Friday, June 27, 2014

Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (Gospel: Matthew 16:13-19) You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church

Today we celebrate two very different men who were called by God in an extraordinary way that they could never have imagined.  St. Paul was highly educated and respected, and Peter was a fisherman and probably not very well known.  Because of their encounter with the person of Jesus, both of them found their lives completely changed forever.  Both dedicated the rest of their lives to preaching about a man that very few people had even heard of and as a result both of them were eventually killed for their faith.  

One thing that was so important for both of them is equally important for us; that is, it was because of an encounter with the person of Jesus that they were changed.  Our faith is also based on an encounter with this person Jesus.  Even though we may never have physically heard or seen him, we have encountered him and that encounter keeps drawing us back to him.  People often ask me as a priest why I didn’t want to get married.  I always say the same thing: of course I would like to be married, but this call from Jesus was stronger and almost irresistible.

In his letter to the Galatians, one thing which Paul says is very striking.  He says, ‘The good news that I preached is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learnt only through a revelation of Jesus Christ.’  In other words, he is reminding us that this message is not from human beings, but directly from God.  Jesus taught it directly to Peter and the other Apostles, and Jesus also taught it directly to Paul after the resurrection.  Jesus appeared to Paul several times.  First he changed him from being someone intent on wiping out the first Christians to being one of its strongest preachers.  Many of the first Christians were afraid of him because they found it so hard to believe that he had really been converted.  That was the kind of reputation he had.  Then through other revelations Jesus also taught him all about this path that God was and is revealing to us.  Paul says the same thing when he talks about the mass: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you, that on the night he was betrayed...’  He is saying that he learnt this directly from the Lord and not from any of the other Apostles.

I think today it is very important for us to remember that this message we believe in was not made up by bishops or popes or any of us—in spite of what The Da Vinci Code would suggest—but that it is something that has been given to us by God himself, and that in spite of bad preaching, bad example, scandals, etc., the message does not change.  It comes from God and God is continually inviting us to follow this way of life that He offers us. 

It is easy to become discouraged sometimes when the ones who deliver the message, me or anyone else, do it badly.  This is why even though scandals are terrible and damaging, they shouldn’t affect our faith, because our faith is about Jesus Christ and our life in God that Jesus is inviting us to.  He is telling us that we will only find true life in God and that God is the only one who makes sense of this life for us.  Apart from God our life means nothing.  With God, our life means everything.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus says 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, and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:18-19).

In doing this, Jesus was giving his authority to Peter and his successors.  But why would God do something so apparently crazy as to entrust his authority to human beings on earth?  We all know how unreliable we can be and what a mess we could make of it.  The reason He did this was because Jesus was saying that he would be with his pope and bishops to act and teach through them.  They would be instruments for the Lord God to use.  We still believe that today.  We believe that God teaches us through his Church, through his bishops.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t struggle with the teaching, but it does mean that we believe it comes from God and that is why we try to respect it and struggle to understand it, rather than just throwing it to one side.  Do you think that I would be obedient to my bishop if I thought that he was just acting as a man when he sends me here and there and everywhere?  No, I believe that the Lord acts through him and so I try to obey him and respect him.  And we believe that the Lord has given us these men to guide his Church, because he said so himself.  We don’t know why he picked them, or picked us priests, perhaps we would have done differently, but we believe that God acts through them and that God has given these men to us as our leaders in the faith.

Think also of the line ‘And the gates of the underworld will never prevail against it.’  We see plenty of evil in the world around us, but the Lord tells us not to be afraid of that.  His Church will never be defeated, because it is from him.

I am sure that the reason God often picks weak and sinful people to pass on his message, is to make it all the more obvious that God is the one working through them.  Most of the prophets were weak people who did not want to pass on God’s message, as they knew it would mean persecution, and they were right.  But God insisted that they did.  The great king David who killed Goliath, had been a shepherd.  Moses murdered someone and then had to go into exile.  St. Peter publicly swore he never knew Jesus.  God is not afraid to use weak people. 

For me one of the greatest proofs that the Church is from God, is the fact that in spite of such a sinful people and so many sinners making a mess of things, his Church keeps on going and people keep on hearing about Jesus Christ and continually try to live the way of Christ, just as we are doing now.

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.  The gates of the underworld will never hold out against it.  Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven.  Whatever you lose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), (Gospel: John 6:51-58)

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 one of his letters to the Corinthians—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.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Pentecost Sunday, Year A (Gospel: John 20:19-23) The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything

There is a priest friend of mine—one of my classmates actually—who does a lot of work with the Legion of Mary calling from door to door speaking to people about faith.  He was a Quantity Surveyor before he became a priest and he is one of the most amazing organizers I’ve ever met.  He often said to me that the hardest places he found to work in were usually the wealthier areas.  When people felt they had all they needed they were generally not as open to hearing about God.  The poorer areas were usually much more open to what he had to say.  It doesn’t surprise me.

From all the various crises that are happening at the moment one of the good things that is coming from them is that they are helping people to ask a lot of questions and to search for God in a new way.  Economic crisis helps us to realise that we are much more vulnerable than we might have thought.  Religious crisis and serious scandals—such as we have been seeing—help us to remember that while religion can be a great help, it is absolutely deadly if it is misused.  Any religion is simply a way to help us live out what we believe in, but unless it is completely focused on God and unless God is at the center, it can become an end in itself and a very dangerous one at that.  We have seen too much of religious extremism and that is a trap that any religious group can fall into.

There is one crucial thing that is needed for faith to be alive and healthy and that is the gift of God’s Spirit.  For me the best way of explaining it is to compare the Spirit to electricity.  In any building we can have all kinds of useful and sophisticated equipment, such as computers, microphones, lights, projectors, MRI and CAT scanners, and so much more.  However, none of these things would be of any use to us if we didn’t have electricity.  They would just sit there like stone.  The power that goes into them is what transforms them into something wonderful.  In a sense the Holy Spirit is the electricity that makes us alive.  

Without God’s Spirit we are dead, the Scriptures are just words in a book; the mass is just an empty ritual; marriage is just a legal way of being together.  But with the Holy Spirit our faith suddenly lights up.  The Scriptures become the living word of God; the mass becomes the living presence of Jesus among us in the Eucharist. With the Holy Spirit marriage includes the presence of God, present to support, strengthen and encourage.

We are nothing without the gift of God’s Spirit.  We would not be able to believe, or pray nor would we even have the desire to know God.  I could stand at the altar and pray all day long, but nothing would happen if the Holy Spirit didn’t transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus; the same with confession.  It is the Spirit who forgives people.  The priest is just an instrument; an important instrument, but only an instrument.  One of the most astonishing things for me is the fact that the Holy Spirit obeys a human being.  God obeys a human being.  When the priest says the words 'This is my Body... this is the chalice of my Blood,' the Holy Spirit immediately and humbly changes the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus.  It is the same when the priest says, 'I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'  At that moment the Spirit of God takes away that person's sins forever.  This is an extraordinary gift that God has given us through the priesthood.  But if the Spirit didn't act, then nothing would happen.

What we see happening in the Church at the moment and over the last 20 years or so is also the work of the Holy Spirit, purifying and renewing his people.  And that is happening because the Lord loves us and won’t allow his people to be overcome with disease.  All the poison is being taken away and this is painful but absolutely essential.  We will all be much better off because of this work which God is bringing about.  God is forcing us to rely much more on the power of his Word and of his Spirit, something which we should have been doing all along.  Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that God’s work is always beautiful and God will make things beautiful again, because God is the master craftsman.

The Lord doesn’t wait until we are ready either.  God acts when the time is right.  He doesn’t just wait for the hierarchy of his Church to decide what to do. The Lord sends his Spirit who inspires people and moves people to act.  That’s not to say that God doesn’t care about his bishops and priests, of course He does, but God knows how best to act;  and so He sends his Spirit to inspire and move people to step out in faith and live the Gospel, and they in turn move others, until soon the people are alive with faith again.

God knows very well what we are like and that despite our best efforts we continually need to be helped back on the right track, no matter what we are doing.  And this is why Jesus told us before he ascended into heaven, that the Father would send us this ‘Helper’, who would be with us forever, and who would teach us everything.  He knew well that we would need help and so God sent us the best help that we could have, his own Spirit, to guide us and teach us.  The Lord constantly teaches through the example of people He inspires, through the Word of God, through prayer when we are open to him and in many other ways we will never even be aware of.  But the Spirit is very gentle and that is why we don’t notice him sometimes.

The gift of God’s own Spirit is really the greatest thing God can give us after life itself, because when we have the Holy Spirit we have everything. 
Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful people,
send forth your Spirit and we will be created,
And you will renew the face of the earth.