Saturday, December 27, 2014

Feast of the Holy Family (Gospel: Luke 2:22-40) The dignity of the family

I grew up in a family of seven children. I am the middle child with two older brothers and a sister and two younger sisters and a brother. My father was a university professor and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Like most families, as children we spent a lot of the time fighting with each other and resenting each others’ presence. The more of us there were, the less attention we each got individually. But now that we are older we are good friends. Now we can also see that all the struggling and fighting we did with each other was part of what formed us. We were learning not to be so selfish, that we can’t have everything our own way, that we had to learn to share and that we also had our part to play in contributing to family life by doing chores, etc.

I am amused sometimes when I visit my brother or sister’s families who have small children and I see how selfish they can be when they are young. They don’t want to share anything, they all want to be first and have all the attention, but they gradually have to learn these things and that is one of the most important aspects of family life; we are learning what it means to love and serve, which is what the Lord calls us to do. That is really what our life is about.

Jean Vanier—who started the L’Arche community which has mentally handicapped people living together—says that it is only when we live in community together that we realise how selfish we are. Others help us to learn about ourselves.

At Christmas we celebrate the Son of God taking on human flesh and being born into a human family and that means that he grew up in a human family just as we all did. It means that they will have had all the ups and downs of any family, the joy of birthdays and celebrations, the sorrow of death and sickness, the worries of finance and providing for each other. I think that we forget that side of things. Jesus grew up in a normal family just like us and that is telling us something. It is telling us that family life is important because it is where we are formed and more than anywhere else it is where we can learn how to blossom as human beings. When you read about the upbringing of many famous people you can see how their family had a part in forming them for good or bad. Mother Teresa said that her mother always taught her that she should never eat anything that she wasn’t prepared to share with someone else. You can see how this influenced her.

We also know that it doesn’t always work out for families as we would like it to and often one parent ends up trying to raise their children on their own, which has to be very difficult. That is where the whole community comes in, offering support and encouragement. There is an African proverb which says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well we are that village and we all help each other to grow. And so at weddings we celebrate and support the couple; at funerals we stand by those who are grieving, and so on. Jesus grew up in a human family like any of us.

Today the idea of the family—which is the most basic unit of our society—is under threat. We are told that a family can be two men or two women raising children, but that is not the teaching of the Lord as we understand it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t respect those who see things differently, but it doesn’t mean that we have to accept it either. We stand by and stand up for what we believe is right. Every child has the right to have a mother and a father. Our children are not just products to be used, but people who deserve the same care and respect as everyone. We do our best to help them grow with dignity and good values and every chance to become the best version of themselves that they can be.

So as we celebrate the family that Jesus was given, let us thank God for our own families, imperfect as they were and let us also pray for the protection of the family so that we can provide as best we can for those who come after us.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Day (Gospel: John 1:1-18)
The dignity of the flesh

A few years ago on Christmas day after I had celebrated the two morning masses, I went to visit some friends, took a short walk and then went back to my house looking forward to a nap as I was exhausted.  When I opened the front door I was horrified to see water pouring down through the ceiling.  The pipes had burst!  So I spent most of the rest of the day trying to mop up the house.  Compared to many people I know I got away lightly, but it still did a lot of damage.  However, in spite of the damage, one of the things it made me realise was that you don’t really need very much.  I still got a Christmas dinner, I had a place to stay and I was warm enough.  What more could I ask for?  We will always have inconvenience and problems, but if we have the basics we are ok and most of us have a lot more than just the basics.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the feast of Christmas is what the feast says about us as human beings.  God didn’t sort everything out before He took on human flesh and came among us.  He came into all the inconvenience, injustice and chaos that is all around us all the time and he was born into a human family with all the ups and downs that goes with any family.  Mary and Joseph were away from home because of the census that was being taken and then Mary ended up having to give birth in a far from ideal place: a stable or cave.  It must have been very upsetting.  Soon afterwards they had to flee the country as refugees because of a death threat.  There were difficulties from the start, and yet God was happy to come right into the middle of all that.

Perhaps what is easiest to overlook is the significance of God taking on flesh.  He didn’t take on the nature of an animal, or of an angel, but of a human being.  We are not animals, but we are not angels either and we are not meant to be.  The Word became flesh, and that tells us that we are good as we are.  Of course that doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t try to improve, but we are meant to be ‘flesh’.  I think many of us have grown up with the idea that spirit is good, but flesh and all to do with it is bad.  However, that is not what God teaches us; in fact He is telling us the complete opposite by taking on human flesh.  This is how we are meant to be and not only that but in our flesh we imitate God, especially in the way we love.

    The beginning of John’s Gospel, which we read on Christmas morning, tells us a few wonderful things.  It is speaking about the person of Jesus, God the Son, which it calls the Word.  It says that the eternal Word—who becomes Jesus—was there from the beginning.  God the Son has always been there.  It also says that apart from him we would not exist at all.  We only have life because He is there, which also means that our life has no meaning apart from him.  Then it says a most encouraging thing for the times that we live in.  It says that Jesus (the Word) is the Light that shines in the darkness and ‘the darkness could not overcome this light’.  In other words, no matter what happens in the world around us, no matter how much evil there appears to be, it will never be able to overcome Jesus, who is God.  God is stronger.  God will have the last say. 
In the book of Revelation Jesus says,
I am the First and the Last, the Living One.  I was dead, but now I am to live forever and ever.  I hold the keys of death and of the underworld (Rev 1:17b-18).

All things are subject to God and yet he was pleased to come among us as one of us, to teach us about God, about the afterlife, about how we should live and of most importantly to die for us.  If God was prepared to come among us in this way it means that we must have enormous worth or value in his eyes.  This also means that we are not just here by accident, but for a definite reason.

So although the world around us may seem to have lost its way, it has not.  God doesn’t need to make it all perfect to be with us.  He didn’t when Jesus was born and he doesn’t have to now either.  Instead he shows us a different way; the way of love and the way of sacrifice, which may seem to be insignificant, but is in fact the more powerful way.  Earthly rulers need to show how strong they are, but God does not.  God is powerful enough to be able to work away quietly in the background, mostly unnoticed.  ‘He came among his own and his own didn’t recognise him.’  It didn’t matter and it still doesn’t matter, because He is with us no matter what and He goes on teaching us no matter what.  He will continue to teach anyone who is willing to listen that we were created by God and at the end of our time on earth we will return to God if we are open to it.  That is the purpose of our life and the reason why we are here.  For our time on earth we just do our best to follow the path that He points out to us.
The Word was made flesh and lived among us. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

4th Sunday of Advent Yr B (Gospel: Luke 1:26-38) Openness to God’s action

One of the things I enjoy most about working in a parish is the chance to be able to talk to the young children who are preparing for their first Holy Communion and Confirmation. What I enjoy especially is their openness and simplicity. They accept things that they do not understand and that is called faith.  Their simplicity is refreshing, although they are well able to ask difficult questions which I often have no answers for!

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of our faith, or of any faith, is that we are constantly dealing with ideas that do not make sense to our way of thinking.  They are beyond our understanding, and even if they were explained to us we still would not be able to grasp them.  The simplest example is the idea of our own spirit or soul: it is not visible to the human eye, it doesn’t take up space and it weighs nothing.  To human thinking that just sounds like ‘nothing’, but it is very real.  The time when it is most obvious just how real it is, is when someone dies.  One moment you have a living breathing person, with a personality and the ability to love.  The next moment there is just a dead body and somehow you know that this is not the person that you knew; and indeed it isn’t, it is just their body.  Their spirit has gone to a different world.  It is very simple yet it is also beyond our understanding.

So much of what we believe is like this.  We don’t understand it, but we accept it because God has told us that it is true and we believe that God only speaks truth.  Sometimes I think that the most educated people can be at a disadvantage when it comes to faith, because they are tempted to want everything explained to them completely, or else they won’t believe it.  A few years ago I did the wedding of a friend of mine I grew with, who is a now a pathologist.  Before the wedding he was saying that he could not accept the resurrection from a scientific point of view, because to him that was impossible. I admired him for his honestly. In a way you could say that his education was an obstacle to him in the ways of faith, though of course that is not always the case. There are so many aspects of our faith that we which we cannot explain.  However, that does not mean that they are not real.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Todays Gospel passage which describes the angel Gabriel presenting Mary with something that she did not understand is more of what we are talking about.  Mary questioned the angel because what the angel said made no sense to her from a human point of view.  It seems that Mary didn’t intend to have children, otherwise why would she have questioned the angel?  Since she was already legally married, it would have been the most natural thing in the world to have children, but this doesn’t seem to have been part of her plan and that is why she questioned the angel.  What the angel Gabriel told her was that this would essentially be an act of God, and not a human act.  ‘The Holy Spirit will cover you with its shadow… and so the child will be called holy.’  And the proof that he offered her was the miracle that God had already worked for Elizabeth who was now six months pregnant, even though she was old, and had never been able to have children, ‘…because nothing is impossible to God.’

The lovely thing is that Mary didn’t go on arguing about how this was impossible, but she accepted it.  Mary was open to God’s action, to God’s plans.  God also asks us to be open to his work, because He is all the time at work in our lives, only most of the time we don’t recognise it, or it doesn’t make sense to us, so we think it couldn’t be God at work.  Children also have this kind of openness and God invites us to have the same kind of openness.  There is so much that is beyond our understanding, but God just asks us to believe, and accept the fact that even if it was explained to us, we still wouldn’t understand.

The virgin will give birth to a child.
God will become man.
The death of a man on a cross will be a sign of God’s power.
The eternal God becomes present in bread and wine.

Friday, December 12, 2014

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28) ‘Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’

 Today we celebrate the third Sunday of advent and we light the rose coloured candle.  It is also called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ which means ‘rejoice.’  Advent was originally a penitential time like Lent, in order to prepare for Christmas.  This Sunday was meant to give everyone a break from the penitential focus in order to remind us that the Lord’s coming is near and it is something to rejoice in.

Advent is also meant to be a time of hope for us, because the one who is coming to help us is Lord of heaven and earth, the master of the whole universe and all things are subject to him.  John the Baptist painted a pretty frightening picture of him as the one who would come to judge all people and bring justice to the earth.  But what is also important to remember is that this extraordinary person of Jesus is coming among us to help us, not to condemn us.

I wonder if John the Baptist came here today what he would say to us.  One thing I am pretty sure of is that it would disturb us, because that is what he did.  He disturbed people by what he said.  He preached with passion and told people to change, to repent, to begin again.  What exactly did he ask people to do?  He asked them to repent of their sins, to change their way of life, to be open to God.  He challenged the religious leaders (the equivalent of bishops and priests) to beware of how they lived, as they would be accountable before God.  Their lives must bear fruit.  Wearing religious clothes (like the Roman collar I wear as a priest) is no guarantee that a person is pleasing to God.  What is important is how I live my life.  It’s interesting how King Herod had John arrested because John had denounced him for doing what was morally wrong, namely marrying his brother’s wife.  But Herod was troubled by John because he knew he was a holy man and he liked to listen to him.  He knew that John was right.

The message of the Gospels which we read and talk about each week is a wonderful message of hope, but it is also a message which never lets us get too comfortable, because if we get too comfortable in ourselves we stop growing.  This is something that Pope Francis is reminding us of in no uncertain terms.  We must live what we profess, especially looking out for those who are poor. 

If John the Baptist came here and preached today I think he would probably say things like, ‘Confess your sins to the priests, as God asks you to;  be faithful to your marriage; sacrifice yourselves for your children; learn to forgive each other and don’t be seeking revenge when things go wrong.  Stop suing each other.  Be just to your employees.’  To us priests he would probably say, ‘Make sure you are living what you preach and sacrificing yourselves for the people you have been sent to serve; don’t let yourselves get too comfortable and make sure God is at the heart of all that you do.  Be obedient to your bishops.’  We don’t usually want to be challenged in this way, but this is what the Lord presents us with.

Every year as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, when God ‘pitched his tent among us’, the most important preparation we can make is the preparation of the heart.  We begin again.  We look honestly at ourselves and how we live.  Do we need to change? Probably; because it is easy to become lax and indifferent to the struggles of the people around us.

When the Lord challenges us to look at ourselves and begin again, it is not to make us feel guilty or inadequate; rather it is to help us to grow.  God pushes us, if you like, helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.

Because John the Baptist spoke the truth and challenged people with strong words, it cost him his life.  Jesus was killed because he spoke the truth.  Almost all the Apostles and Prophets were killed too.  We don’t like to be told we need to change, but if we wish to continue to grow closer to God then we must remove everything that prevents us from coming closer to him.
Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’

Saturday, December 6, 2014

2nd Sunday of Advent Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:1-8) Prepare the way of the Lord

One of the things we do a lot as priests is go to people who are dying to ‘anoint’ them, or give them the sacrament of the sick, which is the same thing. I always think that it is a lovely thing when people request this, because it is a sign that they want to prepare for their journey to meet the Lord when they die. It is not just for when people are dying, it is also for when people are sick, but I think it is usually a great consolation to those who receive it. Often when I am praying with someone who is dying I can see that they are praying with me. Sometimes I see them move their lips and try to say the prayers as well, or sometimes they try and make the sign of the cross. They want to be prepared to meet the Lord as I think probably all of us do.

In one way we all know that we will never be prepared to meet the Lord as we would like to be, but that is not important because the Lord is not looking for perfection. What God is asking us for is the right disposition of heart. Think of the man dying on the cross beside Jesus. He was being punished for whatever crimes he had committed and given the dreadful death of crucifixion and in his own words he said, ‘We are getting what we deserve’ (Luke 23:42). But when he asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus replied, ‘In truth I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). This reminds us that what the Lord wants for us is only goodness, only the best, just as you want for your children, even if they mess up as we all do. It is also good to remember that even when we mess up seriously and we are written off by our society, or put in prison, God does not write us off. The Lord assures us that He is still with us. He asks us to repent in our heart and that is what is most important.

Advent is one of the seasons we have where we are asked to prepare for the wonderful feast of Christmas. But it is not just for Christmas, it is a time of reflection for us to prepare ourselves in our own hearts for whenever we will meet the Lord. None of us know when this will happen, but what is important is that we try to have the right disposition to be open to God for whenever He will bring us to heaven.

The best way we can do this is to go to confession. Although confession is not the most popular thing for most people, I think it is important to remember that this is God’s gift to us so that we can know that we are forgiven and to be encouraged and help us to start again. It is the greatest healing ministry of the Church. In his mercy and love for us, the Lord continually helps us to begin again as often as we need to. Who else could do this? What person on earth would continually allow us to start again no matter how many times we messed up? Not many, I suspect.

The most important thing about going to confession is the very fact that we do go, because each time we come before the Lord in confession it is a way of acknowledging that we are sinners. It is a way of saying, ‘Lord I know that I am a sinner. This is all l can recall right now, but I want to ask for your mercy,’ and that is what the Lord gives us. We confess whatever we can remember, but what is important is the very fact that we come before the Lord in this way. This is what He has asked us to do, even though we may not always feel attracted to it. Who wants to admit that they are a sinner and have done wrong? I certainly don’t! But I know that I need to.

Coming before the Lord in confession also helps us to keep the balance; to remember that
all things are in God’s hands; that God is the creator and we are the creature and without God we are nothing.

Let me just finish by repeating the words of absolution which the priest recites in the confession, because they are words of forgiveness and consolation.

God the Father of mercies,
Through the death and resurrection of his Son,
Has reconciled the world to himself
And sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.
Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace
And I absolve you from all your sins,
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

1st Sunday of Advent Yr B (Mark 13:33-37) Keeping the focus on Christ

Every Sunday when we come together to celebrate the holy mass we pray the Creed.  And one of the things we always say as part of that prayer is: ‘He (Jesus) will come again to judge the living and the dead.’  That is what we believe.  God came and walked among us in the person of Jesus and Jesus will come again to judge all people.  No one knows when this will happen, but Jesus has told us that this will happen.  Maybe it will be during our life-time, maybe we will already be dead.

Today we officially begin our preparation for Christmas; our spiritual preparation.  We are preparing for two things; we are remembering the first coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are remembering that Jesus will come again at the end of time. 

With so much emphasis on buying gifts it is easy for us to lose focus on what it’s about.  In all the advertising that we hear there is almost no mention of what the feast is really about: the birth of Christ; the coming of the Son of God to set his people free from eternal death; to win the most wonderful thing imaginable for all of us: eternal happiness when we die.  This is what everyone wants, even if we have very different ideas as to what happiness might be, but we all want happiness, for ourselves and those we love.  This is what God has made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is telling us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the bigger things.  It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity.  Even though the worldly affairs are important, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God; the reality that we will die, that life and death are in his hands, and that whenever He does come for us, He must find us ready.

In one sense we can never be ready enough for God.  How do you prepare to meet God?  Is it a scary thought?  It shouldn’t be, because that is what God has created us for and it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams, if we have made any effort to be ready.

Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken the other left.  What does that mean?  It means that although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind.
If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we can miss what it is about.  There is much more to our life than this. 

As you well know it is often when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we are immersed in the world.  Naturally we have to get on with the day to day things of working and living, but we are being told to make sure that we also make time for God. 

I think a good recipe for a ‘happy’ Christmas,  is to keep it simple and spend some time coming up to Christmas remembering what it is about.  Even go to mass once a week, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days.  That way we will remember what we are celebrating.

The Angel said to the shepherds:
Do not be afraid. 
I bring you news of great joy.
Today in the town of David
a Saviour has been born for you;
He is Christ the Lord.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Matthew 25:31-46) Power in weakness

 In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John at one stage has a vision of a being that terrifies him.  He describes what he saw like this:
…I saw one like a Son of man… His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze… out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead.  But then the being in the vision touched him and said: ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld’ (Rev 1:17-18). 

Who was this being?  It was of course Jesus, the one with whom John had lived for three years.  Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this frightening form?  Probably to remind John and us, who he is.  Not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead.  This is the one we believe in.  When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.

At the moment we are seeing huge changes in the world around us.  So much earthly power which seemed to be untouchable has collapsed over night.  Even the great structures of the Church seem to be crumbling.  In many ways it is a very disturbing, even frightening time.  But I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in.  If we put our trust and hope in earthly power we will be disappointed, as we know only too well, because people will let us down.  If we rely too much on the human side of our Church we will be disappointed, as we have been.  But the one we trust in and believe in is Jesus Christ who is God.  All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him. 

Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one.  It is not.  There is no question of evil being equal to God.  All things are subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.

As a priest—especially at the moment—I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus is the one I worship as God and try to serve.  If I stay focused on the world around me I find myself getting depressed or disillusioned.  Also if I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church I also find it hard to keep going.  But the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge.  He is master of all things.  What we see happening in the Church at the moment is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin.  And so He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we see happening.  I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down that God is allowing which will bring many people back to him.  There is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

When people have a certain amount of power they like to show it off and make it felt.  People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off as much.  But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness.  This is an extraordinary thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross.  God did the exact opposite of what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure.  So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realising that what they looked at was a demonstration of the power of God.  This is why we use the symbol of the cross and why it is so powerful.  This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death. 

St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength.  We are never alone no matter what we are going through.  God is with us.

Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we normally understand it and this is why many people find it hard to accept.  We want something that we can see and touch.  We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all.  But God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.

If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

33rd Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30) Parable of the talents

In 1998 in Rome, Pope John Paul II invited 54 different groups within the Church to come together in Rome to celebrate what God is doing for them and to share their experiences.  These were all groups that were started by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to really try and live the Gospel in daily life.  As a result these movements have now spread all over the world and are continually inspiring people to live as Christians and they are also acting as a powerful witness to many others to put God at the center.  To give you an example, some of these groups are the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, L’Arche community, Charismatic Renewal, Cenacolo.  They all have different focuses.  For example Cenacolo is a movement that was started to help people work through addictions, particularly drug addiction.  They have 27 fraternities.  They live quite a monastic lifestyle with no TV, newspapers, or magazines.  Their day to day life is based around prayer and hard work. Over 400,000 people came to Rome that day, representing these different groups.

All over the world this is and has been happening for some time.  God’s Spirit has been moving people to step out and live their faith.  In Ireland in the last 30 years there have been a huge number of prayer groups and all kinds of groups started by lay people.  This is God’s doing, and I think that it’s good for us to remember that it’s going on, because you never hear about it in the papers or on the TV, but it’s happening all around us.  Great things are happening.

The Lord doesn’t wait for the hierarchy of the Church to feel that the time is right, or for lay people to say that we’re ready now.  The Holy Spirit just moves people when the time is right. Of course it’s important that the priests and bishops work with these groups, because that is a sign that they are on the right track, but quite often they are not the ones to start them.

Many people today are saying that the laity should be more involved in the Church and that is very true; but I also think that many lay people frequently overlook one of the most important roles that they have, that you have and that is to bring Jesus to the world in a way that priests and religious can not: in the work place and in the home, when you go out shopping and socialising.  This is one of your most important tasks, which we priests can not do and it is absolutely essential that it is done, because there are so many people today who have lost sight of God and are crying out to him, but don’t know where to look.  If you, who believe in God, don’t bring your faith with you, then all the people you work and live with may not find out about God. People need to experience Christianity as lived out by ordinary people. This is where you come into your own as lay people.  You can bear witness to Christ by the way you live.  You don’t have to open your mouth, just live your faith.  I’m sure some of you have experienced this already, the more you live what you believe, the more it speaks to people and gets quite a lot of reaction, because we all constantly observe each other and notice each other.  And if you live your faith, you will be different and you will be attractive, because God is attractive, holiness is attractive.  That’s why all these lay groups have borne such fruit, because God is behind them, so they attract people.

Another reason I believe, why the Lord has inspired people to start all these different groups is to help each of us to realise that it is possible to live as God asks us to live.  Many people today don’t believe that any more, which is why so many have turned their back on the Church, because they think that it’s silly and unrealistic, just something to help you when you’re old or sick.  But God is showing us that this isn’t so, by inspiring people all over the world to really live the Gospel, to live by the teachings of Christ.  And of course it’s possible, and it’s not just for priests and religious either.  We have our part to play and it’s important, but so is your role and all that God has in mind for you to do. 

Today's Gospel reading refers to this too.  God is saying to us that we all have potential to develop what He has given us.  No one is exempt.  But just be careful that you are not the one who is quite happy just to hand back what you got having done nothing with it.  That is the person who says ‘I’m alright thanks very much, I’m not going to bother anyone else, and let no one bother me.’  If that’s our attitude, if we are happy with the absolute minimum, we must be careful, because then we are the ones that Jesus is pointing the finger at.

When we die and meet the Lord Jesus we will only be accountable for ourselves and our own actions, so let us make the most of what God has given us.  The best thing any of us can do, is to bring our faith with us to work and wherever we are. 


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (Gospel: John 2:13-22) On the priesthood

Today we celebrate the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. It is the official church of the Pope, even though the Pope lives in the Vatican at St. Peters basilica. Celebrating the dedication of the Lateran Basilica is a recognition of the unity of all churches throughout the world with our mother church in Rome.

Perhaps one of the strangest things that Jesus did before he ascended to heaven at the end of his earthly life, was to entrust his Church to priests; ordinary, sinful, weak human beings.  This is something that we do not understand, but we believe.  Through the gift of the priesthood He gave us the most extraordinary gift of all, the gift of the Eucharist, which is the gift of Jesus himself really and truly present in the form of bread and wine.  There is no gift greater than this.  But the fact that he made it depend on priests is what is so strange.

I am sure that one reason in particular why he did this was to make it obvious that it is God who is at work and that the Church is in no way dependent on the gifts or skills of human beings alone, especially not us priests.

There is a great story in the Old Testament which explains this; it is the story of Gideon.  Gideon and his people were being wiped out by the Amorites and it was a time of great suffering for them.  Then one day the angel of the Lord appears to this man Gideon and says, ‘Hail valiant warrior.  The Lord is with you.’  In reply Gideon says, ‘If God is with us how come we are being wiped out?’  A fair question!  The angel goes on to tell Gideon that God has specially chosen him to lead his people to freedom from their enemies.  But Gideon asks an interesting question.  He says, ‘Why would God pick me since I am the weakest member of my family and my family is the weakest family in my tribe?’  In other words, why would God pick the weakest of the weak to lead his people to freedom?  It doesn’t make any sense by our way of thinking.  But then the angel convinces him that God has chosen him and he will be alright.  Gideon is then told to raise an army and so he gets together 30,000 men.  But then to his astonishment God tells him to reduce the number of men to only 300 and he tells him why, and this is the crucial bit: lest the people think that it is by their own strength that they have won victory over their enemies.  God chooses the weakest man around with only a handful of men to conquer the enemy so that it will be obvious that it was the power of God that made this happen. If Gideon had been a great warrior and he conquered his enemies with a huge army, then no one would be surprised.  But when the most unexpected person leads a handful of men and conquers a huge army, then everyone says ‘Look what God did!  It’s a miracle.’

I believe that God chooses various men to be priests for the same reason, so that it would be obvious that it is God who is at work.  So He picks weak men to make it all the more obvious that the Church is still there because of him and not because of us priests.

It is said that when Napoleon Bonaparte was taking over Europe he met the cardinal of Paris and he said to him, ‘I am going to destroy the Vatican.’  The cardinal assured him that he wouldn’t be able.  But Napoleon insisted: ‘You will see; I will wipe it out completely.’  But the cardinal said: ‘We priests have been trying to destroy it for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able! So you wont be able either.’

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things of all about the priesthood is that the Holy Spirit of God obeys the words of the priest.  When the priest says the words of consecration at each mass the Holy Spirit immediately and humbly obeys the words of the priest and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus.  I don’t understand this but I believe it.  And when the priest says I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit immediately wipes away those sins.  God is so humble that He will obey the words of a human being.
Jesus said to Peter:
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.

What if the priest is not a very good man or is in fact quite a sinner?  Is God any less present in the mass if the priest is not a holy man?  Of course not.  God would never allow his power to depend on the goodness of a human being because none of us could ever be good enough or holy enough.  Even if the priest is a terrible sinner, God is just as powerfully present in the mass, in confession, and wherever He calls the priest to work.  Of course it is a great help for our faith if the priest is a holy man, but either way God is just as much present, because God gives himself completely to all of us in this extraordinary way through the priesthood and it doesn’t depend on the priest being good enough.  Thank God!

I think one of the greatest proofs that the Church is from God is simply the fact that it is still here in spite of the fact that there have been centuries of bad example, bad preaching, scandal, etc, and yet it is still here.  How can this be? Because it is the power of God at work in his Church. There is so much we don't understand about how God works among us, but we believe that God continually gives us everything we need and one of the greatest gifts He has given us is the priesthood, because without the priesthood we would not have the Eucharist.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed (All Souls) The souls of the just are in the hands of God

  Today we remember all those who have gone before us in death. For most if not all of us, death is probably the hardest thing that we have to face. It is cruel because it brings up so many questions and gives us so few answers and worst of all, the person we love is snatched from us and we can no longer communicate with them. We don’t know where they are, or how they are, although we believe that they are with God, but we don't know exactly what this means.

We are never ready for someone to die, even if they have been sick for a long time.  However I think it’s good to remember that although a person’s death comes as a shock to us, it is not a surprise to God.  The Lord had been expecting them. From all eternity God has known the exact moment when they would die. To me that thought always puts things in perspective. It reminds me that there is something bigger going which we often lose sight of.  All things are in the Lord’s hands.

When someone dies we try to remember the good things about them.  We generally don’t talk about their faults, but we remember all the goodness that was in them and it is good that we do that.  All of us hope to be remembered for the good we do rather than the mistakes we make.  Having happy memories of someone is really a great compliment to them, because it tells us that there was great goodness in them, as there is in most people. 

The purpose of our life on earth is to learn how to love and to serve and then hopefully to chose to love and serve. God has given us the freedom to do either. All of us, no matter what our life situation, have the same opportunities to love and serve. Even if we are living on the street in miserable circumstances or the president of a big company, we still have the possibility to love and serve. It starts with the people around us, who can often be the most difficult to love.

In the western world because of better conditions and standards of living, which is a wonderful thing, it is very easy to lose sight of death and the purpose of our life. We are continually given the impression that this world is all about trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and to acquire as much as possible for ourselves and our children. There is nothing wrong with trying to have a good standard of living, but it is so important that we realize that this is not the primary purpose of our life. In the more developed countries even death is quite removed from us and often dressed up in ‘sweetness’ where we hardly get to see the person who has died and the ugliness of death. In poorer countries people are often more in tune with the reality of death because they are being faced with it in a very real way all the time. While this might seem cruel, it is probably a lot healthier from a spiritual point of view, as it keeps us in tune with the shortness of our life and reminds us that our life here on earth is by no means the whole picture.

There is a lovely line in St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth which reads: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19).  The whole point of what we believe in is that not only is there a life after this one, but that this is what God has created us for and offers to us.  It is up to us if we choose it or not.  The death and resurrection of Jesus has made eternal life possible for us. We believe that we will see our loved ones again if they have chosen for God in this life and most people do. We choose for God by the way we live and not just by the practice of a particular religion. This also reminds us that those who have never heard of Jesus or Christianity have the same chance of eternal life as the rest of us. It primarily depends on the choices we make throughout our life for good or evil, for God or against God.  Our belief in the world to come is what gives us hope, the hope that something wonderful awaits us and that the struggles we go through here on earth, which are part of what helps us grow into better people, are worth while.

The difficult part for us is that we are left behind with so many questions and so few answers.  Why do people get sick?  Why do good people suffer?  What happens after death? and so on.  But Jesus’ words in the Gospels remind us to trust him and to believe that God will make sense of it eventually.  It doesn’t make sense to us now, but it doesn’t have to.  That is part of the struggle of faith, that so much doesn’t make sense.  It would be so much easier if we could see where our loved ones are now, but for now that is hidden from us.  We trust and hope in what Jesus has taught us and this is what helps us to keep going. For now we do our best to love and serve and believe.

The souls of the just are in the hands of God

Saturday, October 25, 2014

30th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 22:34-40) You must love the Lord your God above all else... and your neighbour as yourself

I remember hearing the story of an attorney in the US who had no time for religion.  Each morning as he drove to work he would pass an old woman in his neighbourhood who was on her way to mass.  He would usually pass her as she made her way up a steep hill near the church.  This hill was difficult for her because it was very steep, but she was determined to get to mass.  In his mind he laughed at her and at the stupidity of those who waste their time with such things as religion. 

One morning in winter it was quite icy and as he headed off to work he didn’t expect to see the woman as the paths were dangerous.  Then to his astonishment he passed her making her way up the steep hill on her hands and knees.  The mass meant so much to this woman that she would get there no matter what.  Apparently this brought about his conversion, he was so shocked at what he saw.

In recent years many people have dropped away from going to church or to mass.  Many younger people especially don’t seem to be able to relate to organised religion.  In one way I am not at all surprise at this, because it has been presented in such a negative way.  So often the Church is seen as an oppressive organisation which is obsessed with rules, regulations and strange rituals.  Who would want to be part of such a thing?  I certainly wouldn’t if that was how I saw it.  I believe what many people are searching for is an authentic experience of God, which must come before rules and regulations.  For many people, this is what is missing. Once our relationship with God begins to grow, then the rules and regulations begin to fit into place, but it cannot be the other way around.

It is tempting to think that it is all over for the Church and organised religion, and that it is only a matter of time before it is gone.  This would be true if it came down to human power only, but remember that behind what we can see is the power of God at work.  Whenever the Church seems to be going ‘stale’, or seems to be less inspiring for people, God raises up men and women who inspire us again and to point us in the right direction. 

A few years ago I read a book called The Heavenly Man about a young man in China to whom God began speaking when he was just sixteen.  He was born in 1958, which means he is only 56 today.  This man Yun, was not a Christian and knew hardly anything about God, but God revealed himself to him and used him to start spreading the Christian faith in China.  He suffered terrible persecution from the authorities, who did everything they could to try and stop him.  He was imprisoned several times and at this stage lives outside of China.  Although he came from an extremely poor background and had almost no education, God filled this man with such fire that thousands of people all over China came to believe in God through him.  People were very inspired by him because his faith was obviously something alive and on fire. That kind of faith is always contagious.  He is just one example of the many ways that God puts life back into his Church.  

Another way it seems to be happening today is through a mystic I mentioned a few months back known as Anne a lay apostle.  Through her a whole movement has started which is known as Direction for Our Times and that's exactly what it is. She is a mother of six, and through her books many people are also being inspired to grow in their relationship with God.  Since 2005 when her writings started to be published, over one million copies have already been sold worldwide and her writings have already been translated into numerous languages.  They can hardly keep up with the demand.  The reason why this is happening is because we need inspiration and so the Lord God sends us the people we need to help us.

The one thing that is striking about all these different people and how God uses them, is that people are reintroduced to God through a relationship with him.  The experience of God has to come first and then the various rules begin to fit into place, because then and only then, people want to know how they are supposed to live that relationship.

How does this apply to us?  Well first I think it is good to know that all these people are being inspired so that we don’t become discouraged.  It is also a reminder of how close the Lord is to us and looking after our needs. What we are called to do is to live our faith as well as we can.  If God is at the heart of all that we do, then we are constantly bearing witness to the people around us.  Our love for God has to be in the first place. Everything else comes from this. 
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.

The more difficult challenge for us is to be able to love, respect and be tolerant of the people around us, who can often be challenging and difficult. However, the strength and ability to love and respect the people around us comes from our relationship with God. That’s why the commandment to love God has to be first. The more our relationship with God develops, the more we are enabled to love the people around us. We need grace, or what you might call divine help to do this. That is why we keep returning to mass each week, to be guided and inspired by the word of God and then to receive the Eucharist—Jesus himself—into our own bodies. With this divine strength and help we are enabled to love the people around us.
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind...and your neighbour as yourself.