Saturday, August 23, 2014

21st Sunday Yr A (Gospel: Matthew 6:13-20) We keep focused on the Lord



There is a place in my hometown of Galway called An Tobar Nua (which means The New Well), which is run by some Baptist friends of mine.  Their aim is to help people come back to their own faith, whatever Christian group they are part of.  They do great work.  For two years they asked me to give a lecture to a group of protestant students from America who were with them for several months.  They asked me to give an overview of the development of the Christian faith in Ireland.  The idea was that they could then ask me questions about the Catholic faith.  I enjoyed it and the questions were interesting.

They are usually the same questions that come up: why do we ‘worship’ Our Lady?  So I try to explain that we certainly don’t worship Our Lady as this would be idolatry, but we do give her great honor just as Jesus did.  Another question is: how can a priest claim to forgive sins?  This question is a particularly interesting one, because it brings up a lot of other things.  The truth is that the priest himself does not forgive sins, because the priest is only a human being, but that God forgives sins through the priest.  But even this understanding, where does it come from?

You will remember in some of the Gospel passages where Jesus said to one or two people before he healed them, ‘Go, your sins are forgiven.’  When he said this the religious people of the time were shocked because they said ‘Only God can forgive sins.’  Then he showed his authority to forgive by also healing the person.

This Gospel passage today is connected to this, because in it is the answer to why we take the teaching of the Church seriously and also where the power of the priesthood comes from.  God the eternal Father, revealed to Peter who Jesus really was, and straightaway Jesus points this out to him and then appoints him as the first one to lead his Church.  Then Jesus says this extraordinary thing: ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’  And in another passage Jesus says: ‘Whatever sins you forgive will be forgiven, whatever sins you retain will be retained.’

What Jesus was saying was that he was giving his authority to Peter and the Apostles, not because they had all the gifts and talents needed to continue this movement by themselves, but because it would be God who would work through them, teach through them and forgive through them. 

All around us at the moment there is terrible confusion.  Even all the arguments to do with gay marriage and everyone being told they have the right to do pretty much everything, and if they don’t then they are being discriminated against.  It is disturbing to say the least.  What are we to do about it?  We have only to stay calm and remember who it is that is guiding us, God himself.  So it is our job to stay focused on the Lord, on his teaching through the Church and not worry about all the craziness around us which can be both confusing and frightening as everything we believe in seems to be being undermined.  Throughout the ages this has always been the way, but perhaps it is more 'in our face' now than usual.

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of the underworld can never prevail against it.’

Jesus gave Peter and the apostles his authority because God himself would be working through them and God continues to work and teach through them and through the priesthood; to offer his forgiveness through them and to make Jesus present in each mass through the priesthood.  I don’t know why He did this, but I believe it, and that is enough. 

It says in the second reading ‘How impossible to understand God’s motives!’  So much of what God does makes no sense to us, including God’s Church and how it works.  But all that is really important is that we believe that this is from God and that it is not from people.  If I believed that this was a human institution I can assure you I would not be here as a priest.  I am a priest because I believe God called me to be a priest and to continue to pass on his message as best I can.  I sometimes wish He had picked someone else instead, because it is often quite difficult, but at the same time I am very grateful because it is a huge privilege.

So our job is to try and be faithful to the Lord’s teaching which is given to us through the Church and not to be afraid of the chaos that is going on all around us in society.  We keep the Lord Jesus at the center; we keep coming back to listen to what He is teaching us through the Scriptures and we receive Jesus continually in the Eucharist.  That is enough.  It is the Lord’s Church, the Lord’s teaching and there is nothing for us to be afraid of if we keep focused on him.

 ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church
And the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it.’

Saturday, July 26, 2014

17th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52) The hidden treasure



 

 There are two lady friends of mine whom I’ve known for 27 years now:  Maura and Marina.  Both were accountants, with good jobs and a nice lifestyle; great party-goers and very popular.  Then one day Marina announced to us all that she was going to leave everything and enter the Poor Clare convent.  About two years later Maura did the same thing.  The Poor Clares are an Order of contemplative sisters founded by St. Claire of Assisi.  These sisters live a life of prayer and enclosure, meaning that they never come out except for things like going to the doctor.  This meant that they would give up their job and salary, their independence and nice lifestyle, the chance to get married and have children.  They will spend the rest of their lives in that convent praying and interceding for people, helping us by the sacrifice of their lives.

Every year quite a number of people decide to dedicate their lives to the service of God, in Religious life.  There are also many married and single people I know who have changed the direction of their lives and begun to live more closely to God, trying to give time each day to prayer and to living out the faith that they believe in.  They continue to work just as before, but they have begun to make a conscious effort to live by the Gospel they believe in.  I’m sure many of you here are the same.


In 1999 Pope John Paul II invited representatives from 54 different groups around the world to come to Rome.  These groups were all started over the last several decades and were all started by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  To give you an example, some of the groups were the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, Cenacolo, Charismatic Renewal.  All of these different movements within the Church have been started by lay people and are really about different ways of living out the Gospel in daily life.  These movements have been so successful that most of them have spread all over the world.  There were over 400,000 people present representing these 54 different movements.  It was a celebration of what God is doing all over the world.  

   

Why are people willing to give up their whole lives to pray or live apart from the rest of society?  Some people say it is an escape.  The Church says it is the highest calling that God can give to anyone.  But what makes someone want to do this, or to become a priest, or to really try to live out their faith like in those many lay movements that gathered in Rome?  They have found the hidden treasure, or pearl of great price that Jesus talks about.  They have recognised that it is worth everything and so they have given up everything for it.  It is what the Lord often calls ‘The kingdom of heaven’.  It is the discovery or realisation that God is real and that what Jesus has told us about God is true.  It’s as if this suddenly clicks into place and they can see it and it makes sense, so much sense.  They realise that God isn’t just an optional extra, but that God is at the center and we are a part of his world.  Our life only makes sense in relation to him and in relation to what Jesus told us about him.  Apart from God, our life makes absolutely no sense and this is worth everything, because it is the truth.

Most people are not called to be priests or religious, in fact only a very small percent.   Most people are called to continue on as normal in society, working, having families and giving witness to the reality of God by the way they live.  That’s what most of us are called to.  But the fact that some people are prepared to live a life dedicated to God, reminds us of the value of what we believe in.  It testifies to the fact that what we believe in has a greater and more lasting value than anything we can know in this world.  It’s a sign that we believe there is more to come and that it’s worth waiting for, it is worth making sacrifices for.

There is a lovely line in one of St. Paul’s letters which reads: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19).  The whole point of what we believe in is that not only is there a life after this one, but that that is what God has created us for and that is what we are preparing for. 

Often when I’m finding it tough going and wondering why I’m a priest or what it’s all about, I think of my two friends in the Poor Clares and their witness makes me say yes, it’s worth the effort.  This is the pearl of great price, the treasure which we have discovered.

Friday, July 18, 2014

16th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43) The wheat and the darnel; the mustard seed


Kilmacduagh Monastery, Co. Galway, Ireland. Early 7th Century
 Not too long ago I read about one of the organisations that Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded apart from her order.  It was known as The Co-Workers.  This was an organisation where lay people could be involved in helping the poor, through simple projects like making clothes or blankets, or sending food to help the poor in different parts of the world.  A huge number of people became involved and were delighted to be involved.  But at one stage she decided to disband this organisation completely.  Many people involved were deeply disappointed and could not understand why.  Apparently her reason for doing this was because it was starting to get too big and too powerful, too organised and structured.  What tends to happen in any institution when it gets too big and powerful is that it starts to choke on its own rules and regulations. 

The Holy Spirit seems to flourish best in small disorganised communities, where there is more room to breathe.  The Church itself is a classic example.  By now it is probably one of the biggest organisations in the world and at times as you know, in different countries it has become too influential and powerful in a very unhealthy way.  Then we begin to get too full of ourselves and forget what it was that we are about.  But God in his goodness and I stress in his goodness, does not allow us to remain that way and so He brings all the poison to the surface—the scandals, the corruption—so that we would be cut down to size again.  The end result is that often these times of humiliation are probably one of the best things that can happen to us.

Ironically, you could say, it forces us to rely once again on the Word of God and on the power of his Spirit, instead of on ourselves.  It is ironic because of course this is what we should have been doing all along, but when a group becomes big and powerful it is easy to lose the focus.  Jesus himself says to his disciples:
You know how among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them and great people make their authority felt.  Among you this is not to happen.  No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mt 20:25-28)

Being human as we are, when we are given some power we are often tempted to misuse it, even with the best of intentions.  We forget what we are about and we lose the focus.  God in his mercy continually pulls us back onto the right path and this is what we see happening.  Today we are blessed with someone like Pope Francis who is reminding us what we are supposed to be about.  He is a great gift to us.

Why was the ministry of the first disciples of Jesus so effective?  Because they relied one hundred percent on the power of God and not at all on themselves.  They knew they had nothing to offer of themselves and they had no idea what to do.  So they had to continually turn to God and ask him what to do next and He showed them.

Several years ago in my home diocese all of us priests got together for a meeting to discuss where we needed to go next in the diocese.  I couldn’t help being disappointed by the fact that we spent so little time praying and so much time talking.  To put it another way, we were looking to ourselves for the answers, but the whole point is that we do not have the answers.  God is the one who knows exactly what needs to happen next and if we really want the right thing to happen then we need to be asking God and listening to God continually until He tells us what to do next.

It is similar to the idea of having advertising campaigns for vocations.  While it is good to try everything, vocations are a spiritual calling and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Where there is a healthy community of faith they spring up naturally.  As soon as our Church becomes healthy again there will be plenty of vocations, because God never stops calling people to religious life.

In the readings today the parables that Jesus uses address these very issues.  The Church is like a mustard seed which becomes a big shrub.  It is meant to be small but it is an influence for the good.  The other example Jesus gives is the yeast or ‘baking powder’ which a woman uses to make bread.  You only add a couple of teaspoons of baking powder but it affects the whole loaf of bread and makes it rise.  The Church, or people of faith, will be small in the world, but the influence is vital because we act as a kind of sign-post to God.  We are an ongoing reminder to people of something bigger than ourselves.  Yes many people think we are crazy, but that is beside the point.  It has always been that way and will probably always be that way.  It is much better when we are small and in the background, because then we stay focused on God and we remember that we are totally powerless without him. 

The parable of the wheat and the darnel takes a different angle.  It tells us that we will always have to struggle with evil.  It is part of the world we live in.  We address as much of it as we can, but there will always be a certain amount we are powerless over.  At the end of time it will all be sorted out, but for now we must learn to live with it.  When Cardinal Ratzinger was asked once about the problems of corruption and scandal in the Church, he pointed to this parable.  This is how it is.  We do what we can about it of course, but we also have to learn to live with it.

 What is most important for us to remember is that God is the source of our strength; God knows exactly what needs to happen next and that God will continue to show us what to do if we listen to him.  That is why we keep coming back each week, to listen to his word and to receive Jesus himself in the Eucharist.



Saturday, July 12, 2014

15th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:1-23) A sower went out to sow




 Why is it that some people believe in God and take the practice of their faith seriously and others don’t?  How is it that some people are converted and others aren’t?  I often think of when I came back to my faith at the age of 19 yet many of my friends did not?  For all the people who preach the Gospel and even for all the miracles that happen around us—and there are many—very few seem to be converted.

Another question is why did so many people listen to Jesus when he preached?  Nobody knew who he was and he had no education to boast about.  Yet he gathered a huge following of people wherever he went.  You could say it was because he was the Son of God.  Yes, but nobody knew that at the time.  I think it was because he was preaching the truth and peoples’ spirits recognized this, because all of us are searching for the truth; the truth about God and the truth about our life.  The truth is attractive to us and it pierces right to the heart, so that when we hear it we want to hear more of it, even though it may be difficult or painful for us to hear.  Our faith is about a search for this truth, which has been revealed to us by Jesus.  That’s why we keep struggling with it, even though it often feels up hill at the best of times.  But it’s too important to ignore, and deep down we all know that.


 The way Jesus taught the people through parables—apart from being a very effective way of teaching—is also wonderful because it means that we can find the truth of the teaching if we are searching for it, but equally we won’t see it if we are not looking.  It requires a certain openness of heart.  Parables don’t just present us with a truth, but they invite us to search for one.  This in itself is a reminder of the respect that God has for our freedom.  God won’t force anything on us, not even the truth.

In this parable Jesus is teaching us two things about religion.  First of all that it is a part of life that some people will hear about God and ignore it, or become preoccupied with something else, or not like the idea that it means you might have to suffer for it.  Only a few will actually hear it and really grow because of it, as God intended.  Those who do are generally in the minority. 

Also, the fruit that comes from the rich soil doesn’t just happen by itself.  It is not just fate whether we will be open to believe or not; we have a part to play in it.  Rich soil only comes about with hard work and a lot of care.  Preparing the ground, getting rid of the weeds and stones.  So if the word of God is to grow in us, we have to make some effort to be ready for it and to help it to grow.  What does this mean in practical terms?  It means that if we want our faith to grow, we need to give it time, and to make certain sacrifices so that it will blossom.  We need to feed ourselves with the right material: the word of God and not just the ideas of our society.  The word of God is what will bring us life in a way that nothing else will.

Jesus says, ‘Try to enter by the narrow gate.  For the road that leads to hell is wide and spacious, but the road that leads to life is narrow.’  It is not the most attractive road, but it is the most worthwhile one. 

The parable also tells us that God is generous in the way that He scatters the seed.  Seed is thrown everywhere in order to give us every chance to grow.  The Lord is constantly throwing out seed on the ground, as it were.  God continually invites us to follow him, no matter what stage of life we’re at, so it’s never too late to start again.  And He will continue to call to us to follow the path until we die.  The invitation is always there for us. 

Finally, in the first reading from Isaiah, the Lord says that his word will not return to him without bringing about his will.  So even though we will always live with the mystery of why many people believe but so many more don’t, all of this also seems to play its part.  In God’s plan, everything fits together and we will see that when we die ourselves.  Everything will make sense.  For now the Lord calls us to persevere and be faithful as best we can.


Friday, July 4, 2014

14th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 11:25-30) 'Come to me all you who are overburdened'



 
My grandfather, Kenneth Kennedy, used to have a brush-factory in Dublin, which later turned into an art shop, which is still going.  At one stage he employed a man as a kind of messenger boy and general ‘dog’s body’.  He was a very simple man and I believe he was probably more of a burden from a business point of view, than anything else.  One time another friend of my grandfather’s was visiting the shop and he said to him, ‘Kenneth, why are you still holding on to that guy?’  And my grandfather just said, ‘Ah, shur I can’t throw him out, he has nowhere else to go.’  The other guy said, ‘Kenneth, you’ll never make a good business man.’  And he was probably right.

Most people I know have to work pretty hard to hold onto their jobs and most businesses I know—and I worked for several before I became a priest—can be quite ruthless when it comes to letting people go if they feel they could make more money without them.  In the business world money tends to come first and people second.  And now we are starting to have the problem of companies going to other countries to get cheaper labour.  The result of all this is that it causes a lot of stress at work.  Financial pressure is one of the biggest burdens around and arguments over finances are one of the most common in marriages. 

Where do we turn to when we feel that we can-not keep going?  Who do we turn to for compassion and support?  In the readings today Jesus tells us to turn to him, because he knows the pressures we are under.  God is well aware of how difficult it can be and He offers to help us. 

Jesus used the image of the ‘yoke’.  The yoke was the wooden brace that linked two animals together around the neck, in order to split the load between them.  Jesus is telling us that He wants to help us carry the load, to take some of the burden, but we also have to allow him to do this.  I think it is often tempting to leave God to Sundays, or to ‘religious’ things, but from all that God teaches us through the Bible, one thing that is very clear is that He is very interested in everything we do, down to the most ordinary level.  God is well aware of the burdens we carry and He is telling us that we need to keep coming back to him to refill regularly, just like you have to do with your car.  He is saying, ‘Let me give you the peace and hope that you need, so that you are able to get up and go on another bit,’ but we have to keep coming back to him regularly. 

We face a similar difficulty in all we are hearing about the world around us.  So much evil, so much injustice and so much suffering.  It can be overwhelming.  If we only listen to this it can make life too difficult and we can be tempted to despair.  But if we continually come back to the Lord and listen to what He teaches us, it keeps things in perspective.  Then we remember that God is the one in charge, that there will be justice in the end; that evil cannot overcome the power of God.  But if we only listen to what is going on in the world, we will not remember that.  That’s why Jesus calls us to continually come to him for refuge, not just once in a while, but every day, because we need the strength to keep going without being overcome by the world around us. 

One of the great tragedies of our time is the high number of suicides, especially among our young people.  Recently in my home-town of Galway, I heard that nine young people had taken their own lives in the one weekend.  Like everything else there are probably many reasons for it, but I have no doubt that one of the biggest reasons is because people have lost faith and they don’t know what to turn to.  How do you keep going when everything seems impossible?  We need a source of strength, something we can continually turn to, in order to give us renewed strength and purpose.  If we believe that this life is just passing and that there is something wonderful waiting for us in the next life, then this gives us strength to keep going during difficult times.  We believe that what we suffer here is only temporary, so we are prepared to put up with a lot.  But if you don’t have any faith, what do you turn to? 

Three things in particular that God has given us to help us are the Word of God, to guide and direct us; Confession, so that we can get up again as often as we fall; and above all the Eucharist where we can receive Jesus himself, every day if we wish.  All of these things are pure gift from God, to help us.  Hopefully we will continue to see them with new eyes and recognise them for the treasure which they are. 

All of us here who have been given faith—and you have faith if you are here—I think we need to pray a lot for our young people that God will bless them with faith and that God will show us how we can pass on the gift of faith that He has given us. 

Let me finish with this story: Recently on the news they interviewed the oldest woman in America: Jeralean Talley, who was born May 23, 1899.  She is an African-American and she has just turned 115.  The journalist interviewing here said, ‘What’s your secret?’  She just pointed up to heaven and then he asked, ‘The Lord?’  She said ‘Yes.  The Father got everythin’, I got nothin’.  It’s all in his hands!’

Come to me all you who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest.



Friday, June 27, 2014

Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (Gospel: Matthew 16:13-19) You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church





Today we celebrate two very different men who were called by God in an extraordinary way that they could never have imagined.  St. Paul was highly educated and respected, and Peter was a fisherman and probably not very well known.  Because of their encounter with the person of Jesus, both of them found their lives completely changed forever.  Both dedicated the rest of their lives to preaching about a man that very few people had even heard of and as a result both of them were eventually killed for their faith.  

One thing that was so important for both of them is equally important for us; that is, it was because of an encounter with the person of Jesus that they were changed.  Our faith is also based on an encounter with this person Jesus.  Even though we may never have physically heard or seen him, we have encountered him and that encounter keeps drawing us back to him.  People often ask me as a priest why I didn’t want to get married.  I always say the same thing: of course I would like to be married, but this call from Jesus was stronger and almost irresistible.

In his letter to the Galatians, one thing which Paul says is very striking.  He says, ‘The good news that I preached is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learnt only through a revelation of Jesus Christ.’  In other words, he is reminding us that this message is not from human beings, but directly from God.  Jesus taught it directly to Peter and the other Apostles, and Jesus also taught it directly to Paul after the resurrection.  Jesus appeared to Paul several times.  First he changed him from being someone intent on wiping out the first Christians to being one of its strongest preachers.  Many of the first Christians were afraid of him because they found it so hard to believe that he had really been converted.  That was the kind of reputation he had.  Then through other revelations Jesus also taught him all about this path that God was and is revealing to us.  Paul says the same thing when he talks about the mass: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you, that on the night he was betrayed...’  He is saying that he learnt this directly from the Lord and not from any of the other Apostles.

I think today it is very important for us to remember that this message we believe in was not made up by bishops or popes or any of us—in spite of what The Da Vinci Code would suggest—but that it is something that has been given to us by God himself, and that in spite of bad preaching, bad example, scandals, etc., the message does not change.  It comes from God and God is continually inviting us to follow this way of life that He offers us. 

It is easy to become discouraged sometimes when the ones who deliver the message, me or anyone else, do it badly.  This is why even though scandals are terrible and damaging, they shouldn’t affect our faith, because our faith is about Jesus Christ and our life in God that Jesus is inviting us to.  He is telling us that we will only find true life in God and that God is the only one who makes sense of this life for us.  Apart from God our life means nothing.  With God, our life means everything.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus says to Peter,
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it.  Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:18-19).

In doing this, Jesus was giving his authority to Peter and his successors.  But why would God do something so apparently crazy as to entrust his authority to human beings on earth?  We all know how unreliable we can be and what a mess we could make of it.  The reason He did this was because Jesus was saying that he would be with his pope and bishops to act and teach through them.  They would be instruments for the Lord God to use.  We still believe that today.  We believe that God teaches us through his Church, through his bishops.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t struggle with the teaching, but it does mean that we believe it comes from God and that is why we try to respect it and struggle to understand it, rather than just throwing it to one side.  Do you think that I would be obedient to my bishop if I thought that he was just acting as a man when he sends me here and there and everywhere?  No, I believe that the Lord acts through him and so I try to obey him and respect him.  And we believe that the Lord has given us these men to guide his Church, because he said so himself.  We don’t know why he picked them, or picked us priests, perhaps we would have done differently, but we believe that God acts through them and that God has given these men to us as our leaders in the faith.

Think also of the line ‘And the gates of the underworld will never prevail against it.’  We see plenty of evil in the world around us, but the Lord tells us not to be afraid of that.  His Church will never be defeated, because it is from him.

I am sure that the reason God often picks weak and sinful people to pass on his message, is to make it all the more obvious that God is the one working through them.  Most of the prophets were weak people who did not want to pass on God’s message, as they knew it would mean persecution, and they were right.  But God insisted that they did.  The great king David who killed Goliath, had been a shepherd.  Moses murdered someone and then had to go into exile.  St. Peter publicly swore he never knew Jesus.  God is not afraid to use weak people. 

For me one of the greatest proofs that the Church is from God, is the fact that in spite of such a sinful people and so many sinners making a mess of things, his Church keeps on going and people keep on hearing about Jesus Christ and continually try to live the way of Christ, just as we are doing now.

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.  The gates of the underworld will never hold out against it.  Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven.  Whatever you lose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

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.  I also think that 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 Jesus is present in a piece of bread when a priest says certain prayers over it?

In one of his letters to the Corinthians—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…’  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.  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.  But 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.