Thursday, May 16, 2019

5th Sunday of Easter Yr C (Gospel: Jn 13:31-33A, 34-45) By this love you have, people will know you are my disciples

A few weeks ago two of our young people were confirmed. The bishop prayed with them and asked God to bless them with the gift of his Spirit. Why? Because without the gift of the Spirit we cannot live the Christian life. It is the Holy Spirit, a real person, who makes it possible for us to believe and to live as Christians. The Spirit gives us the desire to pray, to know God, and the ability to love.

No doubt most of us here were confirmed at around the same age. We probably had a day of great celebration with our families and then forgot all about it. Did you notice a profound difference in your faith afterwards? Probably not. But why not? If we have received the all-powerful Spirit of God, who was there at the beginning of creation bringing order on chaos, the same Spirit that transformed the disciples and turned them into unstoppable warriors for God, why don’t we feel a difference too? Perhaps it is because we never asked! That probably sounds silly, but I think it is really true.

Although the Holy Spirit is so powerful, He totally respects our freedom and our individuality. The Spirit is not going to force himself on us unless we ask for him to act. It is as if He waits quietly in the background until we ask him to make our faith alive. The Apostles were waiting and praying for the Spirit in the upper room. They were open to him and they were asking for this power, because Jesus had told them to. Most of us were never taught to actually personally ask the Holy Spirit ourselves to make us more alive in our faith. I think this is something we don’t emphasize enough.

When I was 19 a group of young people taught me to do just that. They taught me to really ask the Spirit to come alive inside me. And then they prayed with me that this would happen, and boy did it happen! When they prayed with me, initially nothing seemed to happen, but in the days that followed I began to notice that things were happening. I was in college at the time studying marketing. I began to have a profound desire to pray. I became aware of the Scriptures and the mass as though I had never heard them before. They were suddenly alive. It was like someone had switched on my faith. The Spirit had suddenly come alive and it changed my life. That was thirty-one years ago, but the effect never wore off, so it wasn’t just a passing phase, or just youthful enthusiasm. I say this because you don’t have to be someone extraordinary, or holy, for this to happen. All you have to do is ask, but most of us were never taught this.

God deeply desires to make us alive in every sense.  ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10). And God will make us alive if we ask. If you wish that your faith was more alive, or that God meant more to you, then ask God’s Spirit to come alive inside you, because the Spirit is already there and is waiting for your response. Maybe you were confirmed 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago, but the Spirit is still with you and is waiting for your invitation. Perhaps you never asked. Ask God to make your faith alive. 

What am I supposed to say?’, you may wonder. Say, ‘God make my faith alive. Holy Spirit let me know that you are real. Set me on fire with love for you.’ If you make that prayer sincerely, you will see the result and I guarantee you will see that I am not making this up.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we must love each other as he loves us.  How did he love us? He spoke the truth; he challenged people; he saw the good in everyone, regardless of their background; his life was one of service and total sacrifice and God asks us to do the same. That is not easy. He tells us that this is what will mark us out as his followers. People will know that we are Christian by the way we love each other. If you go anywhere in the world and meet any community of Christians, be it a parish or small group, you will know straight away whether they are alive or not, by the way they love each other and it is a really wonderful thing to meet when you do. 

But where does this strength and energy to love others come from? People can be very demanding and unreasonable, even when you try to help them. The strength to love and the ability to love comes from God. That is one of the things that the Holy Spirit gives us. It is the most important thing of all. Having the fanciest and most organised church, with every kind of facility and program you could ask for, is completely empty, unless there is love there, unless the Spirit is there. When we have the gift of God’s Spirit, we have everything and the Spirit gives us the power to love as we should, because it is too difficult by our own strength.God doesn't ask us to do this by our own strength, but by his strength. 

Now let us take a moment to make that prayer. Close your eyes for a moment and listen. Pray these words in your heart if you dare:            
Holy Spirit I believe in you. Make my faith alive. Help me believe in everything Jesus taught. Help me to believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Set me on fire with love for you, so that I may live the life that Jesus calls me to live. Come Holy Spirit of God and transform me, as you will. Amen.’

By this love you have for one another
Everyone will know that you are my disciples.’

Thursday, May 9, 2019

4th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 10:27-30) They have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb

The chapel of the Irish College, Rome.
Several years ago I had the privilege of being able to study in Rome for 3 years. While I was there I lived in the Irish College, which is both a seminary and post-graduate college. As there are not enough Irish students to fill the college, it is now quite an international college. For one of my years there we had students from 23 different countries. This makes for a great cultural experience and it gave me a great sense of the universal Church. I was there studying and living with other young men from all parts of the world. We came from many very different cultures, but we all shared the same faith and the same enthusiasm to make it known to other people. It was very inspiring to live in such an environment, although of course it also had its moments as we had very different ways of doing things.

One man who was my next door neighbour for a year and a half, was Ragheed Ganni from Iraq. I didn’t even know there were Catholics in Iraq until I met him. He was a young, highly talented and very likable priest. He was from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which is the ancient city of Nineveh (Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh). Ragheed completed all his studies for priesthood in Rome, since if he returned to Iraq during his studies, he may not have been able to leave again to complete them. So he studied in Rome, living in the Irish College and spent many summers in Ireland.

During our time there, the American invasion of Iraq took place and the over-throwing of Sadam Hussein. This was a very difficult and stressful time for Ragheed, as he watched his country being thrown into turmoil, while daily wondering if his family were safe or not. Having someone in the room next to me who was going through this, made the war very real. Just before the war started I asked him as an Iraqi what were his fears about what would happen. He said that the problem was not so much when the Americans took over, as when they later pulled out. He said that then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out as the Muslim factions would not have any tolerance for them. That is exactly what happened.

Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni (1972-2007)
In 2003 Ragheed returned to Iraq. It was now a very different country to the one he had left. To get into the country he told me that he had to fly into Syria and then take a bus across the border. I received a few emails from him after he returned. He said that there was a curfew almost every night and that it was becoming more and more difficult for the Christian community there. One day he sent me an email with photos of his church on fire. He said that gunmen had come in and taken him out at gunpoint. He thought he was going to be shot, but instead they blew up the church. Ragheed was able to return to Rome at least twice over the next three years, and I met him on one of those visits. He had put on some weight, and he said that this was because he could not go outside to exercise, as it was too dangerous. As time passed more and more of his parishioners began to leave and those of us who knew him worried for his safety. Whoever could afford to leave the parish got out. Ragheed knew that staying on in Iraq was becoming increasingly dangerous, but he believed that that was where God was asking him to be. He wanted to remain with his people so that they could have the mass. In spite of death threats and the obvious danger, he continued to minister to his people and they continued to come to pray and celebrate mass. One of the neighboring churches was hit by a car bomb killing two people and injuring many. The bishop’s house was blown up and Ragheed’s sister was injured by a grenade which was thrown at her while she was going to clean the church in preparation for Sunday mass.  In spite of this Ragheed and the other priests continued to minister to their people.

On 3nd June, 2007 I received a phone call from a friend to tell me the terrible news that Ragheed along with three others, had been shot dead the day before. He had just finished celebrating the Mass and was leaving the church with another sub-deacon. Two other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them were in the car behind. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, had the courage to speak out. Here are some excerpts from an interview she gave to 
At a certain point the car was stopped by armed men. Fr. Ragheed could have fled but he did not want to, because he knew they were looking for him. They forced us to get out of the car and led me away. 
Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed,
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?” 
They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.’ At this point Bayan fainted.

Ragheed Ganni was only 35 when he was shot dead and had been a priest for just 6 years. 

Icon of Fr. Ragheed on the right, holding the martyr's palm
In the second reading from this Sunday’s mass (Apocalypse 7:9, 14-17) we hear of the great numbers of people who stand before the Lamb holding palms in their hands. When the writer asks who they are he is told,
These are the people who have been through the great persecution and because they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb, they now stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’

A few years after Ragheed’s death the chapel in the Irish College in Rome was redecorated by the artist Fr. Marko Rupnik (see the photo above). Behind the altar there is a breath-taking mosaic with Christ the Good Shepherd at the centre with several saints on either side including Fr. Ragheed Ganni to the far right holding the martyr’s palm. I always find it very moving to see this image having known Ragheed myself.

In different parts of the world many people continue to put their lives at risk in order to pass on the teachings of Christ as he asked us to. Many, including Ragheed, have paid with their lives. Although it is sad for me to think of Ragheed’s death, it is also a great source of strength and inspiration. Jesus told us we would be persecuted for following him, but he also told us that he is our shepherd who continues to guide and look after us. That doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer, but it does mean that he is always with us. Even though none of us want to have to suffer for our faith, what could be more important than to be faithful to Jesus? He is the one who makes sense of why we are here. Without Christ we are nothing. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 21:1-19) Weakness is not an obstacle

I always find it both amazing and amusing how in the presidential election the opponents of each candidate will go through the history of each person with a fine-tooth comb, in the hope of finding some small thing to discredit him, or her. It’s as if they are looking for the perfect person who is not allowed to have any defects. If they do find anything in their past such as smoking dope when they were a teenager, or something similar, they present this as a reason for him or her to be unsuitable for president now, as if you could find someone who didn’t have defects. Modern day media tends to do the same, gloating over the sins of an individual while showing no mercy whatsoever to that person for the mistakes they have made.

In contrast to that we have almost the opposite presented to us in today’s Gospel. Peter is confronted by Jesus in a loving but painful way, when Jesus asks him three times ‘Do you love me?’ Why did Jesus do this since he knew well that Peter loved him? Jesus was making Peter face his own weakness, the weakness that caused him to publicly swear that he never knew Jesus. This happened during Jesus’ trial when Peter tried to stay close to Jesus, but he was overcome with fear when individuals realised he was one of Jesus’ followers and then he denied ever knowing Jesus. After this happened it says that Peter went outside and wept bitterly, because of course he didn’t want to do this, but he was overcome by fear. 

In asking Peter three times ‘Do you love me,’ Jesus was helping him to heal, but also making him face his weakness. Jesus wasn’t going to just pretend that this never happened, because if he did it would have continued to haunt Peter for the rest of his life. Instead, Jesus confronts Peter with it and makes him face it. And then Jesus makes this same Peter the first pope. Jesus was saying, ‘I know you let me down because of your own weakness/fear; but that is not an obstacle for me.  Now face it and then I can really work through you.’  It is an extraordinary thought that Jesus wasn’t afraid to make Peter the first pope even when he knew that Peter had denied him. Our weaknesses are not an obstacle for God.

It is because the Lord loves us that he challenges us with our weaknesses.  We want to just gloss over them and pretend that mistakes never happened, but that doesn’t really help us.  If we are to heal and grow then we must face up to our weakness, which is difficult and painful but it’s also what helps us to grow. 

In the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous the first step to recovery is to acknowledge your weakness and that you are powerless over it. Only then can you begin to continue in the right direction. This is also one of the reasons the Lord gives us the facility to confess what we have done in total secrecy, so that we can heal. The idea that all our sins are totally forgiven by God if we ask for forgiveness is a hard thing to grasp, and many of us struggle to believe that this could really be so. And yet that is what the death of Jesus on the cross is all about: the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness has already been won for us; we just have to ask for it.

There is a lot more freedom in admitting that we are weak when we come before God, than in trying to prove we are perfect. If we had to be perfect it would put enormous pressure on us. Part of the freedom that our faith gives us is to realise that it’s ok to be weak, to have made mistakes. Ultimately we rely on the power of God and not on ourselves and that certainly is a relief.

Can you imagine if Jesus hadn’t challenged Peter in this way and then made him the first leader anyway? Peter would have continued to live in fear wondering whether his denials would come to light or not. Instead Jesus brings everything out into the open and basically says, ‘I know what happened and now you have repented, so don’t be afraid anymore.’ This is why the Lord keeps inviting us to come back to him, to confess what we have done wrong, so that we can be free and so that we can live in peace. Everything God does is done to help us.

Peter do you love me?’  ‘Lord you know everything, you know that I love you.’

Sunday, April 28, 2019

2nd Sunday of Easter Yr A Peace be with you

In December 2005 it was announced on the news that a man called Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Féin’s (the political wing of the IRA) top men, confessed to having been a British spy for twenty years.  People were amazed that this could happen.  The poor man obviously could not live with this any more and so he came out into the open.  He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was killed four months later.  God be good to him.  I remember thinking at the time that he must now be living in terrible fear.  Fear of being hunted down and killed.  He had betrayed many, and now he would be afraid of what they would do to him.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

2000 years earlier on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, who they believed was the Son of God.  Judas had betrayed him for money.  Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus.  They all betrayed him.  Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room afraid.  Why are they afraid?  One: because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates.  Two: perhaps they were also afraid of what God would do to them.  They had betrayed the Son of God.  It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens.  Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’  The first thing he does is to take away their fear.  There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before.  There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful.  Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’  ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed Jesus and indeed sometimes wish I was not a priest, when my own sinfulness gets the better of me.  And in case you think I am just trying to be holy by saying this, I am not.  I am a sinner.  That is one thing that God has left me under no illusions about.  Sometimes I think it would be better for me not to be a priest as I would not have to deal with what is sacred.  I could run and hide, so to speak.  Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish.  Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease.  ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned.  Peace be with you.’  God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out.  He knows what we are like.  He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace.  I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus, would not take the words of others to convince him that Jesus was alive.  When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful.  And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe.  No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe.  No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.

Today as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, let me finish with this story. There was a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home.  He decided to desert the army, but he was caught.  The punishment for desertion was death.  Now this man was the only son of his mother who was now widowed.  His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person.  She pleaded for her son, and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world.  The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on the man.  Napoleon said in reply, ‘he doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’.  But the mother said back to Napoleon, ‘if he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’

Peace be with you.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Passion Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 22:14-23:56) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus; events which changed the course of history forever. Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die. It is that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet. They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Yet within a few days everything changed. He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed. Today we read the full account of his passion. It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one. That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time. In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, St. Paul wrote, ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied.’ If we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point. The truth is that we are preparing for something wonderful that is waiting for us, should we choose it.

Everyone suffers, as we know; there are no exceptions. Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  But even if everyone else seems to abandon us, at least we can always turn to God. But where do we turn if God disappears too? There is nowhere left to go. This is the worst kind of suffering, verging on despair. God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ What does this mean? It is the beginning of Psalm 22 which is a Psalm that ends in victory, but it can also be understood in a different way. It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father. He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there? Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God. By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering. After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there. We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

Even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, in fact we have not. But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God. It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it. Many of the saints went through this feeling of abandonment, including Mother Teresa. Here is something from her own writings to her spiritual director:

Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long  & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—...God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—‘My God’ and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.—p1.

Mother Teresa: Come be my Light, (edit.) Brian Kolodiejchuk, London: Rider Books, 2007.

That’s not what you expect to hear from someone like Mother Teresa, who was such a light of hope for so many people, yet God allowed her to go through this darkness too.

Finally, I want to mention Our Lady. She also was at the foot of the cross. Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king. He would be called Son of the Most-High God. What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes? Although Mary must have suffered terribly with all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope. She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding. God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand.

The end of Psalm 22, which begins with the cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ ends with the following words:

The Lord reigns, the ruler of nations.
Before him all the prosperous of the earth will bow down,
Before him will bow all who go down to the dust.
And my soul will live for him, my children will serve him;
People will proclaim the Lord to generations still to come,
His righteousness to a people yet unborn.
These things the Lord has done. (Ps 22:28-31)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

5th Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 8:1-11) Baptism and Confirmation

Easter is the time when many adults are baptized and become part of the Church, having completed the time of learning about the faith known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Easter is always focused on baptism and it is the most important time for baptism to take place, as the whole focus is on new life. I always find it very inspiring to see adults lined up for baptism at the Easter Vigil. It is a reminder of what we take for granted. Recently someone asked me to try and explain baptism and confirmation and that’s what I would like to do. In order to make sense of it we need to go way back to the beginning.

We believe that God created everything; the world around us that we see and the invisible world that we cannot yet see. We also believe that God’s greatest creation was the human being. It says in Genesis that the last thing God created was the human being, which is a biblical way of saying that we were the most important thing that God created. We are more like God than anything else that was created, especially because we have free will. But free will also comes at a cost.

We also believe that somewhere way back at the beginning, humanity sinned against God. There was some kind of rejection of God and of his word, which is explained through the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that there was some kind of rebellion against God and we call this Original Sin.

Because of this sin we now lost the possibility of eternal life with God which God intended for us. It says in the story that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. They had lost what God originally intended for them. This was a disaster as we could not resolve this problem ourselves.

Because God loves his creation He would not leave us in that situation and so, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the perfect offering was made to the Father which overcame Original Sin. The power of Original Sin was broken and we were set free, restoring to us the possibility of eternal happiness with God. However, because gave us the extraordinary gift of free will, God does not force this on us, but simply offers it to us. We have to say yes to it. We have to accept this gift which God offers us and we do that by being baptized. When we are baptized we are saying, ‘Yes, I believe this and I want this. Let me be baptized in it, soaked in it,’ That’s what baptism is, but we must consciously ask for it.

If that is true, then why do we baptize infants who don’t yet have the understanding of baptism? We baptize infants because we want this grace for them from the beginning of their lives, but on condition that we will teach them their faith as they grow up. Otherwise it is hypocrisy. To baptize an infant without the intention of teaching them about their faith as they grow up is hypocrisy and that’s why the parents and God-parents make the vows of baptism, promising to pass on this faith as best they can. If an adult comes to me for baptism, they first have to go through what we call the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, during which time they will learn about their faith. Only when they understand it properly will they be baptized. Recently I spoke to a man who was telling me that he and his wife drove two hours each way to go to the RCIA classes so that they could be baptized. Two hours each way, for several months! That is so inspiring to me.

So, to be baptized is to say 'yes, I believe all that God has done for me and I want it all. Let me be soaked in it, baptized in it'.

What about those who are never baptized, such as our brothers and sisters who are Muslim or Hindu? Can they go to heaven too? Of course they can. We understand that it is necessary for us to be baptized in order to enter life with God, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t bring it about for others who have no understanding of baptism. But for us who understand it, baptism is necessary and that’s why it is so important. God’s power is not limited to any one way. God will speak to people of other faiths in ways that we don’t understand.

Where then does confirmation fit in? Confirmation is really the other half of baptism. It is the time when we receive the gift of the Spirit to strengthen us for living the Christian life. One confirms the other; hence ‘confirmation.’ For children we wait until they are old enough to understand what confirmation is, since they were baptized when they were too young to understand, but for adults they usually receive the two together. The important thing is that these are gifts to us from God, to help us. Everything we receive from God is to help us and is given out of love for us. That is why the Apostles baptized people and then prayed with them for the gift of the Spirit, so that they were ready for our life with God on earth.

Every time we pray the Creed we are stating what we believe and that we want this for ourselves and our children. We want all that God is offering us.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

4th Sunday Lent Yr C The Parable of the Loving Father (Gospel: Lk 15:1-3, 11-32)

How do we talk about God? It is extremely difficult for us, if not impossible, because God is completely beyond our understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas was a great genius and wrote one of the greatest works of theology called the Summa Theologica. Towards the end of his life he had a vision of God, or heaven, and after that he stopped writing and he said ‘It’s all rubbish, we haven’t a clue!’ This is one of the reasons why Jesus spoke in parables, to try and give us some idea of what God is like. Today’s parable of the Prodigal Son is a particularly beautiful one.

This story could also be called ‘The parable of the forgiving Father.’ We usually tend to focus on the rebellious son. In asking for his inheritance, the son was basically telling his father that he wished he was already dead and so he wanted his inheritance now. Having insulted his father in the greatest way possible, he eventually comes back in hard times to ask forgiveness. Jesus says an interesting thing: ‘When he came to his senses’. He is telling us that we are only complete when we are in God, or coming towards God. The son realized he could come back.

Now the son is focusing on all he has done wrong, all the sin, all the insults to his family. The father looks beyond the sin and just loves his son. He does not condemn him, he does not ask for an apology, he doesn’t do anything that you would expect him to do. He just celebrates and loves his son. Maybe it should be called ‘The parable of the foolish Father’. The robe he gives his son is a symbol of honor. The ring is the symbol of power, the equivalent of being given the power of attorney. The sandals meant he was one of the family. Slaves did not have shoes. He was completely restoring his place in the family, as if nothing had happened.

This teaches me something about God in a very practical way. When I think of myself before God, I tend to do as the younger son did. I usually think only of the sins I have committed and my failings, rather than my strengths. But from the parable I realise that God’s approach to me is very different. God is not interested in my sin, or my weakness, or what I could have done better. He is interested in me as a person, and He rejoices and celebrates every time I come back to him, especially if I have drifted away from him. God rejoices in the child before him, like you would with a toddler. You don’t focus on what a small child has done wrong, you just see the child that you love.

Then there is also the older brother. In many ways I think most of us are probably more like the older brother than the younger. We probably haven’t done anything too outrageous; we may even have been quite faithful to our duties all through our life. But we may well despise those who have apparently walked away from God, and especially those who obviously do what is wrong and get away with it. Think of someone you may have read about in the papers who has done terrible wrong. Would you be happy to know that God completely forgives them if they repent, or would you resent it? Maybe we would rather see them punished. It is easy for us to resent the fact that God loves them. This is exactly what the Pharisees (who were the religious people of the time) were doing. They said, ‘Why is this prophet hanging around with those people. They are disgusting, they do everything wrong and they know it.’ This was what the older brother did. He resented the Father’s forgiveness. But the Father also loved him, forgave him and reached out to him. 

Through the parable, Jesus is showing us that that is not how God sees us. God does not act as we do and that is a hard thing to grasp, because we have probably never experienced that kind of unconditional love.

God is not interested in what we have done wrong. His desire is just that we are reconciled to him so that we can enjoy all that He has done for us and all that He has created for us. His design for us is that we find happiness. We have been created for happiness, which we will hopefully experience some of in this life, but only completely in the next. That is also why in the second reading the Apostles are at pains to point out that we have already been reconciled to God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing we can do that God hasn’t already forgiven, so long as we turn to God and ask for that forgiveness. That is why we talk about forgiveness and repentance so much, especially during Lent, because this is what God asks us to do. 

What we are appealing to you before God is: be reconciled to God.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

3rd Sunday of Lent Yr C We are sinners and God is mercy

Today I would like to focus on one line of the mass that you hear every time you come to mass. It is the prayer at the consecration, where the priest holds up the chalice and says, ‘This is the cup of my blood, it will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.’ This phrase always strikes me when I pray the mass. It sums up what the whole mass is about; the forgiveness of sins. When we come to the mass we become present to the sacrifice at Calvary. Time stands still and we are there. It is the most perfect prayer and the most powerful prayer because in it, God the Son (Jesus), is offered to God the Father. And the Father can not refuse this offering. That is why it is so powerful and that is why we remember so many people in each mass. It is an offering that cannot be refused. The whole purpose of this sacrifice is so that sins may be forgiven, so that everything we’ve ever done wrong can be paid for, so that it won’t be held against us. Otherwise we could not go to heaven when we die.

You know how we often wonder if our prayers are being heard? ‘Does God listen when I pray?’ The Lord assures us that He does, but the mass is the one prayer we are absolutely guaranteed is heard and answered and it is all done so that our sins may be forgiven.

There is another side to this as well. It is wonderful that our sins are forgiven, but it presupposes one thing: that we acknowledge that we are sinners and that we ask forgiveness from God. That’s what repentance is: acknowledging that we have sinned and turning to God. Today there is a tendency to act as if sin doesn’t exist anymore. We have lost a sense of sin. People have often said to me, ‘But Father I have no sins’, ‘I don’t sin’, or in confession people will tell me that they are really a good person and they never do wrong to anyone. If we have no sins, then the mass is meaningless, there is no purpose to God coming among us in the person of Jesus; the crucifixion and death of Jesus is meaningless and there was no purpose to all his work, or to the work of the Apostles. It is the Lord himself who assures us that we have sinned. St. John the Apostle says in one of his letters: ‘If we say that we have not sinned, then we call God a liar.’ Strong language! That is why every year we have this whole season of Lent to remind us of the need to repent and ask forgiveness. It is a big mistake to deny our sinfulness, because in doing so we are telling God that He is wrong and He is lying.

To say that we are sinners doesn’t mean that we are bad, or evil people. It simply acknowledges that we are weak, that we have a tendency to do the wrong thing, even when we know we shouldn’t. It says in the book of Proverbs (24:16), ‘The just man falls seven times [a day]’. That is a biblical way of saying that we sin continually.  St. Paul complains in one of his letters, ‘I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate ...the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do’ (Cf. Rom 7:14-24).

The mercy of God is there for us if only we would turn to it. So many of the teachings of Jesus were about repentance and God’s mercy: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the lost coin. He is telling us that God is not interested in our sins, but in our returning to him. Our difficulty is that our pride can tell us that we don’t need to confess, that we’re OK as we are. Satan does his best to convince us of this too, because he wants to keep us as far from God as possible. He knows that we will be forgiven every time we turn to God and he doesn’t want that.

Every once in a while, it’s good to remind ourselves what we are doing and why. I find that I need to do it for myself a lot, because it’s easy to forget. I am a sinner, but my freedom is found in God’s mercy. To acknowledge our need for God keeps the balance right. We are sinners, but Jesus is merciful.

This is the chalice of my blood, [which] will be shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins.’



Thursday, March 14, 2019

2nd Sunday of Lent Yr C (Luke 9:28-36) Listen to Him

My father told me once of a friend of his, who was climbing a high mountain in Scotland. At one stage while he was near a pretty steep drop a thick mist descended on the mountain. He had to stop and sit down until the cloud lifted as he could see nothing and it was too dangerous to move in any direction. He just had to wait. When the cloud lifted there was an eagle perched right in front of him, which flew away as soon as it became aware of the man’s presence. A beautiful encounter, but as long as he was in the cloud he could do nothing.

Today we read about this extraordinary event we call the transfiguration, when Peter, James and John for a few seconds were allowed to get a glimpse of who Jesus was. They saw Jesus in blinding and terrifying glory. On various occasions Jesus took Peter, James and John with him but not the others. When he healed the 12 year old girl known as Jairus’ daughter, they were the only ones allowed with him apart from her parents. Here they witnessed Jesus bringing this girl back to life from the dead. Can you imagine the effect it would have on you to witness such a thing? Shortly after the transfiguration they were also to watch Jesus falling apart with fear and stress in the Garden of Gethsemane. This must have been something terrible to watch, not to mention the appalling feeling of not being able to do anything about it. So it seems they were being given a special training. It is believed that one of the reasons they were given the experience of the transfiguration was to strengthen them for what they would witness in Gethsemane and during Jesus’ passion. This would have been one of the most difficult tests of their faith.

When Jesus was transfigured before them on the mountain, two people also appeared with him. Moses was the one the commandments had been given to. The commandments were the teaching of God given to us. The Jewish people believed that if they lived those commandments perfectly they would go to heaven. That is why they developed the complex system of sub-laws from the commandments, which covered every aspect of life. So Moses represented this path to God that was given to us by God himself.

Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets. The prophets were the ones sent by God to keep guiding the people back to him when they had gone astray, or to reassure the people that God was with them in times of difficulty. Elijah represented all of these people. The law and the prophets together were basically the way to heaven for the Jewish people. This was what God had given them to help them.

Now, suddenly, the two of these men who had died many centuries before, are standing there talking to Jesus. They are a symbol that Jesus is now the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. He completes them. After Jesus there is nothing else needed, because Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. God reveals himself most completely in the person of Jesus, who is truly God and truly man. What happens next is another sign of this.

In their wonder and excitement Peter starts talking nonsense: ‘Lord it is wonderful for us to be here…’ Then they are suddenly in a dense cloud and they are afraid. They cower on the ground in fear and then they hear the voice that says: ‘This is my Son the chosen one; listen to him.’ ‘Listen to him.’ I think those last three words are perhaps the most important of the whole event. ‘Listen to Jesus.’ In him is everything you need. If you have him you have everything. He teaches us everything about God, about heaven, about the path we need to follow. There is no other voice that we need listen to apart from him. Later in one of his letters Peter mentions this event. He says ‘We ourselves heard this voice from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain’ (2 Peter 1:18). He was saying, ‘This is all true, we aren’t making it up! We were there.’

Think for a minute of all the things we listen to and read each day: newspapers, chat-shows, tv programs, the soaps, hundreds of ads. How many of these inspire us, encourage us, give us direction? Yet the one thing we really need to listen to continually is often left out. Perhaps this is an invitation to us to come back to the Scriptures again and again and again. We have been given the gift of God’s speaking directly to us in his word. If that is really true, as we say it is, what could possibly be more important to hear every day than this?

Jesus is the only one who knows the answers to everything we ask, to all the problems we have, to all the decisions we worry over. He speaks to us continually through the Scriptures, guiding us, encouraging us, inspiring us.  He is the only one we need to listen to.

This is my Son the chosen one; listen to him.’

Thursday, March 7, 2019

1st Sunday of Lent Year C (Gospel: Luke 4:1-13) Signs and wonders

Since I was ordained a priest over 20 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of his presence. I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as transforming the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way. It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it is just a strange religious ritual. So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular to help people believe?

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is really the explanation as to why God doesn’t do these things. This account of Jesus' time in the wilderness is extraordinary, because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation. At some stage he must have told the apostles what happened there and what he had to go through.

Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God. For any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use. Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers, or otherwise Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to use them. There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height or to turn stones into bread, because we couldn’t do it anyway. So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus. The temptation was to misuse his power.

Wilderness of Judea
The first thing he was tempted with was to find satisfaction in material things. ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’ In this case it was bread to a man who was starving. But Jesus said, ‘No. Man does not live on bread alone.’ The human being is not satisfied by material things alone. Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by offering them what they want.’ We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God, because we are spiritual and not just physical.

The second temptation was to compromise with evil. This is a big temptation for most people. When you hear people say ‘The Church needs to get with the times’, this is often what they mean. The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings, to the more difficult moral demands of our age. It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow, but that is not what we are asked to do and when Jesus was tempted this way, he rejected it outright. He was being tempted to compromise with evil, just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced, but right is right and wrong is wrong. We must not compromise on the ways of God. Yes it is more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.

The third temptation was to work signs and wonders for people. Satan taunted him, 'Throw yourself down from the temple; since God will save you.’ If he started doing this, then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time. But Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart. You cannot buy love and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.

Jesus was tempted to ‘bend the rules,’ to settle for less. But he resisted these temptations even though they must have really been tempting for him. We are continually presented with similar temptations; the temptation to reject the parts of our faith that don’t suit us: ‘Just take the easier parts, let others worry about the difficult parts’. But that is not what God asks us to do. The Lord says, ‘If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). It is not an easy path that leads us to God, but it is the most worthwhile path that there is. What could be more worthwhile than to follow the one path that will lead us to total fulfillment. There are many other ‘lesser’ options, apparently easier ways, but they don’t lead to God. This is why Jesus was quite definite in his teaching. If you want to follow me, this is the path you must follow. It is the path of trying to live his teachings, even though we are continually hearing the voices that say, ‘It’s too difficult. Don’t bother.’ We say we believe this teaching is from God and so the challenge is to take it seriously, even if it doesn’t always suit me; even though I won’t always understand it.

In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced, but that is not how God works and I think it is good to remember that, especially when we live in times of great change, when God often seems to be very quiet. The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

8th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 6:39-45) The splinter in your brother’s eye

The more scandals we hear about in our Church, the more disturbing it is. One thing I am glad of, is that people at the highest level in our Church have not been let off the hook. This is something that did not happen in the past. Thankfully we are getting beyond that. No one is above the law, or beyond conviction. Two cardinals have now been convicted of sexual abuse in the past and I’m glad they are being convicted, like anyone else. I have nothing against them personally, but no one should be above conviction, or just-punishment.

We are told not to judge. That has to be understood correctly. It is normal to judge a person’s actions. If someone murders another, it is morally wrong. If someone abuses another person, sexually, or in any other way, it is morally wrong and we can judge these things as right or wrong. The judgement we cannot make is the judgement of the heart. We cannot judge the heart of the person who did something like that, because only God can judge the heart. We don’t know what causes someone to act the way they do. I suspect that if we could see what goes on in the heart of each other, we would be a lot more merciful with one another.

The truth is, all of us are learning and will continue to learn until the day we die. This is God’s will for us, because the more we learn, the more we grow as people. The greatest learning we can do, is self-knowledge. The more we are able to look at ourselves honestly, the less likely we are to be over-critical of others. At the end of the day, if we are honest with ourselves, none of us is in a position to judge the heart of anyone else, and yet we do it all the time. It is very hard for us to distinguish between the actions of another from their heart. We tend to judge the person rather than their actions. If you turn it around, how would you feel if people only judged your heart, rather than by your actions. You know the way we do things and then are frustrated with ourselves, because we know we can do better, but our own weakness pulls us down.

I remember in one of the parishes where I worked, an old lady went into a room for a meeting. In that room a carpenter was doing some work. She lost her temper with him and threatened to throw out his tools etc. Her reaction was completely out of proportion to what was going on. As it happened I turned up a few minutes later, but I realized she felt I was there to judge her. I knew that because the next time she came to me for Communion she had her head down; she wouldn’t look at me in the face. I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘You see the shame this woman feels because of her own weakness. Perhaps this is a temper she cannot control and it causes her great grief.’ It would be easy to write her off as a cantankerous old woman, without giving any consideration for the fact that maybe this is a weakness that she doesn’t have much control over and that causes her great humiliation. We cannot judge the heart. ‘Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?

A woman once came with her son to Gandhi. She asked him to tell her son to give up eating candy, as he was totally addicted to it. Gandhi told her to go away and come back in three weeks. So she returned three weeks later. Then Gandhi said to her son, ‘You should give up all this candy, it is going to damage your health!’ The woman was puzzled and asked him why he hadn’t said that three weeks before. He told her that he was also addicted to candy, and so he had to give it up himself before he could tell her son to do it.

When I am in traffic and someone cuts me off, or does something that scares the heck out of me, I usually react like most of us and get angry with the person, calling them all kinds of words that aren’t in the bible. But then I try to stop myself and ask myself if I have ever done anything similar. That usually gets me to calm down.

‘Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

7th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 6:27-38) How do you love your enemies?

YPJ women soldiers against ISIS in Syria

A few years ago I watched a BBC interview with some of the women fighters in Syria who fight with the YPG, or Kurdish coalition fighters. They are an all women group of soldiers fighting against ISIS in Northern Syria. The journalist was asking one of them how she felt about ISIS since they were killing her own people. Among other things that she mentioned, she said ‘We have to remember that they are people too.’ I was really surprised and impressed by this. This lady, although fighting this force of evil, was able to distinguish between the evil and the fact that they were also human beings. She had an inner sense of what is important and the value of each life. I’m sure those women didn’t want to be there, but they felt the need to be there to help protect their own people. ‘We have to remember that they are people too.’

Today’s readings address the very difficult teaching which says, ‘Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.’ I have never met anyone who wants to love their enemies. It doesn’t seem logical. But God doesn’t just ask us to be logical, but to see at a higher, or deeper level. That is where we remember that even those who attack us are also human beings, with their own problems. If we decide to hate them as they hate us, and to treat them as they are violent towards us, then we are no different from them. We are no better than them.

Does this mean that we are asked to let people walk all over us? Of course not. The challenge is not to give in to evil, but to resort to the inner strength that comes from what we believe in and that comes from our relationship with Jesus.

A few years back when I was traveling somewhere, I ordered a car at the airport to bring me to my hotel as I thought it was a long distance. It turns out I didn’t need it, so I cancelled the car. Then to my annoyance I was charged for the car although I had been told I wouldn’t be. When I called the company to question the charge I was faced with a woman who was filled with venom and hatred like I have never met before. I came away from the phone call feeling quite shaken as she had been so vicious. The temptation for me was to just be angry with her and wish her a miserable day, but in the days that followed I felt the Lord saying to me that that woman needs prayer. So instead of remaining angry with her, I began to pray for her and have often prayed for her since. That was something the Lord taught me. It also made me think about the various situations I have been faced with—as we all have—where I have met real nastiness from people. Now I try to pray for them after I have gotten over the initial reaction which is usually frustration and anger, often righteous anger, where I have been treated unfairly. But the Lord reminds me that maybe they are going through a hellish time in their own lives and that is what I am experiencing. If I didn’t believe in God I wouldn’t do that.

‘Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.’ That is an extremely hard thing to do, but we get the strength to at least attempt to respect others, from what we believe. If we believe that God forgives, us in spite of our own failings, then we have a obligation to try and do the same. The greatest strength we get to do that is in the Eucharist. Every day, if we wish, we can receive the body and blood of Christ into our own bodies. We can listen to him speak to us. The more we come back to receive him and listen to him, the more we are given the inner strength to be different. That is one reason why the Lord gave us the Eucharist, so that we could rely on his strength to deal with every day difficulties. We are not being asked to rely purely on what we can do ourselves. This is what makes the difference between becoming filled with hatred ourselves, or remaining objective, seeking justice rather than revenge. We are living in a society which encourages us to take revenge, but that is not what God teaches us and we must decide who it is we are going to listen to.

One of the reasons why we are meant to be different as followers of Christ, is because we don’t believe in returning evil for evil, or seeking revenge for injustice. Instead we are called to remember that the people who hurt us are also human beings, with families and their own difficulties, even if individually they have turned to evil. We work for justice, but not for hatred. We strive for a better world, rather than one where we just wipe out our enemies. When we are on our death bed, which will be more important?

I want to finish with this prayer which I’m sure you have heard before, from one of Mother Teresa’s homes:

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
good anyway.
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.
The good you do, will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building, may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.
People really need help, but may attack you if you help them.
people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; It was never
between you and them anyway.

‘Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.’