Saturday, April 22, 2017

2nd Sunday of Easter (Gospel: John 20:19-31) Do not be afraid

As a child—I think it was because I had such a vivid imagination—I seemed to be afraid of almost everything. Maybe it’s because of that, but today I hate to see anyone afraid. Sadly, at the moment there are many people living in fear, especially fear of terrorism, fear of not being able to cope or provide for their families because of all that is happening. It is very understandable and yet it is also one thing that God does not want for us. 366 times in the Scriptures are the words ‘Do not be afraid.’ God wants us to be at peace.

2000 years ago, on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, even though they believed He was the Son of God. Judas had betrayed him for money. Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus. They all betrayed him. Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room in fear. They were afraid first because they knew they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates. Secondly, perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them because they had betrayed the Son of God. It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens. Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’ The first thing he does is to take away their fear. There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before. There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful. Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed the Lord by my actions. Sometimes I even wish I was not a priest, because then I would not have to deal with what is sacred. It is difficult to have to deal with the sacred when you are aware that you are a sinner. It is easier to run and hide. Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish. Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’ Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease. ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘Do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned. Peace be with you.’ God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out. He knows what we are like. He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace. I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus would not believe the words of others that Jesus was alive. When you are grieving, you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful. And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe. No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe. No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.

In this Gospel Jesus also gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins in his name. Why? So that we need not ever be living in fear of God. Through the priesthood we have the concrete reassurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we can move on when we have done wrong; so that we need not live in fear. No condemnation, only encouragement and love.

Let me finish with this story. There was a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home. He decided to desert, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death and so he was to be executed. This man was the only child 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 as she was widowed. The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on her son. Napoleon said in reply, ‘He doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’, but the mother replied to Napoleon, ‘If he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’

Peace be with you.  It is I, do not be afraid.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Sunday (Gospel: John 20:1-9) ‘Where is your faith in the risen Christ?’


A few years ago a priest friend of mine was working in Rome.  At one stage he had a few minutes talking to Cardinal Ratzinger (Later Pope Benedict XVI). Ratzinger asked him how things were in the Church in Ireland. My friend Fr. John said, ‘Things are terrible. The bishops are useless. All the young people have stopped going to mass. It’s all over!’ Ratzinger said to him, ‘Father, that is not the talk of a Christian. Where is your faith in the risen Christ?’ This completely took him aback and he knew that the cardinal was quite right. When he related this story to me I could hear the power of that question in me as well: ‘Where is your faith in the risen Christ?’ If what we celebrate today is really true, that Jesus rose from the dead and conquered the power of sin and death, then what could we possibly fear? Even if our Church and our world seems to be in a mess—which it often does!—the power of Christ is greater than all of this and it is Christ who is among us and it is Christ who is guiding the Church, even if that is not always clear to us. The key thing is that we remain focused on Jesus who is Lord, and not on the mess in the world, or on the human side of the Church. Jesus, the Son of God, is the head of the Church. The only reason the Church still exists is because this is so.

For the Easter Vigil we have several readings which recall the history of salvation. We begin with one of the accounts of creation. The two key points in this account are that it was God who created and what God created was good. God’s creation is fundamentally good. The fact that the human being was created last, is a biblical way of saying that this was the high-point of God’s creation. We are God’s masterpiece, the greatest thing God created. But then somewhere back along the way we rebelled and lost the harmony that was there. Throughout history even though we continually strayed away from God, the Lord continually brought us back to himself. He continued to show us that the path which leads us to fulfillment and happiness is the path that is leading towards him. 

When God rescues the people of Israel and leads them out of Egypt and leads them across the Red Sea, they cannot go to the left or to the right. They can only go straight on towards God, or back to the ones who enslaved them.
In the reading from Isaiah (55:1-11) we hear the words,
‘Listen, listen to me and you will have good things to eat and rich food to enjoy. Pay attention, come to me; listen and your soul will live. With you I will make and everlasting covenant.’

In the reading from Baruch (3:9-15, 32-4:4) we hear the words:
‘Listen, Israel to commands that bring life: hear and learn what knowledge means.’ ‘Israel, blessed are we: what pleases God has been revealed to us.’ 

What pleases God is that we continue to walk in his way because that is the only way that will lead us to fulfillment. It is so simple and yet we so easily miss it.

In the New Testament reading from Romans (6:3-11) which we read after the Gloria, we are reminded that we now have a new life with God, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since we are joined to Jesus through our baptism we now enjoy the new life He has won for us. What is his is also ours, if we accept it. How could something so enormous be given to us? Simply because it is the generosity of God. In blessing the Easter water and renewing our own vows of baptism we remind ourselves that we totally belong to God. What God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus is extraordinary, but what is even more extraordinary is that He has done all of this for us, so that we may have life in its fullness. It is ours if we accept it.

So now going back to what Cardinal Ratzinger said to my friend: ‘Father, where is your faith in the risen Christ?’ I think God is saying the same thing to us today as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Jesus is Lord and He is among us. He is the one we focus on. It is only in him we will find the fullness of life and if we remain focused on him then there is nothing for us to be afraid of.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Thursday This is what I received from the Lord

Tonight we celebrate a very special mass, the first mass, when Jesus took the bread and wine and told the disciples that this was his body and blood. It is also on this night the first priests were ordained. The Passover meal which they were celebrating was and is a very special meal for the Jewish people. It was the feast that remembered their being set free from slavery. During that meal they sacrificed an animal, a lamb if possible, and the blood of the lamb was marked on the doors of their houses as a sign that they belonged to God, so God would protect them. They were saved by the blood of the lamb.

During this meal Jesus did something totally unexpected, which has left us baffled ever since. He suddenly told them that the bread which was in his hands, was now his body, and the wine was his blood and that they should both eat and drink it themselves, and repeat this ritual to remember him. This is what St. Paul says in the second reading which is the oldest account of the mass in the Bible: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’ We did not invent what we call the mass; the Lord Jesus himself gave it to us directly and asked us to repeat it as a way of remembering him. That is why we never change it for something else. That is why we also call it the mass and not a service.

From the very first time that Jesus taught the people about receiving his body and blood, it caused division. It says in John’s Gospel that when he gave this teaching the people complained and said ‘This is too much. Who could accept this?’ and many people stopped following him after that. But he didn’t go after them and say ‘Wait, let me explain!’ He just let them go. 

Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist? I’m sure it was for two reasons. First, because he wanted us to know that He is intimately with us always. We can receive the body and blood of Jesus into our own bodies every day if we wish. And so every time we celebrate the mass Jesus becomes present to us in the form of wine. It is not just a symbol, or a reminder, but this is really and truly the body of Jesus in an extraordinary way. This is completely beyond our understanding, but Jesus doesn’t ask us to understand it, only to believe in it.
The second reason is so that we could be present at the greatest event in history, the sacrifice of Calvary: the offering of God the Son to God the Father. That is what the mass is; the offering of God the Son to God the Father, an offering which the Father can not refuse, and that’s why the mass is so powerful. It is the perfect prayer, the perfect sacrifice which makes up for our inadequacies. Now Jesus makes it possible for us to be present at this event every time we celebrate mass.

Then another crucial thing happened. Jesus got down and washed the feet of the disciples, to teach them something. I always smile when anyone is asked to come up for the washing of the feet because if they do volunteer, you can be sure they will have carefully washed their feet, so really there is no need to wash them. But Jesus got down on his hands and knees and washed dirty, sweaty feet. Why did he do this? To show them that they were being called to a life of service. If he was prepared to serve them, they must also be prepared to serve everyone. That is what our work as priests is supposed to be about: it is meant to be one of service to the people.  It is also the mindset that we are all called to have as Christians; service; looking after whoever is in need. 

Now here is the essential thing. Peter’s reaction explained it all. Peter felt he could not allow Jesus the Lord, to wash his feet, because he was a sinner. He wanted to keep Jesus at a distance because he was a sinner. This is the typical reaction of most of us. We say ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  We don’t really believe that God could love us as we are. We are afraid to allow God to come too close. But Jesus’ answer was to say that he ‘must’ do this. In other words he was saying ‘Peter, you must not allow your unworthiness to keep me from you.’ God is well aware of what we are like and all the things that we’ve done wrong, but it doesn’t stop him from loving us and even from washing our feet. For our part we must not be afraid to allow the Lord to come close to us either. He offers himself to us, so let us never be afraid. ‘This is my body which will be given up for you.’

Saturday, April 8, 2017

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 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. 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.

Friday, March 31, 2017

5th Sunday of Lent Year A (Gospel: John 11:1-45) Our hope is in the Lord

Some time back I saw a program about Stephen Hawking, the English physicist who is confined to a wheelchair because of Lou Gehrig's 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 fifty years ago he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's 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 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.

For a few years I used to work in a hospital as chaplain in my hometown 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 housing subdivision called Moyross, in Limerick city—one of the toughest and most troubled areas of that city—a new group of Religious have 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 ruined their lives 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. Think of the hope that Pope Francis has given people by the way he lives.

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 is the one who has power over life and death. He is master of all things. He was also giving the people hope, showing them that there is a bigger picture that we do not understand. Death is not the end. 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 hope in God and the world to come gives us strength to keep going even when we are suffering, or struggling, or when everything goes wrong. If we do not have hope we could despair. If we believe in nothing else apart from this world then it will be very difficult to keep going when faced with the many difficulties that we are so often faced with, which don’t seem to have any solution: situations of injustice that we can do nothing about; people killed through violence and hatred. If we believe in nothing else, then how are we supposed to keep going?

In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, which is in modern day Greece, St. Paul wrote the following: “If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:9). In other words if we think that this life is everything then we have completely missed the point. But our faith tells us that this life is only a small part of what is going on and it is so important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. I am sure that was one of the reasons why Jesus deliberately waited until Lazarus was dead before he went to him, so that he could bring him back to life in front of everyone, so that they would realize that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead and all things are in his hands.

“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.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

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 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 God’s presence. 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. You could be cynical and say that is just the goodness of human nature, but with faith we see something different. We see the power of God’s spirit at work. What gives people the strength to die for a good cause? Their faith. God inspires and gives us the strength to keep going, even when it’s difficult.

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 church,’ 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 mystery as a priest and sometimes I find that difficult too because all of us want to be accepted.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that God is acting in their lives and will continue to 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 is healed he then comes to believe that Jesus is Lord. The miracles that Jesus worked did more than just heal the person. These miracles were also 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. God had to fit into their picture. But God often acts outside the way we think things should happen. The religious leaders were confined to a narrow understanding of God. You could say that they had a blindness of the heart. The blind man, on the other hand, was physically blind, but he had an openness of heart. Not only did he come to physically see, but more importantly he came to believe.

We have a particular understanding of what it means to believe and how we should express that faith: namely by going to church, praying and loving our neighbor. 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. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It is just different.

The next generation may not understand God in the way 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 God by living our faith as well as we can. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

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

Today we have the baptism of an infant, Emmet Donato, who is just four months old. There is nothing like a new baby to give us hope; the promise of the next generation. The Gospel today is particularly appropriate for a baptism, where Jesus offers the Samaritan woman ‘living water’, which can only come from God. But why baptize a child at all? Why not wait until they are an adult and what is the importance of Baptism anyway?

Way back at the beginning we believe that God created everything, the heavens and the earth, the visible world and the invisible world. It is also worth mentioning that faith and science don’t contradict each other, they just look at things from a different perspective. Science looks at how our universe developed, step by step; what exactly happened. Faith asks why it is there in the first place, why is there anything instead of nothing. The two most important things that the creation story in Genesis tell us is that it was God who created and that what God created was fundamentally good. It also says that the human being was God’s greatest creation, God’s masterpiece, because we are made in his image with free will and the ability to love.

We also understand that somewhere way back at the beginning our first parents rejected God’s word, rebelled against what He taught them and so sin entered the world. That was the Fall, which is itself a very mysterious thing. The problem was that we ourselves could not repair the damage we had done. The bridge between heaven and earth had now been broken. So God came among us in the person of Jesus who was fully human and fully divine, in order to make up for the damage done. By sacrificing himself for us he reopened the way to heaven, the possibility of eternal life with God which we had lost. That’s why Jesus’ coming among us is so important and why Easter is such an extraordinary feast. It is the feast of our being set free. It is now possible to go to heaven again.

 When we baptize someone we are saying yes I believe all that God has done for me and I accept it. I want to be drenched in the life of God. When you step out into a summer down-pour in Florida you get soaked, ‘baptized’ in the water. That’s what it means. By being baptized we are saying ‘Let me have it!’ Let me have all that God has done for me. When we baptize an adult they first have to go through a time of preparation where they learn about our faith. Only when they are ready do they receive baptism. If we baptize an infant we do it on condition that they will be taught their faith as they grow up. Otherwise it would be hypocrisy.

In this Gospel Jesus has an unusual encounter with a woman. In the culture of the time it would have been unthinkable for a Jew to speak to a Samaritan woman on her own, and even more outrageous to share a drinking vessel with her. The fact that she was there in the middle of the day on her own also tells us something. Women would have gone to the well early in the morning or in the evening in groups and not with men. Being there on her own at noon indicates that she was not welcome in her community. She was shunned because of her lifestyle. But Jesus reaches out to her and offers her ‘the waters of life’. What is this life? It is life in Christ and all that he is offering to us. Following his teaching is the path that will lead us to heaven. Baptizing someone is offering them all that Jesus offered the woman and also offers us.

We only want the very best for our children and that is why we baptize them as infants and immerse them in all that God offers us. As they grow we try and pass on that same faith and that takes all of us. We bear witness to them by the way we live. If we do our best to live our faith it will help them to see how real and important it is too.

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.