Saturday, July 26, 2014

17th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52) The hidden treasure


 There are two lady friends of mine whom I’ve known for 27 years now:  Maura and Marina.  Both were accountants, with good jobs and a nice lifestyle; great party-goers and very popular.  Then one day Marina announced to us all that she was going to leave everything and enter the Poor Clare convent.  About two years later Maura did the same thing.  The Poor Clares are an Order of contemplative sisters founded by St. Claire of Assisi.  These sisters live a life of prayer and enclosure, meaning that they never come out except for things like going to the doctor.  This meant that they would give up their job and salary, their independence and nice lifestyle, the chance to get married and have children.  They will spend the rest of their lives in that convent praying and interceding for people, helping us by the sacrifice of their lives.

Every year quite a number of people decide to dedicate their lives to the service of God, in Religious life.  There are also many married and single people I know who have changed the direction of their lives and begun to live more closely to God, trying to give time each day to prayer and to living out the faith that they believe in.  They continue to work just as before, but they have begun to make a conscious effort to live by the Gospel they believe in.  I’m sure many of you here are the same.

In 1999 Pope John Paul II invited representatives from 54 different groups around the world to come to Rome.  These groups were all started over the last several decades and were all started by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  To give you an example, some of the groups were the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, Cenacolo, Charismatic Renewal.  All of these different movements within the Church have been started by lay people and are really about different ways of living out the Gospel in daily life.  These movements have been so successful that most of them have spread all over the world.  There were over 400,000 people present representing these 54 different movements.  It was a celebration of what God is doing all over the world.  


Why are people willing to give up their whole lives to pray or live apart from the rest of society?  Some people say it is an escape.  The Church says it is the highest calling that God can give to anyone.  But what makes someone want to do this, or to become a priest, or to really try to live out their faith like in those many lay movements that gathered in Rome?  They have found the hidden treasure, or pearl of great price that Jesus talks about.  They have recognised that it is worth everything and so they have given up everything for it.  It is what the Lord often calls ‘The kingdom of heaven’.  It is the discovery or realisation that God is real and that what Jesus has told us about God is true.  It’s as if this suddenly clicks into place and they can see it and it makes sense, so much sense.  They realise that God isn’t just an optional extra, but that God is at the center and we are a part of his world.  Our life only makes sense in relation to him and in relation to what Jesus told us about him.  Apart from God, our life makes absolutely no sense and this is worth everything, because it is the truth.

Most people are not called to be priests or religious, in fact only a very small percent.   Most people are called to continue on as normal in society, working, having families and giving witness to the reality of God by the way they live.  That’s what most of us are called to.  But the fact that some people are prepared to live a life dedicated to God, reminds us of the value of what we believe in.  It testifies to the fact that what we believe in has a greater and more lasting value than anything we can know in this world.  It’s a sign that we believe there is more to come and that it’s worth waiting for, it is worth making sacrifices for.

There is a lovely line in one of St. Paul’s letters 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 that is what God has created us for and that is what we are preparing for. 

Often when I’m finding it tough going and wondering why I’m a priest or what it’s all about, I think of my two friends in the Poor Clares and their witness makes me say yes, it’s worth the effort.  This is the pearl of great price, the treasure which we have discovered.

Friday, July 18, 2014

16th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43) The wheat and the darnel; the mustard seed

Kilmacduagh Monastery, Co. Galway, Ireland. Early 7th Century
 Not too long ago I read about one of the organisations that Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded apart from her order.  It was known as The Co-Workers.  This was an organisation where lay people could be involved in helping the poor, through simple projects like making clothes or blankets, or sending food to help the poor in different parts of the world.  A huge number of people became involved and were delighted to be involved.  But at one stage she decided to disband this organisation completely.  Many people involved were deeply disappointed and could not understand why.  Apparently her reason for doing this was because it was starting to get too big and too powerful, too organised and structured.  What tends to happen in any institution when it gets too big and powerful is that it starts to choke on its own rules and regulations. 

The Holy Spirit seems to flourish best in small disorganised communities, where there is more room to breathe.  The Church itself is a classic example.  By now it is probably one of the biggest organisations in the world and at times as you know, in different countries it has become too influential and powerful in a very unhealthy way.  Then we begin to get too full of ourselves and forget what it was that we are about.  But God in his goodness and I stress in his goodness, does not allow us to remain that way and so He brings all the poison to the surface—the scandals, the corruption—so that we would be cut down to size again.  The end result is that often these times of humiliation are probably one of the best things that can happen to us.

Ironically, you could say, it forces us to rely once again on the Word of God and on the power of his Spirit, instead of on ourselves.  It is ironic because of course this is what we should have been doing all along, but when a group becomes big and powerful it is easy to lose the focus.  Jesus himself says to his disciples:
You know how among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them and great people make their authority felt.  Among you this is not to happen.  No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mt 20:25-28)

Being human as we are, when we are given some power we are often tempted to misuse it, even with the best of intentions.  We forget what we are about and we lose the focus.  God in his mercy continually pulls us back onto the right path and this is what we see happening.  Today we are blessed with someone like Pope Francis who is reminding us what we are supposed to be about.  He is a great gift to us.

Why was the ministry of the first disciples of Jesus so effective?  Because they relied one hundred percent on the power of God and not at all on themselves.  They knew they had nothing to offer of themselves and they had no idea what to do.  So they had to continually turn to God and ask him what to do next and He showed them.

Several years ago in my home diocese all of us priests got together for a meeting to discuss where we needed to go next in the diocese.  I couldn’t help being disappointed by the fact that we spent so little time praying and so much time talking.  To put it another way, we were looking to ourselves for the answers, but the whole point is that we do not have the answers.  God is the one who knows exactly what needs to happen next and if we really want the right thing to happen then we need to be asking God and listening to God continually until He tells us what to do next.

It is similar to the idea of having advertising campaigns for vocations.  While it is good to try everything, vocations are a spiritual calling and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Where there is a healthy community of faith they spring up naturally.  As soon as our Church becomes healthy again there will be plenty of vocations, because God never stops calling people to religious life.

In the readings today the parables that Jesus uses address these very issues.  The Church is like a mustard seed which becomes a big shrub.  It is meant to be small but it is an influence for the good.  The other example Jesus gives is the yeast or ‘baking powder’ which a woman uses to make bread.  You only add a couple of teaspoons of baking powder but it affects the whole loaf of bread and makes it rise.  The Church, or people of faith, will be small in the world, but the influence is vital because we act as a kind of sign-post to God.  We are an ongoing reminder to people of something bigger than ourselves.  Yes many people think we are crazy, but that is beside the point.  It has always been that way and will probably always be that way.  It is much better when we are small and in the background, because then we stay focused on God and we remember that we are totally powerless without him. 

The parable of the wheat and the darnel takes a different angle.  It tells us that we will always have to struggle with evil.  It is part of the world we live in.  We address as much of it as we can, but there will always be a certain amount we are powerless over.  At the end of time it will all be sorted out, but for now we must learn to live with it.  When Cardinal Ratzinger was asked once about the problems of corruption and scandal in the Church, he pointed to this parable.  This is how it is.  We do what we can about it of course, but we also have to learn to live with it.

 What is most important for us to remember is that God is the source of our strength; God knows exactly what needs to happen next and that God will continue to show us what to do if we listen to him.  That is why we keep coming back each week, to listen to his word and to receive Jesus himself in the Eucharist.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

15th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:1-23) A sower went out to sow

 Why is it that some people believe in God and take the practice of their faith seriously and others don’t?  How is it that some people are converted and others aren’t?  I often think of when I came back to my faith at the age of 19 yet many of my friends did not?  For all the people who preach the Gospel and even for all the miracles that happen around us—and there are many—very few seem to be converted.

Another question is why did so many people listen to Jesus when he preached?  Nobody knew who he was and he had no education to boast about.  Yet he gathered a huge following of people wherever he went.  You could say it was because he was the Son of God.  Yes, but nobody knew that at the time.  I think it was because he was preaching the truth and peoples’ spirits recognized this, because all of us are searching for the truth; the truth about God and the truth about our life.  The truth is attractive to us and it pierces right to the heart, so that when we hear it we want to hear more of it, even though it may be difficult or painful for us to hear.  Our faith is about a search for this truth, which has been revealed to us by Jesus.  That’s why we keep struggling with it, even though it often feels up hill at the best of times.  But it’s too important to ignore, and deep down we all know that.

 The way Jesus taught the people through parables—apart from being a very effective way of teaching—is also wonderful because it means that we can find the truth of the teaching if we are searching for it, but equally we won’t see it if we are not looking.  It requires a certain openness of heart.  Parables don’t just present us with a truth, but they invite us to search for one.  This in itself is a reminder of the respect that God has for our freedom.  God won’t force anything on us, not even the truth.

In this parable Jesus is teaching us two things about religion.  First of all that it is a part of life that some people will hear about God and ignore it, or become preoccupied with something else, or not like the idea that it means you might have to suffer for it.  Only a few will actually hear it and really grow because of it, as God intended.  Those who do are generally in the minority. 

Also, the fruit that comes from the rich soil doesn’t just happen by itself.  It is not just fate whether we will be open to believe or not; we have a part to play in it.  Rich soil only comes about with hard work and a lot of care.  Preparing the ground, getting rid of the weeds and stones.  So if the word of God is to grow in us, we have to make some effort to be ready for it and to help it to grow.  What does this mean in practical terms?  It means that if we want our faith to grow, we need to give it time, and to make certain sacrifices so that it will blossom.  We need to feed ourselves with the right material: the word of God and not just the ideas of our society.  The word of God is what will bring us life in a way that nothing else will.

Jesus says, ‘Try to enter by the narrow gate.  For the road that leads to hell is wide and spacious, but the road that leads to life is narrow.’  It is not the most attractive road, but it is the most worthwhile one. 

The parable also tells us that God is generous in the way that He scatters the seed.  Seed is thrown everywhere in order to give us every chance to grow.  The Lord is constantly throwing out seed on the ground, as it were.  God continually invites us to follow him, no matter what stage of life we’re at, so it’s never too late to start again.  And He will continue to call to us to follow the path until we die.  The invitation is always there for us. 

Finally, in the first reading from Isaiah, the Lord says that his word will not return to him without bringing about his will.  So even though we will always live with the mystery of why many people believe but so many more don’t, all of this also seems to play its part.  In God’s plan, everything fits together and we will see that when we die ourselves.  Everything will make sense.  For now the Lord calls us to persevere and be faithful as best we can.

Friday, July 4, 2014

14th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 11:25-30) 'Come to me all you who are overburdened'

My grandfather, Kenneth Kennedy, used to have a brush-factory in Dublin, which later turned into an art shop, which is still going.  At one stage he employed a man as a kind of messenger boy and general ‘dog’s body’.  He was a very simple man and I believe he was probably more of a burden from a business point of view, than anything else.  One time another friend of my grandfather’s was visiting the shop and he said to him, ‘Kenneth, why are you still holding on to that guy?’  And my grandfather just said, ‘Ah, shur I can’t throw him out, he has nowhere else to go.’  The other guy said, ‘Kenneth, you’ll never make a good business man.’  And he was probably right.

Most people I know have to work pretty hard to hold onto their jobs and most businesses I know—and I worked for several before I became a priest—can be quite ruthless when it comes to letting people go if they feel they could make more money without them.  In the business world money tends to come first and people second.  And now we are starting to have the problem of companies going to other countries to get cheaper labour.  The result of all this is that it causes a lot of stress at work.  Financial pressure is one of the biggest burdens around and arguments over finances are one of the most common in marriages. 

Where do we turn to when we feel that we can-not keep going?  Who do we turn to for compassion and support?  In the readings today Jesus tells us to turn to him, because he knows the pressures we are under.  God is well aware of how difficult it can be and He offers to help us. 

Jesus used the image of the ‘yoke’.  The yoke was the wooden brace that linked two animals together around the neck, in order to split the load between them.  Jesus is telling us that He wants to help us carry the load, to take some of the burden, but we also have to allow him to do this.  I think it is often tempting to leave God to Sundays, or to ‘religious’ things, but from all that God teaches us through the Bible, one thing that is very clear is that He is very interested in everything we do, down to the most ordinary level.  God is well aware of the burdens we carry and He is telling us that we need to keep coming back to him to refill regularly, just like you have to do with your car.  He is saying, ‘Let me give you the peace and hope that you need, so that you are able to get up and go on another bit,’ but we have to keep coming back to him regularly. 

We face a similar difficulty in all we are hearing about the world around us.  So much evil, so much injustice and so much suffering.  It can be overwhelming.  If we only listen to this it can make life too difficult and we can be tempted to despair.  But if we continually come back to the Lord and listen to what He teaches us, it keeps things in perspective.  Then we remember that God is the one in charge, that there will be justice in the end; that evil cannot overcome the power of God.  But if we only listen to what is going on in the world, we will not remember that.  That’s why Jesus calls us to continually come to him for refuge, not just once in a while, but every day, because we need the strength to keep going without being overcome by the world around us. 

One of the great tragedies of our time is the high number of suicides, especially among our young people.  Recently in my home-town of Galway, I heard that nine young people had taken their own lives in the one weekend.  Like everything else there are probably many reasons for it, but I have no doubt that one of the biggest reasons is because people have lost faith and they don’t know what to turn to.  How do you keep going when everything seems impossible?  We need a source of strength, something we can continually turn to, in order to give us renewed strength and purpose.  If we believe that this life is just passing and that there is something wonderful waiting for us in the next life, then this gives us strength to keep going during difficult times.  We believe that what we suffer here is only temporary, so we are prepared to put up with a lot.  But if you don’t have any faith, what do you turn to? 

Three things in particular that God has given us to help us are the Word of God, to guide and direct us; Confession, so that we can get up again as often as we fall; and above all the Eucharist where we can receive Jesus himself, every day if we wish.  All of these things are pure gift from God, to help us.  Hopefully we will continue to see them with new eyes and recognise them for the treasure which they are. 

All of us here who have been given faith—and you have faith if you are here—I think we need to pray a lot for our young people that God will bless them with faith and that God will show us how we can pass on the gift of faith that He has given us. 

Let me finish with this story: Recently on the news they interviewed the oldest woman in America: Jeralean Talley, who was born May 23, 1899.  She is an African-American and she has just turned 115.  The journalist interviewing here said, ‘What’s your secret?’  She just pointed up to heaven and then he asked, ‘The Lord?’  She said ‘Yes.  The Father got everythin’, I got nothin’.  It’s all in his hands!’

Come to me all you who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest.