Saturday, March 27, 2010

Passion (or Palm) Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Luke 22:14-23:56) The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins

I think that it’s good to hear an account of the passion every so often. It’s very powerful. While Jesus walked the earth as a man he healed many people. And he said that when he left, his followers would do even greater works, or miracles. So how come we don’t see more people healed of different illnesses? Is the Lord not being faithful to his promises?

God does actually continually heal people, but there are more spiritual healings and miracles than physical ones. Why? Because the spiritual is more important than the physical. Our physical bodies are only going to last a certain length of time anyway. That’s not to say that they’re not important, they are, but our spirits, or souls are going to live forever. So what happens to our spiritual selves is much more important than what happens to our bodies.

The whole reason for the passion was to break the power of sin and death that we were under. Through his sufferings he made forgiveness available to us, and he made the mercy of God available to us. That was the whole purpose of his death and resurrection. God still wants us to have this forgiveness, so that we can be free from our sins, so that we needn’t be burdened by guilt and fear. Guilt, fear and shame are all consequences of sin. When we do wrong, guilt and shame usually follow and the Lord wants us to be free of these so that we can get on with our lives and not be carrying around big burdens. And so this is the greatest healing ministry of the Church, the power to forgive sins, which Jesus entrusted to his priests, as a gift for all of us, so that we could be healed.

As human beings we have a deep psychological need to confess to another person what we have done wrong. And you can really see this today on a lot of the chat shows on radio and TV. The strange thing is that people are confessing in public, to the whole nation. I listened to part of the Gerry Ryan show one morning and I was amazed at what I heard. He was talking to a woman who knew that her husband was seeing another woman. A few minutes later the other woman came on the phone and began to confess to all that they were doing together, to the whole country! I couldn’t believe it. Whatever about telling your sins to a priest in secret, what about telling the whole nation?! And this is what is happening because one way or the other, we need to tell someone when we have done something wrong. And the Lord knows this and that’s why he gave this power to his priests so that it would be there for all of us. It is his gift to us so that we can be free. That’s why he said to the apostles, ‘those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ This is the greatest healing ministry in the Church.

Now one difficulty that we’re up against is that Satan knows how powerful this forgiveness is, and so he works very hard to convince us that we have no need to confess to anyone, especially not a priest! And he has convinced many people that confession is a burden, something that we ‘have’ to do, something that the Church has 'inflicted' on us. And he reminds us of just how sinful priests are anyway, (just as sinful as everyone else). And he whispers to us, 'why should you confess to a priest, he is a sinner.' Why does he do all this? To keep us away from the healing power of God. He knows that unforgiveness is one of the biggest obstacles between God and us, so he will do everything to convince us not to confess. He doesn’t want us to have what God has made available to us. He is 'the deceiver, the father of lies,' as Jesus called him.

What if the priest is not a holy man? Does that affect whether or not you are fully forgiven, even if the priest is a terrible sinner? Not even slightly. God would never make his forgiveness depend on the holiness of the priest. It doesn’t matter how good or bad the priest is, God works through him just the same. The forgiveness is just the same, because it is God who is working through the priest.

One other thing. When I was in the seminary and we were being given some direction about hearing confessions, a Franciscan priest who was teaching us said: ‘what do you do if you are brought to court and you are asked to give evidence that you heard in confession? If you refuse to give the evidence you could go to prison. Are you allowed to break the seal of confession?’ Do you know what he said? He said, ‘no, you keep your mouth shut and you go to prison.’ That’s how seriously we take the seal of the confession. I was impressed when I heard this, as this is how I believed it should be.

The forgiveness of sins is God’s gift to us, which He makes available to us through his priests. Don’t let anyone deprive you of that gift which God wants you to have.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

5th Sunday of Lent, Year C (Gospel: John 8: 1-11) So that sins may be forgiven

Each time I pray the mass there is one line that strikes me more than any other. It is when the priest prays over 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 is what sums up the whole celebration of the mass. The blood of Jesus was shed so that sins could be forgiven. This forgiveness is offered to us until the end of time. It is up to us whether we accept it or not.

The flip side of this is that it means we have sinned, and we sin continually. That is what God has taught us. If you think you haven’t sinned, or don’t sin, remember these words from the first letter of St. John: He says, ‘If anyone says they have not sinned, they are calling God a liar.’ Pretty strong words, but he meant it. And you can see why, because if we say we have not sinned then there is no reason for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then there is also no reason for the mass. If we haven’t sinned, then the mass is meaningless. In each mass we become present to the death and resurrection of Jesus and then we can actually receive his body and blood, so that we can be united to the Son of God in the most intimate way possible, receiving his body into our own body.

Now I know that most people will acknowledge that they are sinners. That is a good start, but God also asks us to confess our sins to a priest, the sins that we are aware of. Why? So that we can be reconciled to God in a very concrete way, through another human being, one who is specially appointed to do just that. God acts through the priest in a unique way, offering his forgiveness, guidance and encouragement. Do you want to know why God does this through a priest? I don’t know; ask God! But we believe this is what he did. This is what Jesus said to his Apostles:

'If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven;
If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained' (John 20:23).

'Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me' (Luke 10:16).

Why is it so important that we are reconciled to God? Because only in God will we find complete fulfilment. God knows that, but the difficult part is that we cannot see that properly. In fact we are even suspicious of it. If we could see what being fully united to God meant, we would do everything to stay as close to God as possible. Sometimes people are given a particular grace to see the importance of this, and they go to the ends of the earth to make this known to others as well. One such person was St. Paul. In the second reading he says:

'I believe that nothing can happen which will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him' (Phil 3:8-9).

After he had this profound encounter with Jesus who appeared to him, he was completely changed and he spent the rest of his life telling people that this man Jesus, who had been killed, had risen from the dead and was the Son of God; and boy did he suffer for it. He was put in prison several times; many attempts were made on his life; five times he received the 39 lashes, three times he was shipwrecked, etc. But nothing could stop him because God had allowed him to see that everything was worth being united to God.

‘So what are we supposed to do', you might say. 'We can’t see how important this is.’ Even though we do not see this so clearly ourselves, we listen to the accounts of those who have experienced it—because God is speaking to us through them—and we push on in the same direction. But we would be foolish to ignore the way that is pointed out to us and one of the most important ways to be reconciled to God, is to confess what we have done wrong; not just to acknowledge it, but to actually confess it.

Remember this beautiful Gospel today; the woman caught in adultery. There was no condemnation on Jesus’ part, only compassion. According to the law they were entitled to stone this woman to death, and they believed that the law came from God. But Jesus turned the situation around and showed them that they were in no position to condemn someone else. Neither are we.

So going back to what I said at the beginning. The blood of Jesus has been shed so that our sins may be forgiven. How do we accept that forgiveness, by asking for it through confession. This is God’s gift to us, so that we can be healed. It is not something forced on us or inflicted on us. Rather, it is an extraordinary gift that God has given to us, so that we may be healed and so that we may draw closer to the only One who can fulfil us.

‘This is the cup of my blood... It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.’

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

St. Patrick's Day, 2010

'I am Patrick, a sinner, unlettered, the least of all the faithful, and held in contempt by a great many people…'

Today as we celebrate our patron saint I think that we can often have romantic ideas of Patrick, his work and how everyone listened to him and became Christian when he preached. I’m sure the reality was quite different. From the little he wrote he gives us a stark idea of how difficult it was and most importantly, how the only reason he came to Ireland was because God called him. It wasn’t his own idea. He explains how he was called:

I saw in a vision of the night a man coming as it were from Ireland, whose name was Victoricus, with countless letters, and he gave me one of them…and as I was reading the beginning of the letter aloud I thought I heard a voice…and they cried out as with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us.’ And I was greatly troubled in heart and could read no further.

[God] came powerfully to my aid when I was being walked upon… for many were trying to stop this mission of mine; they were even talking among themselves behind my back, and asking: ‘Why is that fellow thrusting himself into danger among a hostile people who do not know God’

Daily I expect to be slaughtered, or defrauded, or reduced to slavery or to any condition that time and surprise may bring.

Patrick himself was very strong in emphasising how it was God who gave him his faith, and how it was God who called him to Ireland. He says that when he was brought here first as a slave at the age of 16 he did not know the living God. But God began to make himself known to him and taught him to fast and pray. Then later in his life after he had become free and returned home, he got this call to come back here to teach our ancestors about God.

I heard recently on the radio someone say that before Christianity, there was a great nation of Celts here which the Church destroyed, as though the Church came along and wrecked the place. But that cannot be true as the Irish were obviously hungry for God, or they would never have been so completely converted. And they must have recognised in Patrick’s preaching something of the truth, because the truth is always attractive.

God asked Patrick to do a job, a very definite one, which meant a lot of personal sacrifice on his part. He asked Patrick to teach the Irish people about himself, about God, so that they might know the one true God and Patrick agreed. For 1600 years that faith has been passed on, including through many very difficult times, and it is thanks to the sacrifices of thousands of men and women that this same faith has been passed on to us today.

Down through the centuries scandals have also been part of our history, and I think it is good to put it in perspective, because there will always be a certain amount of scandal, because as long as people are people we will let each other down. However, it is also important to mention that God is bigger than all of that, and our faith is bigger than all of that too. In 50 years time this period might get a mention in history as being a difficult time in the history of the Church in Ireland, but it will largely be forgotten, because the people then will have their own troubles. With that in mind, let us not be afraid when we hear of scandals, even though they are terrible, but remember that God is bigger than all of that, and God is the one in whom we put our trust.

Meanwhile God is also asking us to continue to pass on the faith that He has blessed us with and we will largely do that by the way we live, not really by anything we say. And perhaps we will only get to plant seeds of faith, just as Patrick did, by praying for those who come after us and witnessing to what we believe in as well as we can. Perhaps we won’t see the fruits of it in our lifetime. Patrick probably saw very little of the fruits of his work, but he responded to God’s call and we are being asked to do the same.

'I am Patrick, a sinner, unlettered, the least of all the faithful, and held in contempt by a great many people…'

Saturday, March 13, 2010

4th Sunday of Lent, Year C (Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32) The Prodigal Son

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 ever 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. A parable doesn't tell you something directly, but makes you think. You will realise the truth in the parable if you are open to hear it. 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 who basically told his father that he wished he was already dead and so he wanted his inheritance now. Having insulted his father as much as is possible, he eventually comes back in hard times to ask forgiveness. Now the son is looking at all he has done wrong, all the sin, all the insults to his family. The father looks right beyond the sin and just loves his son. He doesn't condemn him, he doesn't 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’.

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. 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.’

However, through the parable Jesus is showing us that that is not how God sees things. God does not act as we would. It may be understandable from our point of view, but we are in no position to judge the heart of another person. We can judge their actions as right or wrong, but we cannot judge their heart. Only God knows what causes another person to act as they do. This was what the older brother did. He judged his brother and his father's actions. He resented the father’s forgiveness. But the father also loved him, forgave him and reached out to him.

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. This is the mercy of God that we trust in. 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, as 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 is asking us to do.

'The appeal that we make in Christ's name is: be reconciled to God.'

Saturday, March 6, 2010

3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C (Gospel: Luke 13:1-9) New hope

One of the things I have noticed a lot of people saying over the last couple of months is what a relief it is to be coming out of the winter, which has been so difficult. I think it is not just the weather but also so much of what has happened over the last several months, between the economy, scandals and everything else: nothing but bad news and we are all tired of it. We need a fresh start and new hope.

During the time of Lent, as we prepare to celebrate the most extraordinary event in history—the death and resurrection of Christ—many of the readings are taken from the book of Exodus which recalls the people of Israel being set free from a time of suffering. The people of Israel also represent all people who are open to God. The story of the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15)which we have today, is the wonderful encounter Moses has with God which has a lot to say to us today.

First of all Moses sees what is basically a contradiction: a bush that is on fire but is not being burnt. This doesn’t make any sense to us and so it is an ideal symbol of God, because in many ways God does not make sense to us, or to put it differently, God is totally beyond our understanding. God is good and all-powerful, and yet we see suffering everywhere. God speaks to us and yet we do not see or hear him. When you find yourself getting frustrated with trying to understand what God is, remember the symbol of the burning bush.

Secondly God identifies himself as the God who has been there from the beginning: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In other words, God is not just making his first appearance in history to Moses, but God is the same God who has always been there throughout the centuries looking after his people and that includes us.

Then the Lord says something that I think all of us need to hear at this point in time: ‘I have seen the miserable state of my people... I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians and bring them up... to a land where milk and honey flow.’ This is also what God is saying to us right now. He is well aware of all that is causing us to suffer: people losing their jobs everywhere, people losing their faith because of scandals, young people taking their own lives. And God intends to lead us out of our suffering to a better place, to a better time. Throughout history this is what God has always done for those who are willing to respond, and we are just the same.

The Lord God continually offer us a way of life that will help us to move forward, to have hope, and to see purpose in our lives. For our part we must respond to this call, because God is not going to force it on us. Each generation is invited to respond to God’s invitation to follow him. It is never a given.

The people of Israel spent forty years wandering through the desert before they came to the Promised Land. They weren’t ready for it when they set out. The Promised Land is not just a piece of land, but it is also symbolic of the state of mind that God wants to bring us to. The Lord wants us to see the world through his eyes. He wants us to be able to see the beauty in it and in all that He has given us.

I think that today’s first reading is especially appropriate for the times we are living in. We need hope right now. We need things to look forward to and God is telling us that He is with us and that He will lead us out of the time of suffering that we are going through, just as He has always done. For our part we must try to respond and to go on listening to God.

I need to remind myself that if I only listen to what the news programmes are saying, I won’t hear God speaking to me. If I want to know what God is saying I must read the Scriptures, and take some time to be quiet and listen. Otherwise I will only hear the voices of the world, which most of the time are not speaking to us about God. They will generally bring us down, because they are only telling us about what is wrong and what is awful around us. There is also so much good happening, but we usually don't hear it because it doesn't sell papers.

The next time you find yourself getting depressed with the news and all the terrible things that are going on in the world, turn off the news and just be quiet, or even better read the Scriptures and you will notice that what God has to say to us is very different and it is also very uplifting, because it is saying that God is with us right now, that God is well aware of our suffering, right now, and that God wants to lead us out of suffering into a better place. That is why we need to keep turning back to hear the voice of God.

‘I have seen the miserable state of my people... I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians and bring them up... to a land where milk and honey flow.’