God who comes ceaselessly into my life I embrace obedience as a free expression to turn my life over to God, where I experience him in the Church, and in the daily encounter with the people of God.
- God shall be the great love of my life
St John of the Cross-was once asked a question by one of his brothers. “Father, how do you enter into ecstasy? His answer, “by obeying” Not obedience merely to superiors, he explained, but by the obedience of all times and all moments – that ceaseless dispossession of self that makes one docile and pliable, yes, to the orders of superiors, but also to events, things and persons as they come along; to failure and success, to health and sickness, to difficulty and easy human relationships…in a word, free for, and open to, the God who comes ceaselessly into ours lives to redeem and transform them.”
I accept God’s love for me by acknowledging Him as the great love of my life, and as a consequence, I commit myself to live a life of chaste celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Chastity is Sexuality in the service of Love
“Batter my heart three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breath, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make new.
I, like an usurped town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, should defend,
But is captivated and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you; imprison me, for I,
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste expect you ravish me.
John Donne Holy Sonnets V
7 Renewal of the Church
The saints were the great evangelisers of Europe. We must beg Our Lord to instil the spirit of sanctity in the church and send us new saints to evangelise the world of today.” Pope John Paul II to European Bishops 1985
8 Are you loving?
“Let one man burn with enough love and it will be sufficient to neutralise the hatred of millions.”
“What truly makes a man, a man at the fine point of his being, is his capacity for loving to the uttermost. For giving himself in a love which is stronger than death, and which reaches out into eternity.” PP Paul VI Canonisation Forty Martyrs
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Pedro Arrupe SJ
“Love and do what you will” St Augustine
In the end it is about two things, being a man or women of prayer and being generous to others:
So an easy check list:
Do you spend some time in prayer each day – remember prayer changes me not God!
Do you try and go to mass during the week?
Do you read the scriptures and other spiritual books?
Do you seek to do God’s will in your life?
Do you have a love for the poor and those most in need?
Do you go to confession regularly
“When we produce something the result is tangible, we possess the object and the glory. When we give our lives to God, we enter into risk and insecurity, for we do not possess an object and we have no glory.
There is only trust and communion with the other with whom we discover the bonds of love, a covenant given by God. We become pilgrims walking in a beautiful land, not sure where it will lead. We can be sure only of love and of the presence of God, and the call to surrender and to be guided by faithful love.” Jean Vanier
Homily by Right Reverend Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury at the National Vocations Festival, St. Mary’s College, Oscott, 18th June 2011.
Today Birmingham celebrates the dedication of the Cathedral Church found amid the swirling traffic and towering buildings of the City Centre. Like every Catholic church on earth whether a makeshift church in a shanty town or a vast Cathedral or this Victorian college chapel it is the place we make for the Holy Eucharist. As we declare later in this Mass: “your house is a house of prayer, and your presence makes it a place of blessing.” (Preface of the Dedication of a Church). And I would like to say to each of you that where the Holy Eucharist is found you will also find the answer to the greatest question of your life-time. Here you will find your true vocation. I know that is a big claim to make. Yet the Catholic faith makes a still greater claim that in a few moments time the bread and wine placed on this Altar after the words of consecration are spoken, “This is my Body given for you, this is my Blood poured out for you,” are no longer bread or wine but Christ our Lord Himself, truly with us now. “Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present,” as the Catechism of the Church declares (CCC1374).
Blessed John Paul II prayed in the last year of his life that you and I would never lose what he called, “eucharistic amazment,” at Mass, when we approach Holy Communion, when we spend time before this Blessed Sacrament he prayed we would always be amazed. St. John Vianney who shared my own vocation as a Parish Priest used to point to the Altar and Tabernacle of his tiny church in Ars and say: “He is here, He is here, the One who loves us so much, He is here.” The question which King Solomon had asked before the altar he built: “Will God really live with men on earth?” is answered beyond all imagining in the Eucharist. And you’ll notice in the Gospel that it is in the very moment that Simon Peter recognises who Jesus truly is, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” that he also discovers who he truly is, his own unexpected vocation, “you are Peter,” the rock on which the Church will be built.
Our Holy Father Pope Benedict speaking in London’s Hyde Park on that unforgettable day last September said: “Dear young friends: only Jesus knows what “definite service” He has in mind for you. Be open to his voice resounding in the depths of your heart: even now his heart is speaking to your heart … Ask our Lord what he has in mind for you!” And to do this he invited us to join him in meeting Christ, “present among us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar,” in those silent moments of adoration many of us will long remember. It is, of course, no coincidence that Christians celebrate marriage, ordination, the promises of consecrated life not in a hired hotel or a distant holiday resort but before the Altar, the place of the Eucharist where we could say with St. John: “This has taught us love – that he gave up his life for us; and we too ought to give up our lives for our brethren” (I John 3:16). For that is what every Christian vocation asks of us that we are drawn into the dynamic of the loving Sacrifice of Christ made present now for us in the Mass.
I would ask you to picture with me a young man some of you will have known, kneeling on the wooden floor of a chapel, where I was able to kneel not long ago, before Jesus truly present in the Holy Eucharist. He was struggling with a question: what must I do with my life, what in the end is my life for? At this moment he had lost his parents and brother, he had lost his place at university, he was working long hours in a factory and was alone amid the dangerous streets of the city. He would later say we are only given our lives so we can one way or another give them to something great but for a year and a half he struggled with that question, that prayer which seemed to have no answer. And if we pressed the fast forward button more than sixty years on we would find that same young man now very old and very frail in his last hours with several million people coming to be with him at the end and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the world mourned his passing. Yes, he found his vocation and you will probably have realised I am speaking of Blessed John Paul II. It is not surprising that people called him “great” but the greatness he set out to find was not some sort of fame or success but the same greatness he wanted each of you to find: to give your life in the unique, unrepeatable vocation which is yours.
Reading the little book, “No Ordinary Calling,” compiled by Father Stephen Langridge, we find some extraordinary stories of men discovering the priestly vocation today, we find one man hanging upside down from a mountain and finally coming to see his vocation there, yet each story leads towards that same encounter with the real presence of the living Jesus in the Eucharist. As a youngster I had never once thought that the Priesthood was my calling until one morning my Parish Priest said to me: “you should think of becoming a priest.” He gave me what we would call today a period of discernment. Go away, he had said, think about and pray about it and you can give me your answer tomorrow morning! I wasn’t ready with my answer next morning but looking back I found that answer, the surprising and unexpected calling which was to be my own in the deepening sense of the reality of the Eucharist. In the clear, gentle light of the Eucharist I dared to ask what the Lord had in mind for me and found the courage to say, “yes.”
In his last letter to us all (Ecclesia De Eucharistia) Pope John Paul II reminded of us of a word we use every time we come to Holy Communion, a Hebrew word, “Amen,” which means, “yes.” And Amen means something more than a casual, “yes,” but has the force of, “yes, this is true,” “yes, let this be.” And Blessed John Paul reminded us there is a connection between the “yes” Mary, Our Lady first said to the angel and the “Amen” which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord. It is our own, personal “yes” spoken to the same Jesus “who becomes present in his full humanity and divinity under the signs of bread and wine.” Today I would ask each of you to say that, “Amen,” that “yes” to Him and to all He has in mind for you. Amen.
The atmosphere of the opening hours of Invocation 2011 has definitely been one of great tranquility mixed with a large amount of excitement for me. After having arrived yesterday evening feeling quite tired and anxious to pitch my tent, I was ready to settle down for the night. However, as usually happens, the voice of God was interrupting my plans through the call to assemble in the main pavilion for the opening address and then Vespers. Thankfully, the time of prayer and reflection throughout the beautiful liturgy brought to my interior self some much needed peace and respite. Fr. John Hemer also gave me a lot to think about in his marvellous key note speech last night. My sleep-deprived night in a tent was not enough to dampen the true voice of rest calling me to a much deeper and lasting peace this morning. Off to mass now.
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.