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Are Catholics just stupid or are there good reasons to believe the Christian message?

A homily by Fr Stephen Wang: 26th Sunday of Year A, 1st October 2017, Newman House Catholic Chaplaincy.

We had a great freshers’ party on Friday evening. Food, drink, conversation, games. I got completely wiped out at Texas Hold ‘Em – thank goodness we were not playing for real money. The student who won (she will remain anonymous) has now been moved to the bar duty team, so unfortunately she won’t be able to play next time…

In the middle of the evening, I had an amazing discussion about faith. I won’t say what the other person said, because of course it was confidential. But he was asking me about my own conversion, and what changed me from being a hardened atheist at 16 to becoming a Catholic three years later just before I went off to university myself.

Well it wasn’t one thing, and that’s the main point I was trying to get across. It was reading Shakespeare and Yeats Eliot and Larkin and having the horizons of my teenage imagination expanded. It was asking hard philosophical questions about the meaning of life and the origin of the universe. It was listening to the Bible readings in my school assembly, I remember the Prologue of St John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word” – and wondering if this Word were perhaps something real and alive and personal.

It was walking in the park near our school and hearing a silence within the rustle of the leaves that was more than just an absence of sound. It was wandering into a Catholic Church on a Sunday evening, seeing the congregation kneel in adoration, and knowing that they were seeing something I couldn’t yet see. It was a friend, offering to pray for me, and then – as if that wasn’t scary enough – offering to pray with me, right there, right then…

It was all of this together that changed me – gradually seeing the world in a new way, as a place that came from God, and as a place where God could be found; glimpsing something of his goodness and truth and beauty, and ultimately, coming to see him in the face of Christ.

I say all this because the Gospel reading today hangs on a Greek single word: metamelomai. It means to change your mind. The first son in the parable does not want to work in the vineyard for his father. He goes away. But something happens; he comes back; and he enters the vineyard. Metamelomai – he changes his mind, he changes his heart – it’s a subtle word in Greek, it literally means to change the things you care about.

This is a story about moral conversion. But it’s also a story about someone taking a step of faith. And it begs the question: Why did he change his mind? Were there good reasons for his decision?

Many people today think that religious faith can have no rational foundation. It’s a matter of personal taste, like preferring KFC to McDonalds. Or it’s something you just inherit, like your surname or your ethnicity. Or it’s a lifestyle choice you buy into because of the benefits it brings like status or identity or community or cake. And even if you seem to have rational, objective reasons, many have stopped believing in the idea of truth itself; everything is relative, and your objective arguments are just another form of subjective preference.

As Catholics, as biblical Christians, we have two fundamental convictions about faith, and it’s worth spelling them out.

On the one hand, we believe that faith is beyond reason, it’s a supernatural gift. It’s something we can pray for, and indeed we should. Just to say: Lord, give me faith. Lord, help me to believe. And it’s something we can be open to – searching, listening, asking questions. It’s something we need to say Yes to: It requires both assent and action. This is what the second son in the parable lacked. To believe is a verb not a noun. But it’s always a gift. There is a sense of wonder and even surprise. Why me? I don’t deserve this.

It can come suddenly, in a dramatic conversion; or over many years, like a landscape slowly changing or a child growing to maturity.

Faith is a new way of understanding and seeing. It helps us to grasp things that are completely beyond reason, like the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass into the Body and Blood of Christ. You can appreciate these mysteries and see them with the eyes of faith, but you can never fully understand or explain them. God gives us a share in his own knowing, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and this divine knowledge is so dazzling that it can sometimes seem like utter darkness to us.

Faith is a gift. OK.

On the other hand, there are very good reasons to believe. We are not “fideists”. A fideist – from the Latin word for faith – is someone who thinks faith is completely blind, a step in the dark; you just have to accept everything uncritically and without any rational foundation. You switch off the brain. I’m giving a talk at King’s on Thursday, and the title is simply: “Are Christians just stupid?” The sad thing is, if you admit you are Catholic, some people – you can see it in their eyes – will actually assume that you are stupid, that you have no brain.

For Catholics, faith is reasonable, even if it takes us further than reason. There are good reasons to believe. I wouldn’t call this proof, like 2+2=4. I prefer to use the word evidence, that helps you piece together a clearer picture of the truth over time. In a court of law you can hear enough evidence to reach a conclusion that is beyond reasonable doubt.

There is so much evidence out there – about the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the power of prayer, the holiness of the saints – that it should make a rational person stop and think and at least be open to the possibility that this is true. The Church speaks about the credibility of Christian faith. Faith is believable, credible. And the New Testament often speaks about signs and seeing: people see the miracles that Jesus performed, they are astonished by his teaching, his love, and his kindness and beauty. These people are not stupid – there are sound reasons for their belief. And in the Gospel today Jesus criticises those who see the signs yet refuse to believe.

This is so important for you as young Catholic students. Don’t switch your brain off when it comes to questions of faith. You are studying subjects of such complexity, at some of the finest universities in the world. You need to bring the same intelligence to your Catholic faith that you bring to your studies. You need to know, first of all, what we actually believe as Catholics, and sort out the rumours and myths from the reality. You need to know why we believe what we believe – there are good reasons! You need to bring your hard questions and doubts to a place where they can be explored and hopefully answered, over time. Never be afraid of asking honest questions. If your questions are sincere, and if the Catholic faith is true – which it is – then eventually you will find a way to bring your life and faith together, without betraying one or the other. And if that takes time, don’t give up; be patient; be humble; trust in God and in his Church.

You do all this for yourself – you deserve some clear thinking. But you also do it for others: your friends need you to have some solid answers for them when they ask you questions. You may not be Einstein or Thomas Aquinas, but you are an ordinary intelligent person who needs to have ordinary intelligent answers. In his first letter St Peter says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”. St Peter doesn’t say that we have to prove that our Christian faith is true; we just have to say why we believe, and to show that we have good reasons for our faith, even if they don’t convince the other person.

Do you know what really freaks people out? It’s when they meet a normal, happy, intelligent young Catholic. That’s it. Last week we had the “hello challenge” – you had to say hello to as many people as possible, with a big reward for the winner. This week we have the “normal, happy, intelligent Catholic” challenge – for the student who manages to be normal, happy, and intelligently Catholic for seven consecutive days. This is difficult. Normal, mmm… that’s going to be a struggle for most of you. Happy – well that comes and goes. But intelligently Catholic – we can work on that.

I’m going to finish with a practical suggestion. How can you grow in your faith this year? Well as you know we have a big programme of prayer [click here] and activities [click here] taking place at the Chaplaincy this semester.

But in particular we have five courses running this semester as part of the Newman House formation programme. My suggestion is that you choose one of them as a way of deepening your faith, and really commit to it. The programme is carefully designed so that there is something for everyone.

Tuesday at 6pm – Catholic Apologetics [click here]: How to understand your faith and explain it to others, in 59 minutes. Tuesday at 7.30pm – Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible [click here], a wonderful 8 week course that opens up the meaning of the whole Bible. Wednesday at 6pm – A Faith Sharing Group [click here], where you can talk about your own faith, your own experiences, in a supportive and prayerful group, to grow in friendship and faith together. Wednesday at 7.30pm – Ways of Praying [click here], a very practical course, every two weeks, about different methods of praying. Often we want to pray but we simply don’t know how; no-one has taught us. This will fill the gap. Thursday at 7pm, starting on 26th October, the Alpha Course [click here] – the very basics of the Christian faith, what we believe and why; for you as a refresher course, or for your friends who are just exploring.

Those are the options. What do you need most? What would you enjoy most? Apologetics, Bible, Faith Sharing, Prayer, the Basics of Christianity. Think about it, and see if you can commit to one. And if you are not sure, you can go all in (that’s a poker term that has a particularly painful resonance for me after last night’s game): you can come to all five this courses this week and make a decision at the end. There will be another prize for anyone who manages that.

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Homily from the Mass at the Abbey Grounds in Walsingham, Youth 2000 Summer Festival, Saturday 26 August 2017

Fr Stephen Wang

“A Message from Our Lady: Rebuild the Holy House!”

 

WE STAND ON HOLY GROUND

We made it! We have walked the Holy Mile, from the Youth 2000 festival site at the Slipper Chapel to the site of the original Holy House here in Little Walsingham.

We survived the early morning rain. We survived the mysterious disappearance of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham – she is back with us now. And we survived the battle of the rosaries, with rival groups of pilgrims vying for dominance of the airwaves, as the Hail Mary’s and the Mysteries got more and more out of synch with each other along the pilgrim path.

We are here on Holy Ground. We are on the site of the ancient Augustinian Abbey of Walsingham. Just in case you didn’t notice it, take a look at the enormous ruined arch of the main tower to my left.

You at the back there, you are in a zone of medium holiness. You are sitting just outside the southern wall of the medieval church. Here at the front, you are sitting in the former nave, this is definitely a zone of high holiness. But these people behind me, the servers and the musicians, are positively radioactive with holiness, because they are standing on the exact spot where the Holy House of Walsingham stood for so many centuries.

This is why we are here. This is the heart of our pilgrimage.

 

THE STORY OF WALSINGHAM

Nearly a thousand years ago, in the year 1061, a woman called Richeldis had a dream. In this dream, the Virgin Mary appeared and showed Richeldis the Holy House of Nazareth, the home where Mary lived with her parents, Joachim and Anna. This is where the Angel Gabriel came to greet her at the Annunciation. This is the place where Jesus entered our world and became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

In the dream, Mary asked Richeldis to build a replica of the house here in Walsingham. Why? We can listen to Mary’s own explanation as it is recorded in a medieval poem known as the Pynson Ballad. She made this promise to Richeldis: “All who are in any way distressed, or in need, let them seek me there in that little house you have made at Walsingham.  To all that seek me there shall be given succour.  And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when St Gabriel told me I should through humility become the mother of God’s Son.”

Joy. Remembrance. Mary’s help. Especially for the needy. That’s the meaning of Walsingham.

This house, which stood here right behind me, became the most important shrine to Mary in the whole world for the next 500 years. And Walsingham, this little village, in the heart of England, became a place of pilgrimage and holiness that ranked with the great shrines of Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella.

People came from all over Christendom to make their petitions and offer their prayers of thanksgiving, here at “England’s Nazareth”. They came to renew their faith in Jesus Christ, and to express their devotion to his Holy Mother, Our Lady of Walsingham.

The identity of England and the English was formed by a love for the Virgin Mary, and specifically by a love for Our Lady of Walsingham. England alone amongst nations was given the title “Our Lady’s Dowry”. The word dowry, in medieval English, has a very specific meaning: it refers to the gifts and property that a husband gives to his wife with the legally binding promise that they will never be taken away from her, even after his death.

You see this, as Fr John Armitage explains, in the famous Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery. In this painting the Infant Jesus, held in the arms of his mother Mary, receives a flag offered to him by King Richard II. The flag represents the Kingdom of England, symbolised by the red and white Cross of St George, and the clear meaning is that King Richard is entrusting his Kingdom into the hands of the Holy Virgin and asking for her special protection.

So England belongs to Mary in a unique way. And always will. English Christians should be incredibly proud of the title “Our Lady’s Dowry”, which has been given to no other country. The tragedy is that King Henry VIII, who loved Our Lady so much in his youth, destroyed the Holy House and took the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham – holding her son Jesus – to be burnt on the banks of the River Thames in London.

 

THE MEANING OF MARY

Why is Mary so important for us and for our faith today? Because in her, in her purity and goodness, in her Immaculate Conception, the beauty of holiness began to shine in our world in a radically new way. And through her we were given our Saviour Jesus Christ.

God the Father gave his Son Jesus Christ to Mary at the Annunciation, and Mary gave him to the world. Mary is not the Saviour. But we would not have a Saviour without her. And this pattern – of Mary bringing Christ to us and Mary leading us to him – is part of her spiritual vocation.

What was true in history is true today. She is still the Mother of Christ, still the Mother of God, and still the Mother of the Church. Mary, now in heaven, continues to lead us to Christ through her prayers and intercession. This is what it means to go “to Jesus through Mary”.

This is not some unusual devotion, it is the very shape of the Christian story, the very pattern of Biblical salvation history: that Jesus comes to us through Mary and that Mary helps us to find and know and love her son Jesus. She gives him to us; she brings us to him.

Devotion to Mary does not distort or get in the way of faith in Jesus Christ, it deepens that faith and helps it come to its fulfilment. The focus is always on Jesus, but it’s never without an implicit understanding of Mary’s essential role. That’s why I think the most helpful form of the Totus Tuus prayer by St Louis de Montfort is this one, which saves any theological confusion because it is actually addressed to Jesus. It goes like this: “I am all yours, and all I have is yours, O dear Jesus, through Mary, your Holy Mother”.

Jesus is the Saviour. Mary is his mother, and our mother too in the life of faith, because we belong to him, and he belongs to her as her son.

If this sounds slightly abstract or theoretical, let me say something much more personal to you now, speaking from the heart. If you only knew the depth of Mary’s love for you, for you personally – because you are so precious to Jesus, and because you are so precious to her. If you only knew the power of her prayers, and how much she can help you in your life and in your difficulties.

If nothing else, I pray that this festival can be a moment when you discover the personal love of Christ for you, and of his mother Mary; and that never a day would pass without you turning to her as well as to him.

 

GOD WORKS MIRACLES

Walsingham is a place of miracles. We have already had a great miracle on the main festival site. One hundred years ago, in Fatima, they had the Miracle of the Sun. This weekend, in Walsingham, we have had the Miracle of the Sofas. How do you get twenty-seven vintage sofas into a field in Norfolk?

Think of all the families, the children, the elderly couples, all over North Norfolk, sitting on the floor this weekend as they eat their supper and watch the TV, because they have no sofa. Imagine what it was like on Monday evening, in the dead of night, when the Youth 2000 team spread out over the county with their minibuses and crowbars, to break into all these living rooms and steal all these settees!

I’m not sure what Pope Francis would make of this. Lots of you were in Krakow last summer for World Youth Day. Do you remember that Pope Francis spent the whole of the Vigil Service telling us to get off our sofas and get out into the real world. And now we have designed the whole festival around the joy of the sofa and the delights of barista coffee.

Walsingham is a place of miracles.

God wants to work a miracle for you this weekend. It might be something very big. If that’s the case – fantastic! You don’t need me to underline it for you. But it could be something very small: a word, a thought, a prayer, a conversation, an insight, an unexpected grace; something small but important that God wants to give you, to do for you, to help you. So the question is not “Will God work a miracle for me?” but “Will I spot it? Will I see it?

Trust him. Listen to him. Pray. Be attentive.

What is he saying to you? What is the one really important thing that he wants to reveal to you this weekend? It might be very hidden, but it will be just what you need. Find it. Treasure it. Be sure to take it home with you and to ponder it. He is giving it to you for a reason.

 

“REBUILD THE HOLY HOUSE”

And if God wants to work a miracle for you, he also wants to work a miracle through you. And I’m going to tell you what that is.

I think that Jesus, and his Mother Mary, want you to rebuild the Holy House.

Look at these ruins. The faith it took to build this shrine and this abbey. The tragedy of its destruction. The apparent impossibility of restoring it to its former glory, and of restoring this country to its Christian faith. But never forget the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets in which to Dwell” (Is 58: 12).

You must go home, with God’s help and with Our Lady’s, to raise up the ancient ruins, to rebuild the Holy House.

First, in your heart, so that your heart, like Mary’s, becomes a place of holiness, freed from the darkness of sin, and full of light, life, peace and joy. So that even in the midst of difficulties and struggles, the light of Christ can shine out of your life, as it shone from the Holy House of Nazareth.

Then, you must rebuild the Holy House in your home and family life, through your love and kindness and forgiveness.

Then, in your school or college or workplace, through your example and friendship and witness.

And you must rebuild the Holy House in your local church, in your parish community, through your faithfulness, your commitment, your acts of service and generosity and evangelisation.

Go home. Don’t go with a sadness in your heart, wishing you could stay here in England’s Nazareth. Go home with a desire to turn your home and parish and even your college or workplace into another Nazareth. It doesn’t take much, just a simple faith and loving heart, and a desire to let Jesus and Mary be present in your life as they were present in the Holy House of Nazareth.

Walsingham was the very centre not just of English faith but of English life and English identity. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could rebuild the Holy House – metaphorically, symbolically, and perhaps literally as well – so that our whole country, and I mean the whole of the United Kingdom and not just England, could know the love of Jesus Christ, and of his Church, and of his Holy Mother Mary.

God often turns up in the last place you expect him to. A homily by Fr Stephen Wang

We are called not to convince others but simply to tell them. A Transfiguration homily by Fr Stephen Wang

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