Saturday, October 26, 2013

30th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:9-14) The need for forgiveness

There is an extraordinary true story about a woman called Corrie Ten Boom, a Protestant living in Holland during the Second World War.  She lived with her sister and father and they used to read the bible every evening after dinner.  During the war as Holland was occupied by the Nazis and Jewish people began disappearing, they ended up hiding people in their home, although they didn’t set out to do this.  Eventually they were caught and sent to one of the Concentration camps in Germany called Ravensbruck.  Her sister and father both died there, but she survived and was eventually released.  When she returned home she began working to help the many people who were so hurt by the war.  And she felt above all that God was calling her to speak about the need for forgiveness.  And so she did, and she was invited to speak all over the country and in other countries.  While speaking in Germany one day, a man came up to her after her talk and thanked her for this message of forgiveness. He said, ‘It is good to know that Jesus forgives all our sins.’  She recognised him as one of the SS officers who had been in charge of their prison.  As he extended his hand to her, she found herself freezing up and unable to respond.  But she realised that if she did not forgive this man who was responsible for the death of her sister and father, all her preaching would be meaningless.  So she found herself praying to God on the spot asking him to forgive this man for her and finally she was able to put out her hand to him.  (The book is called The Hiding Place).  She wrote:
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His.  When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

One of the hardest things that any of us are faced with is trying to forgive people who have hurt us.  Very often the people who hurt us the most are the people closest to us.  When people say to me that they are angry with someone, it nearly always indicates that they need to forgive that person.  Let me try and clear up a few misconceptions about what forgiveness is and is not.

First of all forgiveness is a decision of the will, as opposed to something we feel like doing.  Most of us rarely feel like forgiving someone and if we were to wait until we actually felt like it, we would probably not forgive at all.  When I forgive someone I make a decision to forgive that person because the Lord is asking me to, not because I feel like it.  The reason why it is so important to do that is because when we forgive someone we open up the door to God’s grace to help us begin to heal.  If I refuse to forgive someone I am blocking God from helping me to heal from the hurt.  We are the ones who suffer, not the person we are angry with.

We may think that if I say I forgive someone I am saying that it was ok for them to do what they did.  When we forgive we are not saying that, or that we no longer mind, or that the hurt is all gone.  But when we refuse to forgive someone, we are the ones who suffer.  The anger, hurt and resentment eats away at us inside.  It is a terrible thing to meet people late in their life who have continually refused to forgive.  You can see the bitterness in them and they are a sad sight to see.  None of us want to end up like that.  The good thing is that it is never too late to forgive.

It is easy to think that if I don’t forgive someone they will go on suffering because of what they did.  The truth is that they may not even be aware of it any more.  We are the ones who suffer.  We are the ones who lose out.  The first step in the process of healing from the hurt is to make the decision to forgive them and say the words.  Lord I forgive this person because you ask me to.  It doesn’t mean that everything will suddenly be alright, or that we will suddenly love that person.  In fact we may need to say those words again and again, but slowly we begin to heal.

Another thought is this: We know that we all make mistakes and do wrong.  I’m quite sure that all of us expect and hope that God will forgive us, but Jesus was very clear that we also need to forgive others if we expect to be forgiven ourselves.  Jesus gave some very strong stories about people who refused to forgive, finishing with the words: ‘And that is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you each forgive your brother from the heart’ (Matthew 18:35).  In another place Jesus says:
If you come to the altar to make your offering and there remember that your brother has something against you.  Go and be reconciled with your brother first.  Then come and make your offering (Matthew 5:23-24). 

Finally, remember that lady I mentioned at the beginning, Corrie Ten Boom.  When she was faced with having to forgive the man responsible for the death of her sister and father, she found it nearly impossible, but she prayed for the grace and it was God who enabled her to do it.  By our own strength it is often nearly impossible to forgive, but that is where we turn to the Lord and ask him to help us, and He does.
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us…

Friday, October 18, 2013

29th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:1-8) Telling the future

There is a lot of confusion these days as to what comes from God and what does not.  I am talking in particular about things like going to fortune tellers, Tarrot card readers, psychics, playing the Ouija board, or going to mediums, and many other practices that come under the general term of Occult.  A lot of people just consider them harmless fun; besides what could possibly be wrong with them?
God expressly warns us in the Scriptures to stay away from such things.  In the book of Deuteronomy it says:
You must not have in your midst anyone... who practices divination, or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices enchantments or who consults the spirits, no diviner, or one who asks questions of the dead.  For the Lord abhors those who do these things (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

In another book it says, ‘Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you.  I, the Lord, am your God’ (Leviticus 19:31).

Now I would like to try and explain why these things are a problem for us, because the Lord God doesn’t just give us rules for the sake of rules.  If God tells us to stay away from something it is with good reason, just like you will tell your children to stay away from the fire or they’ll get burned.  The Lord does the same for us, telling us what to avoid if we want to stay healthy.

So why are these things, which are now available everywhere, a problem?  The first and most important reason is that they interfere with our free will.  Our free will is an extraordinary gift which the Lord has given us, because it means that we have the freedom to do anything we choose, be it good or evil, although of course the idea is that real freedom is freedom to choose what is good.  We can even reject God if we choose.  It is an extraordinary thing that the Lord who has created us respects us enough even to giving us the freedom to reject him, and sadly some people do this by the way they live.  Going to fortune tellers or any of these other things that I mentioned is basically an attempt to gain knowledge of the future.  The problem is that if we have any kind of knowledge of the future it is going to influence our freedom to choose, because we will probably start acting out of fear or what we think might be going to happen.  The Lord does not want us to be afraid, but to be at peace.  That is why the Lord does not reveal the future to us.  We don’t need to know it.  If we did, He would show us, because He wants the very best for us.

The second reason why these things are a problem for us, is that by dabbling in them we are going directly against something God has asked us, which is a way of creating an obstacle between us and God.  We sin when we do this.  From a spiritual point of view they can also have a hold or influence over us.  If God does not reveal the future to us, then where is this information coming from?  It is not coming from the Lord, even if the fortune teller starts off by praying the Hail Mary, which I know some of them do. 

I worked with an exorcist priest friend of mine for a while and saw first-hand the mess that some people get themselves into by dabbling in these things that the Lord tells us specifically to keep away from.  They are very real.  Satan is cunning and will do anything to lead us away from God, because he hates us as God’s creation.  And yes I did say Satan, which may surprise you, but if Satan is not real then Jesus is a liar, because Jesus frequently mentioned him in his teaching.

I guess we have to ask ourselves do I believe what Jesus said is true or not?  Either the Bible (the Scriptures) is the word of God or it isn’t.  If it is, we have good cause to listen to it.  If it’s not true, then what are we doing here?

The Lord wants the very best for us and will continually guide us along the right path, the path that will help us to reach our full potential as human beings.  But sometimes we get misled and go astray.  That’s not a problem so long as we recognise it and come back again.  I’m sure you want God’s blessing for your lives and for your families, just as I do.  But if we mess with what God expressly tells us to stay away from, we will be blocking God’s help from us. 

If you have dabbled in any of these things at any stage, confess it, which is what the Lord asks us to do.  By confessing it you break any spiritual hold that it can have over you.  By repenting of it you also open the door to God’s grace as well.

In the readings today the Lord is assuring us that He does and will answer our prayers.  We have to trust that the Lord in this.  God only speaks truth.  If God has assured us of his help, then we would be foolish to look for any spiritual help from any other source.  We know that God wants the very best for us and if we believe that then we must also listen to what He tells us to do and what He tells us to avoid.
I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

28th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 17:11-19) Healing and the forgiveness of sins


In my work as a priest over the last fifteen years I have come across many people who have told me about miracles of healing which they or someone close to them have experienced.  A close friend of mine by the name of Sandra, who is married with 6 children, saw one of her own children miraculously healed at Lourdes a few years ago.  Her son Joe, who was about 7 at the time, was suffering with severe eczema all over his body.  It meant that his skin was raw and bleeding a lot of the time.  He had to be covered in wet bandages from head to toe which took his mother an hour and twenty minutes to put on each time.  They decided to bring him on pilgrimage to Lourdes to pray for him.  While they were there he was brought to the ‘baths’ which is where many of the sick are brought in order to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes as Our Lady told St. Bernadette to do.  After he had been to the baths he started to say, ‘Mom, I’ve been healed!’  She paid no attention to him as he was often playing up as little boys will do.  But then he started to say it to others on the bus and eventually he said, ‘Mom I’ve been healed.  Why don’t you believe me?’  She started to get suspicious at this point and said, ‘I do believe you.’  When they went back to the hotel she took off the bandages and his eczema was almost completely gone.  That is just one of many stories of healing that I have heard and I’m sure there are many of you here who could tell me more.

Why is it that we don’t see more miracles of healing?  Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, so why doesn’t God seem to heal more today?

For two summers I worked as a confessor in Lourdes; just hearing confessions, nothing else.  It was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had as a priest so far, although it was exhausting.  People are amazed when I say that hearing confessions for hours could be such a wonderful experience as most people couldn’t imagine anything more boring.  However, the reason it was so great was because it is where a huge number of miracles take place every day and very real miracles too.  When people are given the grace to be able to confess sins they have been burdened with for years you can physically see a change in their faces.  They are being healed and it is usually a much deeper healing that a purely physical healing.  The body needs healing, but the healing of the spirit is more important because it affects us much more.  Many people came to me and the other priests and confessed sins they were carrying for 20, 30 and even 40 years.  It is a very moving thing to watch the transformation in people’s faces when they realize they have been forgiven.  A weight is lifted off  them and they are made free.  I saw this happen right before my eyes many times and you can tell straight away that this is the healing power of God at work. 

The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was about the forgiveness of sins.  In each mass at the consecration the priest holds up the chalice and says, ‘This is the cup of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’  The mass is all about the forgiveness of sins, because at each mass we are at the event of Calvary when Jesus was killed.  This was all done so that our sins could be forgiven.  That is why the mass is so powerful and that is why we pray for everyone and everything in each mass.  God the Son is offered to God the Father, so that sins may be forgiven.

Because of the way we are made with body and spirit we need concrete ways of relating to each other and we need concrete ways of being able to understand God.  That is one of the reasons why Jesus gives us his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.  They are things we can see and touch and taste.  We can relate to them.  When it comes to the forgiveness of sins Jesus has given us the gift of confession.  Through confession we have a definite way of being able to confess our sins to another person in total secrecy and so to be healed.  Confession is an extraordinary gift of healing which the Lord offers us, because He knows how much we need it.  It’s not just about confessing everything so that we can be good enough for God, because we can never be good enough for God.  This is a gift that God has given us for our benefit, so that we can be healed and not be dragging around the mistakes of our past with us.  The Lord wants us to be free and to be able to enjoy our lives and this is one of the wonderful ways that the Lord has done this.

You may ask, ‘Why can’t I just tell God I’m sorry myself?  Why do I have to go to a priest?’  Well you can if you want to and I’m sure that the Lord forgives us when we do that, but God knows that in our humanity we have a psychological need to confess to another person.  If you don’t believe me listen to the TV and radio chat shows where you find people ‘confessing’ their sins to the whole world every day.  We have a need to confess, because that is what helps us to heal.

Jesus said to his Apostles, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:21–23).  Jesus was saying that He would be working in and through his priests, since it is only God who forgives sins, but the Lord ordered it in such a way that He would offer his forgiveness through his priests.  That is why we have the gift of confession.  It is meant to be a gift, not a burden, but Satan is quick to convince us that we don’t need it; that we can go to God ourselves.  Why should we have to confess to a priest when he is just a sinner?  Of course priests are sinners like anyone else, but this is the gift that God has given us through the priesthood, in order to help us, to heal us and to help us be free.

All through our lives God offers us so many things to help us and I’m quite sure this is one of the greatest gifts of healing that we have, but like everything else that God gives us, it is never forced on us, simply offered, just like the Eucharist.

The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

27th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 17:5-10) The mustard seed and the dignity of life

So many people I have met feel that they have very little faith, or tell me that they are not very religious.  However, I think most people have far more faith than they give themselves credit for.  Being ‘religious’ and having faith are not the same thing.

Today we are given the unusual image of something as tiny as a mustard seed, which is about the size of the tip of a pen.  Jesus tells the Apostles that if their faith was even as big as that they could move mountains, or in this case a mulberry tree!  There are two ways to look at this.  First we could say, if it only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains I must have very little faith at all since I could never do anything spectacular like that!  But the other way to look at it is to say that with very little faith you can do an awful lot.  Most of us do have faith and that faith grows as our relationship with God grows.  We often talk about the Lord ‘testing our faith’ when we find ourselves going through a crisis.  But by ‘testing’ I think what is meant is that God is stretching our faith to full capacity.  It is not so much a test to see if we are up to standard, rather a time of growth.  God knows what we are capable of and God is all the time helping us to reach our full potential.

The Apostles had faith and must have seen extraordinary things when they were with Jesus.  Peter even walked on water for a few seconds, but then he began to sink as he started to realize in human terms that that couldn’t be happening.  But even the Apostles had a lot to learn with regards faith.  After the crucifixion of Jesus they hid themselves away in a room because they were afraid.  It was only after they received the gift of the Spirit that they were transformed and began preaching fearlessly and working miracles.  They had to grow too and I’m sure that as their life went on their faith continued to grow.  No doubt their faith was very different at the end of their lives than it was when they were with Jesus.  They then had a life-time of trying to serve God and seeing many extraordinary things.  Faith grows gradually, but it does grow.

This weekend we are also focusing on respect for life, reminding ourselves that all life is a gift from God and all life is sacred from the moment of conception to natural death.  At the moment we are living in a ‘culture of death’ as John Paul II described it, where life is quickly discarded if it is not convenient.  The weakest and most vulnerable are the first to be got rid of. If a child in the womb is not convenient for our lifestyle, it is destroyed.  This has to be a terrible crime against God and his creation.  When we decide what can live and what can die we are playing God which we must not do.  Every human being has equal dignity, whether it is someone who is severely handicapped, or someone who finds themselves living on the street because of a crippling addiction.  Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we are still created in God’s image and we all have the same dignity as human beings which deserves equal respect.

When we hear of all the terrible things that go on in our world, such as abortion, human trafficking and so many others, we can feel very helpless.  But going back to the mustard seed it is good to remember that even with very little faith we can do a lot.  You could be cynical and ask, ‘What difference will my faith make?’  But if you remember recently when President Obama was threatening a military strike against Syria because of the use of chemical weapons, Pope Francis asked everyone to pray and fast for one day.  Just after this President Putin stepped in and offered to work out a deal with Syria over its chemical weapons and a possible war was averted.  We never know what our faith can do, even if it is smaller than a mustard seed.  With this in mind let us keep praying and fasting for the protection of life at all its stages.