Friday, April 29, 2016

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





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

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

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




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

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

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

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

If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

 



Sunday, April 24, 2016

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




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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

'Love one another as I have loved you.'

 

 


Friday, April 15, 2016

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



Ragheed Ganni, Martyr (1972-2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Friday, April 8, 2016

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 21:1-19) The gift of our weakness





I always find it both amazing and amusing how in the presidential campaign they will go through the history of each candidate with a fine-tooth comb in the hope of finding anything to discredit him or her. It’s as if they are looking for the perfect person who is not allowed to have any defects. If they do find anything in their past such as smoking dope when they were a teenager, or something similar, they present this as a reason for him or her to be unsuitable for president now, as if you could find someone who didn’t have defects. Modern day media tends to do the same, gloating over the sins of an individual while showing absolutely no mercy whatsoever to that person for the mistakes they have made.

In contrast to that we have almost the opposite presented to us in today’s Gospel. Peter is confronted by Jesus in a loving but painful way, when Jesus asks him three times ‘Do you love me?’ Why did Jesus do this since he knew well that Peter loved him? Jesus was making Peter face his own weakness, the weakness that caused him to publicly swear that he never knew Jesus. This happened during Jesus’ trial when Peter tried to stay close to Jesus, but he was overcome with fear when individuals realised he was one of Jesus’ followers and then he denied ever knowing Jesus. After this happened it says that Peter went outside and wept bitterly, because he never intended to do this but he was overcome by fear. 

In asking Peter three times ‘Do you love me,’ Jesus was helping him to heal, but also making him face his weakness. Jesus wasn’t going to just pretend that this never happened, because if he did it would have continued to haunt Peter for the rest of his life. Instead, Jesus confronts Peter with it and makes him face it. And then Jesus makes this same man the first pope. Jesus was saying, ‘I know you let me down because of your own weakness/fear; but that is not an obstacle for me. Now face it and then I can really work through you.’ It is an extraordinary thought that Jesus wasn’t afraid to make Peter the first pope even when he knew that Peter had denied him. Our weakness is not an obstacle for God.
It is because the Lord loves us that he challenges us with our weaknesses. We want to just gloss over them and pretend that mistakes never happened, but that doesn’t really help us. If we are to heal and grow then we must face up to our weakness, which is difficult and painful but it’s also what helps us to grow. 

 

In the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous the first step to recovery is to acknowledge your weakness and that you are powerless over it. Only then can you begin to continue in the right direction. This is also one of the reasons the Lord gives us the facility to confess what we have done in total secrecy, so that we can heal. The idea that all our sins are totally forgiven by God when we ask for forgiveness, is a hard thing to grasp and many of us struggle to believe that this could really be so. And yet that is what the death of Jesus on the cross is all about: the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness has already been won for us; we just have to ask for it.

There is a lot more freedom in admitting that we are weak when we come before God, than in trying to prove we are perfect. If we had to be perfect it would put enormous pressure on us. Part of the freedom that our faith gives us is to realise that it’s ok to be weak, to have made mistakes. Ultimately we rely on the power of God and not on ourselves and that certainly is a relief.

Can you imagine if Jesus hadn’t challenged Peter in this way and then made him the first leader anyway? Peter would have continued to live in fear wondering whether his denials would come to light or not. Instead Jesus brings everything out into the open and basically says, ‘I know what happened and now you have repented, so don’t be afraid anymore.’ This is why the Lord keeps inviting us to come back to him, to confess what we have done wrong, so that we can be free and so that we can live in peace. Everything God does is done to help us.

Peter do you love me?’ ‘Lord you know everything, you know that I love you.’


Saturday, April 2, 2016

2nd Sunday of Easter; Divine Mercy Sunday (Gospel: John 20:19-31)
Mercy



There is a story told of a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home. He decided to desert the army, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death. Now this man was the only son of his mother who was now widowed. His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person. She pleaded for her son, and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world. The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on the man.  Napoleon said in reply, ‘He doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’. But the mother said back to Napoleon, ‘If he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’

Today we celebrate the feast of Divine Mercy, a feast which focuses on the extraordinary mercy of God; a kind of mercy that doesn’t make sense to us. It is a beautiful feast because it reminds us that while God is just and we will be held accountable for what we do, God is also infinitely merciful. God teaches us that the smallest effort of repentance on our part, is enough. God knows what we are like and that we struggle, but the Lord is not interested in that so much as in the overall direction of where we are trying to head. If we are trying to do what is right and to live as the Lord asks us to, then we have God’s own word for it that He is on our side and we have nothing to fear.

Before the Eternal Father in heaven, Jesus intercedes for us and pleads our cause. Jesus said that He would send the Holy Spirit to help us, the Advocate. In Italian the same word is used for a lawyer/attorney, one who defends us. The Lord is reminding us that if we are open to him, He is completely on our side and we have absolutely nothing to fear.  ‘If God is with us, who can be against us?’ The teaching of Christ and his Church is that forgiveness has already been won for us. We only have to ask for it and accept it. 



We live in a culture where revenge is encouraged and those who show mercy are considered weak, but this is not the teaching of the Lord and we must ask ourselves who it is we follow. Strangely, most of us expect to be shown mercy when we die, yet we often think we shouldn't have to show mercy ourselves. In the Gospel today we have another account of Jesus appearing to the disciples. He had every reason to be angry with them because they had all abandoned him when he was arrested. Peter who tried to be faithful ended up publicly swearing that he didn’t know who Jesus was. Yet when Jesus appears to them there is no reproach, only compassion and encouragement. Even Thomas who is understandably skeptical is shown total compassion when he finally gets to see Jesus. Jesus has no interest in condemning him or us, as long as we turn back. The whole event of Easter is about our being forgiven. That forgiveness awaits us if we ask for it. It has already been won for us. It is up to us to keep trying to follow the way of God and ask for his mercy. The only reason we will not receive it is if we deliberately turn our backs on God. Otherwise we have nothing to be afraid of.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter Sunday Yr C (Gospel: John 20:1-9) Jesus Christ is Lord




A few years ago I got an email from a friend of mine to say that he and some others were setting up a group called ‘Count me in’. This was a group of mostly young people who wanted to stand up for their faith and be counted and to do whatever they could to bring about renewal in the Church in Ireland. They were starting this group partly in reaction to another group called ‘Count me out’ which, as you might guess, was a group of people who no longer wanted to have anything to do with the Church. I must admit I was very heartened to hear of this group ‘Count me in’ especially being started by young Catholics who felt the need to stand up and be counted. As my friend so rightly stated in his letter to me, ‘Though we want very much to count ourselves out from any kind of abuse and cover-up by individual Church members and ministers, there is no way we can count ourselves out from Christ’s Body and from his offer of salvation.’ I was hoping for and half expecting that something like that would happen, as the Holy Spirit always moves people at the right time.

At a time when we are seeing so many very frightening things in the world, it is good to remind ourselves who it is we believe in. We believe in the Son of God who conquered death and evil. If we stay focused on the world and what is going on, we could easily become overwhelmed with fear and even despairing. But if we keep our focus on Jesus we will see the world in a different way. Remember that his death was just like some of the horrific and pointless killings that we are hearing about in the news; the death of completely innocent people.

I can’t help thinking of the time when Jesus gave the teaching about his body and blood, saying that ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life in you.’ It says that ‘After this many of his followers stopped going with him.’ His teaching was too much for them. But when he turned to the disciples and said, ‘What about you. Do you want to go away too?’ Peter said, ‘Lord to whom shall we go, you have the message of eternal life.’ That is very much how I feel myself. I am horrified and disheartened by all the horrors we are hearing about in our world, but I also feel, where else would I go?  I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is Lord and that he has revealed God to us.  Why would I want to go anywhere else?

What has all this to do with Easter you might ask? What is key to the event of Easter is that it was the last thing that anyone expected to happen. As far as the disciples were concerned it was all over. The master had been killed and they didn’t know what to do. It took quite a bit of convincing for them to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. When the women first came to them and told them that they had seen a vision of angels who told them Jesus was alive, the Apostles simply didn’t believe them. Then Jesus began to appear to them himself and it still took quite a while for them to really believe.



Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. If he did, then we have nothing to be afraid of, because it is the Son of God who is guiding his Church, who continues to make himself present in each mass, who continues to minister to his people through the priesthood. If the resurrection of Jesus is not true, then none of us should be here, because everything we believe in is based on the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead.

All that happened at Easter was totally unexpected. The worst disaster—the death of the only completely innocent man—was turned into the greatest event imaginable, an event that changed the course of history. This man Jesus, whom we celebrate, is Lord and he is the one who is guiding us. He is the one we believe in and we must keep going back to his words and his teachings. ‘In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid; I have overcome the world.’ Remember too that several of his apostles let him down badly, but it didn’t stop Jesus from using them and from passing his teaching on to us. 

At the moment our faith is being tested with what is going on in the world, but we must remember the event of Easter. God turned everything around when people least expected it and in a way that they could never have imagined. This is the God we believe in, who is just as powerfully present to us today. So let us never lose heart or be afraid. God has always been with his people and He always will be.

I am with you always.  Yes, until the end of the world.’

Friday, March 18, 2016

Passion Sunday Year C (Lk 22:14-23:56) My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?







One of the things that I always find difficult to deal with is injustice. I think it affects most of us in the same way and the closer to home it is the harder it is to take. A few years ago I met a lady friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for some time. She was now separated and trying to finish the house they had been both building. But she began to tell me of how the builder they were dealing with had ripped them off, but now that she was on her own he was even worse. He intimidated her, stole furniture, all kinds of things that were so wrong, and to make it worse he lived just down the street from her new house. I was so angry I could hardly contain myself, and the worst thing was that there was little I could do about it.

No doubt everyone here could tell me different stories of injustice.  It’s all around us and it seems hard to get away from it. The worst thing is that there is often little we can do about it. Why does God allow these things to go on? We say that God is all-powerful and loving; if that is so why doesn’t He intervene?

The answer, if it is an answer, is given to us in the account of the passion. The last day of Jesus’ life involved, corruption, betrayal, lies, hatred, abandonment, jealousy, torture and murder. Even the trial used to prosecute Jesus was illegal by their own law. Why didn’t God intervene? How can God allow these things to happen?

God gives us an answer, but maybe not the kind of answer that we would like. When we cry out in frustration to God, He points us to the passion of Jesus. Jesus was the only one completely innocent, who only did good during his life. Yet because of jealousy and hatred, he was set up, convicted, tortured and killed in the most brutal way.




I think that God tells us two things through the passion of Christ. Firstly God is well aware that we suffer, and suffer unjustly. God knows the pain it causes us and the frustration at often not being able to do anything about it. When we ask, ‘Why do you allow this Lord?’ God points to Jesus on the cross. For some reason suffering is part of the journey that leads us to God. ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mt 16:24). But perhaps more important is the fact that the suffering that we go through is leading to something else.  It is a suffering that often transforms us, and it will not last forever. It will end and the whole point of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Just One, is so that we can access a life that no longer involves any suffering. That is what God promises us and God only speaks truth. That is where we have to hold on tight in hope and remember that this life is not the whole picture. If we live as if this life were everything, then we will be disappointed. But if we remember that this life is leading to something much better and that it is a time of service, then it will help us to stay close to God and not lose hope. That is the difference that our faith makes. It tells us what our life is about and the purpose of our being here.

The passion of Christ also reminds us that Jesus has experience the greatest depths of suffering, even to the point of feeling that the Father had abandoned him. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46). For us this means that Jesus understands our worst suffering and feelings of despair or abandonment. He has been there and so we know that He is with us. We are never alone.