Sunday, May 26, 2013

Feast of the Most Holy Trinity - Yr C (Gospel: John 16:12-15) We mirror God through relationship

One of the most common themes for songs, poems, music and film is love and relationships.  Even a film that is not specifically a romance will nearly always have some relationship in it.  It is what we are all about.  The vast majority of us want to be in relationships of some kind or another.  Even when youngsters sometimes get involved in very violent gangs or religious cults, behind this is a need to belong, a need for community.  It is how we are made.

Do you ever wonder why even after a loving relationship has broken down and caused broken hearts and so much pain, before too long we want to go out and find someone else to love?  You would imagine that we would learn from the first time and then never go near anyone again.  But that is not usually what happens.  This is because we have been made in such a way that we want to be in relationship and meanwhile we turn to our friends or families: another kind of relationship.

It is easy to think of God as some kind of powerful Being or Spirit, who runs the universe all alone.  What is easy to overlook is the fact that God is not alone.  Within God there is a community, a relationship which is based on love.  So even if God never created the universe, God is not by himself wondering what to do.  The Holy Trinity is a community of persons in a beautiful relationship with each other.  They love each other perfectly, they agree perfectly.  They are perfectly content.  They don’t need anything else.

So then why did God create the universe and create us?  God created us for the simple reason that God wants others to share in that same happiness.  What is this happiness?  It is ultimately life in heaven, which means being in the presence of God.  And this means light, happiness, beauty, goodness, harmony, freedom, love and being with other people we love.  This is what it is to be in God’s presence.  God has created us in his image and one of the things that this means is that we also want to be in relationship.  Even if you are not married people are all the time in relationships of one kind or another.  And when we experience real love, or very pure love, that is a tiny glimpse of what God is like.  We are created in such a way that we need to be in relationships of some kind, or we will not grow.

The human family on earth is also meant to be a picture or reflection of God.  When a marriage works, you have two people who love each other and the fruit of their love can become a third person.  That is exactly what the Holy Trinity is: a community of persons based purely on love.  The love between the Father and the Son is another person: the Holy Spirit.  Although families don’t always work, there are many families that do work, even though none are perfect.  In a marriage well lived a man and a woman mirror the Trinity and are meant to be a reflection of God’s love for his creation.

God’s love for us is not just a passive love either, as if God created us and then just sat back to see what would happen.  God is intimately interested in us and in what we do, and that is also why God holds us accountable for what we do.  All of you parents know well that part of loving your children means holding them accountable, and confronting them when they do wrong.  This is doing them a favour.  God does the same with us.  That is why He asks us to go to confession and acknowledge what we have done wrong.  It is for our own good and it is because He loves us.  An indifferent God would not bother.

God has created us for happiness and God will bring us to that happiness as long as we remain open to him.

‘God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.’ 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pentecost Year C (Gospel: John 7:37-39) The Holy Spirit will teach you everything

A few years ago I had to go to our national seminary Maynooth for a meeting.  Before the meeting began I met three young men who were studying to be priests for our diocese and they invited me to stay on after the meeting for Evening Prayer and supper; so I did.  In the evening I found myself in the chapel praying along side 80 young men who are studying to be priests and it was wonderful to hear all these men singing to God and praying the Psalms, knowing that they were dedicating their lives to serve God.  I was thinking that in one way you would want to be insane to study to be a priest at the moment, so what on earth could draw them?  The answer of course is God.  The Spirit of God inspires people and moves people when we don’t expect it and often in ways we don’t expect either.  But the Spirit doesn’t shout aloud like the news-papers do.  The Spirit works quietly, but very powerfully.

I am often asked, especially by younger people, how come I didn’t want to get married and instead that I went on for the priesthood?  Actually the way they usually put it is to say, ‘Didn’t you like girls?’  And I always say, ‘Of course I was drawn to get married, but the call of God was the stronger one.’ 

The year I began religious life was the year the first major scandal in our Church broke.  The bishop of my own diocese, who lived just down the road from where I grew up, had fathered a child.  That was 21 years ago and there have basically been scandals ever since and most of them were much more serious.  During my time in the seminary it was very disheartening with all the stories about child abuse in the papers for the first time.  But it made all of us think carefully about why we were becoming priests and it still makes me think about why I continue as a priest.  The reason more or less remains the same: I believe God called me and continues to call me to serve him in this way.  Most of the time I’m not even sure I understand the calling or even what exactly the Lord wants me to do, but the ongoing call is unmistakable.

When I was nineteen I was invited to go to a prayer meeting here in Galway.  At the time I wasn’t practicing my faith, but I was searching.  At this prayer meeting I met 50 or 60 young people praying the rosary, singing hymns and reading Scripture.  This was completely new to me and I was drawn to it.  I could see that their faith was real and I was intrigued by it.  These young people basically taught me how to pray and taught me that it was good to start the day by giving 10-15 minutes to God in prayer.  So I began to do the same.  Shortly after I began attending this prayer meeting they held what is known as a ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminar.  This is a series of about 8 talks on the reality of the power of God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit—and how that same Spirit is just waiting for us to be open to him so that He can set fire to our faith, so to speak.  So I began doing this seminar and was curious to know what, if anything, would happen.  On the fifth night the people there prayed with each of us—just like the Apostles did—that we would receive a fresh outpouring of the Spirit.  I remember being a bit disappointed at the time, because nothing particularly amazing seemed to happen to me.  I felt peaceful, but not unduly so.  However, in the days and weeks that followed I suddenly noticed all kinds of things happening.  It was as though someone had flicked a switch and turned on the power.  Suddenly my faith became alive in a way that it had never been before.  The Scriptures began to speak to me in a profound way and I had a great desire to spend time in prayer.  I also noticed that I began to hear the words of the mass as though I had never heard them before and I was completely blown away with it.  Other people who did this Life in the Spirit seminar had similar experiences, the most common being that their faith became alive as never before.  That was 25 years ago and the experience really changed the course of my life.   A few years after that I began studying to be a priest.

Today when I look around and see all the apparent chaos in our Church, which is very disturbing, I think back on what the Lord has led me through and I am reminded that our Church is in good hands, because it is not in the hands of human beings but in the hands of the Most High God.  If the Church was purely in the hands of human beings, we would be in big trouble.  The Spirit continues to move and cleanse and purify, which is what we are seeing at the moment.  Although it is difficult for us, it is not something that we need be afraid of.  On the contrary it is a sign that the power of God is very much at work in the Church; and this makes total sense since it is the Lord’s Church.  Those of us who try to serve in it are only instruments, and often not very good instruments, but it doesn’t matter as God does not depend on us to get everything right.  The Lord is the One who is in charge and who will continue to lead us, his people, in the direction we need to go.  

As we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, when the disciples were 'switched on' you could say, we turn once again to God's Spirit and pray that He will help us never to lose heart, never to become discouraged, but to remember that God knows what God is doing.  When we have the gift of the Spirit, which we have since our Baptism and Confirmation, we have everything.  The guidance, wisdom and courage we need are there for the asking.  It is for us to try and remain open to the promptings of God's Spirit.  If we begin to rely only on our own expertise, our own ability, we will soon find that we come up short.  If, on the other hand, we continue to seek the guidance of the Spirit, then we have nothing to fear, even though we may not know exactly what we are to do.  God shows us what we need to do, as we need to know it.  Most of the time we are not allowed to see very far ahead, but neither were the Apostles.  They were just told to go and preach the Gospel, and that is what they did.  Remembering this, let us be encouraged, knowing that God's Spirit will show us the way.

The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name
will teach you everything 
and remind you of all that I have said to you (John 14:26).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Ascension to Heaven, Year C (Gospel: Luke 24:46-53) Jesus is Lord

Several years ago I had the privilege of being at one of the ‘Interession for Priests’ retreats, given in Dublin every summer by Sr. Briege McKenna and Fr. Kevin Scallon. This particular year they were celebrating 25 years and the retreat I was at was given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa.  Fr. Cantalamessa is a Capuchin priest and the preacher to the Papal Household (to the Pope).  He is an extraordinary preacher and it was a very inspiring few days.

One of the themes that he kept coming back to is that ‘Jesus is Lord’; just that.  The essence of our faith is really very simple and this is one of the key elements of it.  Jesus is Lord and if we believe in him and ask forgiveness for our sins, then we have eternal life with him.  If you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved’ (Rom 10:9).  Some months later when Cantalamessa was visiting the national seminary of Maynooth, he gave one talk and again he kept coming back to this fact: Jesus is Lord.  One of the professors sitting beside me said quietly, ‘It seems a bit too simple really!’  I know what he meant, but the truth is that it is very simple.  We tend to make it more complicated.

In today’s first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls the Lord’s ascension into heaven.  Just before Jesus ascended the Apostles asked again, ‘Lord has the time come?  Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’  In spite of all the time with Jesus and the extraordinary things they had seen, they still had a very earthly way of thinking.  ‘When will we have the power and glory?  When will our nation be properly reestablished?’  Yet Jesus was showing them that this was not important at all.  Worldly ways and worldly thinking are not important.  Preaching about Jesus and our eternal life in him was the only thing that mattered.  They were to receive power, but not worldly political power where everyone would acknowledge their greatness.  Instead they were to receive the power of the Spirit, which would enable them to preach about Jesus, what He has done for us, what our life is about and how we have life in him if we choose it.  That was the only thing that mattered.  All of them were to suffer for their preaching too, but that also was secondary.  They would be misunderstood by the world, as so many who preach the Gospel still are, but that message must be proclaimed all the same.

Why was it so important that they proclaim this message?  Because God is the only one who makes sense of why we are here in the first place and God wants his people to know this.  And so Jesus came among us to teach us about God and to offer his life in atonement for our sins, so that we might have eternal life with God; or to put it another way, so that we might reach ultimate happiness and the total fulfilment that all of us long for.  That message is just as important today as all of us look for happiness and fulfilment.  In spite of the great advances of humanity, most people are still very much aware that although we have achieved great things, something far deeper in us looks beyond human achievement and we know that we will never be totally fulfilled by human accomplishments.  So the Spirit gently encourages us to look to the things of God, the only place where we can find fulfilment.

In modern missionary work it is sometimes argued that we should not be talking about God, but only helping those who are in need.  While it is true that we must do all we can to help those who are in need, the message of the Gospel should also be preached to people because they have a right to hear it.  People have a right to know what God has done for them.  It is up to each person whether they choose to believe it or not, but they have a right to hear the message that we have eternal life in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Our material needs are important, but if we neglect the spiritual needs, we may lose any sense of purpose and what our life is about.  This is just as bad as being without food as it can cause people to despair.  So we try to continue to pass on the message that the Lord Jesus asked us to: Jesus is Lord and in him we have eternal life with God.

Jesus ascending to heaven before the Apostles’ eyes was also a confirmation to them and to us, that something wonderful awaits us when we die.  This life is not everything, but only a preparation for the world to come.  Hopefully we will enjoy it and find some contentment in it, but we must not lose sight of what also awaits us.  Life after death is real and this is what God wants for us.  If we believe that, then it makes the harder times here on earth a lot more bearable.  Our life here can be difficult, but it is worthwhile because something unimaginably wonderful awaits us.

Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.  They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy and they were continually in the Temple praising God (Lk 24:51-53).

Saturday, May 4, 2013

6th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 14:23-29) Focusing on the basics

Once a year I usually manage to go on a pilgrimage.  It is often to somewhere like Medjugorje, Lourdes, or another well-known shrine.  In 2011 I made a pilgrimage by motorcycle across northern Spain and then up through France stopping at various shrines: over 2000 miles on a Honda NT700 (the one in the picture above).  No matter which way I do it, the time apart to pray always helps me to remember what is important.  Going somewhere different for a time of prayer always seems to have the same effect; it simplifies things and helps me to see how much junk I’ve collected since the last time, most of which is totally unnecessary.  Staying in simple hotel rooms, or religious houses, with little more than a book has a wonderful way of freeing the mind.  Initially I find that I crave for the distractions that I’m used to, the TV, calling friends, noise of one kind or another.  But after a day or two I begin to settle into the quiet and I realise how much I need it.  I believe that we need to keep going back to the basics and to remind ourselves of what is important.

In the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, controversy is being stirred up with talk of whether the pagans should have to follow the Jewish law of being circumcised or not.  The basics of the faith were still being worked out.  What is interesting is the Apostles response.  First of all they agree to discuss the matter further, but they want their brothers and sisters to be at peace and so they recommend them to keep to the essentials as they understood them at that time.
We hear that some of our members have disturbed you with their demands and have unsettled your minds.
It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials…

There is great wisdom in their decision to keep to the essentials.  They didn’t want the people to be burdened with more than was necessary.  This is a common theme that I hear people express when they come back from pilgrimage.  We are reminded of what is important. 

What God calls us to do is very simple: to love God and to keep his commandments.  In the Gospel Jesus says, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’  ‘If you love me…’  The Lord does not want us to live out of fear, or to obey out of fear, but out of love.  At one stage in Matthews Gospel when Jesus was questioned about what the most important commandment was, He said that the greatest and most important commandment is to love the Lord God with all our heart, our mind and our soul.  He added that the second is like it, ‘To love your neighbour as yourself’ (See Matthew 22:37-39).  He concluded by saying that everything (the whole Law and the Prophets) hangs on this.  These are, you might say, the key things on the path to heaven.

Jesus also adds in the Gospel that his Spirit will teach us everything we need to know as we go along.  ‘But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.’

The simpler we keep things, the easier it is to remember what is important.  And so we try to love God and we try and love the people around us, by respecting them, putting up with them, treating them as equals and trying to see the good in them.  If we keep it simple it remains manageable.