Saturday, September 29, 2012

26th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:38-43. 45. 47-48) Different paths to God

One of the things I was very blessed with as a young priest was getting to know a Baptist minister and his wife who worked in Galway; Kelly and Susan Curry.  He and his wife had come over from the States because they felt the Lord was calling them there and they set up a centre in Galway to encourage people to come back to their faith.  They weren’t trying to convert people to become Baptist, rather this centre was about encouraging people to take their faith more seriously and of course most of the people who came there were Catholic simply because there were more Catholics around than anyone else.  But the reason I feel very blessed to have come to know them is because it opened my mind to different ways of faith.  I got to know Kelly best.  He wasn’t Catholic, but he was obviously a man of God and filled with the Spirit.  Kelly has been a great source of encouragement and support to me as a priest.  As I got to know him it helped me to realise that God was working in and through him just as much as through any priest I knew.  Now maybe that should be obvious, but when you grow up in one particular way of faith, it is not always obvious and often we can be suspicious of people who don’t see things as we do.  But of course God works through many different people in many different ways.  Many people I know have been greatly helped by the work they do there in that centre.  It is called An Tobar Nua (The New Well).

I know that many parents and grandparents at this time are distressed as they see their children no longer practicing or going to church.  While it is a tragedy to us, it doesn’t mean that they have lost faith.  We believe God offers us an extraordinary treasure in the mass and through the different sacraments and of course we would like that for others, especially for our children.  But at this time many young people have become disillusioned with the Church and with official religion, and for very understandable reasons.  In many ways it is hard to blame them, they have probably more reasons than most to be turned off by it.  But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have faith, or that they are not searching for God.  People are always searching for God. It seems to be an almost instinctual need within us.  While they may find it difficult to relate to the Church at this time, that doesn’t mean that God is not reaching out to them, or guiding them.

Just as getting to know my Baptist friend helped me to realise that here are many ways God speaks to people, I think it is good for us to remember that God is still speaking to them and guiding them, perhaps in ways that we do not recognise or would never have imagined.  I am continually struck by the great goodness that I have met in so many people, often people who have no interest in the Church at all.  But they do their best to live good lives and help the people they meet, often with great generosity.  They do believe in God, but they don’t relate to God through the means that we are used to.

Having said all that, I also think it’s amazing how people are still being drawn to the Church and to religious life.  This year 5 young men joined us here in the Dominicans.  Last year 6 entered.  The year before 2 and the year before that 13.  So God is at work around us all the time and that is something that should help us to take heart.
The readings today are also about how God gives his Spirit to whomever He wishes, often in ways that we don’t expect.  The Apostles were surprised, just as the men in the time of Moses were surprised, when they found others teaching and healing in God’s name.  But Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t stop them…If they are not against us they are with us.’ 

There are many paths and ways to God.  We believe that the one God has revealed to us is an exceptionally rich one, with the most extraordinary gifts to help us: above all the Eucharist; the Word of God; the healing we receive through confession and many other things.  We hope and pray that others will discover these treasures too.  But God goes on reaching out to people all around us in so many ways that we will probably never know about.  I think part of what we are called to, is to pray for the people around us that they will discover God too.  We are blessed to have been given the gift of faith.  So now let us pray that God will help us to be sign-posts to him, by the way we live our faith.  Amen.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

25th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:30-37) Padre Pio: Trust and simplicity, like children

Today is the feast day of St. Pius of Pietrelcina, but better known to most people as Padre Pio.  However, since it falls on a Sunday we don't officially celebrate it since Sunday always takes precedence.  But I would like to share with you a few thoughts about Padre Pio which also tie in with today's Gospel.  

Padre Pio only died in 1968, the year before I was born, which fairly puts him in perspective.  He was a Capuchin Franciscan who lived in an obscure monastery in the East of Italy.  If you have doubts about the reality of the spiritual world, read a book on his life.  For fifty years of his life he had the stigmata, or wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and side, which bled continually.  They were examined by doctors several times but they couldn’t explain them.  He also had the gift of being able to read people’s hearts in confession, which meant that if someone made a simple confession keeping some things back he would be able to remind them about what they needed to confess.  Many of the Holy Souls are said to have come to him asking him for prayers.  But perhaps what was most striking for people who saw him was that he suffered the passion of Christ every time he celebrated the mass.  You can still get DVDs of him celebrating the mass and it is quite something to watch.  He was forbidden from preaching, because the Vatican were suspicious of the mystical gifts that he had, but he didn’t need to because just watching him celebrate the mass was enough.  Thousands of people came to be present as he celebrated the mass.  During his life he was one of the most photographed people in the world. 

Why were people drawn to this priest who lived in an obscure village in Italy?  It had to be more than just because he had these strange experiences and gifts.  The reason why people were drawn to him, is the same reason why people were drawn to people like Mother Teresa, a poor wrinkled old woman, or to John Paul II and many others.  It is because people experienced God through them in an extraordinary way.  God is attractive and that’s why people who are close to God, or holy, are attractive.  People want to be close to them, because we are instinctively drawn to God’s presence.  Holiness (being close to God) is often confused with piety (showing great devotion to holy things, or certain prayers), but the two are not the same.  People who are pious are not necessarily holy and people who are holy are not necessarily pious.  Padre Pio could apparently be quite gruff, but people were drawn to him all the same.

I remember reading a story about one woman who went to Pietrelcina to go to him for confession.  She had to wait several days to be heard, because there were so many people going to him at that time.  When she finally went to confession and confessed, he just closed the little door on her without saying anything.  She was furious and went back in a rage to the house where she was staying.  The owner of the house told her not to worry, but just to think for a few days and then go back.  As she began to calm down and reflect on what she had said, she realised that she had been quite insincere and had really only been going out of curiosity.  She then went back a few days later, made a more sincere confession and she said that he couldn’t have been kinder.  He obviously recognised that she was insincere the first time and this apparent rejection that she experienced was really what she needed.  It shocked her into reality.

One of the sayings that is often associated with Padre Pio is this: ‘Pray, hope and don’t worry.’  It is so simple and yet so wise.  Often the advice that holy people like Padre Pio gave was so simple and I think that is the key to growing in faith.  We cannot figure it out, and we will get ourselves in knots if we try, because what we believe in is totally beyond our understanding.

In the Old Testament there is the story of Naaman the leper who came from Damascus and went to the prophet Elisha in Israel to be healed.  Elisha told him to go and bathe in the Jordan seven times.  When he heard this he was furious because he thought that was so stupid.  He said, ‘Aren’t the waters in my own country better than here?’  But then his servants pushed him and said, ‘If the prophet had told you to do something really difficult wouldn’t you have done it?  So why not do this, even though it seems so simple?’  (See 2 kings 5).  So eventually he gave in and went to the river and he was healed.  God often leads us in ways that are so simple.

In the Gospel the Lord presents us with an interesting model.  When the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, he presents them with a child.  What’s so special about a child?  Perhaps two things in particular: trust and simplicity.  Children show total trust, and children keep things simple, often in a very disarming way, as you know.  The more we respond to this draw that God plants inside of us, the more we begin to realise that it is very simple.  And people tell me, ‘Oh but father it is not so simple, it is really very complicated.’  No it’s not.  We make it complicated.  If God has given us a way to follow him it must be possible for everyone without exception.  And if it is possible for everyone without exception, then it must be very simple.  That is why several times, the Lord presented the disciples with the model of a child.  ‘Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of God.’  He is saying, ‘Trust me, your God, as a child trusts its parents.’  The path is a simple one. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

22nd Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) We must love one another, but God first.

After mass one Sunday a young man said something interesting to me.  He said, ‘Father, I think that at the mass you should be talking about loving each other and not just talking about things from the bible which people don’t understand.’  It is an interesting point and I agreed with him partly.  A few years ago at a wedding a man said almost the exact same thing to me.  He said, ‘You should just be telling us to be good to each other.  There is no need for all these words from St. Paul to the Corinthians, etc.’ They are both absolutely right about the need to talk about loving each other, because that is one of the most important things that Jesus asked us to do, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’  ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  That is how Jesus told us that people would recognise us as Christians, by the way we love each other.  But there is another part to it which they are forgetting.

If we are to love one another, and that is what the Lord God asks us to do, where are we supposed to get the strength to do that?  How are you supposed to love people who drive you crazy, or who are unjust to you, or who do you wrong, or steal from you, who have cheated you out of money, or offended your family?  Since they are in the wrong, are we still expected to love them?  Yes we are.  ‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, bless those who curse you.’  It seems to be a lot to ask.  In fact it can seem quite unrealistic.  This is where we have to go back to the bible and see what else God said to us, to try and make sense of this.  And Jesus says, the two most important commandments are, first, ‘You must love the Lord your God above everything else’.  Then, ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’  This may not seem very important, but this is where the answer lies.

What God is telling us is that if we are rooted in him, if he is at the centre, and we become more and more filled with him and with his love, then and only then will we have the ability to love other people.  We get the strength to love people, especially those we find more difficult to love, from the love we experience from God in the first place.  The more our relationship with him grows, the more this is possible.

Let me give you one example. There is a woman called Sister Alvera, from Italy.  Several years ago she set up a community to help drug addicts recover.  She believed that what these people were missing more than anything else in their lives was the love of God, and that this was where their problem was really coming from.  So she set up a centre to help them recover, a place where they could experience the love of God first hand from other people.  They live like a religious community.  They have no TV, no radio and no newspapers.  They do a lot of physical work and they pray a lot together.  The interesting thing is that through this way of life (which is basically a monastic way of life – prayer and work) hundreds of men have overcome their drug addiction, but more importantly they have discovered faith, discovered the love of God for them and begun completely new lives.  Sr. Alvera now has 36 different centres all over the world.  And just a few years ago she opened one in Knock. It is called the Cenacolo community.

There are hundreds of people like Sr. Alvera and not all religious either.  Mother Teresa is another extraordinary one.  How do they do this kind of work?  Where do they get the strength to work with people who can be very difficult and very ungrateful?  The answer is simple.  They are completely rooted in God.  Their own personal relationship with God is where they get the strength and energy.

Now you might be saying, well that’s all fine for them, but I don’t have that kind of relationship with God, I just about get to mass on Sundays.  But what God is showing us is that our ability to love one another, to put up with and respect those we don’t like, or agree with, comes from our relationship with him.  The more we come to know God, the more we can love the people around us, starting with our own families, our spouse, whoever is closest to us.  As we come to know the Lord more, our ability to love others also grows.  So the key is in coming closer to God, nothing else.

How do we come closer to God?  First, through reading his words in the bible.  The Scriptures are like personal love letters to us from God.  They are written for us personally.  Also, through receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.  We cannot get any closer to God than that.  And also through repenting of sin, because God asks us to do that.  To say that we don’t have any sins or that we don’t need to repent of them is to call God a liar.  We are sinners, we continually need to repent.  We also deepen and live our relationship with God through prayer, which is simply communicating with God. 

All of these things help to bring about conversion of the heart, rediscovering God, coming closer to him.  Only then will we be able to love the people around us and only then will our society begin to improve.

‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.  You must love your neighbour as yourself.’