Friday, May 27, 2016

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), (Gospel: John 6:51-58)

 
Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me as a Catholic, it also makes me think of the Eucharist.  For those who do not believe as we do, it must seem like the craziest notion of all; that God makes himself present through the hands of a priest, in a tiny piece of bread and some wine.  What could be more bizarre than that?  And we don’t just believe that it is a reminder of Jesus or a symbol of Jesus, but really and truly the body and blood of Christ.  It is a teaching so extreme that only God could come up with it and get away with it, so to speak.  What human being would try to convince others that a piece of bread becomes the body of Jesus when a priest says certain prayers over it?

In the second reading—which is the oldest account of the mass in writing—St. Paul says to us, ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’ (1 Cor 11:23). He doesn’t even say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself. Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul and turned his life around. He appeared to him several other times as well. And Paul was so affected by what happened to him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching about this man Jesus. But the line that always strikes me is where he says, ‘This is what I received from the Lord…’ He is saying, ‘I didn’t make this up and neither did any other person. Jesus himself taught us this and taught us to do this in his memory.’ And so every time an ordained priest says the words of consecration at mass, Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine. How are we supposed to understand this? We aren’t! I do not understand it at all, but I believe it and I believe it because it was Jesus who taught it. That is why we fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat or smoke in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else we do in the world. It is also a beautiful sign of how close God is to us that He would continually come to us in the middle of our lives, each week, each day, to help and encourage us. He comes to us as we are; not as we should be, but as we are. And it is God himself who makes it possible to receive him, because we could never be ready or worthy enough to even come close to the divine presence, not to mention receive him. That is why we always say the prayer: ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

There are two extremes that I often come across with regard to the Eucharist. One is where someone will say to me, ‘Father I don’t receive the Eucharist because I really am not worthy enough.’ Correct! No one is worthy enough nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to give himself to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him. We try to confess regularly, but we should never be afraid to receive the Eucharist unless there is something really serious stopping us. Remember it is God who desires to come to us and He does not want us to be afraid of him.

The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance or need to confess every once in a while. This is also wrong. There is no question of this being a ‘right’ on our part. The Eucharist is pure gift from God and for our part we must try to approach it as well as we can, especially by confessing every so often. The most important thing to remember is that the Lord wants to give himself to us, and so we should not be afraid to come to him. Remember that ultimately it is God himself who makes it possible for us to receive him. ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

For me as a priest this is also a very special feast for two reasons.  First, because it is the feast of my ordination, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. It is probably the most appropriate feast for a priest to be ordained, because this is what the priesthood is all about. God gave us priests so that we could have the Eucharist, so that his word would continue to be preached, so that his forgiveness would be available to as many people as want to receive it. The Lord Jesus wants to be available in the Eucharist to as many people as possible, but without the priesthood there is no Eucharist. The two are intimately connected. To be able to celebrate the mass for God’s people is really the greatest thing that I can do as a priest. It doesn’t mean that I am worthy enough, because no priest could ever be worthy enough to do this, but God delights in using ordinary sinful people, like me.

Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist at all? Very simply because He loves us and wants us to know that He is with us all the time and that we can receive his body into our bodies every day if we wish. It is an extraordinary gift of intimacy that the Lord gives to us. Jesus gives himself to us purely because He loves us and He knows that we are all struggling most of the time, but when we have the Eucharist we are reminded how close God is to us.

I want to finish with this story: In the late 1500s there lived a woman named Margaret Clithero in the town of York in England. She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic. Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth penders, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them. She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral. It was an Anglican church at the time.

She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial. She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors. She said, ‘If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself’. The judge said’ ‘Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.’ He handed her the bible and told her to swear on it. So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, ‘I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

So, just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered. It was called in English law, ‘The punishment most severe’. She was pressed to death under heavy weights. It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive. The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken. She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.
In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times. It says ‘She died for the mass’.

So the next time that you find yourself bored with the mass, or just not too bothered to go because you’re tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for celebrating the mass. God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist. May He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.





Friday, May 20, 2016

Feast of the Most Holy Trinity (Gospel: Jn 16:12-15) Created out of love; created for love





One of the most beautiful experiences we can have in this life is to fall in love. I’m sure most people here have been in love at least once. I have too, and it is a wonderful experience, though difficult too. As you know, it is the kind of experience that you want to last forever, but it doesn’t. It passes. Lovers always want to be with each other, and have eyes for no one else but each other. I suppose God made us this way so that we would be drawn to each other and commit to each other, in order that the human race would keep going.

The strange thing is that even though being in love is such a powerful experience, it is hard to say exactly what it is. It is a very mysterious thing. As it says in the Song of Songs: ‘Love is strong as death, passion as cruel as the grave’ (SS 8:6). It is so powerful and at the same time it is always just out of reach.

One thing we do know is that love comes from God. God is the first and the greatest lover. What we experience when we fall in love and later hopefully grow in the deeper stages of love, is something of what comes from God. We only have the experience of love because God gives it to us, and we are being invited to go deeper into a relationship of love all the time. The love that two people experience between each other is just a tiny reflection of this love that is God. 

Love also wants to share everything. Two people in love will share everything with each other. This is how we came to be here in the first place. The love that the Holy Trinity lives—a relationship of total and intense self-giving love—overflows to us. When you are ecstatically happy about something, you naturally want to share it with someone, or with lots of people. God wanted to share his intense joy and so He created everything, the spirit world and then human beings, in order that we could also experience and enjoy that same love. The fact that we are created last—according to Genesis—is a way of saying that we were the most important thing that God created. We are God’s masterpiece, because we resemble him more than anything else He created. 


However, in order for us to be able to love, God also had to make us free, so that we could freely choose to love or not, to reject God or not, because you cannot force love out of someone, it has to come freely. So now we have this bizarre situation where we are created to enjoy the love of God, which we will experience fully in heaven, but we also have the freedom to reject it.

I’m often amazed at the amount of parents who tell me in great distress about a child, or children who have rejected them. They cannot understand why. They did everything they could for their children and then their children turned their back on them. It happens quite often. We also do this with God. God offers us everything and gives us everything, but we can still reject him and people do.

I think that must have been one of the most difficult things in the life of Jesus, knowing that some people would still reject him in spite of the terrible sufferings he was going through to gain the possibility of eternal life for us. His death and resurrection re-opened the way to heaven for us, but we can still reject it.

The fact that we are here at all is a reminder of what the Holy Trinity is, a relationship of total self-giving love. A married couple is a reflection of what God is, because out of the complete self-giving of a man and a woman there is the potential for another person to be born. The love between the Father and the Son is another person: the Holy Spirit. It is a reminder of the extraordinary role that all of you married couples have in raising your families.  In giving of yourselves to each other and for your children, you are mirroring what God does. So the next time you are exhausted with the demands of your relationship or your children, remember this. Difficult and all as it is, you are imitating what God does, which means that you are called to something extraordinary.
The human being is God’s masterpiece.




Friday, May 13, 2016

Pentecost Year C (Gospel: John 7:37-39) The Spirit will teach you everything




A few years ago I had to go to our national seminary for a meeting, Maynooth. Before the meeting began I met three young men who were studying to be priests for our diocese and they invited me to stay on after the meeting for Evening Prayer and supper; so I did. In the evening I found myself in the chapel praying alongside 80 young men who were studying to be priests and it was wonderful to hear all these men singing to God and praying the Psalms together, knowing that they were dedicating their lives to serve God. At a time when it is not easy to be a priest it made me ask myself what on earth could draw them? The answer of course is God. The Spirit of God inspires people and moves people when we don’t expect it and often in ways we don’t expect either. But the Spirit doesn’t shout aloud like the news-papers do. The Spirit works quietly, but very powerfully.

I am often asked, especially by younger people, why I didn’t choose to get married and instead went on for the priesthood? Actually the way they usually put it is to say, ‘Did you not like girls?’ And I always say, ‘Of course I was drawn to get married, but the call of God was the stronger one.’ That is the only way I can explain it.

The year I began in the seminary was the year the first major scandal in our Church broke. The bishop of my own diocese, who lived just down the road from where I grew up, had fathered a child. That was 24 years ago and there have basically been scandals ever since and most of them much more serious. During my time in the seminary it was very disheartening with all the stories about child abuse in the papers for the first time, but it made all of us think carefully about why we were becoming priests and it still makes me think about why I continue as a priest. The reason more or less remains the same: I believe God called me and continues to call me to serve him in this way. Most of the time I’m not even sure I understand the calling or even what exactly the Lord wants me to do, but the ongoing call is unmistakable.

When I was nineteen I was invited to go to a prayer meeting in my hometown of Galway. At the time I wasn’t practicing my faith, but I was searching. At this prayer meeting I met 50 or 60 young people praying the rosary, singing hymns and reading Scripture. This was completely new to me and I was drawn to it. I could see that their faith was real and I was intrigued by it. These young people basically taught me how to pray and taught me that it was good to start the day by giving 10-15 minutes to God in prayer. So I began to do the same. Shortly after I began attending this prayer meeting they held what is known as a ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminar. This is a series of about 8 talks on the reality of the power of God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit—and how that same Spirit is just waiting for us to be open to him so that He can set fire to our faith, so to speak. So I began doing this seminar and was curious to know what, if anything, would happen. On the fifth night the people there prayed with each of us—just like the Apostles did—that we would receive a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. I remember being a bit disappointed at the time, because nothing particularly amazing seemed to happen to me. I felt peaceful, but not unduly so. However, in the days and weeks that followed I suddenly noticed all kinds of things happening. It was as though someone had flicked a switch and turned on the power. Suddenly my faith became alive in a way that it had never been before. The Scriptures began to speak to me in a profound way and I had a great desire to spend a lot more time in prayer. I also noticed that I began to hear the words of the mass as though I had never heard them before and I was completely blown away with it. Other people who did this Life in the Spirit seminar had similar experiences, the most common being that their faith became alive as never before. That was 27 years ago and the experience really changed the course of my life.  A few years after that I began studying to be a priest.




Today when I look around and see some of the problems in our Church, I think back on what the Lord has led me through and I am reminded that our Church is in good hands, because it is not in the hands of human beings but in the hands of the Most High God. Those of us who try to serve in it are only instruments and often not very good instruments, but it doesn’t matter as God does not depend on us to get everything right. God is not asking us to succeed, only to be faithful.

As we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, when the disciples’ faith was ‘switched on’, we turn once again to God’s Spirit and pray that He will help us never to lose heart, never to become discouraged, but to remember that God knows what He is doing. When we have the gift of the Spirit, which we have since our Baptism and Confirmation, we have everything. The guidance, wisdom and courage we need are there for the asking. It is for us to try and remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If we begin to rely only on our own expertise, our own ability, we will soon find that we come up short. If, on the other hand, we continue to seek the guidance of the Spirit, then we have nothing to fear, even though we may not know exactly what we are to do. God shows us what we need to do, as we need to know it. Most of the time we are not allowed to see very far ahead, but neither were the Apostles. They were just told to go and preach the Gospel, and that is what they did. 

The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name
will teach you everything 
and remind you of all that I have said to you (John 14:26).



Friday, May 6, 2016

The Ascension to Heaven (Gospel: Luke 24:46-53) Jesus Christ is Lord

­


Several years ago I had the privilege of being at one of the ‘Interession for Priests’ retreats given in Dublin every summer by Sr. Briege McKenna and Fr. Kevin Scallon. These are a series of retreats put on specially for priests. This particular year they were celebrating 25 years and the retreat I was at was given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa who is the preacher to the Papal Household (to the Pope). He is and an extraordinary preacher and it was a very inspiring few days.

One of the themes that he kept coming back to is that ‘Jesus is Lord’; just that.  The essence of our faith is really very simple and this is one of the key elements of it. Jesus is Lord and if we believe in him and ask forgiveness for our sins, then we have eternal life with him.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved’ (Rom 10:9).

Some months later when Cantalamessa was visiting the national seminary of Maynooth, he gave one talk and again he kept coming back to this fact: Jesus Christ is Lord. One of the professors sitting beside me said quietly, ‘It seems a bit too simple really!’ I knew what he meant, but the truth is that it is very simple. We tend to make it more complicated.

In today’s first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls the Lord’s ascension into heaven. Just before Jesus ascended the Apostles asked again, ‘Lord has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ In spite of all the time with Jesus and the extraordinary things they saw, they still had a very earthly way of thinking. ‘When will we have the power and glory? When will our nation be the most important?’ Yet Jesus was showing them that this was not important at all. Worldly ways and worldly thinking are not important. Look at what the desire for earthly power is doing in the Middle East. Preaching about Jesus and eternal life in him was the only thing that mattered. The Apostles were to receive power, but not worldly political power where everyone would acknowledge their greatness. Instead they were to receive the power of the Spirit, which would enable them to preach about Jesus, what He has done for us, what our life is about and how we have life in him if we choose it.  That was the only thing that mattered.  All of them were to suffer for their preaching too, but that also was secondary.  They would be misunderstood by the world, as so many who preach the Gospel still are, but that message must be proclaimed all the same.

Why was it so important that they proclaim this message? Because God is the only one who makes sense of why we are here in the first place and God wants his people to know this. And so Jesus came among us to teach us about God and to offer his life in atonement for our sins, so that we might have eternal life with God; or to put it another way, so that we might reach ultimate happiness and the total fulfilment that all of us long for. That message is just as important today as all of us look for happiness and fulfilment. In spite of the great advances of humanity, most people are aware that something far deeper in us looks beyond human achievement and we know that we will never be totally fulfilled by human accomplishments alone. So the Spirit encourages us to look to the things of God, the only place where we can find fulfilment.



In missionary work today it is sometimes argued that we should not be talking about God, but only helping those who are in need. While it is true that we must do all we can to help those who are in need, the message of the Gospel should also be preached to people because they have a right to hear it. People have a right to know what God has done for them. It is up to each person whether they choose to believe it or not, but they have a right to hear the message that we have eternal life in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God has asked us to make this known to all people. Our material needs are important, but if we neglect the spiritual needs, we may lose any sense of purpose and what our life is about. This is just as bad as being without food as it can cause people to despair. So we try to continue to pass on the message that the Lord Jesus asked us to: Jesus is Lord and in him we have eternal life with God.

Jesus ascending to heaven before the Apostles’ eyes was also a confirmation to them and to us, that something wonderful awaits us when we die. This life is not everything, but only a preparation for the world to come. Hopefully we will enjoy it and find some contentment in it, but we must not lose sight of what also awaits us. Life after death is real and this is what God wants for us. If we believe that, then it makes the harder times here on earth a lot more bearable.

Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.  They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy and they were continually in the Temple praising God (Lk 24:51-53).


Friday, April 29, 2016

6th Sunday of Easter Yr C (John 14:23-29) Whoever loves me will keep my word





Think for a moment of someone that means a lot to you, someone you love. It might be your husband or wife, or maybe a very good friend. When you love someone you will do things that they ask you, just because you love them. They may ask you for a favour which doesn’t suit you, but you will probably do it anyway because you love them. Trying to please them is a way of showing them you love them.

Our relationship with the Lord works the same way. We try to follow the way of life that he taught us, because we love him and not because we have to. We try to keep his commandments, because we love him and we believe in what He has taught us. Our trying to follow his teaching is a way of showing God that we love him and also because we believe that what God teaches us gives us life. The path that He shows us is the one that will help us the most and lead us to the greatest happiness. The difficulty is that we don’t always see that and so we are not always convinced of it. 

Because of what we call original sin, we do not enjoy the harmony within ourselves that God originally intended for us. In other words there is a struggle going on within us. One of the effects of that is that we don’t always see things as clearly as we should. We often find it difficult to choose even what we know is right. We are often suspicious of God and his teachings. We are not always convinced that God is trying to help us. Think for a moment of times when you see some situation of terrible suffering on the news, or with someone you know, and you find yourself saying, ‘How can God allow this to happen?’ as though God were evil, or the cause of suffering. We tend to see his commandments as a burden for us, instead of a blueprint or plan that will lead us to the most fruitful way of living. We don’t see clearly; we are suspicious of God.




Because God is wiser than we are, because He can see the whole picture and journey that is ahead of us, He gives us laws which He knows will help us. They are commandments not suggestions. In the Old Testament, when the Lord gave the law to Moses, Moses said to the people, ‘Choose today blessing or curse, life or death.’ One way leads to life, the other to death. Each of us still has that choice.

There is a tendency today, to believe that we can just pick the parts of our faith that suit us, and ignore the other ones.  I’ve often heard people saying, ‘God will understand,’ or ‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind’, but why would God give us commandments if He doesn’t mind? God will not prevent us from choosing what we want to do, but God knows what will help us and what won’t. And so God’s Spirit continually whispers to us, pointing us in the right direction, but if we don’t try and listen we won’t hear what He is saying.

The television doesn’t help us either, because it continually shows us that sleeping around, stealing, murdering, lying and ignoring God, are quite acceptable. And if we are told something often enough, we will begin to believe it. That’s how advertising works. We are being de-sensitized to sin and to what is wrong. What we don’t see is how serious the consequences of sin are. They could cause us to lose eternal happiness. That is why God continually warns us about going against his commands.

Now to go back to the words of Christ: ‘If you love me you will keep my words.’  And then he says, ‘Peace I leave you, my own peace I give you.’ Jesus is telling us what follows when we live his words. We receive peace, a deep peace which is the assurance of God’s presence even when we are struggling. The Lord knows how much we struggle to live by his teaching. All of us struggle trying to be faithful, but the Lord is telling us not to be afraid of the struggle, it is the path that leads to heaven and it is the only path worth following.

If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

 



Sunday, April 24, 2016

5th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 13:31-33a, 34-35) Love one another as I have loved you




It is said that at the end of his life St. John the Apostle said hardly anything to his followers except, ‘Love one another.’ I suppose he had got to the stage where he realized that was probably the only thing that was truly important. If we really manage to do this then everything else is included. There is nothing more important.

 

One of the biggest challenges we are being faced with today is the problem of terrorism and how to respond to it. Small groups of people who are consumed by evil and hatred want to bring fear and pain to others. People are being killed for no other reason than hatred. The saddest part is that it is often being done in the name of God. What a terrible insult to the God who created us out of love. Usually our reaction to any of the acts of terror that we hear about is to become angry and hate these people back. They hate us so we will hate them even more. They try and hurt us so we will try and wipe them out completely. Generally that is the first thing that comes into our heart when we hear about all these terrible acts of violence for no reason. Satan, who hates God’s creation and wants to destroy it, is behind this evil. Jesus spoke of the reality of Satan many times during his life on earth. We would be foolish to think that Jesus was exaggerating. Satan wants us to hate the terrorists just as they hate us; to kill them just as they try and kill us, but Jesus teaches us something different.

 

First of all it is important to say that Jesus always wants us to work for justice, to stop evil, to prevent violence. We must do everything we can to try and stop this kind of evil. But God also teaches us that if we turn to hatred and violence the way terrorists do, then we are no different from them. Jesus teaches us by his life that the way to respond to it is by working for justice first, but also by not allowing ourselves to be drawn into hatred and violence. He tells us to remember that those who carry out acts of terror are human beings, not monsters, even though they have become consumed with evil. We can conquer evil by refusing to hate back. We will win them over by refusing to kill back. That is the way of God and that is what changes the world. Jesus—the only one who was completely innocent and only did good—allowed himself to be tortured and killed in order to win happiness for us, even for the people who were killing him. ‘Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.’ In doing this He was also teaching us about the greatest power on earth, which is the power of love. To love means to refuse to hate, to refuse to turn to violence, because that is what changes the world.

 

After the attacks in Paris which killed 89 people at a concert hall last November (2015), one man called Antoine Leiris who lost his wife in the attack wrote the following open letter to terrorists.

(Antoine Leiris is a journalist at the French radio network France Bleu. His wife  Hélène Muyal was killed in the attack).


On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.

I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If this God for whom you kill blindly made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife is a wound in his heart.

So no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. You want it, but to respond to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.”
The letter continued: “You would like me to be scared, for me to look at my fellow citizens with a suspicious eye, for me to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You have lost.

“I saw her this morning. At last, after nights and days of waiting. She was as beautiful as when she left on Friday evening, as beautiful as when I fell head over heels in love with her more than 12 years ago.

“Of course I am devastated with grief, I grant you this small victory, but it will be short-lived. I know she will be with us every day and we will find each other in heaven with free souls which you will never have.

“Us two, my son and I, we will be stronger than every army in the world. I cannot waste any more time on you as I must go back to [my son] who has just woken from his sleep. He is only just 17 months old, he is going to eat his snack just like every other day, then we are going to play like every other day and all his life this little boy will be happy and free. Because you will never have his hatred either.”

 

 

 

People like this are a wonderful example of what God has called us to be. He calls us to be bigger than hatred, to refuse to hate and return violence for violence. We must always work hard for justice and to stop evil, but we cannot behave as the terrorists do or we will be just like them.

 

Maybe the question to finish with is this: Where are we supposed to get that kind of inner strength from? The answer is simple: in God, in Jesus. That is where love comes from first and so He is the One we must stay close to. If we remain with God, focused on God, with God at the center, then we too will be able to rise above the temptation to return hatred for hatred. That is how we change the world.

 

'Love one another as I have loved you.'

 

 


Friday, April 15, 2016

4th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 10:27-30) They have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb



Ragheed Ganni, Martyr (1972-2007)

Several years ago I had the privilege of being able to study in Rome for 3 years. While I was there I lived in the Irish College, which is both a seminary and post-graduate college. As there are not enough Irish students to fill the college, it is now an international college. For one of my years there we had students from 23 different countries. This makes for a great cultural experience and it gave me a great sense of the universal Church. I was studying and living with other young men from all parts of the world. We came from many very different cultures, but we all shared the same faith and the same enthusiasm to make it known to other people. It was very inspiring to live in such an environment, although of course it also had its moments as we had very different ways of doing things.

One of my next door neighbours for a year and a half was a priest by the name of Ragheed Ganni from Iraq. I didn’t even know there were Catholics in Iraq until I met him. He was a young, highly talented and very likable priest. He was from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which is the modern day city of Nineveh (Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh). Ragheed did all his studies for priesthood in Rome, since if he returned to Iraq during his studies he may not have been able to leave again to complete them. So he studied in Rome, living in the Irish College and spent many summers in Ireland.

During our time there the American invasion of Iraq took place and the over-throwing of Sadam Hussein. This was a very difficult and stressful time for Ragheed as he watched his country being thrown into confusion, while daily wondering if his family were safe or not.  Having someone in the room next to me who was going through this made the war very real. Just before the war started I asked him as an Iraqi what his fears were about what would happen. He said that the problem was not so much when the Americans took over, as when they pulled out afterwards. He said that then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out as the Muslim factions would not have any tolerance for them. That is exactly what happened.

In 2003 Ragheed returned to Iraq. It was now a very different country to the one he had left.  To get into the country he told me that he had to fly into Syria and then take a bus across the border. I received a few emails from him after he returned. He said that there was a curfew almost every night and that it was becoming more and more difficult for the Christian community there. One day he sent me an email with photos of his church on fire.  He said that gunmen had come in and taken him out at gunpoint. He thought he was going to be shot, but instead they blew up the church. Ragheed was able to return to Rome at least twice over the following three years and I met him on one of those visits. He had put on some weight and he said that this was because he could not go outside to exercise as it was too dangerous. As time passed more and more of his parishioners began to leave and those of us who knew him worried for his safety. Whoever could afford to leave the parish got out. Ragheed knew that staying on in Iraq was becoming increasingly dangerous, but he believed that that was where God was asking him to be. He wanted to remain with his people so that they could have the mass. In spite of death threats and the obvious danger, he continued to minister to his people and they continued to come to pray and celebrate mass. One of the neighbouring churches was hit by a car bomb killing two people and injuring many. The bishop’s house was blown up and Ragheed’s sister was injured by a grenade which was thrown at her while she was going to clean the church in preparation for Sunday mass. In spite of this Ragheed and the other priests continued to minister to their people.

On 3nd June, 2007 I received a phone call from a friend to tell me the terrible news that Ragheed along with three others, had been shot dead the day before. He had just finished celebrating the Mass and was leaving the church with another sub-deacon. Two other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them were in the car behind. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, had the courage to speak out. Here are some excerpts from an interview she gave to Ankawa.com. 

At a certain point the car was stopped by armed men. Fr. Ragheed could have fled but he did not want to, because he knew they were looking for him. They forced us to get out of the car and led me away. Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed,
I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?” 
And he simply responded,How can I close the house of God?” 
They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.’ At this point Bayan fainted.

Ragheed Ganni was just 35 when he was shot dead and had been a priest for only 6 years. 

In the second reading from this Sunday’s mass (Apocalypse 7:9, 14-17) we hear of the great numbers of people who stand before the Lamb holding palms in their hands. When the writer asks who they are he is told,

These are the people who have been through the great persecution and because they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb, they now stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’


Part of the mosaic in the Irish College Rome. Ragheed is on the right.

A few years after Ragheed’s death the chapel in the Irish College in Rome was redecorated by the artist Fr. Marko Rupnik (see the photo on this website of the newly decorated chapel). Behind the altar there is a magnificent mosaic with Christ the Good Shepherd at the centre with several saints on either side including Fr. Ragheed Ganni to the far right holding the martyr’s palm. I always find it very moving to see this image having known Ragheed myself.

In different parts of the world many people continue to put their lives at risk in order to pass on the teachings of Christ as he asked us to. Many, including Ragheed, have paid with their lives. Although it is painful for me to think of Ragheed’s death, it is also a great source of strength and inspiration. It makes me even more determined to be faithful to Jesus. 

Jesus told us we would be persecuted for following him and He told us that it would not be easy, but he also told us that he is our shepherd who continues to guide and look after us.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer, but it does mean that he is always with us. Even though none of us want to have to suffer for our faith, what could be more important than to be faithful to Jesus? He is the only one who makes sense of why we are here and what our lives are about. Without Christ we are nothing. And so we do our best to be faithful, no matter what happens.

The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me.’