Saturday, November 26, 2016

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Mt 24:37-44)

I always think it’s great that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the weather is often the most miserable (unless you are in Florida where I am at the moment!). Outside it is usually dark, cold and wet. Then we begin to light candles and put up colored lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King. It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy. ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time. Each Sunday in the Creed we say that, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ We don’t know when that will be, but we believe that it will happen. The Lord asks us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die, but the important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come, and above all to die for us so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.

The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us. The Lord is constantly speaking to us but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted. People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It's usually through other people or through the Scriptures. It took me quite a while to learn how to listen so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to try and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us. That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.

One thing that is characteristic of the Gospels is that they are full of hope. The message of God to us—the Good News—is always one of hope and it is certainly something we need in a world where we are constantly hearing of so many terrible things happening around us. However, we don't hear of all the wonderful things that are constantly happening around us: the many acts of kindness that people continually do for each other, looking out for each other especially when we are struggling. This is the Spirit at work in us and this is what makes the world bearable, in spite of the awful things that happen.

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? And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe 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 this 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 have missed what it is about, because 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 have become immersed in the world. We do 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.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) 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 that John had lived with for three years. Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this terrifying 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. 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 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 have seen happening in the Church over the last few years 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. So He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we have seen happening. I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him. Nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power 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. 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. The Lord God did the exact opposite to 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 understand it and this is where 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).

Thursday, November 10, 2016

33rd Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) Why do we remember people in each mass?

The greatest thing I can do as a priest, is to bring the Eucharist to you in each mass and offer the forgiveness of sins through confession. There is nothing greater than this for any priest and this is basically what a priest’s life is about. Naturally it will involve a lot of other things too, such as visiting the sick, praying with people, hopefully being a ‘sign-post’ to God in some way, but above all it is to bring the Eucharist to people.

But why do we need to have the mass? Couldn’t we just celebrate mass once a month and then receive Holy Communion every week without a priest? Well we could if we didn’t have enough priests to celebrate the mass, but it is not the same thing for different reasons. It is not just about receiving Holy Communion, although this clearly is the most important part for us.

Every time a priest celebrates the mass, it is Jesus who is working through him on the altar. We say that the priest is alter Christus, ‘another Christ’. I am still a human being and a sinner, but Jesus acts through me as a priest in a unique way, especially when I celebrate the mass. That is why the priest always reads the Gospel, because they are the words of Christ, so it is like Jesus himself is speaking his own words to us, through the person of the priest.

Then at the consecration, when the priest says ‘This is my body which will be given up for you,’ we are present to Jesus being offered to God the Father on the cross.  We are there. We are looking at it, but all we can see is a man holding up a small white piece of unleavened bread. So why doesn’t God clearly show this to us? At least then everyone would believe. Perhaps it is because God wants us to believe, even though we do not understand. That’s what faith is. He wants us to come here and pray, even though we don’t have to.

The mass is also the most perfect prayer there is, the one offering that cannot be refused, since God the Father could not refuse the offering of his Son, which is why we offer up so many things in each mass. We pray for the whole Church, the pope, bishops all of us here, those who are sick and have different needs, those who have died and we often mention someone in particular by name as well.

Like anything else we become familiar with it and take it for granted, but can you imagine if you weren’t familiar with what it was and someone said to you, ‘You have to come down to this place where the Christians have this extraordinary meeting each week. Jesus comes among them in what they call the Eucharist and He speaks to them through the Scriptures and then they actually receive the Body and Blood of Jesus!’ That is what the mass is. That’s what happens every time we come together.

In the year 170AD a man called Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Emperor describing what the Christians were about and what happened at each mass, as people were very suspicious about them especially when they heard about eating the Body and Blood of a man. But in his account of the mass back then, 1800 years ago, he describes almost exactly what we still do today, including the collection! It hasn’t changed because it came from Jesus and not from us.

At this time of the year we focus especially on the dead and we pray for them with the greatest prayer that we know: the holy sacrifice of the mass. We always come back to it because we don’t know of anything greater. If we had something greater, we would do that instead and even though if is only us Catholics who believe that, it doesn’t matter. It is enough. God has given us this gift of faith and shown us this treasure in his world, and He invites us to come together and pray for his people, and for all the needs of the world, and to remember what He has done for us.

It is because we are important to God that He gives us such an extraordinary gift.  We are not worthy of it, and could never be worthy to receive Holy Communion, but it is God who makes it possible. ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ Jesus wants us to receive him and that’s why He gives himself to us. Praise God for such an extraordinary gift.

Friday, November 4, 2016

32nd Sunday Yr C (Luke 20:27-38) Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr (1972-2007)

Fr. Ragheed Ganni

A few years ago I got a phone call from a priest friend of mine in the Irish College in Rome where I had studied for three years, to tell me the sad news that a mutual priest friend of ours had been shot dead in Iraq after celebrating mass. He was my next-door neighbour in Rome for a year and a half. He had just celebrated Sunday mass, and was with three other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them. Their car was ambushed, the woman was taken out of the car and the three deacons and Ragheed were shot. The three deacons had given their time to try and protect Fr. Ragheed, as they knew he was in danger. When he was forced out of the car, one of the gunmen screamed at him:

 “I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?” And he simply responded,

How can I close the house of God?” 

Ragheed was just 34. He is now a martyr of the church. He had studied to be a priest in Rome and spent several summers working in Ireland because it was too dangerous to go back to Iraq, but eventually he decided that it was time for him to go back to his home country as the people needed him. He knew that it would be extremely dangerous and to be honest I wasn’t that surprised when I heard this terrible news. About a year before, he had sent me an email telling me that armed men had come into his house and brought him out at gunpoint and then blown up the church. He sent me a photo of himself standing outside the church and it in flames. Just two weeks before he was shot, on Pentecost Sunday, there had been another bomb attack on the church.

Fr. Ragheed's funeral
 He also told me that over half of his parish had already left, because it was too dangerous. Anyone who could afford it had gone, but the poorer people were still there and the thing that will probably stick with me the most is this: he said that without the Eucharist, the people have nothing. That is why he was prepared to stay, because he believed that the Eucharist was everything, and the people needed this hope and so he was prepared to stay there and risk his life.

Somehow it is when all our material comforts are taken away, that we suddenly realise the importance of having spiritual hope. It is not as obvious to us because we are fairly comfortable and thankfully we can practice our faith freely, but it is not so easy for many people in the world right now. However, often when people are suffering for their faith they are much more tuned in to their need for God, their need for the Eucharist.

Just before the war started in Iraq I asked Ragheed what were his fears for his country. He told me that the problem wasn’t when the US forces moved in, but rather when they would leave again, because then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out. That is exactly what happened. Actually right now on the news we are hearing about the battle to take back Mosul from Isis. Mosul is where he was from. It is the biblical city of Nineveh.

Mosaic in the Irish College which includes a depiction of Fr. Ragheed 
carrying the martyr's palm on the far right

I am not telling you this story about Ragheed’s death to just paint a depressing picture of the terrible things going on in the world, but rather because it reminds me of the enormous treasure that God has given us in the Eucharist and the priesthood and what people will endure because of their hope in God’s promise of life after death. That gives people great inner strength to go through difficulties. We also need to hold onto that hope of the world to come. Hopefully we won’t have to experience that kind of persecution, but even for the ordinary difficulties that we continually face, it makes all the difference if we have the inner strength and hope that our faith gives us. What is that hope? It is the hope that something wonderful awaits us in the world to come if we choose for God. That helps us to keep going, to be faithful, especially when things are difficult.

Today’s readings are about this: religious persecution. In the first reading we hear about a family who are prepared to face torture and death rather than turn their back on their faith in God. And the Gospel Jesus is reminding us that the life after this one is real and worth struggling to reach. People are prepared to die for the mass and for their faith because it is the greatest thing that God has given us. It is what makes sense of why we are here.

As it happens I was in Rome shortly after Ragheed’s death and I was there for a special mass that was celebrated in the Irish College where I studied for three years. It was celebrated by several Iraqi priests, mostly in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke,  and which Ragheed also spoke at home. It was very moving to see several other young priests there from Iraq who could easily face the same fate as my friend Fr. Ragheed.

Irish College Rome where Ragheed studied for several years

 During the mass, the words that kept going through my mind were the words of the consecration: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ Those words reminded me of Ragheed’s life. He was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people so that they could have the Eucharist, the greatest treasure that God has given us. In the same way the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us as well, so that we might have life. May we also have the grace to be faithful and persevere as he did.

Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr, pray for us.