Saturday, May 30, 2015

Feast of the Holy Trinity, Year B (Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20) We are made in his image


We believe that before God created the universe and the human race God was perfectly happy and content in every way; not in need of anything. It makes you wonder why on earth did God bother to create us at all, since we have proved to be so much trouble?  And God would have known about all the trouble that it was going to cause. So why did God create us?

This is how it makes some sense to me. Think for a moment of some time when you were deeply happy about something. Usually our instinct is to share it. We want someone else to be a part of that happiness. That’s why most people have a big party at their wedding, because they want others to share in their happiness and that is one of the reasons why God created us, simply because in his goodness He wanted others to share in his own happiness. So God created the spirit world, which we understand as the angels and then God created the human race in order that we could share in his own happiness. The book of Genesis says that we were the last thing that God created which is a biblical way of saying that we were the most important thing; the masterpiece of God’s creation. God also created us with the ability to love and reason.

However, there was one ‘catch’ as it were. In order for us to be able to love God we had to be free, so that we could freely choose to love God, otherwise it wouldn’t be real love at all. Real love has to be free, since you can never force someone to love you. You can encourage them, but you certainly can’t force them. Love has to be free. So God had to make us free, and this meant that we would have the freedom to love God and gradually find our way to happiness, or to reject God which would ultimately mean we would lose the happiness that God had intended for us. It’s a strange paradox, but in his goodness He created us and gave us freedom, even though He knew that some of his own creatures would reject him. 

I think the most beautiful image we are given of how God loves us is in the story of the prodigal son. While the Son has gone away and squandered everything, his father is constantly waiting and hoping that he will return and when he does finally return the father just celebrates. There is no condemnation, no warning that ‘This must not happen again’; just celebration and rejoicing. The story of the prodigal son is teaching us how God is with us: no condemnation, only God’s desire for us to find happiness.

The Lord knows how difficult it can be for us to make the right choices and so He gives us people to guide us, the commandments, the teaching of his Church, his own Word in the bible and many other things to help us along the way, so that we won’t be short of the direction and encouragement that we need. He also sends us holy people every so often, like Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio, Therese of Lisieux, Mother Theresa, and many others, because they radiate God and they are a real sign to us of the Lord’s presence among us. These people seem to radiate God and so many people are drawn to them because they sense that presence. That is why God sends us particular chosen souls every so often, to inspire us and remind us that we are not alone. I know of several people who worked with Mother Theresa and it completely changed their life, because they met God through her. 

The feast of the Holy Trinity is a celebration of love; the Trinity is a community of Persons who share total love and joy between themselves, and this Holy Trinity reaches out to us with that same love and invites us to join them. If we respond to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, then we are gradually drawn more and more into that love. It starts in this world and it will be fulfilled in the next.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost Sunday, Year B (Gospel: John 20:19-23) The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything

There is a priest friend of mine—one of my classmates actually—who does a lot of work with the Legion of Mary calling from door to door speaking to people about faith.  He was a Quantity Surveyor before he became a priest and he is one of the most amazing organizers I’ve ever met.  He often said to me that the hardest places he found to work in were usually the wealthier areas.  When people felt they had all they needed they were generally not as open to hearing about God.  The poorer areas were usually much more open to what he had to say.  It doesn’t surprise me.

From all the various crises that are happening at the moment one of the good things that is coming from them is that they are helping people to ask a lot of questions and to search for God in a new way.  Economic crisis helps us to realise that we are much more vulnerable than we might have thought.  Religious crisis and even serious scandal—such as we have seen—can help us to remember that while religion can be a great help, it is absolutely deadly if it is misused. The Muslim extremists like ISIS are frightening example of this.  Any religion is simply a way to help us live out what we believe in, but unless it is completely focused on God and unless God is at the centre, it can become an end in itself and a very dangerous one at that.

There is one crucial thing that is needed for faith to be alive and healthy and that is the gift of God’s Spirit: The Holy Spirit.  For me the best way of explaining it is to compare the Spirit to electricity.  In any building you can have all kinds of useful and sophisticated equipment, such as computers, microphones, lights, projectors, MRI and CAT scanners, and so much more.  However, none of these things would be of any use to us if we didn’t have electricity.  They would just sit there completely useless.  The power that goes into them is what transforms them into something wonderful.  In a sense the Holy Spirit is the electricity that makes us alive.  Without God’s Spirit we are dead, the Scriptures are just words in a book; the mass is just an empty ritual; marriage is just a legal way of being together.  But with the Holy Spirit our faith suddenly lights up.  The Scriptures become the living word of God; the mass becomes the living presence of Jesus among us in the Eucharist. With the Holy Spirit marriage includes the presence of God who is there to support, strengthen and encourage every couple.

We are nothing without the gift of God’s Spirit.  We would not be able to believe, or pray nor would we even have the desire to know God.  I could stand at the altar and pray all day long, but nothing would happen if the Holy Spirit didn’t transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus; the same with confession.  It is the Spirit who forgives people.  The priest is just an instrument; an important instrument, but only an instrument.

 What we see happening in the Church at the moment and over the last 20 years or so is also the work of the Holy Spirit, purifying and renewing his people.  And that is happening because the Lord loves us and won’t allow his people to be overcome with disease.  All the poison is being taken away and this is painful but absolutely essential.  We will all be much better off because of this work which God is bringing about.  Ironically, God is forcing us to rely much more on the power of his Word and of his Spirit, something which we should have been doing all along.  Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that God’s work is always beautiful and God will make things beautiful again, because God is the master craftsman.

The Lord doesn’t wait until we are ready either.  God acts when the time is right.  He doesn’t just wait for the hierarchy of his Church to decide what to do. The Lord sends his Spirit who inspires people and moves people to act.  That’s not to say that God doesn’t care about his bishops and priests, of course He does, but God knows how best to act;  and so He sends his Spirit to inspire and move people to step out in faith and live the Gospel, and they in turn move others, until soon the people are alive with faith again.

God knows very well what we are like and that despite our best efforts we continually need to be helped back on the right track, no matter what we are doing.  And this is why Jesus told us before he ascended into heaven, that the Father would send us this ‘Helper’, who would be with us forever, and who would teach us everything.  He knew well that we would need help and so God sent us the best help that we could have, his own Spirit, to guide us and teach us.  The Lord constantly teaches through the example of people He inspires, through the Word of God, through prayer when we are open to him and in many other ways we will never even be aware of.  But the Spirit is very gentle and that is why we don’t notice him sometimes.

The gift of God’s own Spirit is really the greatest thing God can give us after life itself, because when we have the Holy Spirit we have everything. 
Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful people,
send forth your Spirit and we will be created,
And you will renew the face of the earth.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Ascension of the Lord Year B (Gospel: Mark 16:15-20) He continued to appear to them and tell them about the Kingdom

 In my work as a priest, people often tell me about spiritual experiences that they have had: sometimes they are experiences of the Lord in some way, sometimes of someone who has died, asking for prayers or something like that.  Quite a large number of people do in fact have spiritual experiences.  However, often after a time people begin to wonder did they really have these experiences, or was it all in their imagination.  It is really impossible to know but in fact it is even not important.  Usually the experience will have helped the person at the time and the rest is irrelevant.

In the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles—or the ‘adventures’ of the Apostles, as you might call them—Luke tells us how after Jesus rose from the dead he continued to appear to the Apostles.  Not just once, but many times.  Why? Probably to convince them that they had not imagined it.  One thing that he did on at least two occasions was to eat something with them.  The first time when he appeared to them in the room, they were all standing there speechless, and he said ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’  So they gave him a piece of fish and he ate it in front of them.  Then they knew it was not just a vision, but a real person, the same real person they had known before.  It was not even food that he had brought with him, which could also have been part of a vision, but it was something they gave him and then they watched him chew it and swallow it.  This was a beautiful and very human thing to do; something that we could completely relate to.

Luke also says that he not only appeared to them, but he also continued to tell them about ‘the Kingdom.’  What is ‘the Kingdom?’  What was he telling them about?  I have no doubt that he was telling them about the reality of heaven: life with God which He has created us for; that it is real and that we could also lose it if we are foolish. There we will be reunited with the people we love and we will experience happiness there in a way that we cannot even begin to imagine now.  He was probably also explaining to them what the purpose of his life was on earth, why he had to suffer and die the way he did, what all this meant for the human race; God’s plan for his people.  Also he probably told them that he had a lot of work for them to do and that they must remember that their life here on earth was a time of service and not to worry if things were not easy, because when their work here was done he would bring them home to be with him again. 

Why was it they were suddenly able to go out and start preaching to everyone about a man that most people had never heard of before?  And not only preach about him for a while, but for the rest of their lives with passion.  Almost all of them ended up being martyred, but they didn’t care, because they knew that the only thing that was important was to be faithful to the Lord Jesus as best they could.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the same thing exactly applies to us. The Apostles were real people and these are real experiences that we are reading about. Our life on earth is just as short as theirs was and it is also a time of service, just as theirs was. For most of you it will be serving by looking after your families. For single people and also for priests and religious it will be in a slightly different way. But that is why we are here, to learn to love, to serve, to freely choose for or against God. I think it is also worth remembering that we are living in a time when people are very cynical about religion, and they point to scandals within the Church as being ‘proof’ of just how hypocritical the whole thing is. We must not let that put us off. It has always been difficult to believe and probably always will be, but we must ask the Lord himself to help us to persevere and not become negative or cynical. And when our time here is complete God will come and bring us home. I have no doubt that this is probably what Jesus was telling the Apostles about during those forty days. He wanted them to have no doubt about why they were here, so that we also could have a good understanding of our purpose here, through their teaching.

   You might say, ‘But it is too difficult, or not realistic, or too hard to believe.’  God has given us every possible help that we could ask for.  If it seems too difficult it is only because we are not using the help that He has given us.  What help? Above all, the Eucharist, where Jesus feeds us with his own Body and Blood and where we are united with him in the most intimate way possible; also through the word of God; confession, etc.  It is all there waiting for us.  The clearer a picture we have in our own head as to what our life is about, the easier it is to keep going.  That is also why we needn’t be afraid of anything in this world.  If we offer ourselves to God, then why should we be afraid? All things are in his hands.
I am going now to prepare a place for you
and after I have gone and prepared you a place,
I shall return to take you to myself (Jn 14:3).

Saturday, May 9, 2015

6th Sunday of Easter Year B (John 15:9-17) “I call you friends”

The place where it is believed Peter was praying before he was called to the house of Cornelius in the first reading
A few years ago my brother Cathal who was studying in Canada told me that he had gone to a particular jazz concert where a world famous trumpeter by the name of Winton Marsalis was playing.  My brother studied music and is a big jazz fan.  After the concert he went to a local jazz bar only to find Winton Marsalis had also gone there and played for the rest of the night.  At the end of the session Cathal went up to say hello to this guy.  He couldn’t believe that he even had the chance meet Winton.  When he went up Winton was talking to another man.  After a minute he realised that my brother was waiting to meet him and he just turned around and put his arm around him and said, ‘Hey, how are you?’  My brother Cathal said he felt so chuffed that this famous musician would be so kind as to recognise him and greet him in this way. 

I remember also hearing a story of Pope John Paul II visiting some place in Poland.  And whatever building he had been brought to, all the staff were lined up to meet him.  When he came into the room he recognised one woman he knew from years before and straight away he said, ‘Mary, what are you doing here?’  and he gave her a big hug.  She was so overcome to be singled out by the Pope in this way that she just burst into tears.  For whatever reason we love to feel that we are remembered, or recognised; that we’re not just nobody.

In the Gospel today there is a simple phrase which you could easily miss.  Jesus says, “I call you friends,” because he says he has taught us everything about himself and about the Father.  Can you imagine if the Lord appeared in the sky and we were all watching and he singled you out and said, “Oh this is a friend of mine.”  How bizarre, and yet what a wonderful privilege.  Jesus tells us that we are not his servants, but his friends and even children.  We say that often, but I think we forget what it means.  Our friends are the ones who look out for us, do favours for us and stick with us. It also says that in one of the Psalms, ‘It is the Lord who grants favours to those whom he loves’ (Ps 4:3).  Real friends won’t let us off the hook either, even if we are out of line.  They are the ones who will challenge us, because they love us.  Jesus is telling us the same thing.  He treats us as friends, which is a sign of his love and respect for us.  A servant can be let go at any time if they are not up to standard, but you don’t let go of a friend, even if they are not up to standard.  Jesus is telling us that this is the regard he has for us.  I find that very comforting. 

'I have called you friends'
My best friends are the ones who have stood by me through thick and thin and as you know well, you will know who your true friends are when times are hard.  They are the ones who will stand by you.  That is what the Lord Jesus is saying to us.  He is with us and He will stand by us regardless. 

There is another line in the first reading today that I also want to mention, where Peter says: “The truth I have come to realise is that God has no favourites; but that anyone of any nationality who fears God and does what is right, is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35).  And then as though to prove the point, just after he said this, the Spirit of God came down on all who were present and empowered them and these people weren’t even baptised.  They were pagans.  God was showing them something wonderful:  All people who try and do the right thing, are acceptable to God. 

I’m sure there are many of you here who are worrying about your children or loved ones, perhaps because they don’t seem to be practicing, or living their faith in the way that we think they should.  Well remember this line:  ‘The truth I have come to realise is that anyone of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.’  Most people I know, whether they practice or not, do fear God and try to do what is right.  I think this should give us and the people we love great hope. So what are we called to do? We are called to love them, support and encourage them. We preach the teachings of Jesus more by the way we love people than any other way.

Love one another as I have loved you.’

Saturday, May 2, 2015

5th Sunday of Easter Yr B (Gospel: John 15:1-8) Cut off from me you can do nothing

One of the most successful movements ever started which has been able to help people get their lives back together is the group known as Alcoholics Anonymous or AA.  By now there are also many other ‘twelve step’ groups, as they are called, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and others.  The interesting thing is that the twelve step program on which they are based, is basically a summary of the Christian life.  The twelve steps involve admitting that you are powerless over your problem, whatever it might be; that your life is unmanageable, that only God (as you understand God) can help you and so you must turn to him; also that you need to atone for the hurt and damage that you may have caused others.  But the main reason why these groups have helped so many people is because they are based on the idea that we need the support of like minded people if we are to be able to live any kind of way of life.

Our coming to mass on a Sunday has a very similar thinking behind it.  We come together primarily to worship the Lord, but also because we need the support of like minded people who also believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Holy One of God.  This was exactly why the early Christians began to come together in each other’s houses, so that they could share their faith together, listen to the Word of God, receive the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist and be encouraged by each other’s presence and witness.
Today we do the same thing but in a more organised way.  But the reason we still come together is not just because it’s Sunday and we have to go to mass, but because we need the support of others who believe as we do.  

We come to give of ourselves to God, to worship God because everything we have comes from him and then we also receive so much in each mass. We need to listen to God’s word for guidance and inspiration, so that we can learn how God wants us to live and most importantly to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. We are nourished by Jesus himself when we receive him in Holy Communion and are intimately united with him in the most extraordinary way.  The Eucharist is not just a symbol or something that reminds us of Jesus, but really and truly the body and blood of Jesus. We receive Jesus himself into our bodies. What greater gift could we ask for than this? The Lord knows much better than we do how much we need this kind of strength and support and that is why he has set it up for us this way.  All of this is for our benefit, because we need this kind of support.

In the second reading St. John says that what the Lord asks of us is this: to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, that He is the Son of God, and to love one another.  If we can do that much we are doing a lot.

More and more in our society it becomes obvious that we don’t all believe in the same thing and that is alright, there is room for everyone.  But if we are to survive, we need the support of each other and to know that we are not on our own.  We also need to look out for each other, because that is the practical way of living out our faith.  It is not easy to live as a Christian, but it never has been.  In the Gospel Jesus says, ‘Cut off from me you can do nothing.’ 

If we are serious about following this way of life, then we must recognise what it is we need.  Just as with someone suffering from an alcohol or drug addiction, if they want to get well, they need to work the twelve step program, it is the same for us.  If we hope to survive as Christians, we need to stay close to Jesus, to listen to his word, to receive him in the Eucharist and to love one another. Jesus is our source of life in every sense. If we wish to remain alive as Christians we must be rooted in him. No one else will give us life as He does.

I am the vine, you are the branches... cut off from me you can do nothing.’

Saturday, April 25, 2015

4th Sunday of Easter Year B (Gospel: John 10:11-18) Our vocation is to live our life in Christ

A shepherd leading his sheep in Palestine

 Last week I had the privilege of going to the Holy Land for the second time.  It was an extraordinary experience to suddenly be standing in the very places that we so often read about in the Scriptures and to see what they look like.  Two things I saw struck me, especially in relation to what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. One day during my first trip, we were celebrating mass in the place that is celebrated as ‘The Shepherd’s Field’ where the shepherds are said to have seen the angels in the sky when Jesus was born.  As we were getting ready to celebrate this mass the heads of two sheep popped up over a hill that was at one end of the field and looked at us.  Then they came towards us and right into the middle of us, sniffing us, poking around in our bags and curious as to what we were about.  They weren’t afraid of us at all.  It struck me that they were a very different kind of animal to the sheep I grew up seeing, which are very nervous of people.  These sheep even looked quite different.  Later in the trip as we drove along in our bus I noticed on one of the dusty hills that we passed, a shepherd walking along with a line of sheep behind him, one after the other.  This is not something you see here either. Where I grew up the sheep have to be herded and driven, but it made much more sense of several things that we hear about Jesus ‘leading’ his sheep and the words in today’s Gospel, “I know my sheep and mine know me.”  In this case they were obviously following the shepherd because they knew him and trusted him.  They had some kind of relationship with him.  I understand that the shepherds who look after those kind of sheep also have individual sounds to call each sheep.

Wilderness around Palestine
 This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and also vocation’s Sunday.  The two are very much linked together.  We usually think of a vocation in terms of a religious vocation, but in fact only a very small percentage of people are called to priesthood or religious life. However, all of us have a vocation, or ‘calling’ (which is what the word vocation means), and that calling is to live the life of faith. 

One of the things that is quite striking about the Christian and Jewish faith is that God is the one who seeks us out first and calls us to be in relationship with him.  God is the one who comes looking for us. In the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve have suddenly become aware that they are naked and they are afraid, it says that God came to the garden and called to them.  “Adam, (which means ‘human being’) where are you?”  But after the first sin (the ‘original sin’) the first humans are now afraid and suspicious of God.  Adam replies, “I heard the sound of you in the garden.  I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid” (Gen 3:10). 

One of the consequences of the first sin (whatever exactly that was we don’t know, except that it was some kind of a rejection of God’s authority, or rebellion against God’s word) was that we became afraid and suspicious of God and of each other.  We still suffer with this fear/suspicion of God.  After a natural disaster, or even a tragic accident, how often do we hear it said, “Why would God do this?”  We are not always convinced that God is good or that God has our best interests at heart and yet this is what God continually tells us through the Scriptures: “My plans for you are for peace and not disaster.”  “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  In spite of our mistrust and confusion, God continues to seek us out, to help us know him.  And in the Gospel today Jesus gives the beautiful words, “I am the good shepherd...the one who lays down his life for his sheep.”  The Lord gives everything for us, including his life.

Our primary vocation or calling is simply to respond to God and to enter into relationship with him.  How we respond to that call is through our life of faith.  It is never forced on us; God simply invites us to follow him.  The wonderful thing is that it can be lived in any way of life and in any circumstance; also that there are as many ways of living it as there are people.  The tragedy is that often we get so caught up with the worries of this life that we lose sight of what our life is about.  Sometimes it is only when a tragedy happens, or we become sick, that we are jolted awake and we begin to realise that we are forgetting what we are here for; that is, to come to know God, to learn to love and serve and to choose God who is our fulfilment.

Our first calling is to be in relationship with God.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

2nd Sunday of Easter, Year B. Divine Mercy Sunday (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 so many people living in fear, especially 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 all abandoned Jesus, even though they believed He was the Son of God.  Judas 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.  Perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them because they had betrayed Jesus, 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 either 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 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, no words of recrimination, but instead Jesus invites 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.

This is also what we celebrate today as Divine Mercy Sunday; the extraordinary mercy of God, which is way beyond our understanding. One of the reasons it’s probably so hard for us to understand it is because we never experience this kind of mercy from other human beings, so we don’t know what to make of it and we find it hard to really believe in it. So often I’ve heard people say to me, ‘Will God forgive me?’ And yet that is what the Scriptures are full of. If we have the slightest response to God’s call, He only shows us mercy and compassion.
Peace be with you.  It is I, do not be afraid.’