Welsh Sodality Talk: Mary, Messy Church and Mission

Sodality Event: Llandaff 4th May 2017.
There has been a blog doing the rounds on social media – I am sure that some of you have seen it.

“Christianity is not about a personal relationship with Jesus”

I’m afraid I totally disagree with the author. I would happily add an ‘only’ to that title, Christianity is not only about a personal relationship with Jesus. But if we do not have a personal relationship with Jesus we have nothing to draw on, no depth to our faith.

Jesus himself is clear about this when he tells his disciples that they are no longer servants but friends. Gregory of Nyssa also makes this clear:

We consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honour and desire. This, as I have said, is the perfection of life.”

Christianity is not only about friendship with Jesus because it is also a communion, a friendship with others.

The office of Superior of our little Sodality does not have any insignia – I am glad to say – but I was happy a couple of weeks ago to come across this piece of jewellery which would be a peffective  badge. As you know I usually sign my emails ‘in the Two Hearts’ referring to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, the sacred and immaculate hearts.

Devotion to the hearts is not so much devotion to the physical organs, but to the love, the divine compassion that is at the heart of the divine life, so much so that St John tells us that love defines the very nature of who God is: God is love.

Love is always outgoing, love is always about the other, rather than the self.

That’s why Christianity is always missional, always concerned about communicating the love to others. Bringing others to be friends with Jesus, to know Jesus, to love Jesus.

The aim of the Sodality is the holiness of priests.

Two things to say about this today:

That is an aim for the Sodality but is not our ultimate goal, it is certainly not the goal of priesthood. That goal is to be found in the dominical command: Go and baptise the nations.

The other thing we need to think about straight away is that holiness is neither a destination nor an idol. To be holy is to have sinned often – and to have repented often.

Tonight we are thinking about Mary, about Mission and I want to use the recent book edited by Ian Paul as an important text for us as we think about those things: Being Messy, Being Church.

Mary’s heart is within Jesus’ heart, her love is Jesus’ love and love of Jesus. We honour her because she was the first to believe; the first to utter the word fiat, let it be done to me according to your word. She is our sister-believer.

And we know from the mysteries of the Rosary that the very first thing Mary did after the Annunciation was to go and tell someone else about Jesus. In the Visitation she went to tell her cousin, and presumably her friend, Elizabeth that she was pregnant.

That’s not exactly surprising; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, if Mary had had those she would have been all over them: ‘great things have been done to me’.

We too have to be like that. Unapologetic, fearless. Using the name of Jesus, the good news of Jesus in all our conversations.

If we are to renew the spirit of Catholic Anglicanism, renew our churches, we will only do so when like those masters of divine love such as the early members of the Society of the Divine Compassion, we are unafraid to talk about Jesus, when we can re-discover a proper and deep sentimentality of the faith.

At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow; holy is his name! This is the missional key to our time. This is what people need and want to hear; that there is a relationship worth having; a relationship that satisfies every longing. But more than just hearing it they need to see it. They need to see that we have that relationship; that we know Jesus; that we want them to know our friend Jesus.

We are here in this place that has been made sacred by the training of priests. What a wonderful inheritance. So, because we are here and because we are a community of priests that Fr John is to join tonight and to which several of you are aspirants and Llewelyn will become an aspirant; I want to talk about priesthood and how we live it in our lives.

If we are to be like Mary, if we are to go out and tell people about Jesus we must also do that other thing that Mary did, we must ponder these things in our hearts.

We must be people of the Word. One of the things that really struck me about Messy Church is the repeated references to lectio divina. The slow, reflective reading of Scripture. The heart of Mary contained within the heart of Jesus is a heart full of the Word. So full that it is bursting to tell others about Jesus. Isn’t that the message of the wedding at Cana? Jesus doesn’t think his time has come, but Mary can’t wait for people to know Jesus and the power that he holds. If only we could be like that, bursting at every party we attend to make Jesus known.

My favourite lines in the liturgy of the Church in Wales are in the preface for poets in the Eucharistic rite – what other church in Christendom has a preface for poets!?

Because of your great love

You uttered the creative Word

And searched us out

To be the words in your own song.

God wants us to be speakers of the word and that Word is Jesus.

I was deeply impressed by the recent Governing Body of the Church in Wales with its focus on mission.

When we claim for ourselves the title of catholic, that we are catholic Christians and specifically Catholic Anglicans, we are making a big claim. We are making the claim to be universal. This is an important point. To be catholic is to embrace all, to recognise that every Christian is part of the Body of Christ. To be catholic is to be, by nature, inclusive.

This is the major insight of Brother Roger of Taize.

Ecumenism is not an option, it is an imperative. Perhaps the key message of our times is that we cannot shelter in our denominational bunkers. We have to work together.

So what are we in the Sodality? We are a community not an organisation. That has been key right from the start. But we are not ‘a Religious community’, we make commitments not vows, and many of us are in civil partnerships or married.

I think that the phrase that describes us best is that we are ‘mission priests’.

We have been inspired by the example of the Vincentian communities in the Roman Catholic church, by their influence on the Company of Mission Priests in the Anglican Communion, our spirituality is gaining strength from the Sulpician model of priestly formation and by Ignatian models of prayer and spirituality.

We live in a post-Christendom world and we have to be priests of the mission. We have to be, like Mary, bearers of the Word, in a fearless way like that wonderful image of Mary on Aspirant Rosemary’s fabulous ordination card, and which Aspirant Dylan is going to preach about at Mass later.

If we are to be priests of the Mission, if we are to be bearers of the Word we must know the Word, We must know Jesus.

One of the things that struck me powerfully about Being Messy, Being Church are the references to the monastic practice of lectio divina. I have prepared a handout with a table on showing different ways of interpreting and using the four traditional stages of lectio.

I find this a powerful of understanding many processes, but I heartily recommend it for use with Scripture.

It works powerfully with groups of people and reminds me of the reflections on Scripture of the base communities of the Liberation Theology movement of Latin America – there is a very good book, The Gospel of Solentiname, edited by Ernesto Cardenal.

The lay Benedictine school movement in Chile, the Manqueqhue movement have also found this something that works well with young people. I really urge you to try lectio as a group activity but most of all to do it every day yourselves.

I think the shortest possible time is 20 minutes with a passage of Scripture; ideally it would be longer; but I find I can manage that, on most working days, using the Gospel of the day.

For me one of the insights in reading and learning more about Messy Church has been that the emphasis on the church’s liturgy alone as the vehicle for spiritual development that followed the second Vatican Council is simply inadequate.

In the whole history of Catholic Christianity pious devotions have supplemented attendance at the liturgy. Many of those devotions will work in our time; but we need to develop others. we need to learn what of the gifs of other traditions we can benefit from. I especially urge you to experience Pentecostal or charismatic worship. The gift of tongues is a powerful antidote to over intellectualism and a too cerebral faith. Pray for that gift and the gift of tears.

If we are to be unapologetic as bearers of the word, lectio is essential as a tool for embedding Scripture deep within us. I would also encourage finding one translation of the Bible, one translation of the psalms and using that to memorise Scripture. Why not one verse a day? Two verses, even: a verse from the Gospel used for your lectio and a verse from the psalms every day.

I love St Augustine’s sermons particularly his sermons on the psalms and keep them by my prayer desk. His sermons, like those of so many of the fathers, is just a great tapestry of scripture translation or allusion. He could do that because he had memorised so much of Scripture.

In the other part of my life, education, there is a growing realisation that memory is the basic building block of learning; that every culture has taught children to learn things by heart.

If we could have many, many passages of Scripture on the tip of our tongues (and the depths of our hearts) we would be preaching the Word and not our words.

Another element of the Messy Church book that I want to refer to is the recommendation to use the Examen of the Ignation spiritual tradition. I will leave you to Google the examen yourselves to discover more about it in detail, there is also a very helpful examen app.

It is simple

1. Become aware of God’s presence.

2. Review the day with gratitude.

3. Pay attention to your emotions.

4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.

5. Look toward tomorrow.

Igantius of Loyola founder, of course , of the Jesuits recommends doing this twice a day, at the middle and end of the day. I would recommend adding to the Anglican obligation to Mattins and Evensong, Mid-day Prayer and Compline and using the Examen before each.

There is a particular quality to using the Examen in the middle of the day that disconnects whatever emotions and stresses have arisen and reconnects us to God, to our ultimate end/goal.

Using the Examen is a reminder that as priests we must live an examined life. Having a Spiritual Director must never be an option for a priest. It is essential. No secular counsellor would be allowed to practice without supervision, how much more so do we need it who have so much projected on to us and who claim to deal in holy things.

The reality of our fallen, sinful natures is that the ability for self-deception can barely be exaggerated; we need to speak our inner realities out loud to another human being, set it out there on the table to be looked at.

A favourite book of mine is Marie Cardenal’s The Words To Say It.

Spiritual direction helps us to find the words to say it.

I think it’s important to say that there is a difference between spiritual direction and humanistic, person centred counselling and other therapies that are around. These therapies are really important; I have a qualification in psycho-dynamic counselling and have benefited from it myself.

But Spiritual Direction is more active, more involved. I have benefited from SDs who cajole, challenge and take the piss out of me. We all need that.

Again we don’t know that much about the relationship between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth; but Mary has the right instinct: something supernatural has happened to her; she needs to talk about it, to share it. We should do the same.

OK you’ll be pleased to know that I have nearly finished!

I’m going to say something about “work-life” balance. It is not a phrase I am especially fond of. It suggests that when we are not working we can live. Or that we are not fully alive when we are at work. This strikes me as a profoundly unChristian way of thinking about work.

Self-care is essential to any of us but especially to priests and others who live public lives.

I don’t know if an above average number of clergy suffer from burn-out and breakdowns but there are a good number who do.

I was particularly struck by a reference in Being Messy, Being Church to the work of Mihaly Czickszentmihaly. I recommend his writing on flow.

Flow is defined by Wikipedia as:

“… the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”

Now, we can’t all be in that state all the time. I would suggest, however, that if we are not in that state some of the time in our work, we will be destroyed by our work.

If your myth, your internal vision of priesthood is the rural parish idyll, George Herbert in BEmerson, the only way you should be ordained is if you discover the secret of time travel.

If you try and live that life now you will be either multiplied or divided. Multiplying the effort to be that person, that parson in many parishes, or divided so that you can’t do it properly in any of them.

We need to look at other models, as Sodality priests, as mission-priests we need to look at the great missionaries of the past, at the Jesuits, the Marists and so many others and seek to discern what it will be like to be a mission-priest in our time and our culture. We need to work as hard as an athlete, or a banker. As my brother in industry or my sister as a sportswoman. We will be worn out, but satisfied.

I hope that it is clear that I believe there is a real seriousness about the way we need to do priesthood, but there is another lovely phrase in Being Messy, Being Church that I want to draw your attention to,

“Playful Orthodoxy”.

Orthodoxy saves us the effort of inventing our own religion; it frees us to be risky, mischievous, playful people, safe to be immersed in the Word, to be people of the Two Hearts. Having a deeply personal relationship with Jesus.

What do I think are the keys to unlocking the mission potential of our time? – And I think about this a lot!



the reality of experiencing his presence in prayer.

A final offering from me, from the Welsh poetic tradition, a poem of D. Gwennallt Jones in the anthology, A Sensuous Glory.

The third and final verse is nuclear:

The Churches

If they ask the Breath to lift the floodgates

And ventured out into the irrational seas;

Their anchor greased, their sails confident,

And faith on deck and window and door:

They would see the Christ who was technologically nailed

to his plutonium Cross;

Getting down from it; taming the waters

And choking the nuclear storms of our age.
So friends lets grease our anchors and set our sails with confidence, unapologetically, fearlessly.


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