Saturday, June 27, 2015

13th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 5:21-43) God created us for life

In the first couple of years of my ministry while I was working as a hospital chaplain, I remember coming across a young girl of about 12 who was very sick.  She was in the hospital several times and she eventually died.  I can still see her pale dead body in the intensive care room and her poor parents who were completely devastated.  I remember feeling so helpless as a chaplain.  I have often prayed for them since.  Every time I read todays Gospel I think of that little girl and her parents.  

An event like that always brings up the most difficult questions.  Why does God allow these things to happen?  Why didn’t God heal her?  The readings today give us some interesting things to think about in regard to this.  First of all death was not something that God wanted for us and although it is now a part of our earthly existence, it is only a stage of transformation, a doorway to the final stage of our life with God. 

The way that Jesus dealt with sickness and death also has a lot to teach us.  Since Jesus was able to heal people and even bring people back from the dead, as he did on a few occasions, why did He always want people to be quiet about it?  In this Gospel He only brought three of his disciples with him and when He got to the house He made as if the girl was not dead at all.  Then he asked the family to keep the whole event quiet.  Why?  You would think that it would be in his favour if people knew and that He would have more respect and that people would listen to him.  Perhaps it was because his primary role was not about healing people physically, even though He had great compassion for people who were sick.  However, his main role involved three things: 
1.    To sacrifice himself for us for the forgiveness of sins, so that we might have eternal life with God when we die.
2.    To show us that God is with us in our sufferings.  Jesus’ freely accepting death on a cross showed us this.
3.    To teach us about God and what our life is all about. 

Jesus wanted to teach us that God is not interested in condemning us, or ‘catching us out,’ rather that God has made us to be with him and that God will make that happen if we allow him to.  During our time on earth God is gradually transforming us and helping us to become the best people we can be, if we are open to it.  The teachings that Jesus left us are the path which leads us through this gradual transformation, so that we become more like God all the time.  Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to be transformed inside, then live the way that I am showing you.  Spend your life loving and serving the people around you.  Don’t always put yourself first and don’t spend your whole life trying to store up a wealth that will disappear the day you die.’  If we get too focused on the world around us, we will miss what our life is really about.

It is tempting to think that that kind of life is only for a few people and that our own life is too difficult or too demanding to be like that; but that is not true. If it were not possible to live this way of life then Jesus would not have taught us about it. The truth is that all of us are given endless opportunities to live the way Jesus taught us, because we are all the time being faced with difficult situations where we continually have to make a choice for good or evil.  All of these choices are shaping us and making us into better or worse people.  The good thing is that even if we have made a mess of many of the choices we’ve been given, God keeps giving us more, because the Lord wants us to grow into the kind of people that He knows we can become.  It is the ordinary struggles that we are faced with every day which are shaping us.

Often at funerals I hear people speaking about the person who has died as if they are gone forever, their existence extinguished, nothing else. But to see it that way is to completely miss the point of what our faith teaches us. What Jesus has taught us is that while we are on earth we are all the time preparing for the world to come, something which is unimaginably wonderful. If we really believe that then we can be happy for those who have gone before us, because they have already reached it, at least if they have chosen it by the way they live. We too have to choose it by the way we live. However, knowing that something wonderful awaits us should give us both a comfort and a hope for those who have died. Sooner or later we will also be there. For now we do our best to try and live as best we can, to continually choose good over evil and to live as God asks us to.

Jesus took the child by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum,”
which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!”
The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walked around.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

12th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 4:35-41) Forgiving what seems impossible

I had my homily all prepared for today’s readings, but in light of the dreadful killings that took place in Charleston, South Carolina, I want to say something different.

I know the whole country is completely horrified at these savage and pointless killings that took place of the 9 African Americans gathered together to pray. But I think what is even more astonishing was to hear the children of one of the women shot dead saying that they forgive the young man who shot her. There was also at least one other woman who said the same thing. Another man who was part of that community was heard praying outside and saying aloud, ‘We know Lord that even out of this you can bring glory.’

Were these people mad or just naive to say such things? No, they are Christians and they have learnt from their faith that above all we are called to forgive and because their faith is alive they were able to do that. It really is astonishing and so inspiring to hear a woman’s children say that they forgive their mother’s killer. I heard another woman say the same thing. She said, ‘I am angry, but our family is a family of love and of faith and so I forgive you.’ She said this face to face to killer. Again, she was able to do this because of her faith.

The natural reaction of pretty much everyone is both outrage and the desire to take revenge. Justice should be brought about and I’m sure it will, but if we let ourselves be consumed by hatred then we become just like the young man who committed these murders. He did it because he was consumed by hatred and a twisted thinking. What we hear about the killings of ISIS is the same. They are also consumed by hatred and a twisted understanding of what they believe. If we hate them back the way they hate those whom they kill, then we are no better than them. We must not allow ourselves to be consumed by hate, but pray to God for the grace to be able to forgive that man and pray that he and all the others who think like that will change, because their thinking has become rooted in pure evil.

So many times in the Gospels Jesus talks about the need to forgive. Why is it so important? Because if we don’t try and forgive those who have hurt us, then we become full of anger and bitterness and hatred and it destroys us. We tend to think that if we go on being angry and resentful towards someone who has hurt us, then they will suffer. They don’t suffer. They may not even be aware that you resent them. We are the ones who suffer and it festers within us until we become more and more bitter. You meet people like this every so often and it is very sad, because you can see how it has destroyed them. That is not what the Lord wants for us.

There are one or two important distinctions to be made about forgiveness which people often overlook. First of all we don’t have to feel like forgiving someone to forgive. You can be sure that none of the people in Charleston feel like forgiving that young man, but they chose to forgive him. It is an act of the will and it doesn’t depend on how we feel. If we waited until we felt like forgiving someone who has hurt us we probably never would, because the pain runs too deep. Secondly: when we make the decision to forgive someone, we open the door to God’s grace to help us to heal. The Lord wants to help us be healed from the hurt, but God cannot help us as long as we refuse to forgive. This is why Jesus spoke about this so many times in the Gospels through parables and stories and above all in the way He taught the disciples to pray: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ That doesn’t mean it is easy, because it’s not. But if we want to heal and move on, then we have to try to forgive.

In reality you might ask, ‘Where could I possibly get the strength to forgive someone who has hurt me deeply—who has killed my mother for not reason!?’ We get the strength to forgive them by staying close to Jesus. That’s why we keep coming back to receive Jesus in the Eucharist at each mass and we can do this every day if we wish. We continually read the Scriptures to listen to what God is saying to us and how God is inviting us to live.

Remember too that when I make the decision to forgive someone, it doesn’t mean that I am saying what they did was alright, or that it doesn’t matter, or that we don’t seek justice. We do, but we also try to forgive so that we won’t become consumed with hatred just like those who have carried out these killings. Otherwise we are no different than they are.

When you find yourself saying that it is impossible to do this, it’s not realistic, remind yourself of that mother’s children and the other people there who said they forgive that man for what he did and asked for mercy for him. Thank God for their courage and bravery to say such a thing and to remind us all who we are called to live.

Friday, June 19, 2015

12th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 4:35-41) God orders all things

One thing that just about all of us struggle with is the problem of suffering.  Why do good people suffer?  Most people are good, yet just about everyone suffers.  Working with the sick I often heard people saying to me, ‘Why has this happened to me, I never did anyone any harm?’  It is the age old problem that comes up for us, where we wonder whether sickness and suffering are a punishment for something we have done wrong.

The readings today give an interesting kind of answer to this question.  The first reading from the book of Job doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense on its own, but the background to it is this: Job is the just man, he represents all those who are just and try to do what it right, but then unexpectedly everything begins to go wrong for him.  He loses all his property and money and even his children, and then he becomes physically ill himself.  Then some friends come to console him and begin a big discussion with him.  They say to him, ‘You must have done something wrong and this is the punishment’.  But he stands firm and says he hasn’t done anything wrong.  This is how most of us react when things start to go badly wrong.  We say, ‘Why is this happening to me?  What have I done wrong?’  God so often seems to be unfair. 

Eventually Job challenges God and says ‘You are in the wrong and You shouldn’t be doing this to me.’  At the end of the book, God answers Job.  And the answer that He gives Job is basically this: He says, ‘Who are you to question me?’  He says to Job, ‘Were you there when I created the universe?  Can you understand all the mysteries of creation?’  What God is saying to us through this book is this: We cannot understand these things, because they are beyond us, but the Lord asks us to trust him. 

Often God 'tests' us through suffering, not in the sense of seeing if we are good enough, but in the sense of making us stronger in our faith, just as you would push an athlete in training to make him or her stronger, or indeed the way you encourage your children to do something better, even though they may resist at first.  You are helping them to grow.  God is also helping us to grow.

It is interesting that at the end of the book God also restores to Job everything that He had lost and gives him back much more than he had initially.  It is a way of calling us to trust in God and reminding us that God is just and will not let us down, but we must hang on.

The Gospel relates to this too. When Jesus stands up and orders the wind and the sea to be calm, to the astonishment of the disciples, the forces of nature obey him.  He is showing them and us that He is master of all things, even the forces of nature. The Lord knows what He is doing.  All things are subject to God and so the Lord continually asks us to trust him.  That is why He says, ‘Why are you so frightened?  How is it that you have no faith?’  God is saying, ‘Of course I know what is going on, but you must trust me.’  None of these events happened by accident.  All of them teach us something. 

We often can’t explain the things that happen to us and we often won’t have good answers for those cynical, but it doesn’t matter.  What we have to do is trust and believe that the Lord is with us and knows what He is doing.

Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him.’

Friday, June 12, 2015

11th Sunday in ordinary time, Year B (Gospel: Mark 4:26-34) The Mustard Seed

Probably one of the most important dates in American Catholicism is August 15th, 1559, a date which means hardly anything to most Catholics. On that date, the feast of the Assumption, on a beach in Pensacola a small group of Catholics celebrated the first mass in what was to become the United States. They were some of the Conquistadors from Spain. No one knows who the priest was, or how many were there, but that is where the first mass was celebrated in the Americas.

I’m sure at the time none of those people thought about how the Catholic faith would grow from that first mass. What difference could a tiny group of people make in such a vast land? And yet today there are almost 70 million Catholics in America. A cross was put in the sand to mark the 400th anniversary of that mass, which is still there today and it has withstood storms, floods and hurricanes.

A couple of nights ago I was watching BBC world and they were interviewing one of their journalists who has been covering conflict zones for years. He is an Irish man by the name of Fergal Keane. He covered one story recently of the war in Ukraine where he met two elderly women who were living in a basement together. They had lost everything and were just about surviving. They hadn’t received their pension for six months. Some months later he met them again and found them still living in the same place and just about surviving, but they were now also helping some of the many people who were fleeing their homes, giving them both food and shelter as best they could, even though they had almost nothing themselves. The interviewer asked Fergal Keane how did he cope with covering so much human misery for so many years and he answered that he was able to keep going because of the countless people who inspired him in these conflict zones, by the heroism they showed in small ways, helping the people around them, looking out for each other. That’s not something you often hear on the news. The human spirit prevails even in the most terrible situations and that’s what inspires us.

In today’s readings Jesus uses parables to talk about how the kingdom of God continues to grow, though how we do not know. Often against all odds people continue to be inspired to follow the Lord and God’s kingdom continues to grow. Jesus talks about the mustard seed, which is so tiny and yet a big shrub grows out of it. We are small individually, but we never know what influence our actions have on the people around us. I’m sure that most of you might wonder, ‘What effect could my faith and life possibly have on the world around me?’ I am so small and so insignificant. I don’t do anything spectacular. Apart from family and friends, probably not too many people have heard about me.’ And yet we never know how we influence the people around us for good. The way we live our life and our faith speaks to the people around us.

You probably know of people whom you would consider holy and I’m not talking about the famous people who are known throughout the world, but ordinary people who live holy lives around us, probably noticed by very few. You may never have spoken to them, you may never even have met them, and yet they speak to us by the way they live. We can also do the same by the way we live. If I try to live my faith as well as I can, I will be preaching the Gospel to the people around me without saying a word. My life can be a signpost pointing to God. I am as tiny as the mustard seed, but I can have a big influence and from the tiniest efforts God’s kingdom continues to grow.

Why did Jesus continually speak in parables? For one thing we always remember stories. But also the parables don’t force information on us. The truth that Jesus wants to teach us is there if you want to find it, but it is not always obvious. If we want to know what He is teaching us, we have to think about it, we have to look for it. The Lord continually invites us, but never forces himself on us. God’s kingdom will continue to grow whether we become part of it or not. But we have a part to play and the invitation is for us to try and play that part, simply by the way we live our faith. Let me finish with the words of St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Let us go and preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words.’

Friday, June 5, 2015

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), (Gospel: Mk 14:12-16, 22-26)

Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me as a Catholic, it also makes me think of the Eucharist.  For those who do not believe as we do, it must seem like the craziest notion of all; that God makes himself present through the hands of a priest, in a tiny piece of bread and some wine.  What could be more bizarre than that?  And we don’t just believe that it is a reminder of Jesus or a symbol of Jesus, but really and truly the body and blood of Christ.  I think it is a teaching so extreme that only God could come up with it and get away with it, so to speak.  What human being would try to convince others that Jesus is present in a piece of bread when a priest says certain prayers over it?

In one of his letters to the Church in Corinth—which is the oldest account of the mass in writing—St. Paul says to us, ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’  He doesn’t even say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself.  ‘This is what I received from the Lord.’ Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul and turned his life around.  He appeared to him several other times as well and Paul was so affected by what happened to him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching about this man Jesus.  But the line that always strikes me is where he says, ‘This is what I received from the Lord…’  He is saying, ‘I didn’t make this up and neither did any other person.  Jesus himself taught us this and taught us to do this in his memory.’  And so every time an ordained priest says the words of consecration at mass, the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus.  How are we supposed to understand this?  We aren’t!  I do not understand it at all, but I believe it.  That is why we fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat or smoke in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else in the world.  It is also a beautiful sign of how close God is to us that He would continually come to us in the middle of our lives, each week, each day, to help and encourage us.  He comes to us as we are; not as we should be, but as we are.  And it is God himself who makes it possible to receive him, because we could never be ready or worthy enough to even come close to the divine presence, not to mention receive him.  That is why we always say the prayer: ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

There are two extremes that I often come across with regard to the Eucharist.  One is where someone will say to me, ‘Father I don’t receive the Eucharist because I really am not worthy enough.’  Correct!  No one is worthy enough nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to give himself to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him.  We try to confess regularly, but we should never be afraid to receive the Eucharist unless there is something really serious stopping us.  Remember it is God who desires to come to us and He does not want us to be afraid of him.

The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance or need to confess every once in a while.  This is also wrong.  There is no question of this being a ‘right’ on our part.  The Eucharist is pure gift from God and for our part we must try to approach it as well as we can, especially by confessing every so often.  But the most important thing to remember is that the Lord wants to give himself to us, and so we should not be afraid to come to him.  Remember that ultimately it is God himself who makes it possible for us to receive him.  ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

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For me as a priest this is also a very special feast for two reasons.  First, because it is the feast of my ordination, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.  It is probably the most appropriate feast for a priest to be ordained, because this is what the priesthood is all about.  God gave us the priesthood so that we could have the Eucharist, so that his Word would continue to be preached, so that his forgiveness would be available to as many people as want to receive it.  The Lord Jesus wants to be available in the Eucharist to as many people as possible, but without the priesthood there is no Eucharist.  The two are intimately connected.  To be able to celebrate the mass for God’s people is really the greatest thing that I can do as a priest.  It doesn’t mean that I am worthy enough, because no priest could ever be worthy enough to do this, but God delights in using ordinary sinful people, like me.

Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist at all?  Very simply because He loves us and wants us to know that He is with us all the time and that we can receive his body into our bodies every day if we wish.  It is an extraordinary gift of intimacy that the Lord gives to us. Jesus gives himself to us purely because He loves us and He knows that we are all struggling most of the time, but when we have the Eucharist we are reminded how close God is to us. We are never alone.

I want to finish with this story: In the late 1500s there lived a woman named Margaret Clithero in the town of York in England.  She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic.  Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth venders, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them.  She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral.  It was an Anglican church at the time.

She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial.  She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors.  She said, ‘If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself’.  The judge said’ ‘Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.’

He handed her the bible and told her to swear on it.  So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, ‘I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

So, just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered.  It was called in English law, ‘the punishment most severe’.  She was pressed to death under heavy weights.  It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive.  The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken.  She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.
In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times.  It says ‘She died for the mass’.

So the next time that you find yourself bored with the mass, or just not too bothered to go because you’re tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for celebrating the mass.  God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist may He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.