Saturday, February 18, 2017

7th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48)


This week Deacon Scott Little of the diocese of Venice, Florida is giving a five day mission in our parish. The following is his weekend homily. Scott is a dear friend and truly a man of God. Thank you Scott.                    

Today we continue to listen to the teaching of Matthews’ Jesus, here in ordinary time.

Matthew has moved past the extraordinary teaching of the beatitudes and his teaching about what his disciples are to be in the world. The gospel now moves into a section of teaching that seems to be mostly about our interior. Jesus does a teaching about anger, about adultery and divorce, and taking oaths. In this gospel he speaks to us about retaliation and holding enemies. As usual it’s a pretty remarkable teaching.

It's important to remember that Jesus lived in a shame and honor society, even more than in the current day. Maintaining your honor was extremely important. That would have been the mindset at the time.

We should remember that the phrase "An eye for an eye tooth and a tooth  for a tooth", was not a requirement, it was a limitation in the Jewish law. They believed that there needed to be equivalency, but Jesus Christ as usual was trying to teach us about our souls and the effect that held anger, resentment and retaliation have on our ability to be connected with our heavenly Father. His teaching was elegant because it did provide for a strong statement to be made to the person who was guilty of taking advantage.

Turning the other cheek to an aggressor required that aggressor to change hands to render a blow. They only struck backhanded. Turning the other cheek would require them to switch hands, which was never done in their culture.

No one would ever demand a person’s cloak along with their tunic because a cloak was so essential for a persons welfare. It was essentially a person’s sleeping bag. It  was essential for each person’s welfare. There was also a set limit on how far anyone could be conscripted to carry anything. That limit was one mile. So Jesus saying they offer a second mile was a suggestion that the conscripted person make an offering that was outrageous and sure to point out the unreasonableness of the demand .

So there was a real activism in the responses that Jesus called for, but they were not responses that would damage the aggressor or would damage the afflicted person's interior. The response was aimed at changing the person’s heart, by forcing them to be open to the person that they had afflicted.

God calls us to holiness because our growth in holiness determines the orderliness of our world.
Jesus Christ’s teaching on this actually was demonstrated very recently and  the media reported widely on it.

Some may remember Dylann Roof, who was just sentenced to death for the killing of nine members of a church in Charleston South Carolina.  He insisted on representing himself during his trial. 

On June 17, 2005, nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston were shot to death while participating in a Bible study in the basement of their church. The shooter was a 21-year-old, self-proclaimed white supremacist. He wandered into the room that evening. Imagine this if you can. Nine black church goers were in the midst of prayer and study. They looked up to see a white man in jeans and a sweatshirt. Did they ask him to leave, did they threaten to call the police if he did not leave? No, they actually invited him to join them. For a time he did just that. He actually participated in their Bible study.

Just as they were finishing their study and had their heads bowed in prayer he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack, and one by one shot every single person in the room. Can you imagine the anguish of the families of those nine people? It is beyond comprehension. That is what makes the next part of the story so stunning.

Only three days later, when invited to share a statement at the shooter's bond hearing, the family members, one by one, turned to the shooter and said "I forgive you". Somehow their great call to Christian holiness prevented them from falling into hatred themselves. How could anyone knowing the circumstances expect them to do such a thing? It certainly would seem too much to ask of anyone, even a churchgoer, but these people  were somehow able to do that. And what was the result of this heroic act of holiness? You might recall that less than one month later the South Carolina Legislature determined that the state of South Carolina would never again fly the Confederate flag.   

The symbol of the Confederate flag has historically meant freedom and sacrifice to so many white people in South Carolina. In a real sense their flag represented their right to self determination, to freedom of choice and their own freedom to govern themselves as they saw fit. That same flag meant oppression and intimidation to people of color in the same state. In a very real sense, the flag meant the need to be afraid. Yet many people in South Carolina refused to identify with that concern and that viewpoint. No one ever believed that South Carolina would ever abandon that symbol, but after the heroic act of the family members of these nine people, and out of of sensitivity to their brothers and sisters, a predominately white legislature voted to take that symbol down forever. It was only 23 days after the shootings. There was no filibuster, there was no demonstration in the streets. They just took it down. It was removed reverently and folded to be stored as part of history there in the state house. Something that had seemed impossible became possible through a community compelled by the Christian statement of a few families. This was Jesus, teaching, manifest in our modern world. The result was there for everyone to see.

It is so important for us to believe the teachings of our Savior, and that they really can change the world. Just as important, is our remembering how much the abandonment of anger and retribution will change our hearts as well. It's not that we don't recognize wrong; more that we recognize it without abandoning our dignity and attachment to a God who only loves. He teaches us how important it is to push ourselves to be willing to love more as he loves.
 
As we move forward in our spiritual lives, and as we receive the love of God in the Eucharist, let's examine ourselves to see if we are holding resentment. Let’s check to  see if we hold a desire for retribution and unforgiveness in our hearts. May we realize how much it damages ourselves and the world when we do. Let’s ask for the grace to understand and believe the teachings of our Lord and to know the peace of Christ.








Saturday, February 11, 2017

6th Sunday Year A (Mt 5:17-37) If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven



Several years ago I heard a woman giving her testimony of how God had healed her from terrible abuse she had suffered from her father from an early age. She said that her family knew nothing but abuse, incest, pornography. She was even sold to other men by her father and yet they went to mass every Sunday as a family. To outsiders, they looked like a perfectly normal family. Obviously the practicing of their faith didn’t mean an awful lot.

Here’s another example: A man I met in a hospital in Ireland told me angrily that it was alright for the Archbishop of Armagh (the head of the Church in Ireland), to pray for priests who had done wrong and to spend the whole day praying for them if he wanted, but that he shouldn’t expect him or anyone else to have to pray for them. In fact how dare he even suggest that anyone else should have to pray for such people.

‘If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes or Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’  In modern English we would say, ‘If your faith is only outward signs, like going to mass, and doing religious things, you will never go to heaven.’ You will never get to heaven! That seems pretty strong coming from a God who is supposed to love us so much. God takes us seriously, but He expects us to take him seriously as well.  In fact He insists that we do.

This man I mentioned was obviously very angry and felt let down by priests who had done wrong. I don’t blame him for feeling angry, but the point is that he seemed to think that he could quite happily go on practicing his faith, on the outside, so long as he didn’t have to do anything like forgiving, or praying for others who have done wrong, the very things that our faith is all about. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about and it applies to every one of us, priests, Religious, all of us. The Lord is saying, ‘Go deeper than what you can just see. Live from your heart. Pray from the heart. Let your outward practice of faith, like praying at mass and doing novenas etc., be an outward sign of what is already happening on the inside.’ 


People often say to me that it’s awful not to see young people going to mass and ‘If we could just get them to go.’ I know what they mean and it is sad, but I would also say that I think it would be better that young people didn’t go to mass at all, if it meant they were just doing something on the outside. If it is not something real on the inside, an encounter with God a desire to deepen our relationship with God and to acknowledge and worship God, then it means nothing. I am sure that many of our young people have a sense of needing to find something real. Their faith needs to be something alive, something lived from the heart and they are searching. If their only experience of mass so far has been that it’s just a ‘thing’ that you do, then I don’t blame them at all. They need to discover God themselves and then hopefully the mass will come alive for them and they will see that it is a place where they can encounter the living God, but they won’t go near the mass or anything else if they don’t see it as being something real for us, something that we live from the heart and not just something we ‘do’. It is so important that we live our faith at a deep level. In the same way, my talking to you about God is a waste of time, unless I’m trying to live it myself. This is one reason why Jesus was so angry with the religious professionals of his day. They were experts at doing the ‘required’ thing, the equivalent of going to mass and saying your prayers, but they were only doing it at a surface level. That is why Jesus is saying, ‘Choose life, and choose to live your faith from the heart’.
 

In the Gospel Jesus speaks in a very shocking way, because He quotes the Law, which was God’s teaching through Moses and He says, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’ He is saying that his teaching is now more important, which to many must have sounded very arrogant. But what Jesus is challenging us to do is to live our faith from the heart and not just in a minimal way. We would not live a relationship with a spouse or a dear friend doing the absolute minimum. If we did it would just dissolve. We try to live it at an ever deeper level, from the heart so that we will grow. God is inviting us to do the same, to respond to him with generous hearts, to live our faith in the fullest way, but this is something that we can only do by our own choice.

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.


Friday, February 3, 2017

5th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16) Share your bread with the hungry…





 Every so often the Lord raises up men and women who live their faith in an exceptional way. It usually seems to be at a time when people really need to be inspired and often when the Church is in crisis. At the end of the 13th century God called a man called Francesco or Francis, to live in a radically different way. He was from a town called Assisi in Italy. Francis was from a wealthy family, but he felt that God was calling him to leave everything and follow him and so he did. To the horror of his father who strongly objected, Francis renounced everything and in front of everyone he stripped off all his clothes and any belongings he had and went off to live on his own as a poor man, living only for God. Soon afterwards while he was praying alone in a broken down church he felt God speaking to him from the cross and saying, ‘Francis, rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling down.’ So Francis started to collect stones and reconstruct that building.  However, God had a much bigger project in mind. God was talking about the whole Church. Around the same time pope Innocent III had a dream of a poor man holding up the Church which was collapsing. It was a sign of the role that Francis was going to play. 

Not long after Francis began to live in radical poverty others began to see the kind of simple way of life that he was living, one by one they began to join him. They spent their time looking after the sick, the lepers, praying together, preaching the Gospel and most importantly… inspiring people by the way they lived. Eventually when they had been living this way for a while Francis went to Rome to get permission for this new group to officially become a Religious Order. When some of the bishops were discussing this with the pope one of them said, ‘It is not possible to live in this kind of extreme way,’ but one of the others pointed out that if it wasn’t possible to live that way, then it wasn’t possible to live the Gospel, since all he was doing was literally living the Gospel.

Today, over 800 years later, people are still inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, because we still need to be inspired. There have been others like him too, a modern day example being Mother Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be St. Teresa of Calcutta. What is especially important about these people is not so much the work they do as the effect that has on others. They usually become renowned all over the world because they inspire. They preach about God by the way they live more than by anything they could say. St. Francis of Assisi had the lovely saying, ‘Let us go and preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words.’
 


The Missionaries of Charity in India at least, spend a lot of their time bringing people in off the street who are dying. They clean them up as best they can and allow them to die with dignity. Most of these people would be Hindu or Muslim, but they don’t try to convert them. That is not what they are called to. They are called to bring the love of God where they find themselves among the poorest of the poor. In fact they really say more about their faith in God by what they do than by anything they could say. There is a story of one man they found who was in a particularly bad way. It took them several hours to clean him up and then he said to them:
‘All my life I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.’ Mother Teresa went on to say: ‘It was so wonderful to see the greatness of a man who could speak like that, who could die like that, without blaming anybody, without cursing anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel - that is the greatness of our people.’

In the first reading today we are called to look out for those around us who are in need and there are always plenty around us in need, often hidden. Some time back I was talking to a man in Sarasota who is homeless. He told me that he had served in the military, he had also done time in prison and now he was homeless. He also said: ‘You know doing time in prison is one thing, but trying to survive on the streets of Sarasota is quite another.’ It’s not what you would expect. While helping the poor materially is really important, respecting the dignity of each person is just as important. The way we look after people and treat people is how we tell the world what we believe in. It is not even about giving great amounts; it is about giving what we can with great love and treating those around us with great respect, whether we like them or not and regardless of what they believe in.  That is how we tell others about God.


Let me finish with this prayer which I always find helpful when I find myself getting cynical about the world around us.

Anyway

From a sign on the wall of
Shishu Bhavan,
the children’s home in Calcutta.

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful you win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spent years building, may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help, but may attack you if you help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.


You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

(from the book, ‘A Simple Path’)


Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.

Friday, January 27, 2017

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time yr A (Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12) Why I am priest

St. Patrick's Seminary, Maynooth, Ireland, where I studied.
Today I would like to share with you something more personal than I usually would. I would like to tell you why I am a priest. Not how I became a priest, but why I am a priest. I suppose it’s something you probably don’t think of very often, but people often ask me why I became a priest.



First of all I believe that God called me to be a priest. There was a real sense of God calling me in this way and it was a persistent call. Although it was something both exciting and wonderful, it was also something scary and painful. I knew it would mean that I would not get married, which was a natural attraction for me. But what I always say to people is that the calling to be a priest was stronger than the calling to be married, even though both were there.



The year I entered the seminary was the year when all the scandals began to break in Ireland. It started with my own bishop having had a child and it got steadily worse with all the sexual abuse scandals. This made all of us in the seminary think a lot about why we were there. After I was ordained the scandals continued and the atmosphere in our society was very difficult. I know it was the same here. Because of the way the media presented it, almost every priest was considered a pedophile, which was very difficult, as you can imagine. Why would I want to be part of an organization that tried to cover up such horrific scandals? The reason is simple. I believe.



The high cross at Clonmacnoise 
I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord; that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, not in a symbolic way, but really and truly present. The bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Since I believe that is true, there could be no more extraordinary miracle and I always consider it the greatest privilege that I have as a human being and as a priest. It is always an honor and a privilege to be allowed go to the altar and celebrate the mass, even when I’m half asleep on a Monday morning, or when I humanly don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes it scares me when God reminds me that I am a sinner and struggle like everyone else and yet He allows me to do this for you his people, because He wants us to be able to receive him in Holy Communion. For all of us that is an incredible gift. I do not understand it, but I believe it. I also believe that God speaks to us through the sacred scriptures. God actually speaks to us personally and God has much to say to us. The scriptures were written by human hands, but they were inspired by God and that is why we never replace them with anything else. That is also why I continue to read them over and over again.


I consider being able to hear confession as a great privilege. To be God’s instrument to bring his forgiveness and mercy to people is something wondrous. That people will come to me as God’s instrument is both humbling and wonderful to me.



As a priest I am called to people when they are sick and dying, right to their bedside even though I do not know them and they will tell me things that they will not even tell their own families. I am asked to be there when families are going through great joys and sorrows.



Is it difficult? Yes. I have struggled with it every day since I was ordained 18 year ago. Twice I almost left. In fact one time I thought it was all over and I had even told people that I was leaving, not because I wanted to, but because I thought that I couldn’t handle the stress of it any more; the daily hostility I was experiencing and the sense of isolation I felt in some of the places I was working. Yet each time the Lord called me back and showed me that He would take care of it and He did.



In the second reading today it says:

God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,

and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,

and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,

those who count for nothing,

to reduce to nothing those who are something,

so that no human being might boast before God.


8th Century monastery off the West coast of Ireland
  In a mysterious way God seems to delight in calling and working through the nobodies of this world, so that it is all the more obvious that it is him at work and this is something He continually shows me. My faith keeps changing and growing and the path is often difficult, but I believe it is the most important path we will ever be asked to follow and so I will continue. I would like to finish with this quotation where St. Paul is talking about his own life.

I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. (Philippians 3:7-8)






Saturday, January 21, 2017

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A (Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23) Repent and believe in the good news



 

One thing that all of us here have in common is the search for happiness. Everyone wants and hopes to find happiness. We may have very different ideas as to what happiness is, but we are all looking for it. The biggest problem seems to be where to find it. We will look for it in a partner, in having children, in work, in material things. When we fall in love we may think we have found it, but if we persevere in a relationship we will realize that while it is a great gift to have this other person, they won’t completely fulfill me either, because they cannot. I am asking the impossible of someone if I expect them to completely fulfill me because only God can do that. Hopefully our happiness will begin in this life and we will have many happy times, but total fulfillment is in the next life. I think that even to recognize that much is a big step. In 1858 Our Lady appeared several times to St. Bernadette in Lourdes and one of the things she said to Bernadette was, ‘I cannot promise you happiness in this life, but in the next.’ We will not have total fulfillment in this world.

When Jesus began his public ministry one of the first things he said was, ‘Repent and believe the good news’, or in today’s Gospel it says ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ What does ‘repent’ mean, and what is ‘the kingdom of heaven’ that we so often hear about? In different places Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is among you and ‘within you.’

All of us see the world in a particular way. We have a particular mindset which is usually formed by our upbringing and our culture. We think that the way we see the world is the right way, maybe the only way. And yet if we go to a different country and culture we realize that others see it in a completely different way. There are different ways to look at the world and our way is not the only way.

Part of today’s thinking is that the way to heaven is wide and easy and that most people find it. Yet Jesus said almost the opposite. He said that the way to heaven is narrow and difficult and that not everyone finds it. He said the way to hell is wide and spacious and that many people take it. What we call ‘hell’ is the opposite of what God offers us. God offers us happiness, joy, fulfillment, love, peace and the joy of being with the people we love. To lose this is what we call hell, the opposite of all that God offers us: isolation, hatred, despair, pain, darkness and knowing that we have lost the possibility of happiness, which is the eternal presence of God, the only thing that will fulfill us. If we have free will then it makes sense that we can choose one or the other.

The kingdom of heaven that Jesus mentioned so often, is the way of looking at the world that comes from him. Seeing the goodness and beauty in the world around us and the people around us. Learning to live the commandments of God that help us to see the world in this way. And that’s why the kingdom of heaven is within us and among us, if we choose to live as Jesus taught us, with compassion and mercy, realizing that our life is about love and service.

Why does Jesus tell us to ‘repent and believe’? To repent is to continually ask forgiveness and turn back to God since we continually stray from the path that leads to heaven. It means to change our direction and follow the way that leads to happiness, to God. To lose that is the worst thing imaginable, because it would mean losing our chance of happiness, which all of us want. That is why Jesus tells us to keep coming back and seeking the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness, which He assures us awaits anyone who makes even the smallest effort to do, but to believe that we don’t need to repent is a big mistake.

He also tells us to ‘believe in the good news’, or ‘the kingdom of heaven’ because that is the way that leads us to that happiness. To understand Jesus’ teaching, to believe in it, is to understand why we are here. The teaching of Christ is the only thing that makes sense of what our life is about. While I was at home in the last week I heard a shocking statistic, which says that at the moment there are two suicides every three days. What is going on? People have lost faith and so they don’t know where to turn. They have lost the vision of what their life is about. They have lost sight of the kingdom of heaven and so they have nothing to live for. That is why what God offers us is so important and that we keep coming back to it through repentance. Not to take this seriously would be a big mistake on our part, because this is the teaching that comes from God, the most important choice that we can ever make.

            ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel.’

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognise Jesus as God



The feast of the Epiphany is an interesting one. In the Eastern Catholic Churches (the ones with all the icons), it is the main feast of Christmas, sometimes called the Feast of the Three Kings. They give their gifts on today’s feast just as the kings gave the gifts to the child Jesus. Here we celebrate it as the feast of Christ being recognised by the world. The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was. They are supposed to have come from different countries. They represent all the peoples of the world since they were not Jewish. It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and race. All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The three gifts they bring are symbolic. Gold is the symbol of a king. Jesus is a king, King of kings and the master of the whole universe. The use of frankincense is a sign of recognising a divinity or God. Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the God-head. And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering He will go through to win eternal life for the human race. The symbolism of the three pagan kings is that all peoples of all religions and nations will recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord and that we only have eternal life through him. 

It might seem a bit arrogant of us to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong, but that is not the case. People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who never come to know Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ and eternal life is still offered to them through him, just as it is to us. When they die they will see this at once. They will know immediately who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
  


Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin (and interestingly most religions have a similar understanding of Original Sin although it is called by different names) God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can accept or reject this gift individually and we do this through our faith. All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not, but it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe. We accept life with God when we die which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever and that is the choice we must make.  

This is also where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong. Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong. All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or driving us farther away from God.


We Christians are the people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us. We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way, but it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else. That depends completely on how we live our life. When we die we will realise that all this is really true. And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord. What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can just as it is for us. If they do this, God will also draw them closer to him and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 

Meanwhile we pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us. But either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us, and remember that they are also children of God.

Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)