Saturday, June 29, 2013

13th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 9:51-62) Whoever looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God

Just before I was ordained a deacon, I hurt my back and it caused me a lot of trouble.  It was the classic lower back injury that so many people end up with.  A few years later when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I ended up talking to a one of the back surgeons about it.  Along with the various bits of advice he offered he said: ‘Beware of anyone who promises to completely get rid of all pain; it’s usually not possible.’  I thought this was very wise.  He said with physical therapy or different kinds of treatment, most of the pain can be got rid of or managed, but hardly anyone has the ability to completely fix you like new.

I read something very similar a few days ago written by our present Pope Francis.  Before he was elected Pope and while working in Argentina, he used to have a regular dialogue with a Jewish Rabbi named Abraham Skorka.  They decided to publish their conversations which is now a book called Heaven and Earth.  In this book they deal with all kinds of issues.  One of the topics they mention is religious leadership.  Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) says that we should beware of any religious leader who demands absolute obedience or who promises perfect happiness in this world.  There must always be room for us to make choices because that is the freedom the Lord has given us.  No one has absolute authority over us, except God, and God does not force us to do anything.  Rather, God calls us to live a certain way and to be in relationship with him, but we are free to make the choice ourselves.

For me as a priest I am amazed at this stage (after 15 years) at how often I have been tempted to quit and find an ‘easier’ way of life.  I thought once I was ordained that that would be it, faithful to the end.  But I realize as I go along that it requires a new commitment every day.  Mostly I don’t think about it, but there have been several crisis points where I’ve really had to decide, ‘I choose to continue as a priest’ and this was because I felt the Lord still calling me to follow him, not necessarily because I felt I wanted to.  Having said that, I thank God that I am still working as a priest today; I consider it the greatest privilege of my life. 

I know that for those of you who are married it is the same.  It is an ongoing commitment.  We try to be faithful and we ask God to help us, which is why we make vows.  Without vows I think it would be much easier to give in to the temptation to quit.  Marriages and religious vocations don’t always work out, but we do our best to remain faithful; that’s all the Lord asks of us. 

No matter what way of life we find ourselves in, married, single, or religious life, the Lord’s call to us to follow him continues in a very personal way.  This call to enter into relationship with God, which is really what our faith is all about, is a very mysterious thing.  I often think that it is amazing how many people still go to church at all, given the many excuses we could come up with not to.  So what inspires people?  It is of course the Holy Spirit of God speaking to each of us in our hearts, inviting us to come to worship God, to receive the Eucharist, to keep coming back even though we may often feel we could do better elsewhere.

I am reminded of an episode of the Simpsons where Homer, the main character, decides that he will not go to church this particular Sunday.  He stays at home and has the best day of his life, while his wife and children do go to church, get caught in a snow storm, have to sit through an abysmally boring sermon and eventually get home exhausted.  I laughed when I saw this because for many of us that can sometimes be our experience.  There always seem to be more attractive things to do, even more worthwhile ways to spend Sunday, but the truth is that God keeps inviting us to try and be faithful, to keep coming back even though often little seems to happen.  It requires a sacrifice on our part, even if it’s just a small sacrifice.  But the Lord invites us to make that sacrifice just for him.  It is one way we can show our love for God and each time we make the effort we are reminding ourselves that we are not the most important thing in the universe.  We try always to put God first.

'Once the hand is set to the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'

Friday, June 21, 2013

12th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 9:18-24) Life is difficult but God is with us

You may have come across the book The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck.  He is a psychiatrist and a devout Christian.  It is a fantastic read and one of those books that I think everyone should read.  The book starts with one short sentence: ‘Life is difficult’.  Then he goes on to say that if you can accept the fact that life is difficult, then it no longer matters, because you’re not expecting it to be any different.  We can then rise above it.  There is a lot of wisdom in that.

As a priest people often come to me and tell me their problems.  They are not usually looking for an answer, but just someone to listen to them who will not judge them.  That is a privilege for me, because it is a reminder that people see God in the priest in some way.  When I keep hearing all these different stories it reminds me that we are all the same the world over.  We all struggle; and no one has it easy.  Hearing confessions in any international place of pilgrimage like Lourdes or Medjugorje is the same.  You realise quickly that people from all different parts of the world are all struggling in the same way: problems with relationships, work, marriage, addiction, finances.  And somehow it is reassuring, because it helps me to realise that this is what this life involves so don’t expect it to be different.  Now that is not just being negative, but it is the reality of this life.  What is really important, however, is where it is going; the purpose of it.

When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and Peter recognised him as the Son of God, the first thing he did was to insist that they tell no one.  He wasn’t going to take the road of glory and honour.  The second thing he did was to tell them that he would suffer greatly and die.  And he then spelt it out for them: ‘If anyone wishes to follow me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.’  He was saying, ‘The path is not easy, but don’t be afraid of it because it is the most worthwhile path’.

The Lord is teaching us that we will struggle, but there is a purpose to it.  In a mysterious way the suffering has its place.  All the time we are being formed; we are growing; we are learning to love and serve; but as you know that doesn’t happen easily.  When our time of service is over the Lord will come and bring us home, unless we have deliberately and consciously rejected him which I believe very few people do. 

I remember when I was in school the time seemed endless as I didn’t like school, but now it is almost forgotten.  When I was in the seminary for six years the time also seemed pretty long, but now that is already 15 years ago.  When our time on earth comes to an end we will also look back and say, ‘Wow, it wasn’t really that long after all.’  What is important is that it is heading somewhere and there is a purpose to it, which is why we must try and hang on and not give up when the going gets tough.

If we hope to find complete happiness in this life, we will probably be disappointed, because it is not to be found here.  That was one of the things that Our Lady said to Bernadette in Lourdes apparently: ‘I cannot promise you happiness in this life but in the next.’  That doesn’t mean that we won’t find a certain amount of happiness and contentment; please God we will and much of it, but we will never be completely fulfilled here.  I think if we can accept that it takes a lot of the pressure off.  We just do our best to love and serve for the time we are given here on earth, but we also believe that the Lord Jesus is with us the whole time, guiding us, teaching us, speaking to us; present to us in each mass in an extraordinary way.  So we know that we are not alone and we need not be afraid.

The horrible image of the crucifixion—which we have become so used to—also tells us something very wonderful about God.  It tells us that God can be found in the midst of human suffering; that the Lord Jesus knows what it is to suffer and feel abandoned by all, even by God himself; and that when we are suffering we can be assured that God is not just looking on ‘from a distance’ as the song says, but that He is right there with us, helping us and encouraging us.

Life is often difficult, but it has a purpose and the Lord is with us the whole way. 

If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.’

Friday, June 14, 2013

11th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 7:36 – 8:3) Sin and God’s mercy

In today’s first reading and Gospel we have two powerful accounts of sin and forgiveness.  The first reading gives us a summary of the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba.  David committed adultery and then committed murder to cover his tracks.  What happened was this: At the height of his power king David was walking on the roof of his palace one evening when he saw a beautiful woman in a nearby garden taking a bath.  He asked who she was and he was told that her name was Bathsheba and she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite.  In other words, she was married.  But David was a powerful king and used to getting what he wanted, so he demanded that she be brought to him and he slept with her.  Some time later Bathsheba sends him a message to say that she is pregnant.  Now David begins to panic because he realises he is going to be found out.  So he sends for her husband Uriah who is away fighting one of David’s wars.

When Uriah arrives David invites him for dinner and asks him how the war is going and how the men are doing, etc.  Then he dismisses him for the evening and tells him to spend the night at home with his wife.  But Uriah doesn’t go home and instead remains at the palace.  Maybe he was suspicious.

The following day when David hears that Uriah didn’t go home he asks him why he didn’t and he invites him to dinner again that night.  This time David makes sure that Uriah has plenty to drink and then tells him again to go home for the night and that he will send him back to the battle the next day.  But again Uriah does not go home.

The next day when David realises that Uriah didn’t go home, he writes a letter to Uriah’s commanding officer and tells him to put Uriah at the front of the fighting and then pull back so that he is killed.  So Uriah returns to battle not realising that he is carrying his own death warrant and he is killed in battle.  Now David seems to be safe.

However, because God loves David, and that’s the important thing, God doesn’t let David away with this.  So God sends the prophet Nathan to David who tells him this story.  Nathan says that there was once a very rich man who lived in a town.  He had all he could want, thousands of animals and servants, etc.  There was also a poor man who lived in the same town who had just one little lamb.  And he loved the lamb like one of his family.  One day the rich man had a guest, but instead of taking one of his own animals for the banquet, he took the poor man’s lamb and had it killed for the feast.  When king David heard this he jumped up and said, ‘The man who has done this thing deserves to die!’  And the prophet Nathan says to him, ‘You are the man!’

Now king David is considered one of the greatest kings of ancient Israel and one of the reasons why is because of what he does next.  When Nathan says, ‘You are the man’, David says, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’  David could have had Nathan killed as well, but he realises he has done wrong and he repents.  That is why David is a great example. 

What the Lord is teaching us through all of this is that God is not worried about the sin, so long as we come back and ask forgiveness.  I don’t mean by that that the sins don’t matter.  Sin is sin, but what is more important is that we come back and repent, because the Lord's forgiveness is waiting for us.

As you know well, we will never be short of sins to repent of, because as long as people are people we will have sin.  We want to live one way, but we fall in spite of our best intentions.  That doesn’t really matter so long as we come back to the Lord and ask forgiveness.

All the accounts of Jesus’ dealing with sinners in the Gospel are beautiful.  There is no condemnation, only compassion and mercy.  We see it in today’s Gospel too.  The Pharisee who invited Jesus was concerned about show and what looked good and he was embarrassed when the woman came into his house and caused a scene by weeping at the feet of Jesus.  But Jesus’ response was to show her total love and compassion because he knew she was asking for forgiveness.  He had no interest in the etiquette side of things.  He didn’t care if he looked good before the Pharisee or not.  Instead he pointed out that the woman’s love was what got God’s response.

Jesus is saying the same thing to us: ‘I have no interest in your sins, only that you keep coming back to me and when you do come back, don’t be afraid.’

One final point.  After David had killed Uriah he then took Bathsheba to be his wife.  The child that was born died, but the next child born to them was king Solomon, the great peace-making king and the one who was to build the temple in Jerusalem.  God can bring great good out of the mistakes that we make.  Not only does God forgive us, but He enables us to begin again.  With this in mind, let us never be afraid even when we fall into sin.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C (Gospel: Luke 7:11-17) Knowing our purpose

For the first few years after I was ordained a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain.  It was a good but difficult experience.  All day long I was dealing with sickness and death.  It probably sounds strange but until then I never realized that so many people died in hospital.  Many people are brought to hospital when they are dying, so understandably many people die in hospitals, but it was not how I had thought of hospitals up to that point.  The most difficult case I had to deal with was a young girl of about 12 who was very sick and eventually died.  I remember feeling so helpless and useless when she died.  Every time I read the story of Jesus raising the little girl from the dead I am reminded of that girl and her family.

Throughout his ministry on earth Jesus only brought a few people back to life, although He healed many people who were sick.  Do you wonder sometimes why He didn’t heal more people, or why didn’t He raise many more from the dead?  I’m sure it would have convinced many more people of who He was.  I am sure that the reason He didn’t heal more people physically is because it was not the main purpose of his mission.  When you think about it, all the people He healed and even raised from the dead all died later at some stage.  But what could possibly be more important that healing people and taking their sickness away? 

Jesus healed those He encountered out of compassion for them, but his mission was teaching the people about God, about how God loves us and what our life is about.  Having a sense of what our life is about is actually more important than being physically well, because if we don’t understand what our life is about then we will find it very difficult to keep going when things are going wrong.  One of the great tragedies of our time is to see so many people having no hope and then taking their own lives.  This is not what the Lord wants for us. 

During his life on earth Jesus taught the people about the reality of life after death, of not getting too caught up with things that are not important.  He taught the people about the Father in heaven and how He loves us and has created us out of love.  Ultimately His mission was to sacrifice himself for us, so that our sins could be forgiven, so that we could experience total happiness with God when we die.  The priest says this in every mass at the consecration, repeating the words of Jesus: ‘This is the cup of my Blood… it will be shed for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven.’  That is why the mass is so powerful, because in each mass we become present to the event of Jesus’ death on the cross, so that sins may be forgiven.  Time stands still and we are there.  It is a wonderful thing that God allows us to be there.

The Lord is teaching us that there is a reason for us being here.  Our life has a purpose and a meaning and is of great value.  Each of us has a value so enormous to God that Jesus who is God, allowed himself to be sacrificed on our behalf.  That is an extraordinary thought, but it is true. 

The reason why we are here is because God created us out of love in order that we might share God’s happiness when we die.  Hopefully we will begin to experience it in this life, but it will only be fulfilled in the next.  But first we have to learn about God and then we have to freely choose for God or not.  Our time on earth is a time of love and service.  We are free to love or not to love, to serve or not to serve and most of us do this by raising families, or simply by trying to do what is right from day to day.  But every day we are making choices for God or not by what we do.  If we have a sense of this, then it can help us to keep going even when we are suffering, or sick, or things are difficult, because we know it is not forever and we know there is something wonderful waiting for us and so it is worth enduring when things are difficult.  We will understand it all when we die, but for now it is hidden from us and part of the suffering we go through in this life is the fact that we cannot see the bigger picture; most of the time it remains hidden from us.  Sickness is something that none of us want, but having no sense of worth or what our life is about can be far worse because it can lead to despair.  It is a terrible thing to see people having no hope and it is also amazing to see what people can endure when they have a sense of what this life is about.

In both the first reading and the Gospel today, people are brought back to life, because the Lord loves us.  Each miracle was a sign; the first was a sign that Elijah was a man of God; the second miracle was a sign to the people that Jesus is God.  The miracles confirmed that God was with them, but in both cases Elijah and Jesus then continued on with their mission to teach people about God and help us know what our life is about.  We are called to love God and each other and to serve as best we can while we are here on earth.  And when our time here is complete the Lord will bring us home to him and then we will know that all we went through was worth while.

'Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.'

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), (Gospel: Luke 9:11-17) The gift of Christ's Body and Blood

Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me as a Catholic, it also makes me think of the Eucharist.  For those who do not believe as we do, it must seem like the craziest notion of all; that God makes himself present through the hands of a priest, in a tiny piece of bread and some wine.  What could be more bizarre than that?  And we don’t just believe that it is a reminder of Jesus or a symbol of Jesus, but really and truly the body and blood of Christ.  I also think that it is a teaching so extreme that only God could come up with it and get away with it, so to speak.  What human being would try to convince others that Jesus is present in a piece of bread when a priest says certain prayers over it?

In the second reading—which is the oldest account of the mass in writing—St. Paul says to us, ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’  He doesn’t even say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself.  Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul and turned his life around.  He appeared to him several other times as well.  And Paul was so affected by what happened to him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching about this man Jesus.  But the line that always strikes me is where he says, ‘This is what I received from the Lord…’  He is saying, ‘I didn’t make this up and neither did any other person.  Jesus himself taught us this and taught us to do this in his memory.’  And so every time an ordained priest says the words of consecration at mass, Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine.  How are we supposed to understand this?  We aren’t!  I do not understand it at all, but I believe it.  That is why we fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat or smoke in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else we do in the world.  It is also a beautiful sign of how close God is to us that He would continually come to us in the middle of our lives, each week, each day, to help and encourage us.  He comes to us as we are; not as we should be, but as we are.  And it is God himself who makes it possible to receive him, because we could never be ready or worthy enough to even come close to the divine presence, not to mention receive him.  That is why we always say the prayer: ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

There are two extremes that I often come across with regard to the Eucharist.  One is where someone will say to me, ‘Father I don’t receive the Eucharist because I really am not worthy enough.’  Correct!  No one is worthy enough nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to give himself to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him.  We try to confess regularly, but we should never be afraid to receive the Eucharist unless there is something really serious stopping us.  Remember it is God who desires to come to us and He does not want us to be afraid of him.

The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance or need to confess every once in a while.  This is also wrong.  There is no question of this being a ‘right’ on our part.  The Eucharist is pure gift from God and for our part we must try to approach it as well as we can, especially by confessing every so often.  But the most important thing to remember is that the Lord wants to give himself to us, and so we should not be afraid to come to him.  Remember that ultimately it is God himself who makes it possible for us to receive him.  ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

For me as a priest this is also a very special feast for two reasons.  First, because it is the feast of my ordination, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.  It is probably the most  appropriate feast for a priest to be ordained, because this is what the priesthood is all about.  God gave us priests so that we could have the Eucharist, so that his Word would continue to be preached, so that his forgiveness would be available to as many people as want to receive it.  The Lord Jesus wants to be available in the Eucharist to as many people as possible, but without the priesthood there is no Eucharist.  The two are intimately connected.  To be able to celebrate the mass for God’s people is really the greatest thing that I can do as a priest.  It doesn’t mean that I am worthy enough, because no priest could ever be worthy enough to do this, but God delights in using ordinary sinful people, like me.
Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist at all?  Very simply because He loves us and wants us to know that He is with us all the time and that we can receive his body into our bodies every day if we wish.  It is an extraordinary gift of intimacy that the Lord gives to us. Jesus gives himself to us purely because He loves us and He knows that we are all struggling most of the time, but when we have the Eucharist we are reminded how close God is to us.

I want to finish with this story: In the late 1500s there lived a woman named Margaret Clithero in the town of York in England.  She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic.  Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth penders, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them.  She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral.  It was an Anglican church at the time.

She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial.  She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors.  She said, ‘If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself’.  The judge said’ ‘Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.’

He handed her the bible and told her to swear on it.  So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, ‘I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

So, just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered.  It was called in English law, ‘the punishment most severe’.  She was pressed to death under heavy weights.  It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive.  The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken.  She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.
In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times.  It says ‘She died for the mass’.

So the next time that you find yourself bored with the mass, or just not too bothered to go because you’re tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for celebrating the mass.  God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist may He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.