Friday, July 21, 2017

16th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43) The problem of evil

One of the most difficult questions in religion is about the problem of evil. If God is all good and all powerful, then why does evil exist? This is a big problem for most of us and it is not easy to answer. Many people will use it as an excuse to discard the argument for God. They will say that God could not exist if there is evil in the world. The answer comes down to two words: Free will.

A knife is a very useful tool. I can use it to cut bread or meat, but I can also use it to kill someone with. If I have free will then I can choose to do good or evil. I would not be free if God continually stepped in when I decided to do wrong. If God did this then I would not be free. We are free to do right or wrong, but our actions also have consequences, both in this world and the next, the next life being much more serious as they are eternal consequences.

 What about so many innocent people suffering because of the evil choices of others? The example that is most in our minds today is the so called Islamic State; religious extremists who believe they are doing a holy thing in wiping out those who see differently to them. They feel they have the right to do this, but all they are doing is causing immeasurable suffering. Why should children suffer because of the evil choices of others? Shouldn’t God step in? There is no easy answer to that and it angers just about everyone, because we know it’s wrong. The free choices of some people have consequences and sometimes those consequences do terrible things to others. Political leaders can make choices which are wrong and may cause immense suffering for people. Should God step in every time someone chooses to do wrong? If God did, then would we really have free will?

Another side of it is this: Evil was involved in the death of Jesus. Jesus was given up to the authorities because Judas chose to betray him, even though he regretted it afterwards. The religious authorities of the time had Jesus convicted through a trial which was illegal according to their own law. They chose to do what was wrong and yet the mysterious thing is that even though Jesus was betrayed, tried, tortured and killed by the deliberate choices of men who decided to do evil, yet look what God brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The course of history was turned around because of his death and resurrection. Eternal happiness was won for us. What does that tell us? One thing it tells us is that God can and will bring great good out of the worst evil imaginable. We often hear of people working so hard to correct injustice, where someone is falsely accused and imprisoned. People will fight for years to bring about justice and they also inspire others to do the same. Think of people like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They suffered greatly because of the evil choices of others and yet they brought about wonderful things and also inspired so many, because they were prepared to battle on in spite of the evil brought about by other’s free will.

In times of war we don’t always hear about the many heroic acts of justice and kindness that people do in order to help those who are suffering. Two years ago I remember hearing the account of a BBC journalist called Fergal Keane, who has covered areas of conflict for years. He told one story about two women in their seventies he came across in the Ukraine. They had lost everything, including their pension and they were now living in a basement. They didn’t know how they were going to survive. Sometime later many people wrote to Fergal asking him if he knew what had happened to them. So he went back to try and find them. He discovered that they were now living in another tiny room together, but they were also cooking food for many people fleeing the war. They were using what little they had to bring about relief for others, even though they had hardly anything themselves. When Fergal was asked how he was able to keep working in the midst of so much suffering, he said it was because of stories like this one which inspired him so much. People can also choose to do good in spite of the suffering caused by others.

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was asked about the problem of corruption and scandal within the Church. In his response he pointed to today’s Gospel and the parable about the wheat and the darnel, or weed. He said that Jesus is teaching that there will always be evil in the world. We try and deal with as much of it as possible, but there will always be a certain amount we can do nothing about and we have to learn to live with this. But Jesus also teaches us that it will ultimately be dealt with, because all of us will have to give an account of our actions. There will be justice when we come before God. Does that mean we should be afraid? Of course not. Jesus reassures us of his infinite mercy if we make even the smallest effort to ask for forgiveness, but we must not take it for granted either. I actually find it reassuring to know that all of us will be accountable for our actions, because when you think of people who choose to do terrible evil and cause so much suffering for others. It often seems that they are not brought to justice in this world. I find it comforting to know that they will not escape God’s justice. No one gets away. 

Does God ever intervene? It seems that sometimes God does intervene and people are miraculously cured or saved. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit continually whispers to us to help us make good choices, but we are free to listen or ignore those suggestions, just as we are free to listen to the whisperings of temptations.  

"The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom
all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

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

Do you ever wonder why it is that some people believe in God and take the practice of their religion seriously and others don’t? How is it that some people are converted and others aren’t? Why did I come back to my faith at 19 and many of my friends did not? Why did so many people listen to Jesus when he preached? Nobody knew who he was and he had no education to boast about and yet he gathered a huge following of people wherever he went. You could say that it was because he was the Son of God; but nobody knew he was at the time. I am sure it was because he was preaching the truth and people’s spirits recognized this, because all of us are searching for the truth; the truth about God and the truth about life and we instinctively recognize it when we hear it.

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 Christ. That’s why we keep struggling with it, even though it can be a bit up-hill at the best of times, but it is too important to ignore, and deep down, we all know that. People flocked to hear Mother Theresa whenever she spoke. They say that even his critics listened to Pope John Paul II, because they recognized that he spoke the truth, even if they didn’t like it.

In today’s 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, but the other thing is that, the rich soil that he talks about, which bears fruit, doesn’t happen by itself. In other words, 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. If the word of God is to grow in us, we have to make some effort to be ready for it and help it to grow. We are not going to grow in faith just by watching television. 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 may not be the most attractive road, but it is the most worthwhile one. If we want our relationship with God to grow, we must make it happen, by taking time to develop our faith, through prayer, reading the Scriptures, listening to God. It won’t happen without giving it time, a certain amount of time every day and there is always time, because we always give time to what is important to us. Would you expect a relationship with someone to grow without giving it any time? Of course not, and faith is no different.

I think we also have to be careful that we don’t come to the church with the mindset of ‘What will they have on for us today?’ Our coming to the mass each week is a combination of worshipping God, as God commands us to, searching for God and trying to hear what God is saying to us. Ultimately, we get to receive the Body and Blood of Christ reminding us of how close the Lord wants to be to us.

Every so often when I want to go to confession I have found myself before a priest who I don’t like, but I have no other option unless I want to put it off for another time. But that is when I try to remind myself that it is God’s grace and mercy I am seeking, even if the particular priest I find myself with is not who I would choose. I think that is also a good approach to the mass. It is important that we find ourselves a church which helps us to grow, but we also need to remind ourselves what it is we come for. It is not a form of religious entertainment, but our coming before God. It is better to go to a church that helps you to grow, even if it is not your own parish.

 God has given us free will, and He wants us to use it intelligently. Our future is not already set out for us, we have a major part to play in it. That is why God does not reveal the future to us and that is also why the Scriptures tell us it is wrong to go to fortune tellers and psychics, because it is only for God to know the future and also because they can mislead us and influence us into making decisions for the wrong reasons. God could give us the information we need much more accurately than any fortune teller, but He doesn’t, because we don’t need to know the future and God wants us to be able to make decisions about our life, freely.

The Lord is constantly throwing out seed on the ground. He continually invites us to follow him, no matter what stage of life we’re at and it’s never too late to start again.  God will continue to call to us to follow the path of faith, until we die. The invitation remains, but the choice is ours. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

14th Sunday, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 11: 25-30) Come to me all you who labor and are over burdened

Recently I was at home in Ireland on vacation, but I was greatly saddened to see the atmosphere in the country with regards to the Church. It has become very anti-Catholic. Much of this is understandable because of scandals that have happened in the past, but much of it is also grossly unfair. A few days ago I read that in the last 10 years, 8 priests in Ireland committed suicide, which is really shocking. I knew two of them. I don’t know exactly what happened to them, but it seems that they couldn’t take what was going on any more. I also know many who have left. One friend who left the priesthood recently wrote in an email to me that the priesthood had become so joyless and such a burden to him. He had little or no support where he was working and that is not how it is meant to be. Priests are meant to be the shepherds of the people and the people are meant to take care of their shepherds. Thankfully that has not been my experience here. People are wonderful in looking after their priests in this country and I am very grateful for that.

One of the politicians at home recently said that if you see a priest you should probably throw a stone at him and that the Catholic Church should be in the trash, where it belongs. That is religious persecution and inciting hatred, but the problem is that it is subtle. It would be much easier to deal with bloody persecution, because then you would know who is with you and who is not.  

Why is this happening, apart from the scandals that have outraged people? The reason is because Satan knows what God has given us in the Eucharist and he wants to do everything possible to take that away from us, or to make us turn against it and there is no Eucharist without the priesthood. So the easiest way to do it is to turn people against the priesthood. Jesus ordained that we would have the gift of his Body and Blood through the priesthood. Priests are ordinary, weak, human beings, just like everyone else, but for whatever reason Jesus made it so that priests would be his messengers and the instruments through which we would have the gift of the Eucharist, the gift of his Body and Blood.

Ireland is not the only place where this is happening. It happens continually in different countries, but it is usually more public and bloody. In China most of the Catholic Church has to operate underground, because the government doesn’t want it. In the Middle East at the moment great numbers of Christians have been executed because they are Christian. A good friend of mine, called Ragheed Ghanni, was shot dead in Iraq because he was a priest and refused to close the church.


Why am I painting such a bleak picture of what is going on? I think it is good that we are reminded of the gift that we have in the Eucharist and the lengths people are willing to go to, in order to make sure that we continue to have it. Thank God we do not have open persecution here, but it could happen. The Eucharist is the gift of Jesus himself, his Body and Blood and without our priests we will not have that gift.

Sometimes I get frustrated when I meet hostility because I am a priest, but then I am reminded that Jesus said it would be like this. ‘You will be hated by everyone on account of my name, but the one who perseveres will be saved’ (Mt 10:22). The other side of this is that we continually turn to Jesus to receive the strength we need to persevere. I don’t just mean priests, but all of us. Satan will continue to try and convince us that we don’t need the Eucharist, or the Church, and especially not the priests, but the reason he does that is because he knows that this is one of the greatest gifts that Jesus has given us, because it is the gift of Jesus himself.

So let us remember to pray for our priests, especially those who are being persecuted and let us also remember where our strength lies when we are getting frustrated or find it hard to keep going. Our strength is in Jesus, in the Eucharist which is really and truly the Body and blood of Jesus.

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ ‘Corpus Christi’ Year A, (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, 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 that it represents Jesus, but that it really and truly is 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 a piece of bread actually becomes the body of Christ when a priest says certain prayers over it?

The first time that Jesus gave the people this teaching, which we have in today's Gospel—“Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life within you”—it says that many of the people who had followed him up to that point left him. They said “This is madness. Who could accept it?” It is interesting how Jesus responded to them. He didn’t. He just let them walk away without changing anything he said. He then turned to the disciples and said, “What about you, are you going to go away too?”

In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 11:23-26)—which is the oldest account of the mass that we have—St. Paul says straight out, “This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…” He doesn’t say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself. Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul while he was persecuting Christians and the event turned his life around. Jesus 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, “This is my Body… This is the chalice of my Blood…” 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 try to 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 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. It is also 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 also 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” (just as the Roman soldier said when Jesus offered to come to his house to heal his servant).
Remains of a 'mass rock' where priests celebrated mass in secret during times of persecution
There are two extremes that I 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 come to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive 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. That 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 our sins every so often. But the most important thing to remember is that Jesus 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 to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

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 sellers, 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 (Episcopal) church at the time.
York-Minster Cathedral
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 then 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 are tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for saying mass. God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist. May He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.
“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.” – St. Margaret Clithero.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Feast of the Holy Trinity (Gospel: John 3:16-18) We are made in his image

We believe that God was completely fulfilled, perfectly happy and content, not in need of anything, before God created the universe and the human race. Wouldn’t it make you wonder why God bothered to create us at all, since we have proved to be so much trouble?  And God would have known about all the trouble that it was going to cause. So why did God create us?

Here is how it makes some sense to me. Think for a moment of some time when you were deeply happy about something. Usually our instinct is to share it. We want someone else to be a part of that happiness. That’s why most people have a big party at their wedding, because they want others to share in their happiness and that is one of the reasons why God created us, simply because in his goodness he wanted others to share in his own happiness. And so he created the spirit world, that we understand as the angels and then He created the human race, in order that we could share in his own happiness. The book of Genesis says that we were the last thing that God created which is a biblical way of saying that we were the most important thing, the masterpiece of God’s creation. We are Gods greatest creation! God also created us to be like him, with the ability to love and reason.

However, there was one ‘catch’ as it were. In order for us to be able to love God we had to be free, so that we could freely choose to love God, otherwise it wouldn’t be real love at all. Real love has to be free, since you can never force someone to love you. You can encourage them, but you certainly can’t force them. Love has to be free or it isn’t love. So God made us free which meant that we would have the freedom to love God and gradually find our way to happiness, or to reject God which would ultimately mean we would lose the happiness that God had intended for us. It’s a strange paradox. God created us and gave us freedom, even though He knew that some of his own creatures would reject him.  

A friend of mine, a very devout Catholic, after he was married and had children, said to me one time that when he looks at his children he couldn't believe that God who is so loving would let people go to hell, that God would create hell. How could any parent allow their children deliberately to suffer? But the paradox is that no matter how much we love our children, we cannot force them to love us back. You know the pain of falling in love with someone who doesnt love you back, or pushes you away. Hell is the pain that people who reject God end up with, because they reject the only one who can give us total fulfillment. If you push away total happiness, you get total misery. If you reject all joy, then you end up with all pain. Thats what hell is: losing all that can fulfill us and bring us joy. God doesnt send us to hell. We choose it if we reject God. If we have real freedom then hell must also be real. If heaven is guaranteed for everyone, then we are not truly free, because to be truly free means we have the choice to love or not to love.

I think the most beautiful image we are given of how God loves us is in the story of the prodigal son. In this story, a father has two sons. One of them demands his inheritance before the father has died, which is the equivalent of wishing him dead to his face. He then goes off, wastes all the money and comes back to his father ashamed. While the Son has been away, his father is constantly waiting and hoping that he will return and when he does finally return the father just celebrates. There is no giving out, no warning that ‘This must not happen again,’ just celebration and rejoicing. The story of the prodigal son is teaching us how God is with us and how God sees us. No condemnation, only God’s desire for us to find happiness.

The Lord knows how difficult it can be for us to make the right choices and so He gives us people to guide us, the commandments, the teaching of his Church, his own Word in the bible and many other things to help us along the way, so that we won’t be short of the direction and encouragement that we need.  He also sends us holy people every so often, like Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio, Therese of Lisieux, Mother Theresa, Pope Francis and many others, often people we know, because they radiate God and they are a real sign to us of the Lord’s presence among us. These people seem to radiate God and so many people are drawn to them because they sense that presence. That is why God sends us particular chosen souls every so often, to inspire us and remind us that we are not alone. I know of several people who worked with Mother Theresa and it completely changed their life, because they met God through her.

The feast of the Holy Trinity is a celebration of love; the Trinity is a community of Persons who share total love and joy between them, and this Holy Trinity reaches out to us with that same love and invites us to join them. If we respond to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, then we are gradually drawn more and more into that love. It starts in this world and it will be fulfilled in the next. The greatest way that we imitate God is by loving the people around us, sacrificing ourselves for others. That is what God did for us and that is what God invites us to do for each other.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

So that everyone who believes in him might not perish

but might have eternal life.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Pentecost Sunday (Gospel: John 20:19-23) The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, 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 the most amazing organizer. 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, which 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 us 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 terrorism—such as we are seeing at the moment again—helps 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 centre, it can become an end in itself and a very dangerous one at that.

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 like this one, you can have all kinds of useful equipment, such as microphones, lights, projectors, but none of these things would be of any use to us if we didn’t have electricity. They would just sit there uselessly. 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. With the Holy Spirit 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 involves a third person, present to support, strengthen and encourage every couple as they try and live out their married life together.

The truth is that we are nothing without the gift of God’s Spirit. We would not be able to believe, or pray or even 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 is true with confession. It is the Spirit who forgives people. The priest is just an instrument, an important instrument, but only an instrument.

When we see scandals coming to light in the Church, that 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 are always better off because of the purifying 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. And 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, He 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.

Despite our best efforts we continually need to be helped back on the right track, no matter what we are doing. 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. The Lord knew well that we would need help and so He sent us the best help that we could have, his own Spirit, to guide us and teach us and God does teach us constantly 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. 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. Keep praying to the Holy Spirit asking him to set us on fire with his gift of faith.

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.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Ascension of the Lord into heaven (Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20)

Why do you come here each week? Why do you give up an hour or so of your time to come to a church, listen to readings that were written thousands of years ago and watch a strange ritual? I’m sure it’s not just to listen to me.

After the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the word began to spread about what had happened and that Jesus had begun to appear to the Apostles and others. He was still alive and He was speaking to people. Anywhere there have been rumors of Jesus, or Mary appearing in different parts of the world, people come in their thousands to find out more. Why, because we always want to know about the other world and what it is like. In Medjugorje, an apparition site where Our Lady is said to have appeared to six children in 1981, over 40 million people have been there to date. It was the same back then. So people began to come together and listen to the stories of the Apostles about what had happened and what it meant. The Apostles began to explain to them what Jesus had taught them, what the point of his life and death was and that He now became present to them in the breaking of the bread. People were eager to hear about this, especially when they saw that the Apostles were so completely dedicated to spreading this message that they were quite happy to sacrifice the rest of their lives for it and even be killed for it, which most of them were.

 What exactly was it that the Apostles were teaching the people? They were fitting all the pieces together going back to the earlier writings of the Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and telling the people what Jesus had taught them. Jesus’ teaching was what made sense of their lives, of our lives, of why we are here and where we are going when we die; that heaven is real and that we have to be careful how we live this life and about the choices we make.

All that, the reading of the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, the breaking of bread, is what we now call the mass which we continue to do each week. It may not always seem that interesting and often we are distracted, but we keep coming back because we also want to try and make sense of our lives and what is going on around us. Why is there so much suffering in our world? It wasn’t a whole lot different in Jesus’ time either. There was also much killing, injustice, wars, disease and famine, just as there is now.

Jesus ascending into heaven was the time when he told the Apostles to start spreading this message, so that we would know and understand the purpose of our life. When we understand why we are here we live differently.

It also says that when Jesus appeared to them just before He ascended into heaven that they worshiped
him, but some doubted. Some doubted even though Jesus had appeared to them and they had witnessed many miracles. It is normal that we doubt and have questions, because we have not seen what the other world is like. Are we imagining it, is this just a way of comforting ourselves. Karl Marx called religion, ‘The opium of the people’, a drug to comfort us. But the Lord has taught us otherwise and continues to speak to us in many different ways.

It might surprise you to know that a many people have spiritual experiences. Sometimes of loved ones who have died, sometimes of the Lord himself. Most people will keep this to themselves, but they will often tell me about it because I am a priest. That is my privilege. A few years ago a man came to me early on a Saturday morning asking if he could speak to me for a few minutes. I thought he was looking for money. He proceeded to tell me that a friend of his who had died some months before had appeared to him in a dream. He was obviously quite shaken by the event and he wanted to go to confession. It was a wake-up call for him. It is good to know that these things happen because it is a sign of how real the spiritual world is, that God is all around us, speaking to us, guiding and encouraging us. It is real and sooner or later we will be shown just how real it is and then everything will make sense.

For now we will continue to come together, to listen to the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. We don’t understand, but we believe.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

6th Sunday of Easter (Gospel: Jphn 14:15-21) "If you love me you will keep my commandments"

 All of us here make prayers of petition. We ask for what we need: exams, relationships, money worries, work, whatever it is, we all ask God for help and expect to be answered and rightly so since God has told us that we should ask him for what we need. Jesus even says it in this Gospel reading: “…and then the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name,” but if you go back a few lines he also says something else. The Lord says, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love… and then the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name.” God asks us to keep his commandments first, because that’s how it is in any relationship. You ask someone you love for something and you know that they will do their best to give it to you, because of your love for each other, but the love for each other is there first. You don’t ask favors from complete strangers, at least not often. You ask people you love.

Love brings with it obedience and faithfulness. A couple who love each other try to obey each other and try to be faithful to each other and then their love grows and as the love grows they know they can rely on each other for what they need. Our love for God is just the same. The more we come to know God the more we know that we can rely on him for what we need, because it’s based on a loving relationship, with a real person, the person of Jesus. We don’t just believe in a thing, but a person, but we can’t expect to demand our needs from God if we are not willing to do as he asks. What kind of a relationship would that be? It would be just one person using the other.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.” In other words this is how we show God that we love him, by trying to be obedient to him. What are his commandments? Love God, respect his name, keep Sunday holy, honor you parents, don’t kill, steal, don’t commit adultery or lie. If we aren’t prepared to keep these commandments of God, can we still expect him to give us what we ask? Would you expect your husband or wife, or someone you love, to do things for you, if you refused to do what they asked you?  Of course not.

The important thing to remember is this: God loves us first and that is where we get our strength from, to do as he asks us. What we have to do is to open our hearts. You may find yourself saying “It’s very hard to keep the commandments.  It’s very hard to try and love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s very hard not to shop on Sundays, and not to use the Lord’s name as a swear word. It’s not realistic.”

You’re right, it is practically impossible to live as God asks, if you rely on your own strength, but we are not expected to. We rely on God’s strength for these things. It’s called grace and that’s what makes us different. I could not live as a celibate man by my own strength? I rely on God’s help every day. We cannot say it’s too hard, because we have God’s strength to help us. But how do we get this help, this grace?  We get it from prayer. There are 24 hours in a day, no one can say they can’t spare 20 minutes for God. If you do, it just means you have no interest, no love for God. We get it from fasting, making sacrifices. Lent isn’t the only time to fast. One day a week we can eat less, or don’t watch TV, or give up something you like, until it hurts. We get this strength especially from the Eucharist. Receive Jesus often if you want to grow in the spirit. We get it through spending time with Jesus in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We get it through confession, when we are healed of our sins.  

God constantly offers us this strength, but we have to open our hearts to him. Then you will find a strength that you didn’t know existed; strength to love God, strength to keep his commandments, strength to love other people. We turn to God first to receive from him, then we can live as he asks.
‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

Saturday, May 13, 2017

5th Sunday of Easter. 100th Anniversary of Fatima

One hundred years ago this weekend, three young children: Francisco Marto aged 9, Jacinta Marto aged 7 (his sister) and their cousin Lucy dos Santos aged 10 were given six apparitions of Our Lady. Initially an angel came to them to prepare them for Our Lady’s visit. Then on May 13th Our Lady appeared to them for the first time. She would appear to them on the 13th of each month until October.

Our Lady told Francisco and Jacinta that they would die young, but first they were asked to pray much and suffer much for the conversion of sinners. Francisco died two years later aged 11 and Jacinta the following year aged 8. Lucy eventually became a Carmelite nun where she spent the rest of her life. She died in 2005 at the age of 98. Our Lady told the children that there would only be peace if her requests were heeded. She asked that people would pray the rosary daily, wear the brown scapular and that Russia would be consecrated to her. She told them that war was a punishment for sin and that only through prayer and penance could war be avoided. She also said that if Russia wasn’t converted it would continue to spread its errors (Communism and atheism) throughout the world. What became known as the three ‘secrets’ of Fatima were also given to the children. The first was a vision of Hell, the second was a prophecy of World War II and the third remained secret but was believed to have to do with the sufferings of the Church and the Holy Father.

On the last day of the apparitions, which was on October 13th, the people who came to the place of the apparition were allowed to see the miracle of the sun. It was raining heavily but then suddenly the rain stopped, the sun came out and many people saw the sun ‘dancing’ or spinning, with many different colors coming from it and finally the sun seemed to be careering towards the earth but then stopped. It is believed that between 30 and 50,000 people witnessed this miracle. The miracle of the sun was granted to them to help the people believe in the reality of the apparitions.

Apart from the fact that it is an interesting story, what has this got to do with us today? Like so many other aspects of our faith it has everything to do with us. If God sends Our Lady to us, there must be a serious reason for it. Our Lady has also appeared in other parts of the world throughout the centuries and the message is always basically the same. It is never about her, it is always her pointing us back to God. She tells us that the world is living as though God does not exist and that if we continue to live that way we will destroy ourselves. If we ignore God and his teachings we just have to listen to the news to see what happens. Greed, corruption, desire for power, all lead to misery and war. God shows us the way, but if we ignore it we bring nothing but suffering on ourselves and as always it is the ordinary people who suffer. Those with power play political games and war games, those at the bottom suffer the consequences.

In the Old Testament Moses says to the people,

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them…” (Deut 30:19 ff)

We are offered the same choice today and the consequences are just as serious. If we want the world to be a better place for us and our children, then we must begin with ourselves. Sorting out the world’s problems is not where we start. We start with ourselves by obeying the Lord’s commandments; by repentance and prayer and keeping God at the center. That is what changes the world.

Why did Our Lady show the children a vision of Hell? I'm sure to make us realize that it is real, that we can lose heaven and that our actions do have consequences. We will be accountable for the way we live. Does that mean that we should be afraid? Absolutely not. The Lord promises us that the smallest effort on our part is enough to win his infinite mercy. What is important is that we try and that we don't take it for granted that heaven is ours no matter what. What we have to try and remember is that our time here on earth is the time of sacrifice, of love and service. We will struggle until the day we are brought home to heaven, but we need to remind ourselves that it is not all about us, but about loving and serving the people around us.

The truth is that we don’t take sin and repentance seriously enough. If unrepentant sin is the one thing that could cause us to lose our greatest happiness, which is life with God when we die, then we need to take it very seriously. God gives us all the tools that we need, the Eucharist, the priesthood to give us the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins, but we must choose to use them. If you think back on your time in school: at the time it seemed long, but now it is already in the distant past and seems unimportant. Our life on earth is something similar. Now it often seems long and difficult, but soon our time on earth will be over and then it will seem remarkably short. How we live it is what is really important. Remember the words of Our Lady at the wedding at Cana when the married couple ran out of wine. Mary told Jesus what was wrong she then turned to the servants and said: ‘Do whatever He tells you.’

Our lady of Fatima, pray for us.