Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas (Gospel: John 1:1-18) The Word was made flesh and lived among us

This is a story I heard recently from an old Dominican priest I lived with.  He spent 25 years in India and had many fascinating experiences of faith there.  He told me the following story about a young girl called Asha. 

Asha, who was a Brahman (high cast) and a Hindu, went to Mary Immaculate school.  As happens with many children there she got encephalitis, a disease which causes the brain to swell.  Apparently about 500 children in India die from it each year.  Asha got encephalitis in Nov and had to be hospitalised.  She quickly began to deteriorate.  In mid December she went into a coma and on the 23rd Dec the doctors said she was not going to improve.  She only a short time to live.

On Christmas eve, her mother who was staying in the hospital in a bed beside her, saw lots of different coloured lights over her bed and a man standing with his hands extended over her daughter.  The next day, Christmas day, Asha woke up at 7.30am for the first time.  She asked her mother for something to eat.  Then she said, ‘What day is today?’  Her mother said it was the 25th of December.  Asha said, ‘Today is the day of the Christians.  Can you turn on the radio so I can hear some of the Christians’ songs.’  The doctors were astonished and had no explanation for what had happened.  Asha was completely healed.

About a week later the mother came to the convent school even though it was still closed for Christmas and asked to see the head mistress.  She said to her, ‘I think your Jesus healed my Asha.’  And she said, ‘Do you have a picture of Jesus?’  The sister showed her a picture on the wall but she said, ‘No that’s not him.’  10 days later Asha’s mother was back in the school for something and she happened to see on the wall a picture of a man getting into a boat.  It was a picture of Jesus getting into a boat in Galilee.  She pointed up at the wall and said, ‘That’s him.’

‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us and we saw his glory.’
Jesus, the Word of the eternal Father, is still among us.

Happy Christmas to one and all.

Friday, December 20, 2013

4th Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 1:18-24) Who will save me from this wretched state?

Today I want to address a question that often comes up when people are talking to me in confession and it is related to what we celebrate at Christmas.  Actually it is more of a fear than a question.  Almost everyone talks about a particular thing that they struggle with, whether it be anger, gossip, a sexual weakness, an addiction, or whatever; and it causes no end of suffering and humiliation.  No matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to overcome it.  In fact I’ve often heard people say to me that they don’t feel there is any point in going to confession anymore because they just end up confessing this same sin again and again and they don’t seem to be getting any better, so where’s the point?  It can also make us afraid that we won’t be able to go to heaven because of our weakness.  ‘Since I can’t overcome this sin, why would God allow me to go to heaven?’  That is usually the thinking behind it.  However, when we think like that I believe we are really missing the whole point of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The truth is that no matter how hard we try to be holy and overcome our sins, our weaknesses, we continually fall short of the mark.  That is our reality.  When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul put it like this:
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are redeemed by his grace as a gift… to be received by faith (Rom 3:23ff).

In plain English that is saying to us, since all of us have sinned and can never be good enough for God, it is God himself who has made up the difference for us.  God has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The fact that we will always be sinners and will always struggle with various weaknesses is no longer a problem, because God has made us ‘good enough’ through what Jesus did.  That is what being ‘redeemed’ means.  We cannot get to heaven by our own strength, by our own efforts, because we are too weak and too sinful and no matter how hard we try we keep falling.  But we don’t have to be afraid of that because Jesus has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves.  He has bridged the gap.

St. Paul struggled with some kind of weakness that caused him great humiliation in spite of the fact he had various visions of Jesus and of heaven.  Listen to what he says about it:
I do not understand my own behaviour; 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)

And finally he says, ‘Who will save me from this wretched state?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’  That is the exact fear that people keep saying to me in confession: ‘Who will save me from this wretched weakness?  How can I ever come before God in heaven when this is what I’m like?’  This is where God calls us to realise what Jesus has done for us and that can be a key turning point in our faith, because once we realise this then there is nothing for us to be afraid of.  It no longer matters that we struggle with sin.  God has made up for our weakness himself.  That is why the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas is such an extraordinary event, because it is the beginning of God making up for our weakness, our sinfulness.  Jesus has made himself the bridge between God and humanity.  Now we can come before God without fear because Jesus has made it possible.  

Each time we celebrate the mass we are becoming present to that event—the sacrifice of Jesus—which made it possible for us to go to heaven.  No other sacrifice or offering to God will ever be necessary for us, because the selfless act of Jesus dying for us has done everything necessary.  All we have to do is to accept it.  No wonder we celebrate the mass every day, in every church all over the world.

The mistake we continually make, which causes us to be afraid, is to think that we have to become ‘good enough’ for God by our own efforts.  But the problem is that that is impossible for us by our own strength.  If we stop there, then we would have every reason to despair.  But once we realize that it is Jesus who steps in and bridges the gap, then we have endless hope, because it no longer depends on us being good enough.  All we have to do is accept this extraordinary gift from God.

So is Christmas relevant to us in a practical way in our day to day living?  It totally is, because the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus is what reassures us that no matter how much we struggle, the path to heaven will always remain open to us as long as we ask God for it.  All we have to do is accept from God this amazing gift which He is offering us.

‘Who will save me from this wretched state? 
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ’  (Rom 7:24).

Saturday, December 14, 2013

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11) Prepare a way for the Lord

Today we celebrate the third Sunday of advent and we light the rose coloured candle.  It is also called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ which means ‘rejoice.’  Advent was originally a penitential time like Lent, in order to prepare for Christmas.  This Sunday was meant to give everyone a break from the penitential focus in order to remind us that the Lord’s coming is near and it is something to rejoice in.

Advent is also meant to be a time of hope for us, because the one who is coming to help us is Lord of heaven and earth, the master of the whole universe and all things are subject to him.  John the Baptist painted a pretty frightening picture of him as the one who would come to judge all people and bring justice to the earth.  But what is also important to remember is that this extraordinary person of Jesus is coming to help us, not to condemn us.

I wonder if John the Baptist came here today what he would say to us.  One thing I am pretty sure of is that it would disturb us, because that is what he did.  He disturbed people by what he said.  He preached with passion and told people to change, to repent, to begin again.  What exactly did he ask people to do?  He asked them to repent of their sins, to change their way of life, to be open to God.  He challenged the religious leaders (the equivalent of bishops and priests) to beware of how they lived, as they would be accountable before God.  Their lives must bear fruit.  Wearing religious clothes (like the Roman collar I wear as a priest) is no guarantee that a person is pleasing to God.  What is important is how I live my life.  It’s interesting how King Herod had John arrested because he denounced him for doing what was morally wrong, namely marrying his brother’s wife.  But Herod was troubled by John because he knew he was a holy man and liked to listen to him.  He knew that John was right.

The message of the Gospels which we read and talk about each week is a wonderful message of hope, but it is also a message which never lets us get too comfortable, because if we get too comfortable in ourselves we stop growing.  This is something that Pope Francis is reminding us of in no uncertain terms.  We must live what we profess, especially looking out for those who are poor. 

If John the Baptist came here and preached today I think he would probably say things like, ‘Confess your sins to the priests, as God asks you to;  be faithful to your marriage; sacrifice yourselves for your children; learn to forgive each other and don’t be seeking revenge when things go wrong.  Stop suing each other.  Be just to your employees.’  To us priests he would probably say, ‘Make sure you are living what you preach and sacrificing yourselves for the people you have been sent to serve; don’t let yourselves get too comfortable and make sure God is at the heart of all that you do.  Be obedient to your bishops.’  We don’t usually want to be challenged in this way, but this is what the Lord presents us with.

Every year as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, when God ‘pitched his tent among us’, the most important preparation we can make is the preparation of the heart.  We begin again.  We look honestly at ourselves and how we live.  Do we need to change?  Probably; because it is easy to become lax and indifferent to the struggles of the people around us.

When the Lord challenges us to look at ourselves and begin again, it is not to make us feel guilty or inadequate; rather it is to help us to grow.  God pushes us, if you like, helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.
Because John the Baptist spoke the truth and challenged people with strong words, it cost him his life.  Jesus was killed because he spoke the truth.  All the Apostles and most of the Prophets were killed too.  We don’t like to be told we need to change, but if we wish to continue to grow closer to God then we must remove everything that prevents us from coming closer to him.
Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’

Saturday, November 30, 2013

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

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

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

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

So for the time of Advent let us ask the Lord to help us hear him again, by being quiet every so often, by stopping what we are doing for a moment and maybe just saying, ‘Come Lord Jesus.’

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) Power in weakness

In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John has a vision of a being that terrifies him.  He describes what he saw like this:
…I saw one like a Son of man… His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze… out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead.  But then the being in the vision touched him and said: ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld’ (Rev 1:17-18). 
Who was this being?  It was of course Jesus, the one that John had lived with for three years.  Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this frightening form?  Perhaps to remind John and us, who he really is.  Not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead.  This is the one we believe in.  When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.
At the moment we are seeing huge changes in the world around us.  So much earthly power which seemed to be untouchable has collapsed over night.  Even the great structures of the Church seem to be shaking.  In many ways it is a very disturbing, even frightening time.  But I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in.  If we put our trust and hope in earthly power we will be disappointed as we know only too well, because people will let us down.  If we rely too much on the human side of our Church we will be disappointed, as we have been.  But the one we trust in and believe in is Jesus the Christ who is God.  All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him.  Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one.  It is not.  There is no question of evil being equal to God.  All things are totally subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.
As a priest—especially at the moment—I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus is the one I worship as God and try to serve.  If I stay focused on the world around me I will find myself getting depressed or disillusioned.  Also if I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church I also find it hard to keep going.  But the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge.  He is master of all things.  What we see happening in the Church at the moment is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin.  And so He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we see happening.  I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him.  There is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power like to show it off and make it felt.  People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off as much.  But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness.  This is an extraordinary thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross.  The Lord God did the exact opposite to what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure.  So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realising that what they looked at was a demonstration of the greatest power of God.  This is why we use the symbol of the cross and why it is so powerful.  This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death. 

St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength.  We are never alone no matter what we are going through.  God is with us.

Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we normally think of power and this is where many people find it hard to accept.  We want something that we can see and touch.  We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all.  But God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.

If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.
Every being in heaven, on earth and under the earth,
shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus;
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Saturday, November 16, 2013

33rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) Your endurance will win you your lives

Advent—which is the beginning of the Church’s year—starts in two weeks, and as we approach the end of the Church’s year, we are reminded of the end of time as well.  The readings for the next two weeks are all about the end of time and reminding us that all things the things around us will eventually come to an end. 

Every so often we hear people say that the end of time is coming, or that the Lord is about to come again, or that God is about to punish the earth for all the evil that is around.  Is this true?  We don’t know.  But what we do know is what the Lord himself said about this kind of thing.  We have it in the Gospel reading today.  He said: ‘Take care not to be deceived, because many will come using my name and saying, ‘I am He’, and, ‘The time is near at hand’.  Refuse to join them.’

The Lord simply asks us to persevere; to persevere with the daily struggle of trying to be a Christian, of trying to pray, to go to mass, to get on with whatever the Lord has given us to do, in married life, in single life, wherever we find ourselves.

If you were to ask what is the most important thing for a Christian to do to keep us going from day to day, I would say without a doubt it is prayer.  Prayer is simply our relationship with God and like any relationship with another person it takes many different forms.  It is as important as eating and sleeping. If you stop eating and sleeping you die physically.  If you don’t pray in some form, you die spiritually.  It is the exact same thing.  When we have some kind of relationship with God it puts things in perspective for us.  It helps us to see what is important and what isn’t.  It helps us to remember what our life is about and what we are called to do each day.  It also helps us not to become overwhelmed by all the gloom and doom around us.  If you know what the purpose of your life is, then it is a lot easier to keep going especially when we are hearing so much negativity around us.  Sure we are in difficult times, but if God is with us, guiding us, then what have we to be afraid of?

But how, you might ask, are we supposed to pray in this crazy and very busy world?  Well it’s like anything else, if we don’t make time for it, it won’t happen.  If we just try and fit it in when everything else is done, we won’t pray, don’t be fooled.  If we see it as a necessary thing, we will make time for it, just as we make time for eating and sleeping; but if we see it as an optional extra, then you will never pray.

Our prayer is the communication line between us and God.  It is simply how we express our relationship with him.  The more we are in tune with God through prayer, the more we will begin to think like God, the more we will begin to reflect the image of God that is in each of us, which is a very beautiful thing.  People who are close to God are beautiful, because they reflect this light of God which is in each of us.

How do I pray?  Think of all the time you spend in your car, or indeed any time you are alone.  We don’t always have to be listening to the radio.  We can choose to turn it off and simply talk to Jesus and tell him about our fears and hopes.  That is prayer.  Spend some time each day thanking God for all things, good and bad.  Tell God about your joys and ask him for your needs.  Spend time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.  Read the Scriptures, the living Word of God.  Stay on for a few minutes after mass and thank God for coming to you in Holy Communion.  Ask God to bless your families and those people you are worried about.  Prayer doesn’t always change the situations that we are praying for, but it does change us.  So we grow and mature and we learn the ways of God.

There are almost as many ways to pray as there are people, and we will all live our relationship with God slightly differently, but what is important is that we do have this relationship with God in some form. 

Do you find that your faith seems empty and boring?  Do you wonder why you even bother with it half the time?  Ask yourself, are you praying, are you reading the Word of God?  And if not, are you surprised that your faith seems boring?

Jesus says to us, ‘Do not be deceived…’ the way to him is very ordinary and involves the same perseverance that anything else requires as well, just like any relationship with another person.  But the Lord also says, ‘Your endurance will win you your lives.’  The path to God isn’t easy, but it is well worth it.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

32nd Sunday Yr C (Luke 20:27-38) Ragheed Ganni and the promise of the world to come

A few years ago I got a phone call from a priest friend of mine in the Irish College in Rome where I had studied for three years.  He told me the sad news that a mutual priest friend of ours had been shot dead in Iraq after celebrating mass.  The priest, Ragheed Ganni, was my next-door neighbour in Rome for two years. You may remember hearing about it.  He had just celebrated Sunday mass, and was with three other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them.  Their car was ambushed, the woman was taken out of the car and the others were shot.  The three deacons had given their time to try and protect Fr. Ragheed, as they knew he was in danger.  When he was forced out of the car, one of the gunmen screamed at him:
 “I told you to close the church.  Why didn’t you do it?  Why are you still here?”  And he simply responded, How can I close the house of God?” 

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

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

Somehow it is when all our material comforts are taken away, that we suddenly realise the importance of having spiritual hope.  It is not as obvious to us because we are fairly comfortable and thankfully we can practice our faith freely.  But it is not so easy for many people in the world right now. However, often when people are suffering for their faith they are much more tuned in to their need for God, their need for the Eucharist.
Just before the war started in Iraq I asked Ragheed what were his fears for his country.  He told me that the problem wasn’t when the Americans moved in, but rather when they would leave again, because then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out.  That is exactly what happened.

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

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

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

During the mass, the words that kept going through my head were the words of the consecration: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’  Those words reminded me of Ragheed’s life.  He was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people so that they could have the Eucharist, the greatest treasure that God has given us.  In the same way the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us as well, so that we might have life.  May the Lord’s promises to us give us grace to be faithful and to keep going when things are difficult.
Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr, pray for us.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

31st Sunday Yr C (Luke 19:1-10) Remembering the dead

There is a lady called Maria Simma (1915-2004) who became famous because the Holy Souls apparently used to appear to her and ask her for prayers for them.  She lived in Austria as a peasant for most of her life.  She tried religious life but was unable to continue because she was too weak physically.  She actually tried three different convents but had to leave each in turn.  She ended up doing simple work and living on her own.  She only received education to the age of 12, but her mother had great devotion to praying for the souls in Purgatory and she seems to have inherited this too. 

The first time a soul appeared to her she was 25 years old (1940) and for the following several years only two or three souls appeared to her over the course of a year.  But then from 1954 onward they continually appeared to her.  In reading about her I found it very interesting to learn what some of the souls said to her.  One case in particular is as follows.  She recalls how a young man appeared to her asking her to pray for him.  He told her the circumstances of his death.  He lived in mountain village somewhere in the Alps (I think).  He wasn’t a very religious man and in fact lived a pretty wild lifestyle.  One year there were a series of avalanches. Then one night while he was asleep there was another avalanche and he woke up to hear the screams of people nearby who were trapped.  He jumped up and rushed out to help them.  His mother tried to stop him screaming, ‘Don’t go out, you will be killed too!’  However, he went anyway and he was killed.  But he explained to Maria Simma that God in his mercy had allowed him to die at a time when he was being most giving, most self-less.  This action had redeemed so much of what he had done wrong in his life. 

That story has always stayed with me since I read it.  God in his mercy gives us the benefit of the doubt.  He goes out of his way to make allowances for us, even excuses for us, you might say.  because that is when all that we have believed in and struggled to be faithful to, will make sense.

When my Grandmother used to hear people using the expression, ‘rest in peace,’ she would sometimes say, ‘I don’t want to “rest in peace” I want to be alive and active!’  I think she had the right idea.  What God has created us for in the world to come is something unimaginably wonderful and that is why God goes to such lengths to make sure we can get there.  The greatest thing God has done for us after giving us the gift of life, is making sure that we can reach that happiness and that is only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  God will do everything to make sure we reach that happiness, but God will not force us because of the free will He has given us, so we must be careful to make the right choices ourselves.

November is the month where we traditionally remember those who have died and it is good that we do.  Starting with the feast of All Saints on Nov 1st we celebrate all those who are in heaven; probably many of our family members who are now saints.  Anyone who is in heaven is a saint. Even though we officially recognise just a few of them, everyone there is a saint.  Then on Nov 2nd we have the feast of All Souls where we pray for all who have died.

Why do we need to pray for the dead?  Aren’t they all in heaven?  Hopefully most of them are, but if you think about yourself for a moment, if you died today, do you think that you would be ready to enter the presence of the all holy God straight away?  I doubt if I would.  Most of us probably need a little refining, or being purified before we are ready for that.  A good analogy is of someone waking up in the morning and being faced with the blinding light of the sun.  Initially even the bedroom light is too much and we have to slowly wait until our eyes adjust; the light of the sun would be absolutely unbearable at first.  The funny thing is that we want to see the sun in the morning because it is beautiful, but at the same time we are not able for it straight away.

Traditionally the Church teaches us about Purgatory, which is the last stage of getting ready to be in God’s presence when we die.  This is not a punishment, rather it is a purification to make us ready for the wonderful presence of God, which we will enjoy for all eternity.  So in fact it is a great gift from God and not something we should be afraid of.  The Church also teaches us that we can help those who are still at that stage of Purgatory by praying for them.  That is why we pray for the dead in every mass we offer throughout the whole year and we remember them especially during the month of November.

In Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he says the following: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19).  In other words if we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point of our faith.  What God teaches us is that we are all the time preparing for the world to come.  This life is a kind of school or training ground, where we are free to love or not, to choose for God or not.  And the choices we make have consequences.  If we keep in mind that something wonderful awaits us, which is what we will experience sooner or later, that helps us not to get too immersed in the world.  We all get distracted and bogged down with the worries of this life, but we need to keep reminding ourselves of what our life is about, so that we don’t waste it. If we keep in mind the thought and hope of the world to come, where we will experience life in a way we can never experience it here, it helps us to keep the right focus.  Death is not something for us to be afraid of; rather it will be the beginning of something unimaginably wonderful.

I leave you with this thought: Why do those who have died not come back to tell us what it is like?  I’m sure it is because they know that it is not necessary for us to know.  The ‘not knowing’ is part of the struggle of faith.  For now we try to believe and trust in what the Lord has taught us: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.  There are many rooms in my Father’s house.  If there were not I would have told you’ (Jn 14:1).

Eternal rest grant to them O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon them.  May they enjoy the happiness that awaits us all.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

30th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:9-14) The need for forgiveness

There is an extraordinary true story about a woman called Corrie Ten Boom, a Protestant living in Holland during the Second World War.  She lived with her sister and father and they used to read the bible every evening after dinner.  During the war as Holland was occupied by the Nazis and Jewish people began disappearing, they ended up hiding people in their home, although they didn’t set out to do this.  Eventually they were caught and sent to one of the Concentration camps in Germany called Ravensbruck.  Her sister and father both died there, but she survived and was eventually released.  When she returned home she began working to help the many people who were so hurt by the war.  And she felt above all that God was calling her to speak about the need for forgiveness.  And so she did, and she was invited to speak all over the country and in other countries.  While speaking in Germany one day, a man came up to her after her talk and thanked her for this message of forgiveness. He said, ‘It is good to know that Jesus forgives all our sins.’  She recognised him as one of the SS officers who had been in charge of their prison.  As he extended his hand to her, she found herself freezing up and unable to respond.  But she realised that if she did not forgive this man who was responsible for the death of her sister and father, all her preaching would be meaningless.  So she found herself praying to God on the spot asking him to forgive this man for her and finally she was able to put out her hand to him.  (The book is called The Hiding Place).  She wrote:
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His.  When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

One of the hardest things that any of us are faced with is trying to forgive people who have hurt us.  Very often the people who hurt us the most are the people closest to us.  When people say to me that they are angry with someone, it nearly always indicates that they need to forgive that person.  Let me try and clear up a few misconceptions about what forgiveness is and is not.

First of all forgiveness is a decision of the will, as opposed to something we feel like doing.  Most of us rarely feel like forgiving someone and if we were to wait until we actually felt like it, we would probably not forgive at all.  When I forgive someone I make a decision to forgive that person because the Lord is asking me to, not because I feel like it.  The reason why it is so important to do that is because when we forgive someone we open up the door to God’s grace to help us begin to heal.  If I refuse to forgive someone I am blocking God from helping me to heal from the hurt.  We are the ones who suffer, not the person we are angry with.

We may think that if I say I forgive someone I am saying that it was ok for them to do what they did.  When we forgive we are not saying that, or that we no longer mind, or that the hurt is all gone.  But when we refuse to forgive someone, we are the ones who suffer.  The anger, hurt and resentment eats away at us inside.  It is a terrible thing to meet people late in their life who have continually refused to forgive.  You can see the bitterness in them and they are a sad sight to see.  None of us want to end up like that.  The good thing is that it is never too late to forgive.

It is easy to think that if I don’t forgive someone they will go on suffering because of what they did.  The truth is that they may not even be aware of it any more.  We are the ones who suffer.  We are the ones who lose out.  The first step in the process of healing from the hurt is to make the decision to forgive them and say the words.  Lord I forgive this person because you ask me to.  It doesn’t mean that everything will suddenly be alright, or that we will suddenly love that person.  In fact we may need to say those words again and again, but slowly we begin to heal.

Another thought is this: We know that we all make mistakes and do wrong.  I’m quite sure that all of us expect and hope that God will forgive us, but Jesus was very clear that we also need to forgive others if we expect to be forgiven ourselves.  Jesus gave some very strong stories about people who refused to forgive, finishing with the words: ‘And that is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you each forgive your brother from the heart’ (Matthew 18:35).  In another place Jesus says:
If you come to the altar to make your offering and there remember that your brother has something against you.  Go and be reconciled with your brother first.  Then come and make your offering (Matthew 5:23-24). 

Finally, remember that lady I mentioned at the beginning, Corrie Ten Boom.  When she was faced with having to forgive the man responsible for the death of her sister and father, she found it nearly impossible, but she prayed for the grace and it was God who enabled her to do it.  By our own strength it is often nearly impossible to forgive, but that is where we turn to the Lord and ask him to help us, and He does.
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us…

Friday, October 18, 2013

29th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:1-8) Telling the future

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?
God expressly warns us in the Scriptures to stay away from such things.  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).

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.  From a spiritual point of view 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 specifically 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 that 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’ (John 10:10)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

28th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 17:11-19) Healing and the forgiveness of sins


In my work as a priest over the last fifteen years I have come across many people who have told me about miracles of healing which they or someone close to them have experienced.  A close friend of mine by the name of Sandra, who is married with 6 children, saw one of her own children miraculously healed at Lourdes a few years ago.  Her son Joe, who was about 7 at the time, was suffering with severe eczema all over his body.  It meant that his skin was raw and bleeding a lot of the time.  He had to be covered in wet bandages from head to toe which took his mother an hour and twenty minutes to put on each time.  They decided to bring him on pilgrimage to Lourdes to pray for him.  While they were there he was brought to the ‘baths’ which is where many of the sick are brought in order to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes as Our Lady told St. Bernadette to do.  After he had been to the baths he started to say, ‘Mom, I’ve been healed!’  She paid no attention to him as he was often playing up as little boys will do.  But then he started to say it to others on the bus and eventually he said, ‘Mom I’ve been healed.  Why don’t you believe me?’  She started to get suspicious at this point and said, ‘I do believe you.’  When they went back to the hotel she took off the bandages and his eczema was almost completely gone.  That is just one of many stories of healing that I have heard and I’m sure there are many of you here who could tell me more.

Why is it that we don’t see more miracles of healing?  Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, so why doesn’t God seem to heal more today?

For two summers I worked as a confessor in Lourdes; just hearing confessions, nothing else.  It was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had as a priest so far, although it was exhausting.  People are amazed when I say that hearing confessions for hours could be such a wonderful experience as most people couldn’t imagine anything more boring.  However, the reason it was so great was because it is where a huge number of miracles take place every day and very real miracles too.  When people are given the grace to be able to confess sins they have been burdened with for years you can physically see a change in their faces.  They are being healed and it is usually a much deeper healing that a purely physical healing.  The body needs healing, but the healing of the spirit is more important because it affects us much more.  Many people came to me and the other priests and confessed sins they were carrying for 20, 30 and even 40 years.  It is a very moving thing to watch the transformation in people’s faces when they realize they have been forgiven.  A weight is lifted off  them and they are made free.  I saw this happen right before my eyes many times and you can tell straight away that this is the healing power of God at work. 

The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was about the forgiveness of sins.  In each mass at the consecration the priest holds up the chalice and says, ‘This is the cup of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’  The mass is all about the forgiveness of sins, because at each mass we are at the event of Calvary when Jesus was killed.  This was all done so that our sins could be forgiven.  That is why the mass is so powerful and that is why we pray for everyone and everything in each mass.  God the Son is offered to God the Father, so that sins may be forgiven.

Because of the way we are made with body and spirit we need concrete ways of relating to each other and we need concrete ways of being able to understand God.  That is one of the reasons why Jesus gives us his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.  They are things we can see and touch and taste.  We can relate to them.  When it comes to the forgiveness of sins Jesus has given us the gift of confession.  Through confession we have a definite way of being able to confess our sins to another person in total secrecy and so to be healed.  Confession is an extraordinary gift of healing which the Lord offers us, because He knows how much we need it.  It’s not just about confessing everything so that we can be good enough for God, because we can never be good enough for God.  This is a gift that God has given us for our benefit, so that we can be healed and not be dragging around the mistakes of our past with us.  The Lord wants us to be free and to be able to enjoy our lives and this is one of the wonderful ways that the Lord has done this.

You may ask, ‘Why can’t I just tell God I’m sorry myself?  Why do I have to go to a priest?’  Well you can if you want to and I’m sure that the Lord forgives us when we do that, but God knows that in our humanity we have a psychological need to confess to another person.  If you don’t believe me listen to the TV and radio chat shows where you find people ‘confessing’ their sins to the whole world every day.  We have a need to confess, because that is what helps us to heal.

Jesus said to his Apostles, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:21–23).  Jesus was saying that He would be working in and through his priests, since it is only God who forgives sins, but the Lord ordered it in such a way that He would offer his forgiveness through his priests.  That is why we have the gift of confession.  It is meant to be a gift, not a burden, but Satan is quick to convince us that we don’t need it; that we can go to God ourselves.  Why should we have to confess to a priest when he is just a sinner?  Of course priests are sinners like anyone else, but this is the gift that God has given us through the priesthood, in order to help us, to heal us and to help us be free.

All through our lives God offers us so many things to help us and I’m quite sure this is one of the greatest gifts of healing that we have, but like everything else that God gives us, it is never forced on us, simply offered, just like the Eucharist.

The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.