Friday, September 25, 2015

26th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:38-43. 45. 47-48) Different paths to God

One of the things I was very blessed with as a young priest, was getting to know a Baptist minister and his wife who worked in Galway; Kelly and Susan Curry.  He and his wife had come over from the States because they felt the Lord was calling them there and they set up a centre in Galway to encourage people to come back to their faith.  They weren’t trying to convert people to become Baptist, rather this centre was about encouraging people to take their faith more seriously and of course most of the people who came there were Catholic simply because there were more Catholics around than anyone else.  But the reason I feel very blessed to have come to know them is because it opened my mind to different ways of faith.  I got to know Kelly best.  He wasn’t Catholic, but he was obviously a man of God and filled with the Spirit.  Kelly has been a great source of encouragement and support to me as a priest.  As I got to know him it helped me to realise that God was working in and through him just as much as through any priest I knew.  Now maybe that should be obvious, but when you grow up in one particular way of faith, it is not always obvious and often we can be suspicious of people who don’t see things as we do, but God works through many different people in many different ways.  Many people I know have been greatly helped by the work they do there in that centre.  It is called An Tobar Nua (The New Well).

I know that many parents and grandparents at this time are distressed as they see their children no longer practicing or going to church.  While it is a tragedy to us, it doesn’t mean that they have lost faith.  We believe God offers us an extraordinary treasure in the mass and through the different sacraments and of course we would like that for others, especially for our children.  But at this time many young people have become disillusioned with the Church and with official religion, and often for very understandable reasons.  In many ways it is hard to blame them, they have probably more reasons than most to be turned off by it.  But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have faith, or that they are not searching for God.  People are always searching for God. It seems to be an almost instinctual need within us.  While they may find it difficult to relate to the Church at this time, that doesn’t mean that God is not reaching out to them, or guiding them.

Just as getting to know my Baptist friend helped me to realise that here are many ways God speaks to people, I think it is good for us to remember that God is still speaking to them and guiding them, perhaps in ways that we do not recognise or would never have imagined.  I am continually struck by the great goodness that I have met in so many people, often people who have no interest in the Church at all.  But they do their best to live good lives and help the people they meet, often with great generosity.  They do believe in God, but they don’t relate to God through the means that we are used to.

Having said all that, I also think it’s amazing how people are still being drawn to the Church and to religious life.  This year 5 young men joined us here in the Dominicans.  Last year 6 entered.  The year before 2 and the year before that 13.  So God is at work around us all the time and that is something that should help us to take heart.
The readings today are also about how God gives his Spirit to whomever He wishes, often in ways that we don’t expect.  The Apostles were surprised, just as the men in the time of Moses were surprised, when they found others teaching and healing in God’s name.  But Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t stop them…If they are not against us they are with us.’ 

There are many paths and ways to God, although that is not saying that they are all the same.  We believe that the path God has revealed to us is the true path, because it is Jesus the Son of God who has taught us this. And if the Son of God has taught us this then it is the true path with the most extraordinary gifts to help us: above all the Eucharist, the gift of Jesus’ own Body and Blood; the Word of God; the healing we receive through confession and many other things.  We hope and pray that others will discover these treasures too.  But God goes on reaching out to people all around us in so many ways that we will probably never know about.  I think part of what we are called to, is to pray for the people around us that they will discover God too.  We are blessed to have been given the gift of faith.  So now let us pray that God will help us to be sign-posts to him, by the way we live our faith.  Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2015

25th Sunday Yr B (Mark 9:30-37) Padre Pio: Trust and simplicity, like children

This week we celebrate the feast of a man officially known as St. Pius of Pietrelcina, better known to most people as Padre Pio.  He only died the year before I was born. He was a Capuchin Franciscan who lived in an obscure monastery in the East of Italy.  If you have doubts about the reality of the spiritual world, read a book on his life. 

For fifty years of his life he had the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and side, which bled continually. They were examined by doctors and scientists many times, but they couldn’t explain them.  The Holy Souls often appeared to him asking him to pray for them to help them through the last part of their journey to heaven. He was physically attacked by Satan on multiple occasions and had to be hospitalised various times because he was so badly beaten. He also had the gift of being able to read people’s hearts in confession, which meant that if someone made a simple confession keeping some things back he would be able to remind them about the things they needed to confess. 

However, perhaps what was most striking for people who saw him was that he suffered the passion of Christ every time he celebrated the mass.  You can still get DVDs of him celebrating the mass and it is quite something to watch.  He was forbidden from preaching, because the Vatican were suspicious of the mystical gifts that he had, but he didn’t need to because just watching him celebrate the mass was enough.  Thousands of people came to be present as he celebrated the mass.  During his life he was one of the most photographed people in the world. 

Why were people drawn to this priest who lived in an obscure village in Italy?  It had to be more than just because he had these strange experiences and gifts.  The reason why people were drawn to him, is the same reason why people were drawn to people like Mother Teresa, a poor wrinkled old woman, or to John Paul II and many others.  It is because people experienced God through them in an extraordinary way.  God is attractive and that’s why people who are close to God, or holy, are attractive.  People want to be close to them, because we are drawn to God’s presence.  We often confuse holiness (being close to God) with piety, which is showing great devotion to holy things, or certain prayers.  People who are pious are not necessarily holy and people who are holy are not necessarily pious.  Padre Pio could apparently be quite gruff, but people were drawn to him all the same.

I remember reading a story about one woman who went to Pietrelcina to go to him for confession.  She had to wait several days to be heard, because there were so many people going to him at that time.  When she finally went to confession and confessed, he just closed the little door on her without saying anything.  She was furious and went back in a rage to the house where she was staying.  The owner of the house told her not to worry, but just to think for a few days and then go back.  As she began to calm down and reflect on what she had said, she realised that she had been quite insincere and had really only been going out of curiosity.  She then went back a few days later, made a more sincere confession and she related that he couldn’t have been kinder.  He had recognised that she was insincere the first time and this apparent rejection that she experienced was really what she needed.  It shocked her into reality.

One of the sayings that is often associated with Padre Pio is this: ‘Pray, hope and don’t worry.’  It is so simple and yet so wise.  Often the advice that holy people like Padre Pio gave was so simple and I think that is the key to growing in faith.  We cannot figure it out, and we will get ourselves in knots if we try, because what we believe in is totally beyond our understanding.

In the Old Testament there is the story of Naaman the leper who came from Damascus and went to the prophet Elisha in Israel to be healed.  Elisha told him to go and bathe in the Jordan seven times.  When he heard this he was furious because he thought that was so stupid.  He said, ‘Aren’t the waters in my own country better than here?’  But then his servants pushed him and said, ‘If the prophet had told you to do something really difficult wouldn’t you have done it?  So why not do this, even though it seems so simple?’  (See 2 kings 5).  So eventually he gave in and went to the river and he was healed. 

The mystical gifts that Padre Pio had were quite amazing, and in spite of numerous scientific studies, no one could explain them.  No doubt many will argue that it was a hoax, just as many will say that the mass is a fraud.  We cannot explain it, but we don’t have to.  We are just asked to believe it.

In the Gospel the Lord presents us with an interesting model.  When the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, he presents them with a child.  What’s so special about a child?  Perhaps two things in particular: trust and simplicity.  Children show total trust, and children keep things simple, often in a very disarming way, as you know.  The more we respond to this draw that God plants inside of us, the more we begin to realise that it is very simple.  You might argue, ‘Father it is not so simple, it is really very complicated’, but it’s not.  We make it complicated.  If God has given us a way to follow him it must be possible for everyone without exception.  And if it is possible for everyone without exception, then it must be very simple.  That is why several times, the Lord presented the disciples with the model of a child.  ‘Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of God.’  He is saying, ‘Trust me, your God, as a child trusts its parents.’  The path is a simple one.  God has told us everything we need to know and has given us everything we need to complete the journey.  We don’t understand most of it, but we don’t have to.  ‘Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Friday, September 11, 2015

24th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 8:27-35) 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me'

There is a tradition from the former Yugoslavia where a couple getting married bring a crucifix to the church.  The priest says a special prayer of blessing over the cross and when the wedding is over the couple bring the cross to their new home and place it in a prominent position.  The idea is that they will come before the cross in their sufferings and difficulties and ask Jesus to help them.  They will not run away from their problems, but face them and ask for God’s help to work through them.  And most importantly, that Jesus Christ is at the center of their home.  One of my sisters did this at her wedding. 

This is a big problem for us today, because we are being constantly bombarded with the message that you shouldn’t have to suffer, that you should have everything your way, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices, even for your children.  This is the complete opposite of what Christ teaches us, which means we have to decide who we are following.  Am I following the way of Jesus Christ, which is difficult but so worthwhile, or am I following the way of the world, which tells me I can have everything I want, but in fact is empty?

Moses said the same thing to the people in his time after he had been given the Ten Commandments.  He said, ‘choose today whom you wish to follow.  Choose life or death, blessing or curse.  Follow the Lord or not, but make up your mind.’

In the book of Revelations, Jesus uses very strong words.  He says:
Here is the message of the Amen, the trustworthy, the true witness… I know about your activities: how you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth’ (Rev 3:14-16).

In another translation it says, ‘I will vomit you out of my mouth.’  That is very strong language.  The Lord was not afraid to shock us and he still isn’t.  He wants to make us wake up to reality. 

Christianity is unusual in that it does not try to run away from suffering, or to rise above it, in any way.  Rather it teaches us that suffering is part of the path that brings us to God.  This is something we have always found very difficult to understand.  Two thousand years ago it was just as hard to understand.  Peter is horrified when Jesus announces to them that he is going to suffer and be put to death and he tries to talk Jesus out of it. He says, ‘Lord, this must not happen to you.  People won’t believe you, people will turn away from you.  You are to be the King and all people will bow down to you.’  And Jesus said, ‘Get behind me Satan (enemy) for the way you think is not God’s way, but man’s.’  Jesus was saying to him, ‘You don’t understand this, but it has to be this way.  If you want to follow me you will suffer too.’  Suffering has its place, even though it makes little sense to us.

When we suffer we often cry out to God, ‘Why have you done this to me?’  I shouldn’t have to suffer’.  I used to hear this all the time when I worked in the hospital.  People say, ‘Fr. why has God done this to me, what did I ever do wrong?’ as though this was a punishment.  We forget the line from Scripture that says, ‘If anyone wants to follow me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.’  Does this mean that we shouldn’t try to get rid of suffering?  Of course not.  We should do everything we can to help those who are suffering and to make our world a better place, but we will never be fully rid of it, it is simply part of this life.

Perhaps the most important thing is the reason why the Lord asks us to follow this path.  It seems to be some kind of a doorway we have to pass through, which helps to form us as people, and which brings us closer to God.  It is not just suffering for the sake of suffering, which would be crazy.  The death of Jesus led to his rising from death and winning eternal life for all people.  That’s what we have to remember.  If we are allowed to suffer, it is because through it God will lead us on to something much greater, although we may not see this until the next life.

We say we are Catholic, we are followers of Christ?  Do you have a crucifix in your home?  If you don’t maybe it’s time you got one.  By having a crucifix in your home where people can see it, you are saying ‘I belong to Jesus Christ’.  I believe in what he has done for me, Jesus Christ is Lord for me.  We have no reason to be ashamed of what we believe in.
Remember the words of the scriptures where it says, one day ‘Every knee shall bow in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.’ 
‘Unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.’