Saturday, December 26, 2009

Feast of the Holy Family, Year C (Gospel: Luke 2: 41-52) -God always encourages

My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old. One time when I was about 4 I was brought to a party of a school friend, but for some reason I decided that I didn’t like the party and that I wanted to go home. I figured that the best way to do this was secretly. So I told my friend that I would hide out in the garden and that he should come and try to find me after a few minutes. I then made my escape and headed home. The only problem was that I had no idea how to get home. So I headed off and asked a post-man how to get to ‘York Road’ in Dun Laoghaire, where we lived. He looked at me suspiciously but told me where to go. When I finally arrived home I found a big police motorbike in the front drive. Everyone was out looking for me. My poor parents were not the better for it. Family life is not easy.

This is a feast day which I often think makes people a bit depressed, although we don’t admit it, because it just seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be. Things go wrong, we want to kill each other, we drive each other crazy. Someone gets into trouble and seems to let the family down. Marriages don’t always work out.

Then we are presented with the ‘holy family’, who we imagine were living in bliss all the time. That is not reality. They were poor. When Jesus was born they were homeless. They then had to emigrate to escape an attempt on the child’s life. When he was brought to the temple, Simeon told them he was destined to be a sign that would be rejected. He would not be a ‘success’. Later they lost him for three days. Can you imagine the stress of losing one of your children for three days?

So why are they supposed to be our model? Perhaps because they had their priorities right. God was at the center of this family. It was the right environment for the person of Jesus to grow and mature. Jesus had to grow up as a person just as all of us do, and that takes quite a long time. It involves a lot of learning on the part of each of us, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on the part of our parents. But how we are formed is vital. We know almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, but no doubt it was very important for his growing and maturing as a person, and to help him be ready for the strange mission that He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God.

The main role of our families is to provide a safe, loving environment for us to grow up in, so that we will blossom as people and learn how to deal with the world. None of us come from perfect families, but that doesn’t matter.

I think we can often get discouraged thinking about how things might have been, or should be, but the bottom line is that we are the way we are. We come from the kind of imperfect families that we come from. The path through our lives often takes unexpected turns and things can work out a lot worse than we had intended. Does it matter? Not in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord is not the one to say ‘You should be different’.

Think of all the people that Jesus dealt with in the Gospels. He took them exactly as they were, including several people who were causing public scandal. God always encourages, but Satan discourages. What is important is not how we should be, but how open we are to change. If we are listening and open, then the Lord can lead us forward. All God needs is our openness. The Lord knows well that we often mess up, but that is not important. The only thing that is important is that we are willing to get up again, to begin again and turn to the Lord for help as often as is necessary.

God always encourages and will always welcomes us back.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas 2009 (Gospel: John 1:1-18) God will always be with us

About a year ago I heard the following story about the Jewish people, and I was quite shocked when I heard it. Someone was explaining that for the Jewish people the three most terrible things that happened to them in their history were: both times the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the holocaust during the second World War when several million Jews were killed. When I heard this first I found myself thinking, 'how on earth could the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem be as bad as the Jewish Holocaust?', Then the man went on to explain that for the Jewish people the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was as terrible as the holocaust because it was like having God taken away from them. They could no longer offer sacrifice to God for their sins. They felt that they were cut off from God, in some sense. One of the jobs of the prophets at that time was to help them to understand that just because they had lost the temple and they had been sent into exile, didn’t mean that God was no longer with them. God was with them just as much, but in a different way. It took them a while to get their heads around this.

All throughout history God continues to surprise us in the ways that He comes among us and in the way that God works among us. No one expected God to visit his people in the person of Jesus, beginning in the womb of Mary and then as a totally helpless newborn baby; then to spend only 33 or so years on earth and for the last three years as a wandering preacher, eventually being tortured and killed. How could that be God? But we believe it was.

Since the time of Jesus we say that in each mass Jesus is present to us in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. I always think of the words of St. Paul in the earliest account of the mass that we have (1 Cor 11:23), when he says, ‘this is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you...’ and then he goes on to describe the mass. He is saying ‘I didn’t make this up’ and neither did any of the other disciples of Jesus. ‘Jesus himself did this and told us to keep doing it,’ so that he could be with us in this bizarre ritual we call the mass. That is why we don’t replace it and do something else, because we believe it was Jesus who gave this to us, and through this ritual he continues to make himself present to us.

So what has all this got to do with Christmas you may ask? I’m getting to that! The Lord continues to come to us in the most unexpected ways and when the structures on earth which represent him, such as the Church, begin to get caught up in the wrong things, such as power and prestige, then God pulls down those structures and starts again, because so often God seems to prefer to work through simple, humble means, such as a new born baby in a crib. No grand entrance, but quietly walking among the ‘little people’ you could say. That’s also what Jesus spent his ministry on earth doing, walking among the little people, the people who weren’t considered important.

I am sure that part of what we are seeing at the moment is the Lord helping us to rediscover him in simplicity. The big structures are being knocked down, and this is good because they were no longer serving us in the right way. But the Lord is still with us and continues to make himself known to us in each mass, through the Scriptures, through the Eucharist, through each other. However, it is very easy to miss him if we are focused on the wrong thing. If we are only focused on the big impressive (earthly) structures, or only on scandals and how they are reported, then we may think that God is no longer here. But if we are open to seeing him in unexpected places, such as a crib, or in the mass where there are sometimes just a few present, then we will begin to realise that God is just as much with us now, but that perhaps we need to look with new eyes.

This is the beautiful thing about the feast of Christmas. It is so unexpected and so simple. It is definitely not how we would have done it, but it is how God loves to make himself known to us, in simplicity and littleness. It is unimpressive by worldly standards, maybe even disappointing, but God is here and God will always be here as long as we remain open to recognising him.

‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us.’
‘The Light shines in the darkness
and the darkness has not overcome it.’

Wishing you all God's blessing and peace for Christmas and the year ahead.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

4th Sunday of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 1:39-44) - Blessed is she who believed

In the Bible there are several characters who were called ‘blessed’ because of their faith. Abraham was told that he would have a child when he was almost 100 years old and his wife was also an old woman. By our way of thinking it couldn’t have happened, but he believed and it did happen.

Zachariah was told his wife Elizabeth would have a baby, even though she had been barren all her life and was now also an old woman. When the angel Gabriel told him this he found it hard to believe and said so to the angel. The angel Gabriel wasn’t too impressed and said, ‘I am Gabriel who stand before God. Since you have not believed me, here is a sign for you. You will be struck dumb until the time comes for this to happen.’ And he was struck dumb until after the baby was born. So even though he doubted, it still happened!

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would have a baby, but not by human means. She believed, even though she didn’t understand, and it happened. The angel also reminded her that ‘nothing is impossible to God.’

All of these people and many others too, were told to believe even though it didn’t make any sense to them, and they believed, even though they didn't understand. When Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth said to her, ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promises made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ I wonder would many of these things have happened if the people involved had refused to believe until they were sure, until they were able to know these things were true?

At times like these when the very structures of our Church seem to be falling apart, it can be very difficult to believe. God seems to have abandoned us, or the Church suddenly does not seem to be from God any more from what we are hearing. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is difficult to believe at the best of times, but we cling to our faith because it comes from God. The Lord is with us and has always been with us. We must not be afraid of earthly structures that change or indeed collapse, because they are only earthly structures. That is really what we are seeing: earthly and human structures changing. Why is all this happening? Because God loves his people and in his mercy He is bringing about changes that are absolutely essential for us to grow. It is the mercy of God that is allowing all this to happen and it is for our own good. And even though it is difficult and painful right now, that is where we are called to believe that God knows what He is doing and will see us through all of this and out the far side.

I don’t understand but I believe. I believe that the Lord is with us and will always be with us, so there is no reason to be afraid. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by all that is happening, perhaps a good thing to focus on now right now is the mystery of Christmas. God visits his people in the form of a totally helpless new born baby. Angels appear in the sky to announce this strange event. But they don’t announce it to the great people of the time, they announce it to the poorest of the poor who are looking after the animals in the fields. The king goes mad out of jealousy and tries to have the baby killed. All these things are quite bizarre and seem like a fairy-tale from a human point of view. But we believe them because it is God who has made them known to us.

In this mass God becomes present to us in a tiny piece of bread we call Holy Communion. There is so much that we don’t understand, but God has never asked us to understand these things, only to believe them, because He has made them known to us. The Lord has promised us that He will always be with us to guide us, and He has also promised us that the darkness cannot overcome the light. If we believe that, then there is nothing for us to be afraid of. ‘Blessed is she who believed the promises made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’

Saturday, December 12, 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:10-18) What I want is your happiness

I always think it is great that Christmas comes to us in the depths of winter when it is so miserable here. Outside it is dark and dreary, but then we begin to light candles, put up decorations and the Christmas tree. Advent is meant to be a season of hope, and I think perhaps we need that hope more than ever this year. All we are hearing around us is bad news and that can really bring us down.

For the three years I was studying in Rome (2002-05)I was always struck at how much more positive my own outlook was. I think it was partly because I wasn’t all the time hearing bad news. I often heard others priests say the same thing, that it was a relief to get out of Ireland sometimes, because our thinking—and I suppose they were talking about the Church in particular—always seemed to be so negative. We were only hearing about what we hadn’t got, and how awful everything was. The truth is that if we have a roof over our heads, our health and enough to eat we are doing alright. Now hopefully we’ll have a lot more than the bare minimum too, but the point is that we don’t actually need an awful lot to be content.

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who is on the verge of losing her house because she has no job at the moment and is finding it very difficult to pay the mortgage. She was telling me that usually at Christmas she bought herself a new coat and a few other things to celebrate, but this year she can’t afford to do any of that. But she said that she also realised that it really doesn’t matter if she can’t buy any of these things and I think it helped her to realise how much she actually has. If we have our health and a few people around us whom we love, then we have an awful lot.

When I visit people who are dying I am often struck by the fact that the only thing they usually want is to have someone with them if possible, and if it is a loved one it is even better. All the other things that they worked hard for during their lives disappear into insignificance. Very little really matters when it comes down to it.

Perhaps the economic pressure that a lot of people are under right now will help us to discover what is really important. If we have the basics and a few people around whom we love, then we actually have an awful lot. Everything else is a bonus.

Finally in the Gospel today, people are asking John what should they do to prepare for the coming of Christ and he tells them to 'be content with what you have.' It is a simple but powerful message. Then when he is asked if he is the Christ, and he says no, he goes on to paint a pretty scary picture of what the Christ will be like. He will be someone great, someone immensely powerful who will baptise with fire and the Spirit of God. He is the one who will bring true justice and noone will escape his hand. But what is most important is that this one who is coming, who is so powerful and to be feared, is coming to help us. He is on our side, coming to show us which way to go and to tell us again and again, ‘don’t be afraid because I am with you.’

Saturday, December 5, 2009

2nd Sundy of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:1-6) -Why I remain as a priest during times of scandal-

In California where the enormous Redwood trees grow to over 350 feet, they discovered that they had got so good at protecting these trees from forest fires that no new ones were growing. Then they realised that forest fires were actually necessary every once in a while, to crack open the seeds of the Redwoods. Only the heat of the fire was great enough to do this. Sometimes you need complete devastation so that new growth can take place. Maybe that is some of what we are seeing in our Church at the moment.

The day before yesterday (Friday) I wrote my homily for this weekend, but then I had to drive up to Ballina to give a couple of lectures there. As I was driving up and praying, I felt that it would be better to leave that homily aside and tell you why I remain a priest at this time.

Even though this last week has been a difficult time for all of us, especially if your faith means anything to you, one thing that has been amazing is the amount of affirmation and encouragement that I have received. I have met so many people who have told me that they are praying for me, it is very uplifting. That tells me that faith means more to the people of this country than the media would like us to believe. I think it’s good that we recognise that too.

If ever there was a time to quit being a priest, or I needed an excuse to have no more to do with the Church, this would be it. The funny thing is that all these events seem to give me more determination than ever to keep going and I would like to tell you why. The reason is this: first of all I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, Lord of all and master of all. I also believe that this person Jesus called me to serve him as a priest, to pray for people, to offer the mass for people and to pass on his teachings; not my teachings, or the teachings of any other human being, but the teachings of God himself. For centuries now Christians have wanted to come together each week to listen to the teachings of Jesus, to listen to Scriptures and to celebrate the mass. I still want to do this, with you and whoever else wants to come and pray with us. I want to hear the word of God and I want to receive the Eucharist.

I also believe that the Scriptures which we read each week are really and truly the word of God. If that is true, then there is a lot in them that I need to listen to, because through them God continually speaks to me and to all of us here, guiding us and pointing us in the right direction, especially during disillusioning times like these. If I only listen to the voices of the world it will quickly get me down and make me cynical. That is why I try and read some of the Scriptures each day, because they put things in perspective for me and keep me focused on God. ‘In the world you will have trouble, but do not be afraid; I have overcome the world.’

What do the Scriptures say? Jesus said that we would be betrayed, let down by people, just as he was. He also said that we should not be afraid of this because he would be the one to guide us. He said that we would be hated by all people on account of his name. I mentioned to you before that two years ago (3rd June 07) a priest friend of mine was shot dead in Iraq, specifically because he was a priest. They ambushed him after mass and shot him. Those who killed him saw the priesthood and Christianity as evil. They probably believed they were doing a good thing. Jesus said that things like this would happen.

So in a way I should not be surprised when I am faced with hatred or opposition. Peoples' anger is well justified, but of course it is difficult when all of us are blamed together.

If the Lord has called me to serve him as a priest, and if he is all the time calling us to follow him, then even though it is difficult, what could be a greater privilege than to do just that?

‘Lord where else can we go? You have the message of eternal life; and we believe, we know that you are the Son of God.’

Saturday, November 28, 2009

1st Sunday of Advent Year C - Gospel: Luke 21:25-28, 34-36 - Hope

[This homily is written in light of the recent 'Dublin Report' which exposed terrible corruption and cover-up of child abuse in the diocese of Dublin]

Well after all that we’ve heard in the last few days it is hard to know what to say, and in truth it is not easy to stand here before you during a time of such terrible shame and pain. However, I want to share a few thoughts with you which I believe are important.

As I was listening to the news on Thursday night I noticed at one stage the news caster Sharon Ní Bheoláin said to Joe Little, ‘so is there any hope at all for the Church...?’ I can’t remember exactly what he said in reply, but he began by saying, ‘well there is very little, but...’ When I heard this question and respone it struck me that the question they had just asked, and the response given were both very human. From a human point of view there is little or no hope. It seems to be the end of the Church as we know it. However, it also reminded me that the Church is not a human organisation, it is from God. If it were a human organisation it would have disappeared centuries ago. Our life-time is not the first one where the Church has been battered by scandals, and no doubt it won’t be the last either. To me the very fact that the Church is still here at all is the strongest indication that it is from God. What else could survive centuries of scandals, bad practice, etc? Another thing for sure is that I would not be a part of this Church, or continue to be a priest, if I believed that it was merely of human origin. At times like this I am tempted to quit, but then I am reminded that it is God I am trying to serve and it is the message of Jesus Christ that I am trying to pass on, and so why should I be afraid?

The more I continue to try and work as a priest, the more I am absolutely convinced of the power of God at work because there are far too many odds against us being able to survive, and yet we do. In spite of all the terrible things that have happened people continue to believe; men and women continue to dedicate their lives to God and people put up with all kinds of difficulties. Another thing that continues to amaze me is what in religious terms we call ‘grace’. In other words the power of God at work in the most unexpected ways and at the most unexpected times. When all hope seems gone, doors open, things happen, people respond. That is the power of God and I have seen it enough to be convinced beyond doubt that God is working in and through this too.

The truth is that it is the mercy of God that allows all these scandals to come out, because God could not allow us to continue with all this poison under the surface. How could there be any fruit in the Church with all this sickness? So God is getting rid of the sickness and it is painful, but it is absolutely essential that it happens.

Recently I was in a place called Subiaco, which is a small town north of Rome, where St. Benedict lived for three years in a cave. When I visited the monastery there I saw a lovely quotation on the wall which read: ‘Why do you sit in the darkness seeking the light? But persevere, because the stars can only be seen when it is dark.’ As we begin Advent, which is a time of waiting and a time of hope, let us remember that perhaps it is necessary to go through this darkness to be able to find the light again properly. Let us remember too that it is God whom we believe in and God in whom we put our trust. And even though we will hear of scandals and other terrible things, God continues to work in and through his Church and that is what we must stay focused on .

The message of Jesus Christ is one of hope. ‘I am the Light of the world.’ That is the light that we focus on, not the messages of darkness, but the light that comes from God.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, (Gospel: John 18:33-37) The Priesthood

Perhaps one of the biggest and most disturbing changes that have taken place here in Ireland over the last few years, is the amount of violence that has crept into our society. Twenty years ago we all would have been shocked if someone was murdered. Now someone is murdered almost every day. This is very disturbing and it raises many questions: what has caused so much evil? Why has God allowed it? Have the powers of evil won over the power of God?

We are also used to watching on TV the battle between good and evil. It is a theme in so many films and shows. But it is always presented as a battle where either side may win. However, it would be a mistake to think of the powers of darkness and the power of God being equal, as though either side could win. There is absolutely no question of evil being able to win out over God, or even that it is an equal battle. All things are subject to God. That was one of the striking things about Jesus’ ministry. Every time he encountered people who were possessed, the spirits were terrified of Jesus, because they knew they were totally subject to him. I think it is important for us to remember that the One we believe in is Lord of all things, so there is nothing we need be afraid of when we give ourselves to him.

For whatever reason, God allows that good and evil exist side by side in the world, and Jesus spoke of this through various parables. Probably the most striking parable about this is the one where the weed is planted among the wheat by the enemy and the two grow up at the same time. When the servants ask the master if they should try and root out the weeds, he says ‘no, leave them for now, but they will be sorted out at the end’ (See Matthew 13:24-30). The Lord is telling us that this is how it is for now; we have to be prepared to live with a certain amount of evil in our midst. We do whatever we can to get rid of it, but there is a certain amount that we can do nothing about. This we have to leave in God’s hands.

One of the most extraordinary ways that Jesus continues to be present to us in the world is through the priesthood. For whatever reason, Jesus chose to use ordinary men to make him present in a particular way, and this is something that has baffled us ever since. As you know it is something that people continue to argue about, that it should be different, that there should be women priests, that we should be married, etc. I don’t have an answer to all these questions, and thankfully it is not up to me anyway. But I do firmly believe in the priesthood and that God continues to work through his priests in an extraordinary, though often misunderstood way. Through the priesthood the Lord gives us the Eucharist, which is the most extraordinary gift of all; the gift of himself. He also gives us the forgiveness of sins, the preaching of his word and many other gifts too.

Perhaps what is most bizarre of all, is that God uses ordinary people who are sinners, to be priests. Most of us priests are not geniuses, or saints, but ordinary people and weak people. You have heard me say this before, but one recurring theme in the Bible is that God deliberately chooses weak people to work through, to make it all the more obvious that it is the power of God at work. The priesthood is the same. When you think back through history, how many of the thousands of priests that we have had became saints, or stood out for their extraordinary work? Very few! But that does not mean that they failed, or that God made a mistake in choosing them. The power of God goes on working through us priests, in spite of our sinfulness and weakness. It is another indication that God does not need 'great' people, but people who are open to him and who love him. That is enough.

Soon we will hear of more scandals when the Dublin Report comes out. It is difficult to hear, and it causes great pain and a sense of betrayal, but this is the reality that we have at the moment. However, it does not mean that God does not continue to work through his priests, or that God has lost the battle over evil. The Lord Jesus will continue to be with us no matter what. All things are subject to him. All we have to remember is that the Lord knows what He is doing, even though so often it seems to make no sense to us. Remember that one out of twelve of the apostles betrayed Jesus. That is a very high percentage, but it didn’t stop Jesus from choosing all twelve of them and from using them. God knows what He is doing and that is what we must remember. What is important is that the Lord Jesus is the one we focus on. Scandals will come and go, saints will come and go: but the Lord God remains forever, and will be with us no matter what.

All beings, in heaven on earth and under the earth,
Shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus,
And every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

33rd Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 13:24-32) Christ will come again.

At this time of the year before Advent begins, the readings always focus on the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. We do this because it was one of the things that Jesus taught. Jesus taught that he would come again, and that when he does come it will be for a time of judgement. All people will be judged. We say in the creed, ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead’.

It can be tempting for us to discard what we don’t understand, especially if it sounds a little silly. The idea of Jesus appearing in glory and coming to judge the world may seem hard to swallow. However, it would be a great mistake on our part if we began to just take the parts of Jesus’ teaching that ‘make sense’ and leave the other ones. I think it would be more humble of us to say we accept all his teachings, but we don’t understand many of them. ‘I don’t understand but I believe.' That’s what faith is.

If the Lord is to come to judge the living and the dead, it implies two things. First, that there must be a heaven and a hell. Otherwise there would be no point in judging us if it were going to make no difference. Heaven is the total happiness that being in the presence of God will bring. This is something that we can not understand because we have no experience of it yet, but this will be the most complete happiness we could ever know. And this is what God has planned for us; it’s what He wants for us.

Then there is the total loss of God for those who reject him, and this is hell, the loss of everything that can bring happiness. Jesus has taught us that this is real, otherwise it would make no sense that we have free will, the power to accept or reject God.

The second thing that the Lord’s coming implies is that we must make an account of our lives to God. We will be held accountable for our actions. I often think that when we hear about so many of these tribunals which show the wholesale corruption that goes on, it can be very frustrating, because the people who get away with the most never seem to have to pay, either because they are powerful enough, or because of the legal system, they get off the hook. It’s wrong and it happens every day. But if a young fellow steals something from Dunnes Stores, you can be sure he’ll be brought to court and he’ll pay for it. However, even the rich and powerful must remember that their power and wealth won’t be with them when they die. They too will have to make an account of themselves to God. And nothing is hidden from God. I find this consoling, not because I wish evil on anyone, but because at least I know that in the end there will be justice.

Is this a reason for us to be afraid? Not unless we are deliberately trying to fool God. If we try to live as the Lord teaches us, then we have nothing to fear. If we just get on with the day to day tasks that we are presented with and try to be honest before God, then we have nothing to worry about. The fact is that we are all sinners, none of us ever get it exactly right, but God isn’t put off by this. The Lord sees the heart. God knows when we are doing our best and trying to live as best we can. He knows all the pressures that we’re under. He knows how difficult it is to try and survive in the world. The Lord looks at each of our hearts and judges us by what is in our heart.

It is important to remember too that God is infinitely merciful, and mercy is something which is not deserved. God’s justice and mercy go together. Think of all the times that we see people in the paper convicted of some terrible crime, and we say, ‘I hope he gets life,' or 'I hope they kill him…’ It’s just as well for our sake that God is more merciful with us than we are with each other, or none of us would stand a chance. This is another reason why we can never judge someone else, because we don’t know what’s in their heart. We can judge their actions as being right or wrong, but we cannot judge their heart. We never know what has influenced another person’s actions, or what pressures they are under. That’s why Jesus teaches us, ‘do not judge and you will not be judged’. Only God can judge, and only God will judge perfectly justly.

Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and it is something that we can rejoice in when it happens, because we belong to him, we are his children.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

32nd Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 12:38-44) Don’t be afraid to give. God will not be outdone in generosity

Before I became a priest I studied marketing for two years. One thing we were taught was that in the past companies would try to find a ‘need’ that people had and then make a product to meet that need. As marketing began to develop they realised they could create a need in people’s minds and then offer the product for it. In other words they would convince people that they needed a particular product that they had never even heard of before. And then they would offer the product. It’s clever and it is very effective. No doubt half the things in my house are items that I have been convinced I need. But of course the irony is that most of the world lives without much of what I have and they do just fine.
There was an ad on the radio at one stage for fast food, which finished with the words: ‘too good to share’. ‘[Our food is] too good to share.’ Of course it’s just an advertisement to promote a company, but the underlying thinking is very much that of our world which says we should only look after ourselves, ‘because you’re worth it’! We can neglect others so long as we have enough. We can justify invading other countries in order to make ourselves financially more secure. We see it happening all the time. The Lord Jesus teaches us the exact opposite.
Mother Teresa was being asked about her work one time, and she said that their mother taught them that they should never eat anything which they weren’t prepared to share with someone else. She was brought up to be aware of the needs of others. Of course we should look after ourselves and our families, but we also have a responsibility to look after others, especially those who are less fortunate, or more vulnerable.
Confucius, who lived over two thousand years ago, taught that we should look after the poor with the same urgency we would give to someone if their house was on fire. That’s impressive.
In the readings today the Lord is not just talking about the need to give, but perhaps more importantly the need to trust in God, which enables us to be free to give. Jesus pointed out the poor woman who put the last of her money into the treasury, because she wasn’t afraid. She obviously had faith in God which gave her the freedom to do this. She believed God would look after her and that’s why Jesus pointed her out. It wasn’t a criticism of the others so much as giving her credit for her generosity because of her faith.  Her faith gave her the freedom to be able to do this.
In the first reading the prophet Elijah asks for food from a woman who has almost nothing left and is about to die. But he convinces her to trust in the word of God and because she does she is rewarded. God is never out-done in generosity. She believes and trusts in God and God then takes care of her through the prophet Elijah.
The Lord is inviting us to do the same, that is, above all to trust him that He is looking after us and will look after us. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and then all these other things will be give you as well. Your heavenly Father knows what you need even before you ask.’
God is very practical and knows exactly what we need and also what we are able for. God doesn’t ask us to do something we are not able for, but He is all the time getting us to push the boat out a little bit more. That’s what faith is all about. Trusting in God enables us to take steps that we might not take otherwise. We’re not just talking about material things here either. The Lord wants us to believe that He is looking after us, our families, those we love, those who are sick, those who have died. There is no aspect of our life which God is not interested in. No one is asking us to sell everything and live out on the street, that wouldn’t make any sense. But the Lord does say, ‘do not be afraid to give.’ God will never be outdone in generosity.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Feast of All Saints – Gospel: Matthew 5: 1-12 --This is our feast day

During the papacy of John Paul II, I heard a priest friend of mine saying at one stage how he thought it was crazy the way John Paul II was making (or ‘canonizing’) so many saints. He was saying, ‘what is the point of it?’ But I told him that I disagreed with him because I believed that one of the things that the pope was doing was showing us that holiness is something that all of us are called to and that many people reach. The great thing about what John Paul was doing was also in the fact that he officially recognised (canonized) so many lay people as saints. In the past there was a misperception that one usually had to be in religious life to become a saint and generally those who were canonized were priests or religious. The truth is that there are many saints all around us right now, but most of them we will never know about until we reach heaven ourselves. Everyone who reaches God in heaven when they die, is a saint and that is our destiny. That is what we are called to.

A common misunderstanding that many people have is that a saint is someone who never does anything wrong. That is naive and quite ridiculous. If you read any reasonably accurate or honest life of any of the saints, you will notice two things that all of them have in common. First of all they were ordinary people who struggled with their humanity like any of us, but they also had a great love for God and they were open to God. Secondly, they all suffered quite a lot during their life. And this struggle, which all of us are faced with, is part of what brought them close to God. The suffering they went through, and which all of us have to go through because it is simply part of this life, was part of what formed them and drew them close to God. Perhaps one of the differences between them and some other people would be that in spite of the difficulties they were faced with, they kept coming back to God. They kept getting up again when they were knocked down. They didn’t give up. As you well know it is often very tempting when you are down to say, ‘ah, where’s the point? I couldn’t be bothered.’ It is not always easy to get up again, to admit you are wrong, or to have to try again. But that is what we are called to. That is what makes a person blossom.

God is calling all of us along the same path; that is, along the path that leads to him. It is not the easiest path, but it is the only path that is really worthwhile. That is why Jesus taught us ‘what use is it for someone to gain the whole world, but to lose their soul?’ Everything here is passing and no matter how much we ‘achieve’ in the world’s eyes, that is not what counts before God. That is also why it doesn’t matter before God whether we have been ‘successful’ or not, as the world sees it. It is great if you have, but it is not what is important. That also means that the person who has become the head of a big company has no advantage over someone who is unemployed, or is even living on the street, because that is not what counts before God. We are not called to be ‘successful’, but simply to do our best. What we are called to above all else is to love God and to love the people around us. And as you know, it is possible for everyone to do that.

The one thing that God will not do is force us to follow him or to love. God continually draws us forward, but we can resist, and as you know we often do resist. However, the wonderful thing is that no matter how many times we resist or turn away, God will continually call us back and lovingly welcome us back every time we turn to him again. And that is largely the struggle that we have to go through in this life until we get to heaven ourselves. It is not guaranteed that we go to heaven for the simple reason that if it was, then our free will would mean nothing. But heaven is what God wants for us and the Lord will make that happen unless we totally and completely reject God by the way we live. Sadly some people do seem to completely reject God and everything to do with God. However, we do not know that for sure and that is why we can never judge the heart of another person, even if their actions are wrong.

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember about all this is that God is with us and will do everything possible to help us find happiness, beginning in this life and fulfilled in the next life in a way that we cannot possibly imagine. All things are possible to God and as long as we remain open, God will help us to find that happiness, beginning in this life, and fulfilled in the next.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

30th Sunday, Year B (Gospel: Mark 10:46-52) 'What do you want me to do for you?'

Imagine for a minute if at one time in your life before you die, the Lord himself appeared to you and asked you one question: the question is this: ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ What would you ask him? Maybe it would be a cure for a physical illness, or for someone you know. Maybe it would be to resolve a difficult situation to be sorted out, like a marriage that’s in trouble or maybe for help for your children. Perhaps it would be for more faith.

I think I might ask God to give me more faith, faith to recognise what we already have been given. We ask for help all the time, we ask God to be present to us, we ask God to forgive and heal us… and He does, but we often don’t recognise it.

I believe that if I had greater faith to recognise what God has already given me, I would ask for very little else, because He has given us everything that we need. We would like to know that Jesus is close to us and looking after us: and He is. In the mass he becomes present in the bread and wine, through the priest, and we can take him into our own bodies. How much closer could we get to the Lord than to receive him into our own bodies? And we can receive him every day if we wish. We want to know that we are forgiven and we want to be healed. The Lord offers us this gift through confession, but we don’t often make use of it.

If we believe that he is the Lord of all things, who has made everything and who has power over everything, the One who will come to judge the living and the dead, then why on earth should we be afraid of any situation we encounter, or anyone, when we believe that God is so close to us? Why should we be afraid of the world or of anyone in it, when God is with us? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, ‘So do not say, what are we to eat, what are we to drink, what are we to wear? Your heavenly Father knows all your needs. Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be given to you as well.’ (Mt 6.31)

How do we become more aware of this presence of God around us? Through prayer. That’s why Jesus spent so much of his time trying to teach people to pray, so that they would become aware of the reality of God with them and around them. When we pray, and give time to God and the things of God, we learn to recognise how much God is all around us, in everything we do, in everyone we meet. I always think it is lovely to see so many people dropping into the church here every morning, just for a moment; to be silent, or to speak to the Lord, or make a request. These are all different ways of praying, of being with God and simply acknowledging God’s presence. We talk about God sometimes as if God were the optional extra in our world. The truth is the other way around. We are the optional extra. God is there one way or the other, whether we acknowledge him or not.

I heard a priest say once, ‘if God isn’t in your money he isn’t in your life.’ In other words God must be in every part of our life, if He is there at all. Otherwise we are practical atheists. We can know that God is there but do absolutely nothing about him. That’s practical atheism. You know that your r next door neighbour exists, but if you never speak to him, or meet him, or bother with him he or she might as well not be there. That is practical atheism and there are a lot of practical atheists around.

If God is to be part of our life, we have to do something about it. That’s why we pray and come to the church and try to listen to God. We make space for him so that we can hear him. We pray in whatever way our life makes possible. Speaking to God in your car on the way to work; that’s prayer. Being aware of God in your home, even if it’s noisy, is prayer. Reading the word of God. Spending some time in silence. God has plenty to say, if we would listen.

I believe that the more we pray, the more we will recognise that God has already given us everything we need. He is deeply concerned about us. He wants to be in our money too. And God always answers us when we pray, but it may not be the way we expect.

Just to return briefly to the Gospel reading. Jesus said, ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man asked for his sight back, and of course Jesus gave it to him. Why would he refuse him? And why would he refuse us either?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

29th Sunday Year B - Mission Sunday -

In the times we are living in there is much talk about religion and religious extremism. We are seeing a lot of examples of bad practice of religion, when it is used as an excuse for violence or corruption. It raises the question, what exactly is the purpose of the Church? Why did Jesus bring about a Church? Well the mission or purpose of the Church is to make God known to people and to make the work of Jesus Christ known to people. Jesus’ own life was about revealing God to us and of course dying for us. It is not about filling churches, it is about teaching people about God and helping people to discover God. People often say to me, 'I wish such and such a person would just go back to mass.' But just going back to mass is not enough. Faith has to come first. Once someone discovers God and begins to grow in their faith, and they begin to recognise their own hunger for God ,then they may come to the church to pray with other people who also believe. That’s why we come here: to pray together and to be fed spiritually.

None of us are strong enough to make it on our own. We need the support of each other. So we listen to the teachings of Christ and then we celebrate the last supper, where Jesus made himself present in the form of bread and wine, so that he could be with us always. That is what the mass is.

The purpose of Christ coming to us was basically two-fold. First of all to make God known to us, to teach us about him and show us what God is like and how God relates to us. Anything we want to know about God we will discover in Jesus. It says in the letter to the Colossians, ‘He is the image of the invisible God’.

If I painted a picture of myself, it would just be a picture, but it wouldn’t move or speak. If God painted a picture of himself it would be the person of Jesus. Not just a picture, but a real person. That’s who Jesus is, the image of God. At one stage Philip, one of the Apostles, said to Jesus, ‘just show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied’. And Jesus said, ‘do you not understand that to have seen me is to have seen the Father?’ They are one and the same. So by looking to Jesus and learning about him, we are learning about who God is and what God is like.

The second purpose of Christ coming to us was to free us from the power of Satan, from the power of sin. So by dying for us, Jesus reopened the way to God for us. You could say that Jesus rebuilt the bridge between God and humanity which had collapsed because of Original Sin. It is now open to us if we turn to him. The choice is ours. And the mission of the Church is to let people know about this, what God has done for us and what is there for us all, by turning to Jesus Christ.

All people have a right to hear about God and to know about him. And it is our mission to make this known to people, because God has told us to. It should never be forced on people, but if this is the truth about God, which we believe it is, then people have a right to know that truth. It is up to them whether they decide to believe it or not.

Is this mission still being fulfilled today? Of course it is. Here am I speaking to you about it two thousand years later. How much faith we do or don’t have is irrelevant. The fact that we are here at all is what is important. So the mission of the Church, is to pass on this truth about God that God has made known to us. It is the message which makes sense of our whole life and all people have a right to know this.

What is the best way to pass on this message? By living it as well as we can ourselves. That is the best way we can teach others about what we believe in. I will finish with the words of St. Francis of Assisi who used to say, ‘let us go and preach the gospel; and if necessary, use words.’

28th Sunday Year B - For God everything is possible

There is a priest by the name of Benedict Groeschel from New York, who founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal—the Friars who gave the mission here during the summer. Fr. Groeschel is an excellent speaker and in one of his talks he was saying that there is a man he knows in New York who is a multi millionaire, with more money than he could ever spend, or knows what to do with. Benedict goes on to say that he was talking to this man at a particular conference and he—let us call him John Goldman—was saying to Benedict that he would like to put his money to good use, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He admitted straight out that he had more money than he could ever spend. Benedict said that if he wanted he could give a donation to one of the orphanages that they run in the Bronx, as it would make a big difference to them. In spite of the fact that it was John Goldman himself who brought up the subject and admitted that he didn’t know what to do with all his money, but wanted to put it to good use, by the end of the conference he still hadn’t agreed to part with one cent of his money. Benedict was saying that it was as if he was possessed by his wealth. He had no freedom.

Most of us don’t have that kind of problem. In fact most people have the opposite problem, but it is still very easy to become consumed even with the desire for money, or riches, or indeed anything. The problem is not the riches themselves, but our attachment to them.

In the Gospel which we have just heard, see how Jesus responds to the rich young man who is keen to live the right way. When he asks what he should be doing to get to heaven, Jesus doesn’t say ‘you should sell all your possessions’. First he just says, ‘you know the commandments; live them.’ It is only when he is pushed that Jesus then says ‘go and sell all you own...’ What is he doing? Jesus is showing the young man that he is not as free as he thinks he is. In spite of the fact that he could probably buy anything he wants and do anything he wants because of his wealth, he is in fact a slave to his riches. Jesus is not just trying to make the young man miserable, but rather since he did ask, Jesus is pointing out where the problem is for him. The problem is not in having riches, but that we get so attached to them that we are no longer free. No doubt the young man felt he was living a good life, and he probably was, but the Lord wanted him to see that he was not half as free as he thought.

Now you don’t have to be very wealthy for that to happen. St. John of the Cross says that if you become too attached to your rosary beads, then get rid of them. He also says there is no point in taking a vow of poverty if you are still consumed with the desire for the things that you have given up. The freedom from them is what is really important.

Thank God for what you own, but ask yourself are you free from it, or a slave to it? Because if you are a slave to it—thinking that you could not do without it—then it is the master.
Why did Jesus point this out to the young man? Because he wanted him, just as he wants us, to be free to open ourselves up to God. God is the only thing that is really important. Everything else is going to be left behind when we die, even our bodies. That is why he is telling us not to get caught up in what is ultimately trivial. Enjoy what you have of course, but don’t let it become the master.

Most of us are probably much more attached to the things we have than we would like to be. I know I am. But perhaps the most important part of this Gospel is the last part. First of all Jesus says ‘how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’ and the apostles are amazed, just as most of us probably find this hard to understand too, since the general thinking is that if we had enough money it would resolve most of our problems. But when they say ‘then who can be saved’, or in modern English ‘who can get to heaven?’ then Jesus says ‘for people [by their own strength] it is impossible, but not for God. Everything is possible for God.’ That is the really important thing to remember. Everything is possible for God. By our own strength we are very limited in what we can do, in spite of our best efforts, because we are weak and we easily get distracted by wealth, or work, or relationships or whatever. God knows well that we get caught up in all the wrong things, just like the rich young man in the story, but God is bigger than all of this. God is bigger than the mistakes we make, bigger than our mixed motivations for what we do. That is why we just keep coming back to him and asking him to help us, to forgive us, to guide us: and he does.

The disciples said: ‘If that is the case, then who can be saved?’
Jesus said: ‘For people it is impossible, but not for God; because everything is possible for God.’