Saturday, April 20, 2013

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


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

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

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

In 2003 Ragheed returned to Iraq.  It was now a very different country to the one he had left.  To get into the country he told me that he had to fly into Syria and then take a bus across the border.  I received a few emails from him after he returned.  He said that there was a curfew almost every night and that it was becoming more and more difficult for the Christian community there.  One day he sent me an email with photos of his church on fire.  He said that gunmen had come in and taken him out at gunpoint.  He thought he was going to be shot, but instead they blew up the church.  Ragheed was able to return to Rome at least twice over the next three years, and I met him on one of those visits.  He had put on some weight, and he said that this was because he could not go outside to exercise, as it was too dangerous.  As time passed more and more of his parishioners began to leave and those of us who knew him worried for his safety.  Whoever could afford to leave the parish got out.  

Ragheed knew that staying on in Iraq was becoming increasingly dangerous, but he believed that that was where God was asking him to be.  In spite of death threats and the obvious danger, he continued to minister to his people and they continued to come to pray and celebrate Mass.  One of the neighbouring churches was hit by a car bomb killing two people and injuring many.  The bishop’s house was blown up and Ragheed’s sister was injured by a grenade which was thrown at her while she was going to clean the church in preparation for Sunday mass.  In spite of this Ragheed and the other priests continued to minister to their people.

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

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

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

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

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

‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.  I know them and they follow me.’

Saturday, April 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 6, 2013

2nd Sunday of Easter, Year B (Gospel: John 20:19-31) Do not be afraid

As a child—I think it was because I had such a vivid imagination—I seemed to be afraid of almost everything.  Maybe it’s because of that, but today I hate to see anyone afraid.  Sadly at the moment there are many people living in fear, especially fear of not being able to cope or provide for their families because of all that is happening.  It is very understandable and yet it is also one thing that God does not want for us.  365 times in the Scriptures are the words ‘Do not be afraid.’  God wants us to be at peace.

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

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

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed the Lord by my actions.  Sometimes I even wish I was not a priest, because then I would not have to deal with what is sacred.  It is difficult to have to deal with the sacred when you are aware that you are a sinner.  It is easier to run and hide.  Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish.  Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease.  ‘Peace be with you.’ 

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

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

In this gospel Jesus also gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins in his name.  Why? So that we need not ever be living in fear of God.  Through the priesthood we have the concrete reassurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we can move on when we have done wrong; so that we need not live in fear.  No condemnation, only encouragement and love.

Peace be with you.  It is I, do not be afraid.’