Given at Masses for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2023

HOMILY

Arise, shine out, for the glory of the Lord is shining upon me you! We are the new Jerusalem, the shining city, to which many of God’s children will come. As you see new people come into you, your heart will grow throbbing and full!

That was Isaiah’s promise to Israel of old – and it is God’s promise to our parishes today. If we embrace the mission God has given us, to share the Gospel with the people around us, we will see each parish grow in strength and numbers, and our joy will be renewed.

The recent national Census showed that here in Rhondda Cynon Taf, there are more people than practically anywhere else in the UK who say “I have no religion”. Some of them will be members of our own families who have abandoned the Catholic faith; many more will have grown up in homes where religion simply didn’t matter. The name Epiphany means “appearing” or “showing forth”. God sent baby Jesus to show his love – but he makes us responsible for sharing the name of Jesus, and for being God’s loving hands, in this community. When we make the name and the love of Jesus present, slowly but surely, new members will be added to this church!

Today, we begin a new chapter in the life of this parish, under the leadership of a new parish priest. I come among you bearing my own gifts – but there is a great symbolism in gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold represents security in uncertain times. No doubt it helped the Holy Family with the unexpected costs of their flight into Egypt. My being here is a pledge from Archbishop Mark that for the foreseeable future, holy Mass will be celebrated in this church every weekend. More than that, you will have a shepherd who is present among you, directly involved in the life of this church community, sharing in your joys and sorrows.

“Myrrh is mine: its bitter perfume warns of the coming of doom and gloom!” Myrrh was a sign that Jesus would face exile in his childhood and crucifixion in his ministry. The path God chooses for us is not always sweet.

Let’s get the bitter pill out of the way as soon as possible. We recognise that my appointment here comes at a price. For the next generation at least, there are fewer priests available to serve in South Wales than we have been used to. So I’m not just assigned as parish priest to this church, or even to a pair of churches but here AND to 3 other parishes.

Perhaps you were hoping that that the appointment of a parish priest means you can hand back to me most of the things you’ve had to do while there has been no parish priest. Well, think again! Many of the things you’ve had to do, you will need to continue to do because my attention and my capacity to work for each parish will only be a fraction of my overall work. In many practical ways, it will be like continuing to have a supply priest. But in one crucial regard, it is different; from now on, I am here as your Shepherd.

The other bitter reality we will need to face is that from this summer, there will only be one Sunday Mass in each church and the time of Sunday Mass may have to change from what we are used to. I won’t say more about that today, nor for the next month as I am getting to know the people of each parish. But once we enter Lent, we will need to begin the conversation about future times of Sunday services.

What we won’t be talking about this year is any merging of parishes. The Archbishop has asked that we think about this. But that conversation will not start for at least two years; first, we have to see how well we can work together. It’s easier for parishes to collaborate when there is one priest making decisions for all. Whenever one parish has the strength to do something on its own and to do it well, that is fine! Whenever it serves our common good to work together, I can make introductions and help build a strong team drawing on the gifts, which God has entrusted to the people of all four parishes.

The third gift of the wise men, frankincense, was a gift which recognises holiness. It was because the wise men saw that Jesus was God-among-us that they made their journey to worship him – they knew they were looking for God. We must learn to recognise who Jesus is before we can share Him with others. But Jesus also teaches us something about who we are. We are members of his body. We share in his holiness. We are made in the image of God! We only know this because God chose to speak to us through Jesus and his apostles. Those who live in our towns today will not know God’s love unless we show them by our lives and tell them by our words.

It’s not easy, speaking about Jesus to other people. But it’s possible, and I’ll be offering opportunities to practice in the months and years to come. I encourage you to start by speaking about Jesus to people you know and trust – members of this congregation or members of your own family. Today, Epiphany, is about Jesus showing himself – manifesting himself – to the nations. How has Jesus shown himself to you, personally? If you have the courage, share this with someone before you leave this church today. But if that’s too hard, make a silent prayer in your heart right now. Tell Jesus who he is in your life, how you see him at work, and what you want to thank him for today. Another day, you may be ready to break the silence.

So as we begin this new season together, keep your eyes on Jesus, and good things will follow. Tell other people about Jesus, who is God’s love for us, and the world will fill with hope. And may the Lord who has begun the good work in us, and made us gifts to one another, bring this good work to a happy completion. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

PERSONAL MESSAGE

Today, we celebrate that day, when wise men who studied stars came from the east, and discovered baby Jesus, perhaps a little older than a newborn, when he was dwelling in a home with his family. It seems a very good day to for me to take up my ministry among you. You may be aware that before I became a priest, I was a professional astronomer, a student of stars, gaining a qualification from Cardiff University. You may know that for the last two years, I have been living in Essex, east of London, the headquarters of the Sion Community for Evangelism. And I am sure you understand that, by the sacrament of holy orders, a priest is a visible sign of Jesus, being present among his people. Put all of those things together, and Epiphany is a very good day for this student of stars to come from east of London to bring his gifts, not least the priestly presence of Jesus, among you. Whether I am a wise man from the East, that’s up to you to judge!

Since we’re going to be working together for many years, there are a few things I think it’s important that you know about me from the outset.

The first is that I am on the autistic spectrum – I was diagnosed at seminary with Asperger’s Syndrome. This affects different people in different ways, but in my case it means that I lack that ability which is in most people’s brains to intuitively read body language and understand how other people are feeling. This doesn’t mean I don’t care; in fact I care a great deal about how each one you might be feeling – but there will be times I can’t see with my eyes what will be obvious to most people, and I will need to ask you to use words to explain to me how you are. Please bear with me.

The second thing, you’ve probably picked up from my written communications, is that I try not to refer to myself as “Fr Gareth”. Here I am trying to balance two realities. One is a teaching which comes from Our Lord Jesus himself, who said “don’t call anyone on earth ‘Father’” because you have one Father in heaven. The other is the custom which we’ve had in the Catholic Church for centuries, of using “Father” as a title of respect. Obviously Jesus didn’t mean you can’t call the man who parented you “Father”, or the word would lose all meaning. But he was saying something about being careful about the word as a title for religious leaders. This is why I prefer to refer to myself as “Pastor Gareth”. But you will find that I do call other priests “Father” in contexts where they would find it rude if I didn’t. I’m not going to tell you how to address me; I will never say to anyone “Please don’t call me Father.” But my conscience isn’t at ease in referring to myself by that title, so I will be signing myself as “Pastor Gareth”.

The third thing is that I don’t know everything, and it will take me a while to understand how things work here. As you get to know me, I hope you’ll find I am not Fr Bossyboots who wants to stamp his own mark on things, but I will be Pastor Ignoramus who needs to be shown how things work, and reminded if I haven’t grasped things the first time. I hope you’ll find I am very easy to talk to, and I am here to help you make this church community thrive. But it’s always the things we don’t know that we don’t know which trip us up.

Now, a few practical things for you about how things will work in the future.

On Saturday evenings, I will be sharing duties with Fr Nick Williams, Chaplain to Cardiff University. Because Saturday night alternates between All Hallows and St Dyfrig’s, and I want to spend a roughly equal time in all three Saturday congregations, each church will only see me roughly every third week, but because of logistics you may even go three weeks without seeing me on a Saturday.

On Sundays, I will be sharing duties with Fr Valentine Mobuogwu, who is chaplain to Cardiff Prison. Mostly Sunday congregations will see me every alternate week, though there may be some tweaks to the rota.

As I’ve said in the homily, for the next two or three years we will be structured as four distinct parishes, co-operating where it is helpful to do so. The conversation about Sunday Mass changes will begin in Lent. But one thing we will need sooner is a name for our collection of four churches. As a temporary measure, I am using the abbreviation AMDG, which is also the Latin abbreviation meaning “For the Greater Glory of God”. But for the long term, we should choose a patron saint, or a title of Our Lady, or a mystery in the life of Our Lord to be the common name and patron under which we can work together. I am open to proposals and I hope we will settle the name by Easter.

I think that is enough for our first meeting. But because I can’t be everywhere on Sunday I wanted to share these messages in all our churches on Day One, for Epiphany. Remember, we are here to show Jesus to the world by the things we do and the way we work with another.