Thursday, October 30, 2014

Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed (All Souls) The souls of the just are in the hands of God

  Today we remember all those who have gone before us in death. For most if not all of us, death is probably the hardest thing that we have to face. It is cruel because it brings up so many questions and gives us so few answers and worst of all, the person we love is snatched from us and we can no longer communicate with them. We don’t know where they are, or how they are, although we believe that they are with God, but we don't know exactly what this means.

We are never ready for someone to die, even if they have been sick for a long time.  However I think it’s good to remember that although a person’s death comes as a shock to us, it is not a surprise to God.  The Lord had been expecting them. From all eternity God has known the exact moment when they would die. To me that thought always puts things in perspective. It reminds me that there is something bigger going which we often lose sight of.  All things are in the Lord’s hands.

When someone dies we try to remember the good things about them.  We generally don’t talk about their faults, but we remember all the goodness that was in them and it is good that we do that.  All of us hope to be remembered for the good we do rather than the mistakes we make.  Having happy memories of someone is really a great compliment to them, because it tells us that there was great goodness in them, as there is in most people. 

The purpose of our life on earth is to learn how to love and to serve and then hopefully to chose to love and serve. God has given us the freedom to do either. All of us, no matter what our life situation, have the same opportunities to love and serve. Even if we are living on the street in miserable circumstances or the president of a big company, we still have the possibility to love and serve. It starts with the people around us, who can often be the most difficult to love.

In the western world because of better conditions and standards of living, which is a wonderful thing, it is very easy to lose sight of death and the purpose of our life. We are continually given the impression that this world is all about trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and to acquire as much as possible for ourselves and our children. There is nothing wrong with trying to have a good standard of living, but it is so important that we realize that this is not the primary purpose of our life. In the more developed countries even death is quite removed from us and often dressed up in ‘sweetness’ where we hardly get to see the person who has died and the ugliness of death. In poorer countries people are often more in tune with the reality of death because they are being faced with it in a very real way all the time. While this might seem cruel, it is probably a lot healthier from a spiritual point of view, as it keeps us in tune with the shortness of our life and reminds us that our life here on earth is by no means the whole picture.

There is a lovely line in St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth which reads: ‘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).  The whole point of what we believe in is that not only is there a life after this one, but that this is what God has created us for and offers to us.  It is up to us if we choose it or not.  The death and resurrection of Jesus has made eternal life possible for us. We believe that we will see our loved ones again if they have chosen for God in this life and most people do. We choose for God by the way we live and not just by the practice of a particular religion. This also reminds us that those who have never heard of Jesus or Christianity have the same chance of eternal life as the rest of us. It primarily depends on the choices we make throughout our life for good or evil, for God or against God.  Our belief in the world to come is what gives us hope, the hope that something wonderful awaits us and that the struggles we go through here on earth, which are part of what helps us grow into better people, are worth while.

The difficult part for us is that we are left behind with so many questions and so few answers.  Why do people get sick?  Why do good people suffer?  What happens after death? and so on.  But Jesus’ words in the Gospels remind us to trust him and to believe that God will make sense of it eventually.  It doesn’t make sense to us now, but it doesn’t have to.  That is part of the struggle of faith, that so much doesn’t make sense.  It would be so much easier if we could see where our loved ones are now, but for now that is hidden from us.  We trust and hope in what Jesus has taught us and this is what helps us to keep going. For now we do our best to love and serve and believe.

The souls of the just are in the hands of God

Saturday, October 25, 2014

30th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 22:34-40) You must love the Lord your God above all else... and your neighbour as yourself

I remember hearing the story of an attorney in the US who had no time for religion.  Each morning as he drove to work he would pass an old woman in his neighbourhood who was on her way to mass.  He would usually pass her as she made her way up a steep hill near the church.  This hill was difficult for her because it was very steep, but she was determined to get to mass.  In his mind he laughed at her and at the stupidity of those who waste their time with such things as religion. 

One morning in winter it was quite icy and as he headed off to work he didn’t expect to see the woman as the paths were dangerous.  Then to his astonishment he passed her making her way up the steep hill on her hands and knees.  The mass meant so much to this woman that she would get there no matter what.  Apparently this brought about his conversion, he was so shocked at what he saw.

In recent years many people have dropped away from going to church or to mass.  Many younger people especially don’t seem to be able to relate to organised religion.  In one way I am not at all surprise at this, because it has been presented in such a negative way.  So often the Church is seen as an oppressive organisation which is obsessed with rules, regulations and strange rituals.  Who would want to be part of such a thing?  I certainly wouldn’t if that was how I saw it.  I believe what many people are searching for is an authentic experience of God, which must come before rules and regulations.  For many people, this is what is missing. Once our relationship with God begins to grow, then the rules and regulations begin to fit into place, but it cannot be the other way around.

It is tempting to think that it is all over for the Church and organised religion, and that it is only a matter of time before it is gone.  This would be true if it came down to human power only, but remember that behind what we can see is the power of God at work.  Whenever the Church seems to be going ‘stale’, or seems to be less inspiring for people, God raises up men and women who inspire us again and to point us in the right direction. 

A few years ago I read a book called The Heavenly Man about a young man in China to whom God began speaking when he was just sixteen.  He was born in 1958, which means he is only 56 today.  This man Yun, was not a Christian and knew hardly anything about God, but God revealed himself to him and used him to start spreading the Christian faith in China.  He suffered terrible persecution from the authorities, who did everything they could to try and stop him.  He was imprisoned several times and at this stage lives outside of China.  Although he came from an extremely poor background and had almost no education, God filled this man with such fire that thousands of people all over China came to believe in God through him.  People were very inspired by him because his faith was obviously something alive and on fire. That kind of faith is always contagious.  He is just one example of the many ways that God puts life back into his Church.  

Another way it seems to be happening today is through a mystic I mentioned a few months back known as Anne a lay apostle.  Through her a whole movement has started which is known as Direction for Our Times and that's exactly what it is. She is a mother of six, and through her books many people are also being inspired to grow in their relationship with God.  Since 2005 when her writings started to be published, over one million copies have already been sold worldwide and her writings have already been translated into numerous languages.  They can hardly keep up with the demand.  The reason why this is happening is because we need inspiration and so the Lord God sends us the people we need to help us.

The one thing that is striking about all these different people and how God uses them, is that people are reintroduced to God through a relationship with him.  The experience of God has to come first and then the various rules begin to fit into place, because then and only then, people want to know how they are supposed to live that relationship.

How does this apply to us?  Well first I think it is good to know that all these people are being inspired so that we don’t become discouraged.  It is also a reminder of how close the Lord is to us and looking after our needs. What we are called to do is to live our faith as well as we can.  If God is at the heart of all that we do, then we are constantly bearing witness to the people around us.  Our love for God has to be in the first place. Everything else comes from this. 
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.

The more difficult challenge for us is to be able to love, respect and be tolerant of the people around us, who can often be challenging and difficult. However, the strength and ability to love and respect the people around us comes from our relationship with God. That’s why the commandment to love God has to be first. The more our relationship with God develops, the more we are enabled to love the people around us. We need grace, or what you might call divine help to do this. That is why we keep returning to mass each week, to be guided and inspired by the word of God and then to receive the Eucharist—Jesus himself—into our own bodies. With this divine strength and help we are enabled to love the people around us.
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind...and your neighbour as yourself.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

29th Sunday of year A (Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21) ‘Who do you belong to?’

I always smile when I hear this Gospel because it reminds me so much of what you hear on the TV and radio when someone being interviewed is pushed into a corner and the journalist tries to force them to give a yes or no answer. ‘Do you agree with this proposal or not, yes or no?’ They try to catch people out. They were doing the same thing 2000 years ago at the time of Jesus too. Should we pay taxes or not; yes or no? If Jesus answered yes he was acknowledging the Roman occupation, if he said no, he was insulting the emperor. But in his wisdom he gives a response which completely catches them out because he looks at it from a totally different perspective. He basically says, ‘Who do you belong to?’ It is right that we respect the laws and customs of the country we live in, but if we see ourselves as children of God primarily, then our loyalty belongs to God first. We pay our debts to our society and government through taxes and working to make it a better society because we have a duty to do so, but our goal is a much greater one than this world. Using our gifts and talents gives glory to the Father in heaven who has given us all these gifts. And it is good that we develop our talents to the best of our ability.

We often hear about the importance of protecting and saving American lives and trying to improve the American economy and there is nothing wrong with that.  But a Christian perspective reaches farther and so we talk about the importance of protecting human lives, not just people who belong to one country or another. We take pride in our own nation and so we should, but faith transcends borders and doesn’t, or certainly shouldn’t discriminate between different people. We see ourselves as children of God first, regardless of where we come from and regardless of what we believe. Ultimately we believe we will end up in the same place with God if we make that choice.

Coming here to the US from Ireland has helped me to see that in a new light. I take pride in my country as all of us do, but it is a wonderful thing to be able to go to another country and preach the same message of Jesus there, regardless of different customs and laws. The laws of God don’t change. The call of Jesus is the same to us no matter where we come from and how we see the world and there is a great freedom in that. Politics changes and governments come and go, but the presence of Jesus is the same everywhere and is much greater than anything we will ever encounter in this world.

Who do we belong to? The money is stamped with a government mark. It belongs to the government. What stamp is on us? 

Sometimes one of the things that happens when we are faced with something like Ebola and all these other frightening things around the world, is that they make us sit up and listen. We suddenly start thinking about what is really important. If one of your children or someone close to you becomes sick, the things that we consider important usually change drastically. We ask different questions and probably more important ones. Who do I belong to? What is my life on earth about? Is it just about acquiring as many comforts and material things as possible, or are these things really trivial? When we are faced with possible catastrophies they help us to listen and hear what is important.

Who do I belong to?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

28th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14) Our faith gives us hope

 About a year after I was ordained there was a TV program which interviewed four priests asking them about their experience of priesthood and the Church.  I was one of the priests.  The reason why I mention it is because I was really struck by the response that I got from people afterwards.  Many of the people who wrote to me or phoned me were priests and they nearly all had the same thing to say; they were delighted to hear people being so positive about the Church.  They were greatly encouraged.  It gave them hope.

It really made me think to myself just how much we need to have hope at the moment.  We need a reason to get up in the morning.  We need a reason to keep going when we are struggling and most people are struggling a lot of the time.  The reason for our hope is that we believe in God and in what God has promised us.  We hear so much bad news, how many people have been killed, where the latest war is.  A phrase I keep hearing on the news these days is, ‘So just how worried should we be?’   Is it any wonder so many young people have committed suicide in the last few years.  They have lost hope, they feel there is nothing to live for and this is very sad.

When you look around you at the moment it would be easy to think that God has lost the battle and that Satan has won.  Evil has been victorious and God has been defeated. Could this be possible?  In the beginning of St. John’s Gospel it says, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it’ (Jn 1.6).

The first reading of the mass is a reading of great hope. It is often used at funerals.  It is the promise that God has great things in store for us.  ‘The Lord will prepare a banquet for his people’.  A party, a feast, this is what God has in store for us and we are all the time preparing for that feast, which we call heaven.

When we try to see things through the eyes of faith, we see something different.  It doesn’t mean everything is suddenly alright, and all our problems are gone, but it does give us a different perspective.  We also begin to realise that much of what seemed impossible before is no longer impossible, because we don’t rely on our own strength, but on God’s power to help us.

Our hope is in God and that’s why even if someone is suffering terribly, or sick, or even if they die, we don’t despair, because we know that God has not abandoned us.  We believe that we will see them again. That is the hope our faith gives us.

The Gospel today talks about the wedding feast to which all of us are invited. But then there is the strange part where the King sees a man who has managed to get in without a wedding garment and he is thrown out. What does this mean? One way to understand it is that we cannot take it for granted, or be indifferent about coming into God’s kingdom, about heaven. We have to consciously make a choice for God and we have to try and live accordingly, trying to live as we are asked, making an effort to live as the Lord asks us to. Indifference is not an option and Jesus was very strong about this in his teaching. All of us must make a choice.
On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will provide for all peoples
a feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations;
he will destroy death forever.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

27th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43) The gift of life

I want to begin by reading for you a few lines from a very famous person and see if you can guess who it is.  It is not the kind of thing you would expect to hear from them.

'Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long  & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—...God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—‘My God’ and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.'—p1.
(—Mother Teresa: Come be my Light, (edit.) Brian Kolodiejchuk, London: Rider Books, 2007).

This is not the kind of thing you expect to hear from Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, the woman who radiated God wherever she went.  People flocked to see and hear her because they felt such a wonderful sense of God’s presence when they were with her. This is what she was experiencing internally for most of her life as a nun.

In 1982 the graduation class of Harvard University managed to get her to address them.  An unusually large crowd was there to hear her, as you would expect. She spoke about the terrible spiritual poverty of the Western world.  People are hungry for Jesus. She recalls one experience she had in Mexico.
I never forget when we went to Mexico, and we went visiting very poor families. And those people we saw had scarcely anything in their homes, and yet nobody asked for anything. They all asked us: Teach us the word of God. Give us the word of God. “They were hungry for the word of God. Here, too, in the whole world there is a terrible hunger for God, among the young especially. And it is there that we must find Jesus and satisfy that hunger.

Mother Teresa was and is a constant reminder to us not just of the need to look after the poor, but of the deepest hunger that all of us have to find God, to understand what our life is about.  We can only make sense of that through faith.  Apart from God our life is meaningless.

She also addressed something which people don’t like to hear: that is, the terrible sin of abortion, where our world has come to justify the taking of a human life because it is inconvenient for us.  Here is what she said:
‘It is something unbelievable that today a mother, herself, murders her own child, afraid of having to feed one more child, afraid to educate one more child.  This is one of the greatest poverties. A nation, people, family that allows that, that accepts that, they are the poorest of the poor.

Virginity is ‘the most beautiful thing a young man and a young woman can give each other.  Make a resolution, that on your wedding day you can give each other something beautiful.’ ‘But, she said, ‘if a mistake has been made, have the courage to accept the child.  Do not destroy it.  That sin is a murder.’

This month we are praying especially for the protection of life, from conception to natural death.  For us, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that apart from faith, it is very easy to justify getting rid of what is an inconvenience for us.  So we call it a fetus instead of a human being. We can call it terminating a pregnancy instead of killing a child.  This is where our faith calls us to continue to take a stand, because we understand that as soon as a child is conceived, not only is there the beginning of a human being, but also a soul that will live forever.  That is also why we talk about pro-creation, creating with God.

The other side of this is that we also do everything to support young women who find themselves pregnant and that we support the many women and men, who have been hurt by abortion.  In confession we hear this more and more and people are often afraid that God will not forgive them.  Of course God will forgive us the mistakes we make if we repent and ask for forgiveness.  That is what the whole death and resurrection of Christ is about; forgiving us because of the mistakes we continue to make and there is no sin too great.  So let us take great courage in knowing that the Lord is with us, even when we go wrong.  I think it will only be when we die ourselves that we will realize what an extraordinary gift each life is.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.