Saturday, October 30, 2010

31st Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 19:1-10) The gift of confession

A few years ago I spent three weeks in Lourdes hearing confessions and the following year I spent two.  Nothing else, just hearing confessions.  Many friends of mine were surprised to hear me say that it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have had as a priest so far.  That may sound strange, but it is true.  The Lord showed me two things through this time of hearing confessions.  The first is that the human race is sick, or suffering from sickness, if you like.  I listened to people from every part of the English speaking world, and many from other countries too, and they were all confessing the same things: adultery, injustice at work, broken relationships, dishonesty, abortions, everything.  All the same things in spite of different countries and different cultures.  In one way you could see it is a horrible picture, but that’s not what I saw.  What I saw was the sickness of the human race, but more importantly the mercy of God.  If this is how we are as a race, the mercy of God must be enormous to put up with us; and of course it is.  What I experienced more than anything else was the compassion of God for all these people, because God drew them (and me) to come back to him again in confession, many people coming after several decades.  

I know there are a million reasons we can think of for not going to confession, but God keeps drawing people to him through this extraordinary gift.  And that’s what it is, a gift.  Sadly many of us have come to see it as a burden, as something we have to do, or something that is inflicted on us.  It is in fact the complete opposite.  It is a tool that God has given us to help us, so that we can be at peace, so that when we make a mess of things we can come back to God knowing that we are forgiven.

Now I know that you may say, ‘why can’t I just go and tell God that I am sorry myself, without going to a priest?’  Well of course you can if you want, but it is not the same thing.  First of all the Lord knows what we are like and that we need a concrete way of being able to relate to him.  That’s also one of the reasons why He gives himself to us in the form of bread and wine.  It’s something we can see and touch and taste.  The same is true with confession.  We seem to have a psychological need to confess what we have done wrong to another person.  And if you don’t believe me just listen to the chat shows on TV and radio at the moment where you will regularly hear people confessing their sins, and confessing to the whole country too!  That is why the Lord gives us a means of confessing in complete secrecy, to someone he has specially appointed for this.  It doesn’t mean that priests are holier than anyone else, as we well know, but the Lord has given us this gift through the priesthood, just as He has given us the gift of the Eucharist through the priesthood.  Jesus said to Peter, and the Apostles:
Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whatever sins you forgive, they are forgiven.  Whatever sins you retain they are retained (John 20:23). 

He also said to them:
Whoever listens to you listens to me.  Whoever rejects you rejects me, and those who reject me reject the one who sent me (Lk 10:16).
In other words it is God who forgives through the priest.  The Lord has given us this because he knows how much we need it.  Sadly many of us have neglected it and come to see it as a burden rather than as something the Lord gave us to help us.  I have also heard the argument: ‘Why should I go to a priest when we see what some of them have done?’  That is a false argument, because if we are to reject the gift of the Lord’s forgiveness because he gives it to us through the priesthood, then we should reject the Eucharist for the same reason.  If the Lord God offers us his forgiveness through the priesthood then He does it for a particular reason.  And we priests all have to go to confession too, don’t forget.

Now I know that we have these reconciliation services at Christmas and Easter, and they are a help, but they are not the same as individual confession, because you don’t have the time to listen or talk in the same way.  The weeks that I spent hearing confessions in Lourdes and other places are where I saw real miracles.  They were real miracles because I saw people being relieved of great burdens of guilt and shame and being able to leave in peace again with God.  That is a tremendous gift.

In today’s readings the Lord reminds us first of all that He loves everything He has created.  He also reminds us that He is continually calling us to repent and come back to him.  May we recognise his forgiveness as the gift of healing that it is.
‘Yet you are merciful to all, because you can do all things
and overlook people’s sins so that they can repent’ 
(Wisdom 11:23). 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

30th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 9:1-6) Mission Sunday

In the last few years we have been hearing a lot about religious extremism.  We are seeing a lot of examples of bad practice of religion, when it is used as an excuse for violence or corruption.  It raises the question, what exactly is the purpose of the Church?  Why did Jesus bring about a Church?  Well the mission or purpose of the Church is to make God known to people and to make the work of Jesus Christ known to people. Jesus’ own life was about revealing God to us and of course dying for us in order to re-open the path to God for us.  It is not just about filling churches, it is about teaching people about God and helping people to discover God.  Sometimes it is said to me, ‘I wish such and such a person would just go back to mass.’  But just going back to mass is not enough.  Faith has to come first.  Once someone discovers God and begins to grow in their faith, then they see their own hunger for God and then they come to the church to pray with other people who also believe—like all of us here—to listen to God’s word, and to receive him in the Eucharist.  That’s why we come here: to pray together and to be fed spiritually, because we are all trying to live the same way of life. 
None of us are strong enough to make it on our own.  We need the support of each other.  So we listen to the teachings of Christ and then we celebrate the last supper, where Jesus made himself present in the form of bread and wine, so that he could be with us always.  That is what the mass is.

         The purpose of Christ coming to us was basically two-fold.  First of all to make God known to us, to teach us about him and show us what God is like.  Anything we want to know about God we will discover in Jesus.  It says in the letter to the Colossians, ‘[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God’. 

If I painted a picture of myself, it would just be a picture, but it wouldn’t move or speak.  If God painted a picture of himself it would be the person of Jesus.  Not just a picture, but a real person.  That’s who Jesus is, the image of God.  At one stage Philip, one of the Apostles, said to Jesus, ‘just show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied’.  And Jesus said, ‘do you not understand that to have seen me is to have seen the Father?’  They are one and the same.  So by looking to Jesus and learning about him, we are learning about who God is and what God is like. 

The second purpose of Christ coming to us was to free us from the power of Satan, from the power of sin.  So by dying for us, Jesus reopened the way to God for us.  It is now open to us if we turn to him, but that is a choice that each of us must make.  The mission of the Church is to let people know about this, what God has done for them and what is there for us all, by turning to Jesus Christ.  This is really what makes sense of what our whole life is about.  It doesn’t make any sense without God.
All people have a right to hear about God and to know about him.  And it is our mission to make this known to people, because God has told us to.  It should never be forced on people, but if this is the truth about God, which we believe it is, then people have a right to know that truth.  It is up to them whether they decide to believe it or not.
Sometimes it is argued that we should just be helping the poor but not talking about God.  However, poverty is not just about having enough to eat.  Knowing that my life has a purpose is equally important.  Helping people to come to know that they have been created out of love and that their lives have a reason is just as important as making sure people have enough to eat.  So we are called to do both.
Is this mission still being fulfilled today?  Of course it is.  Here am I speaking to you about it two thousand years later.  How much faith we do or don’t have is not really important.  The fact that we are here at all is what is important.  So the mission of the Church is to pass on this truth about God which God has made known to us.  It is the message which makes sense of our whole life and all people have a right to hear this message.  What is the best way we can pass on this message?  By living it as well as we can ourselves.  The best way we can teach others about what we believe in is by the witness of how we live, rather than by anything we say. 
I will finish with the words of St. Francis of Assisi: ‘let us go and preach the gospel; and if necessary, use words.’

Saturday, October 16, 2010

29th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:1-8) The temptation to turn to the Occult

There is a lot of confusion these days as to what comes from God and what does not. I am talking in particular about things like going to fortune tellers, Tarrot card readers, psychics, playing the Ouija board, or going to mediums, and many other practices that come under the general term of Occult. A lot of people just consider them harmless fun; besides what could possibly be wrong with them?Well the first thing is that God expressly warns us in the Scriptures to stay away from them. In the book of Deuteronomy it says:

You must not have in your midst anyone... who practices divination, or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices enchantments or who consults the spirits, no diviner, or one who asks questions of the dead. For the Lord abhors those who do these things (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

And in another book it says, ‘Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you. I, the Lord, am your God’ (Leviticus 19:31).

Now I would like to try and explain why these things are a problem for us, because the Lord God doesn’t just give us rules for the sake of rules. If God tells us to stay away from something it is with good reason, just like you will tell your children to stay away from the fire or they’ll get burned. The Lord does the same for us, telling us what to avoid if we want to stay healthy.

So why are these things, which are now available everywhere, a problem? The first and most important reason is that they interfere with our free will. Our free will is an extraordinary gift which the Lord has given us, because it means that we have the freedom to do anything we choose, be it good or evil, although of course the idea is that real freedom is freedom to choose what is good. We can even reject God if we choose. It is an extraordinary thing that the Lord who has created us respects us enough even to giving us the freedom to reject him, and sadly some people do this by the way they live. Going to fortune tellers or any of these other things that I mentioned is basically an attempt to gain knowledge of the future. The problem is that if we have any kind of knowledge of the future it is going to influence our freedom to choose, because we will probably start acting out of fear or what we think might be going to happen. The Lord does not want us to be afraid, but to be at peace. That is why the Lord does not reveal the future to us. We don’t need to know it. If we did, He would show us, because He wants the very best for us.

The second reason why these things are a problem for us, is that by dabbling in them we are going directly against something God has asked us, which is a way of creating an obstacle between us and God. We sin when we do this. And spiritually speaking they can also have a hold or influence over us. If God does not reveal the future to us, then where is this information coming from? It is not coming from the Lord, even if the fortune teller starts off by praying the Hail Mary, which I know some of them do.

I worked with an exorcist priest friend of mine for a while and saw first-hand the mess that some people get themselves into by dabbling in these things that the Lord tells us to keep away from. They are very real. Satan is cunning and will do anything to lead us away from God, because he hates us as God’s creation. And yes I did say Satan, which may surprise you, but if Satan is not real then Jesus is a liar, because Jesus frequently mentioned him in his teaching.

I guess we have to ask ourselves do I believe what Jesus said is true or not? Either the Bible (the Scriptures) is the word of God or it isn’t. If it is, we have good cause to listen to it. If it’s not true, then what are we doing here?

The Lord wants the very best for us and will continually guide us along the right path, the path that will help us to reach our full potential as human beings. But sometimes we get misled and go astray. That’s not a problem so long as we recognise it and come back again. I’m sure you want God’s blessing for your lives and for your families, just as I do. But if we mess with what God expressly tells us to stay away from, we will be blocking God’s help from us.

If you have dabbled in any of these things at any stage, confess it, which is what the Lord asks us to do. By confessing it you break any spiritual hold that it can have over you. By repenting of it you also open the door to God’s grace as well.

In the readings today the Lord is assuring us that He does and will answer our prayers. We have to trust the Lord in this. God only speaks truth. If God has assured us of his help, then we would be foolish to look for any spiritual help from any other source. We know that God wants the very best for us and if we believe that then we must also listen to what He tells us to do and what He tells us to avoid.

‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’

Saturday, October 9, 2010

28th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 17:11-19) The need to give thanks to God for everything.

I often find it amusing when it is lashing rain and someone says to me, ‘isn’t it an awful day?’ And I say, ‘yes it is, thank God’. I usually get a weird look that says, ‘what do you mean ‘thank God’?’ But why should we not thank God just because it is raining? The rain may not suit us always, the sun may not suit others always, but that’s no reason not to give thanks to God for it. It is a gift from him, like many other things, even if it doesn’t suit us.

We tend to see our world or universe as being the center of things, often with God as an optional extra as it were; someone on the outside. However, it is in fact the other way around. God is at the center of things and we are the optional extra. We were created by God and we need not be here. Now you might think that that makes us pretty small and insignificant in many ways. Well it does. We are. We like to think of ourselves as extremely important, especially the higher up we get in the world. But the fact is we are all the exact same with the same need for God. Once we begin to recognise this it actually makes life a lot easier because it takes a lot of pressure off us. The world doesn’t depend on us alone to save it. The future of the human race isn’t being sustained by me alone. The people of Galway aren’t depending on me as a priest to say the right thing, to make sure they all get to heaven and it’s just as well!

The governments today often talk about their decisions as though they themselves were God, as though the future of the human race was solely in their hands. Fortunately for us all it is not. We are important of course, and we certainly have a big responsibility to do the right thing in the world and to make sure that there is a good future for those who come after us, but the Lord God of heaven and earth is also there helping us. So we have a lot to be thankful for.

At the moment we are living in a time when we are hearing almost nothing but bad news, how awful everything is and how little hope there is. It is very hard not to be affected by it when we are getting this from the news on an hourly basis, not to mention all the chat shows. By their nature news programs tend to dwell on bad and dramatic news, but I think it is important for us not to let that be the main influence on the way we think, or we will begin to see the world as a very dark place. Sure we are in harder times and there are plenty of problems, but the fact is that most of us are surviving. I would imagine that everyone here has enough to eat, has a roof over their heads at night. We probably have a car to get around in and we are probably able to provide for our children, even if it is not as lavish as we would like. The truth is we have an awful lot to be grateful for.

When I find myself becoming negative and wishing things were better—and believe me I complain just as much as anyone!—I find it a great help to start giving thanks to God for as many things as possible. In the morning I say, ‘thank you Lord for a good night’s rest; thank you for a hot shower and a breakfast to eat. Thank you that I have decent clothes to wear and enough money in my pocket to survive. Thank you for the friends I have and also for the people I don’t like. I also try not to listen to too many news programs during the day as they tend to get me down. Remember that all of the things we listen to during the day do affect how we think and how we see the world.

Think for a moment about the teachings of Jesus during his life on earth. They are very positive, very encouraging and very compassionate. Even when he spoke about the end of the world and the disciples said, ‘when will this happen?’ He basically said, ‘don’t worry about that. It doesn’t concern you.’ The Lord asks us to do our best to love and serve while we are here on earth. Then when our time is complete He will bring us home to be with him. That makes it very simple. We just do our best and try to stay focused on the one who gives us life and gives us everything we have.

So maybe the next time you want to ask God’s help for something in prayer, and rightly so, take a moment first to thank God for the many things He has given you and then ask for your needs. And maybe even thank God for the rain the next time it’s lashing and you’re about to get soaked!

In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid, I have overcome the world.’

Saturday, October 2, 2010

27th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 17: 5-19) Life is sacred

By the age of 18 most people have seen approximately 30,000 murders on TV. That is quite a staggering number. When soldiers went to Vietnam and shot the enemy, they expected to see the enemy get up again. Killing them wasn’t real. Life has become cheap.

As a priest I worked in a local hospital for a few years and also in the hospice for the last four years. When you see many people die in the hospital it makes you think a lot. People say to me, it must be very depressing; but it’s not, it’s just very real. It can be very beautiful, especially if you have faith, because what you see happening is someone going from this life into the next, and that is a great privilege. It is also a very spiritual experience. One minute you are looking at a living breathing person, with a personality and different characteristics peculiar to them. The next minute you are just looking at a body. Something has changed. It’s not just that the body has stopped working, there is much more to it than that. The spirit has gone, the soul has moved on to the next world; and this is so real. What’s left in front of you is only a body. It’s not the person you knew, only part of that person, because we are body and soul.

If we were just a body, just flesh and bones, then we wouldn’t be able to have ideas, or hope, or faith, and above all, we wouldn’t be able to love. Love is very much a mark of the human soul. It is God given. It tells us that there is something of God in us.

If you didn’t know the patient lying in the bed in a personal way, they could be just anybody. But when you know them then their soul speaks to you and that’s why death hurts so much, because of the separation, the loss of love. This is one of the gifts that God has given us which resemble him: the ability to love. It is this ability to love that makes us beautiful. Even if I don’t have the most beautiful body, it doesn’t matter, because the soul is what is really attractive, not the body. The more we learn to love, the more beautiful we become.

When God creates us he gives us a spirit, which will live forever. Imagine all of us here in this church will live forever. The people you know who have died are still alive in a different world. We will see them again. When God creates us, we are created in his image and this means that we have the potential to become more like him. The more like him we become, the more beautiful we become, because God is beautiful. That’s what holiness is: closeness to God. As we come closer to God our spirit or soul becomes more beautiful because we are becoming more like God. Holy people reflect God best and that is why they attract others like magnets, because they are beautiful. That is also why God keeps calling us to holiness, because God wants us to be beautiful.

We believe that our souls are there since the first moment of conception and this is why life is sacred, because it comes from God, and returns to God.

Much of Mother Teresa’s work in India, was taking dying people off the streets and helping them to die with dignity. She didn’t try to convert them, or try to make them live longer, she just helped them to die with people around them who showed them love. Why? because God is in each of us and so each life is sacred.

Sometimes you will hear it said that protecting life has nothing to do with God or religion, but I would say the opposite. It really only makes full sense when you remember where we come from. If God had nothing to do with it, then it couldn’t really be that sacred. But we believe that life is totally sacred and so we must protect it always, no matter what the arguments are against it. Every life is sacred, since it comes from God.

‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)