Saturday, April 12, 2014

Passion Sunday Year A (Gospel: Mt 26:14-27, 66) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, events which changed the course of history forever.  Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die.  It’s that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet.  They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna!  Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’  Yet within a few days everything changed.  He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed.  Today we read the full account of his passion.  It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one.  That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time.

Everyone suffers, as you know, there are no exceptions.  Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  Sometimes we even feel that God has left us and we are on our own.  This can be so difficult because we believe that at least God won’t let us down even if everyone else does.  But where do we turn when God disappears too?  There is no where left to go.  This is the worst kind of suffering.  Of course the truth is that God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  What does this mean?  It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father.  He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there?  Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God.  By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering, as it were.  After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there.  We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

I think it is also good to remember that even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, that in fact we have not.  But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God.  It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it.

Finally I want to mention Our Lady.  She also was at the foot of the cross.  Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king.  He would be called Son of the Most High God.  What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes?  Although Mary must have suffered terribly at all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope.  She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding.  God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand.  There is so much that we don’t understand, but we try to believe that God knows what God is doing and so we don’t give up.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

5th Sunday of Lent Yr A (Gospel: John 11: 1-45) Hope

Some time back I saw a program about Stephen Hawking, the English physicist who is confined to a wheelchair because of motor neuron disease, but whose brain is working perfectly, and who is an extra-ordinary genius.  He wrote A brief history of time, attempting to explain the origins of the universe.  Over twenty years ago he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease and he was told he had at best two years to live.  Today he is still doing ground-breaking work in physics although the only muscle that he can still move is one of his cheeks.  There is a small sensor beside his cheek, which is attached to a computer.  By moving his cheek he can speak to people and continue working through his computer.  No doubt one of the reasons why he is still alive is his will to live.  He has an extraordinary determination to keep going.

There is so much more to being alive than just physical health, although of course that is what we all wish for.  Many people would consider that life would not be worth living if you were in the physical state that Stephen Hawking is in, and yet look at what he has already done.

When I was first ordained a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain in my home town of Galway.  I often saw people who, having lost the will to live, would go down-hill very quickly and die.  I also saw people who were told that they would probably not recover, but because they were absolutely determined to keep going, they would recover, often completely against the odds.  One of the key differences between those who keep going and those who don’t is something spiritual: hope.  When we have hope we can keep going even against the odds.  If we have no hope, we may not survive even the ordinary.

A few years ago in a housing complex called Moyross, in Limerick—one of the toughest and most troubled areas of that city—a new group of Religious moved in.  They are called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which were started by Fr. Benedict Goreschel in the Bronx, New York.  They live very like the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) in extreme poverty.  Apparently the area has been transformed, for the simple reason that they have given the people there new hope.  By moving in there, they have shown those people that they are worth something and that in itself has given them new hope.

Because we believe that God wants us to be happy, to live life in all its fullness, that gives us hope which we are inspired to pass on to others.  Because we have hope we are able to work to promote and strengthen married life even when it goes wrong; we continue to work with younger people and encourage them not to give up even when they have messed up through drugs, or alcohol; we continue to work for justice and peace often in very difficult circumstances.  Our faith in God gives us hope, which in turn inspires others to keep going.

In this beautiful Gospel we hear how Jesus deliberately waited when he heard that Lazarus was sick, in order to work this miracle before everyone’s eyes.  He wanted to show them something.  He wanted to show them that God has power even over death and that if He allows people to die that it is not the end.  Just as Jesus called Lazarus out of death, so Jesus will also call us out of death when we die and we will begin a new and wonderful life with him, if we have chosen life with God.  We make that choice by the way we live. 

In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was helping people to believe in who he was.  He was also giving them hope, showing them that there is a bigger picture and so much that we do not understand.  Death is not everything. Physical health is not everything either, but having hope is essential if we are to keep going through the many difficulties that we continue to face.  Our faith in God gives us hope and this hope also gives others hope.

‘I shall put my Spirit in you, 
and you will live and I shall resettle you on your own soil; 
and you will know that I the Lord have said and done this.’

Saturday, March 29, 2014

4th Sunday of Lent Yr A (John 9:1-41)) The man born blind. Seeing beyond the senses.

I grew up in the West of Ireland, where the winters can seem endless because it is so dark for so long.  Often it is weeks before we see the sun, but we know it is up there.  We know it because we can see the effects of it for one thing.  God is something similar.  We do not see him, but we know He is there, because we see the effects of his being there.  We see people continually inspired to do good, even in the face of strong opposition.  We see people willing to suffer to get justice and peace.  If you are cynical you may not see God there, but if you have faith, you will.

One of the things that is causing many of us pain at the moment, is the fact that so many of our younger people seem to have lost their faith.  Parents are continually saying to me: ‘My children won’t go to mass,’ or ‘my children don’t practice anymore; what should I do?’  Just because they cannot relate to the mass, does not mean that they don’t have faith, or that they are not searching for God.  Almost everyone searches for God, but perhaps not in a way that makes sense to us.  It is often more a question of them having lost faith in the Church as an institution than anything else and this is very understandable, since most of what they are hearing about it is negative, unattractive and sometimes scandalous.  What can we do about it?  To be honest I don’t know.  It troubles me greatly and I pray continually for them and that God will show us what to do.  To most of my generation and younger generations I am a complete alien as a priest and I find that difficult too because it makes me quite isolated.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that God is acting and will act, for two reasons:  firstly, because they are also his children.  He created them and He is more concerned about them than we are.  Secondly because of the thousands of people who are praying for them, including us.  God hears our prayers and God knows how and when to respond.  We may not appear to see anything, but that does not mean that nothing is happening.

Now let us turn to this account of Jesus healing a man blind from birth.  The fact that he was blind from birth emphasizes that giving him sight would be a complete miracle and totally unheard of.  Once he has been healed he then comes to believe that Jesus is Lord.  The miracles that Jesus worked were not just to show off.  They were pointing to who he was and is.  When the man is questioned by the religious authorities he is not able to explain what happened or how, but simply that it did happen and that he now believes.  He does not have the official ‘education’ or religious knowledge, to be able to know the things of God, and yet he comes to believe.  On the other hand the religious leaders of the time had the official education.  They were the experts, and yet they could not and would not recognize who Jesus was.  Perhaps it was partly their religious knowledge which became an obstacle for them.  Because Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath they concluded that he could not be from God, because that was their understanding of how God worked.  They had a particular understanding of how God must be, and since Jesus didn’t fit this picture they concluded he could not be from God.  Essentially their minds were closed and they didn’t want to know.  But God often acts outside the way we think things should happen.

We have a particular understanding of what it means to believe and how you should express that faith: namely by going to mass, praying and loving our neighbour.  This is good and important, but that does not mean that God can not bring people to faith in a completely different way as well.  The Muslims, Hindus, and many others believe in God too, but they have a very different understanding than we do.

The next generation may not understand God in the way that we do, but we should not lose heart about that.  God is just as interested in them as we are. He has created them to be with him in heaven, just like us.  Our job is to go on bearing witness to the God we believe in by living our faith as well as we can. 

Meanwhile we remember that even if we cannot see God at work, He is still there.  Sometimes we cannot see the sun, but we know it is there and so we never lose hope.

Friday, March 21, 2014

3rd Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 4:5-42) The waters of life

 All around us we see signs for Tarot card reading, fortune telling, psychics, all kinds of alternative healing and other practices that come under the heading of ‘occult’.  We are told to stay away from these things that so many people find fascinating.  Why is this?  What is so wrong with it?  Are we just over-reacting because we do not understand it?

If God tells us to stay away from something, there is a good reason for it.  God does not give us rules just for the sake of rules.  There is a reason for everything.  In the Old Testament in the book of Deuteronomy it says:
You must not have in your midst anyone who... practices divination, or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices magic or who consults the spirits, no diviner or one who asks questions of the dead.  For the Lord abhors those who do these things. (Deut 18:10-11)

So what is the problem with these thing?  Anything that is ‘occult’ is generally an attempt to gain knowledge or power of the future.  One of the greatest things that God has given us is the gift of free will.  All through this life we have the freedom to choose to do what we want, even to rejecting God, which is quite amazing.  God does not reveal the future to us because if He did it would influence our free will.  If I thought there was going to be an earthquake in the city centre tomorrow, the chances are I would avoid the city centre.  If I think I know what is going to happen, I am most likely to make decisions based on that information, but the problem is that then I am not totally free to choose, because my free will has been influenced.  That is the main problem with things such as fortune telling, tarot card reading, etc.  We think we are gaining knowledge of the future, but this influences our freedom.

However, we have no way of knowing whether the information we are given is true or not and perhaps more importantly, where is it coming from?  If God deliberately does not reveal the future to us, then the information is not coming from God.  So where is it coming from and how can we trust that it is reliable?  We are dabbling in the world of the spirit, without knowing what we are dealing with and make no mistake about it Satan is very cunning in how he deceives us.  Jesus himself called him ‘the father of lies.’  And don’t be fooled by the fact that a fortune teller starts of with a Christian prayer, as some of them do.  If the Lord tells us that these things are detestable to him, then we would be wise to stay away from them. 

I know of a woman who was given the initials of someone she was told she would marry.  And she met a man with those initials, and she married him, and it was a disaster.  If you have dabbled in any of these things confess them and let them not have any kind of influence over you, spiritual or otherwise.

Now listen to what Jesus says to the woman at the well:
If you only knew what God was offering you and who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.

What is God offering us?  What is this living water?  First of all it is the life of faith, the path to God, the truth about God as given to us by Jesus who is Son of God.  Jesus is either telling us the truth or he is not.  If he is—and we say we believe he is—then we need to listen.  For two thousand years the teachings of Christ have been guiding people on the path to God.  The fact that it has lasted that long is itself a sign that this must be from God, especially when you look at the history of the Church, which is nothing to boast about.  Yet in spite of that the message of God is still passed on, through sinful people like me, it is true, but passed on none the less.  It is there for anyone who wants it.  Many things are continually offered to us, but not all of them are good and not all of them will help us.  What we believe is that what God offers us—the waters of life—is what will lead us to total happiness, beginning now and fulfilled in the world to come.  This is what the Lord is teaching us.  Do we believe that? 

Sometimes I think it comes back to something as basic as asking ourselves, ‘Do I believe the Scriptures are from God?’  ‘Do I believe that Jesus teaches us through his Church?’  If we believe that, then we need to listen to it.  If we don’t believe that, we shouldn’t be here in the first place.  God offers us his word to guide us, his Body and Blood to feed us, his forgiveness to heal us, but if we want to follow the path that He is showing us, then we must listen to what he teaches us and act on it.
If you only knew what God was offering you and who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water

Saturday, March 15, 2014

2nd Sunday of Lent: The Transfiguration (Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9) Called to discipleship

One of the things I always enjoy about travelling is meeting new people.  Hopefully some of those people become friends.  Initially we are introduced, then we say a little about ourselves.  If we get on well, we may meet again.  As a friendship develops you learn more about the other person, their background, what they like, how they think.  Over time a bond starts to form. If a true friendship develops we may even share some of our deepest secrets, because we have learnt to trust the other person.  A real friendship is a great gift and when a real friendship develops we make sacrifices for that person, we do things for them and in a sense we also try and serve that person in different ways.

In the same way, all of us are called into a relationship with God and more specifically with the person of Jesus—Jesus who is both fully divine and fully human.  Our faith is not just about belief in a teaching, it is about an encounter with the person of Jesus. 

In the Gospels we read about many different men and women that Jesus called to himself, to enter into relationship with him.  In St. Mark’s Gospel it says: He called them to be with him (See Mk3:13-14).
13 [Jesus} went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. 14And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach (Mk 3:13-14).

Different people were called to specific tasks like the Apostles to preach the Gospel.  Others were called to different kinds of service, but everyone had a role, men and women.  But the most important role for all of those people was first to know Jesus and be with him and they did.  Some of those people he allowed to become closer to him than others.  Even among the Apostles he invited some to a closer relationship than others.  In today’s Gospel we read about Peter and the brothers James and John.  Jesus took just these men with him on three occasions:  once when he brought the 12 year old girl back to life (Jairus’ daughter); at the Transfiguration which we just read about and also in the garden of Gethsemane when they watched Jesus breaking down with fear and sweating blood at the thought of what was ahead of him.  He was showing these three men more than he showed most of the others.

Once people got to know Jesus they were called to use their gifts in his service and they did.  We are also called to use our gifts in his service.  This is part of what it means to be a Christian.  A community like this one doesn’t become a community unless people give of themselves generously, using their gifts and talents to serve others and thankfully people do that here with great generosity.  There are over 95 different ministries in this parish, which is quite something.  It only becomes a community when people use their gifts.  I have my calling as a priest and I try and use the gifts I have, but I am only one person and like anyone I am very limited in what I can do.  But when all of us use the gifts we have, things happen.

In the Gospel today we read of an extraordinary event, when Jesus briefly allowed Peter, James and John to see him in his glory as God.  It must have been both amazing and terrifying all at once.  These were his closest friends and you could say that he was sharing his deepest secrets with them, allowing them to know for sure who he was.  They were being given this extra strength for what lay ahead, because Jesus was about to go through his passion which they were to witness first hand.  Jesus knew how difficult this would be for them and so he was helping them.  What always strikes me most about this event was the words of the Father, ‘This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him.’  ‘Listen to him. In Jesus we find everything we need to know.  He is the answer to what our whole life is about.  He points out the path to us and shows us how to live.  ‘This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him.’

The disciples were entrusted with a great treasure.  That treasure was the knowledge of who Jesus was and what he did for us.  Their job was to pass this on to others.  St. Paul writes ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us’ (2 Cor 4:7).  What would have happened if they decided that this was too much like hard work?  How many people would never have heard of Jesus if they hadn’t played their part, using their gifts to pass on this message?  We are also entrusted with a particular role and particular gifts.  No one else has the part we have.  It may even be something very simple, but everything has its place. 

I remember the first time I went to a prayer meeting which was instrumental in bringing me back to my faith.  It was held in a private house.  When I went into this house I didn’t know anyone and I felt awkward and uncomfortable.  Then a big man came up to me and said, ‘How are you doing; my name is John McCarthy and you’re welcome.’  I never forgot that, because it put me at ease and made me feel welcome.  That prayer group helped me to come to faith and then I went on to become a priest.  The simple role of that man made a big impact on me, making me feel welcome in a place of strangers.  I’m sure he would never have thought that what he did was important, but 26 years later I still remember it clearly.

All of us have a part to play, which no one else will play.  What it requires of us is that we respond to God with a generous heart.  Who knows how God will use the gifts we have once we respond.  We are entrusted with something beautiful, but it is up to us to use.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

1st Sunday of Lent (Gospel: Mt 4:1-11) The temptations of Christ in the wilderness

Since I was ordained a priest almost 16 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of the presence of God.  I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as becoming present in each mass when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way.  It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it just seems to be some kind of a strange religious ritual.  So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular every once in a while to help us believe?

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is really the explanation as to why God doesn’t do more extraordinary signs and wonders to convince us of his presence.  This is an extraordinary story because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation.  At some stage he must have told his apostles what happened there and what he had to go through. 

Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God.  Now for any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use.  Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers, or otherwise Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to use them.  There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height or to turn stones into bread, because we couldn’t do it anyway.  So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus, to misuse his power.

The first thing he was tempted with was to find satisfaction in material things.  ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’  In this case it was bread to a man who was starving.  But Jesus said, ‘No.  Man does not live on bread alone.’  The human being is not satisfied by material things.  Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by offering them what they want.’  We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God because we are spiritual and not just physical.

The second temptation was to compromise with evil.  This is a huge temptation for most people.  When you hear people say ‘the Church needs to get with the times’ this is often what they mean.  The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings to the more difficult moral demands of our age.  It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow.  But that is not what we are asked to do.  And when Jesus was tempted this way he rejected it outright.  He was being tempted to compromise with evil just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced.  But right is right and wrong is wrong.  We must not compromise on the ways of God.  Yes it is more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.

The third temptation that Jesus was presented with was to work signs and wonders for the people.  ‘Throw yourself down from the temple; since God will save you.’  If he started doing this then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time.  But Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart.  You cannot buy love, as you know, and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way, and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.

In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders, so that people would be quickly convinced.  But that is not how God works, and I think it is good to remember that, especially when we live in times of great change when God often seems to be very quiet.  The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely.  No one is going to force us.

Friday, February 28, 2014

8th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Luke 2:22-40) You cannot serve both God and money

In 1929 in a particular part of New York city, several wealthy business men committed suicide, all at the same time.  Why? Because of what became known as ‘the Wall Street Crash.’  The New York stock exchange collapsed over night and as a result many people lost millions of dollars.  Many of them could not handle this and sadly they killed themselves.  Money for them had become everything.  It was their god and it had just proved itself to be a false god, an illusion.  When their god collapsed, they were left with nothing, no money, no faith and apparently nothing to live for.  It seems that many of them despaired.

A few years ago, a woman by the name of Maura Grealish—a good friend of mine and a highly qualified accountant—took her final vows in the Poor Clare convent in my home town of Galway.  She took four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure.  She will never own anything of her own, she will not get married, and she will spend the rest of her life enclosed in a convent, dedicating her time and energy to God and to praying for all of us and for many others.  Some would consider this a useless waste; others see it as the gift of God which it is, the highest calling in the Church.  Her life lived in this way—as with any religious—is a sign that we believe in the life to come and that it is worth making sacrifices for it.  If we didn’t believe in the life to come, then it would be a waste of time.

How are the two related?  Well I suppose they are really the opposite of each other.  Those in Wall Street and in the business world sometimes put everything into their money.  Money becomes the only thing that matters.  They work for it, they live for it, they may even lie and cheat for it.  On the other hand Sister Gabriel, has given up everything for God, and is depending totally on God for everything. 

Most of us are probably somewhere between the two.  We may not be millionaires, but we have not given up everything for God either.  We work and try and put bread on the table and provide for our families and loved ones.  Most people are under a lot of pressure to pay their bills and mortgages, etc. 

Money is an important tool.  It would be very hard to live in our society without it, but it is only a tool.  If we lost everything over night it would be very difficult, but we would still be alive.  It happens to people every so often, but we do survive.  But if God disappeared, what would we have left?  When we died there would be nothing.  Thankfully God does not disappear, regardless of whether we have more than we need, or barely enough to survive on.  Either way God is waiting for us and when we have served our time on this earth then we will go to him.

In the Gospel Jesus says ‘You can not serve God and money’.  We must choose who is going to be our master.  That doesn’t mean that we can not enjoy our money or the things we have, but we must be careful to use it wisely.  At the end of the day it is only a tool and if it was suddenly taken away from us, we would still survive.

When we live in a world that places so much emphasis on having plenty of money, it’s hard not to be affected by that.  There is nothing wrong with having money so long as we remember that it is only a tool to help us survive.  It is not primarily what our life is about.  God has made us much deeper than just flesh and blood.  We also have a spirit and that spirit will never be satisfied with material things alone.  It is a reminder that we are not just animals and that we are called to something greater.
I want to finish with a few verses from Psalm 49.
No one can buy his own ransom,
or pay a price to God for his life.
In his riches man lacks wisdom,
he is like the beasts that are destroyed.