Friday, August 28, 2015

22nd Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) We must love one another, but God first.

After mass one Sunday a young man said something interesting to me. He said, ‘Father, I think that at the mass you should be talking about loving each other and not just talking about things from the bible which people don’t understand.’ It is an interesting point and I agreed with him partly. A few years ago at a wedding a man said almost the exact same thing to me. He said, ‘You should just be telling us to be good to each other. There is no need for all these words from St. Paul to the Corinthians, etc.’ They are both absolutely right about the need to talk about loving each other, because that is one of the most important things that Jesus asked us to do, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ That is how Jesus told us that people would recognise us as Christians, by the way we love each other. But there is another part to it which they are forgetting.

If we are to love one another, and that is what the Lord God asks us to do, where are we supposed to get the strength to do that?  How are you supposed to love people who drive you crazy, or who are unjust to you, or who do you wrong, or steal from you, who have cheated you out of money, or offended your family? Since they are in the wrong, are we still expected to love them? Yes we are. ‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, bless those who curse you.’ It seems to be a lot to ask. In fact it can seem quite unrealistic. This is where we have to go back to the bible and see what else God is saying to us, to try and make sense of this. And Jesus says, the two most important commandments are, first, ‘You must love the Lord your God above everything else’ and second, ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ This may not seem very important, but this is where the answer lies.

What God is telling us is that if we are rooted in him, if He is at the centre and we become more and more filled with him and with his love, then and only then will we have the ability to love other people. We get the strength to love people, especially those we find more difficult to love, from the love we experience from God in the first place. The more our relationship with him grows, the more this is possible.

Let me give you one example. There is a woman called Sister Alvera, from Italy.  Several years ago she set up a community to help drug addicts recover.  She believed that what these people were missing more than anything else in their lives was the love of God, and that this was where their problem was really coming from.  So she set up a centre to help them recover, a place where they could experience the love of God first hand from other people. They live like a religious community. They have no TV, no radio and no newspapers. They do a lot of physical work and they pray a lot together. The interesting thing is that through this way of life (which is basically a monastic way of life – prayer and work) hundreds of men and women have overcome their drug addiction, but more importantly they have discovered faith, discovered the love of God for them and begun to live completely new lives. Sr. Alvera now has 36 different centres all over the world. They are called the Cenacolo communities.

There are hundreds of people like Sr. Alvera and not all religious either. Mother Teresa is another extraordinary one. How do they do this kind of work? Where do they get the strength to work with people who can be very difficult and very ungrateful? The answer is simple. They are completely rooted in God. Their own personal relationship with God is where they get the strength and energy.

You might find yourself saying, that that’s all fine for them, but I don’t have that kind of relationship with God, I just about get to mass on Sundays. But what God is showing us is that our ability to love one another, to put up with and respect those we don’t like, or agree with, comes from our relationship with him. The more we come to know God, the more we can love the people around us, starting with our own families, our spouse, whoever is closest to us. As we come to know the Lord more, our ability to love others also grows. So the key is in coming closer to God, nothing else.

How do we come closer to God? First, through reading his words in the bible.The Scriptures are like personal love letters to us from God. They are written for us personally. Also, through receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. We cannot get any closer to God than that. Also through repentance of sin, because God asks us to do that. We are sinners and we continually need to repent. We also deepen and live our relationship with God through prayer, which is simply communicating with God. 

All of these things help to bring about conversion of the heart, rediscovering God, coming closer to him. Only then will we be able to love the people around us and only then will our society begin to improve. If you want the world to improve, start with yourself.

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.  You must love your neighbour as yourself.’

Friday, August 21, 2015

21st Sunday Yr B (Gospel: John 6:60-69) What about you, will you go away too?

Several years ago I spent two days in a parish in Los Angeles.  The pastor (parish priest) showed me around and he was explaining how things work over there.  He said that for years there was a man in the parish who used to lead the folk group.  He played the guitar.  Then one day he decided to start his own church.  So he rented a building down the street and started his own church, just like that. 

What if you could change whatever parts of the faith you wanted to?  You could have women priests, married priests, divorce.  You could change some of the more difficult teachings like having to love your enemies; seems a bit extreme after all.  And you could tailor it just to suit your own needs. You could believe what you wanted to believe.  What would you end up with? A religion of nice ideas, of wishful thinking.  It would mean nothing.  It might make you feel better, but it would be empty.  Why? because it would be man made, not God made.

The word of God and the teaching of God can be difficult, but we believe that at least they are the teachings of God.  It’s not something we made up.  We are free to take it or leave it, to accept it and struggle with it, or to walk away from it.

In this Gospel passage Jesus was just after teaching about the Eucharist.  He had said, ‘I am the bread of life’ and ‘unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will not have life in you’.  And the people said, ‘This is crazy talk, who could accept it?’ and they walked away.  But Jesus’ response is even more interesting.  He didn’t go after them and say, ‘Let me explain’.  He said to the disciples, ‘Are you going to go away too’?  In other words he said, ‘This is the teaching, take it or leave it.’  And it says that many people stopped following him then.  They couldn’t accept what he said, so they left.  But he didn’t change anything he had said.  How could He, if it’s the truth?  And this applies to all of the teachings of Christ, handed down to us.  They don’t change.  They cannot change, but we are free to accept them or not.

Jesus says to us, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’  This means putting God above everything else in your life; above your wife or husband, above your children, above your work.  God must be at the center.  And God assures us, if we put him first, everything else will follow.

If it were impossible for us to follow God’s teachings, God wouldn’t have given them to us.  So it must be possible to follow them.  Trying to do it by your own strength is impossible, but God doesn’t ask us to do it on our own.  He asks us to continually turn to him and receive his help, which He gives us through prayer, through Holy Communion, Confession and all the sacraments.  God knows exactly what we’re able for and He gives us all the help we need, if we ask for it.

At the best of times it can be difficult to live our faith, but the invitation is to keeping coming back with an open heart to listen to what God is saying to us?  Have we already decided we know what God has to say? Could God say something new to us that we haven’t heard before? It is an ongoing struggle for us, but we believe a very worthwhile one.

What about you, will you go away too?’ 
Lord where else will we go, you have the message of eternal life and we believe, we know you are the holy one of God.’

Friday, August 14, 2015

20th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: John 6:51-58) The Eucharist is the source of our life

During the time our economy was booming there were more jobs around and everyone was happy about that.  Yet in spite of those better times economically people didn’t seem to be much happier. There was more pressure on people to ‘succeed’, people had less and less time for the ordinary things.  Everyone seemed to be mad busy trying to get money.  The rate of suicide increased and so did the rate of crime.  What was wrong?  We thought we finally had it all together.

We’re experts at looking after the body, but most people are extremely ignorant when it comes to looking after the spirit, or soul and we are body and soul.  As a result, no amount of money or work, or the right house or car, will bring us happiness, because there is an emptiness inside us that material things cannot fill and will never fill.  This is the spiritual side of ourselves which can only be fulfilled by what is spiritual.  Sometimes it takes a death, or serious illness, to make us wake up to this.  We will only be fulfilled in God because God has created us this way. In a way this is a wonderful thing because it reminds us that we are not just animals, but completely different creatures with spiritual as well as physical needs. That’s what it means in the book of Genesis when it says that Adam looked among the animals for a suitable helpmate, but none could be found. We are completely different. What is often referred to as ‘midlife crisis’ refers to this. Hopefully we have achieved a lot at that stage and then we begin to wonder what is the purpose of it all. Maybe I have my family, my house and my job, but there still can be an emptiness within us because we know that there is much more to us than this. Something is missing and that is often the sense of what our life is about, which is the spiritual side of ourselves.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is talking about this very thing.  He says, ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.’  ‘You will not have life within you.’ ‘Whoever eats my flesh, will draw life from me.’  Jesus is telling us that this is where we will find fulfillment, in him whom we receive in the Eucharist, in Holy Communion and we believe that this is really Jesus we receive; not just a symbol or some kind of holy bread, but really and truly the Body and Blood of Christ. This is why Jesus is constantly inviting us to spend time with him and to receive him often; but we object, we don’t have time…  

When the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, had just begun, there were only a few of them working together, but there was a huge amount of work to be done and they were finding it really hard to manage.  So they prayed to God and asked him to show them what they should do.  They felt that the Lord was telling them to spend an extra hour a day in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; that is, an extra hour before the Blessed Sacrament and an hour less of work.  This didn’t make sense to them. They thought to themselves, ‘As it is we don’t have enough time to work, so how can we give an extra hour to prayer?’  However, since they really felt that this was what God was saying to them, they decided they would try to be obedient to it.  So they began to give an extra hour a day to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and an hour less to work.   The interesting thing is that after a short time many more people began to join the order and soon they had lots of extra people to help them with the work.  God will never be outdone in generosity.  If you give time to God He will make it up to you. What could be more extraordinary than to receive the Body and Blood of the One who created us and this is what we are offered in each mass.

Finally, it is important to remember that while Jesus is humble enough to give himself to us in Holy Communion, we should be careful about how we approach him.  He has come for sinners and we are sinners.  But if we receive him often we should also confess our sins often.  God has given us the gift of Holy Communion, but He has also given us the gift of confession, so that we can be free of sin and so that we can approach him as we should, with humility.  This is one place where we cannot demand our rights, because before God we have no rights.  Everything from God is a gift.  So we should confess to a priest, especially if there is something serious that we have done and we cannot say that we have no sins.  St. John says in one of his letters: ‘If anyone says they have not sinned they are calling God a liar’ (1 John 1.10). This is God’s word.  If we feel emptiness within us, it is probably because our spirits are starving.  Jesus is the only one who can fulfill us.

‘I am the bread of life.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in them.’

Sunday, August 9, 2015

19th Sunday Yr B ( Gospel: John 6:41-51) Why I am a Catholic

Nowadays [within the Church] everything is upside-down, everything is topsy-turvy.’[1]  This is a quotation and it sounds like something you might find in one of our papers, but it actually comes from a man called Hugh of St. Cher, and he wrote it in the year 1224.  The Church was a mess back then too!

Moving on always makes me think about what my life as a priest is about.  What exactly is it that I am supposed to be doing and indeed why be a Catholic at all?  So today I would just like to tell you why I am a Catholic and why I am a priest.

People often criticise us as Catholics, saying that we are hypocrites.  We are no better than anyone else.  They are right in that we are not obviously better than anyone else, but that’s not what it’s about.  Indeed you will often come across people who are not at all religious, but who are very saintly.  But we are different from other people because of what we believe, and because we have a different vision of life.

So why am I a Catholic?  Because I believe that what we say we believe is really true.  I believe that the Lord made himself known to Abraham several thousand years ago, and to people all down through the ages right up to our own time.  He is continually making himself known to us, to whoever will listen.  And He will invite us into a more and more intimate relationship with him, depending only on how open we are as individuals.  I believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus is real, and I believe that Jesus is really present with us in the Eucharist, not just as a symbol, or a reminder, or some kind of holy bread, but really and truly present in his Body and Blood.  Not only do I believe it, but I literally bet my life on it.

What about the Church, the Pope, bishops, priests and all of us?  Surely there are plenty of good reasons not to be a Catholic when you see so much of what goes on?  It is true that we are far from perfect and we never will be perfect, but in spite of the way we are (and always have been, don’t forget), God is still in our midst.  We follow this way of life because it is a way that God has made known to us through the person of Jesus and continues to make known to us.  So we try to live it, and often don’t do so well, but that’s not what’s important.  If the Lord God wanted people who would live it perfectly He would have come to someone else, not to us.  But Jesus (God made man) came to the sinners, the prostitutes, the corrupt, those who exploit others and all those who were more than obviously not living a good life.  He didn’t come to the perfect and say, ‘Follow me.’  We must not forget that.  He came to and still comes to ordinary people and said, ‘Repent’, ‘Change the direction in which you are looking for happiness’;  ‘Realise that God is in your midst and cares for you in a way that is beyond your understanding.’

I like this first reading, which shows a very human side of one of the prophets.  Queen Jezebel was out to kill Elijah and he was on the run and he sits down and says ‘I wish I was dead; I’ve had enough.’ And many times we read of the prophets saying, ‘Look, I am just an ordinary man, but the Lord called me and sent me to you and so that’s what I am doing.’  In many ways I feel the same.  I wasn’t a shepherd, but I was pretty ordinary by all accounts.  But I believe that the Lord called me and sent me to speak to you and He is now sending me to speak to other people.  It is a great privilege for me to do this, though it often can be difficult.  The temptation is always to try and say what I think people want to hear, so that I will be loved, or popular, but that’s not what the Lord asks me to do.  He asks me to speak about him and his message, because his message is worth listening to.

This year I am 17 years a priest, thank God.  They have been difficult years in many ways, but I have to tell you that I wouldn’t swap the privilege for anything anyone could offer me.  Thank God I can say that.

So I am a Catholic and a priest, because I believe that our faith is real, that God is among us and that gives me a reason to live.  It is what makes sense of what our life is about more than anything else and to me it is the greatest privilege of my life that God has asked me to serve as a priest.

[1] Hugh of St Cher, Expositio super Cantica Canticorum, Chapter 1 (Venezia 1703) p.110.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

18th Sunday Year B (Gospel: John 6:24-35) Do not work for food that cannot last; but work for food that endures to eternal life.

Vacation time!

Dear friends, I was away for the last three weeks on vacation. Thank God for the break. It included 9,000 miles travelling, 1,100 of which was on my motorcycle. Thanks for coming back to my blog.

Some time back a priest friend of mine was telling me that he was just back from holidays where he had been mountain climbing with a German priest friend of his.  They were somewhere in the mountains on the Austrian-German border.  His friend had a map, but it was five years old and one of the paths they took turned out to be very dangerous.  It was basically no longer usable.  He said that for most of it there was a rope on one side for safety, although there was a sheer drop on the other side.  But then they came to a place about 5m long where there was no rope, so they just had to cling to the side of the cliff on this extremely narrow ledge until they got past it.  He told me that it was quite terrifying and a matter of slowly taking one step at a time, then finding proper hand grip, then another step.  By the time he got to the far side he was quite exhausted and traumatised, but what interested me was that his friend who is an experienced mountaineer, then told him to sit down and that they should eat something.  When you have been through an experience like that, eating changes your metabolism and calms you down.  And he said that it did just that.  Within a short time he was fine again.

There is also an interesting story in the Old Testament where the prophet Elijah is on the run having just worked an extraordinary miracle, but now Queen Jezebel is out to kill him.  So he escapes into the desert, but at one point he sits down feeling fed up and prays to God, ‘Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors’, or in modern English, ‘I wish I was dead; I’ve had enough’.  Then he lies down and goes to sleep.  But then he is woken by an angel who tells him to get up and eat, so that he will have enough strength for the journey.  There he finds food beside him.  The right kind of nourishment is essential.

In this Gospel passage Jesus is just after working the miracle of feeding five thousand people with the five loaves and two fish and the people come after him to see more of this wonder-worker.  However, as is often the case, the miracle Jesus worked was pointing to something deeper and he says to them, ‘You are only looking for me because you got free food, but you didn’t see the “sign”.  What ‘sign’? What was he talking about? And then he says, ‘Don’t be worrying about temporary food, but look for the food that endures forever.’  The miracle of multiplying the loaves was a sign of something much deeper. Jesus then begins to teach them that there is another kind of food that we need for our whole life; not just material food that you eat, but food which is meaning/purpose/direction.  And then He tells them that He is this food that lasts forever, and the kind of food we need for the journey which is our whole life. He is talking about the Eucharist. Jesus is the one who gives us strength and meaning to keep going by giving us his own Body and Blood in each mass.  He is the one who makes sense of what our whole life is about.  If you don’t have the right kind of meaning or purpose for being here, then it is very hard to keep going especially when things don’t make sense, as they so often don’t.

Some of the beautiful countryside I got to ride through in Pennsylvania

It is interesting too that in the second reading (Ephesians 4:17, 20-24) St. Paul says, ‘don’t live the kind of aimless life that Pagans live.’  That is exactly what can happen to us if we lose sight of our faith, or get too caught up in the world and worldly worries.  We forget what the real purpose of our life is about.  You see this happening all the time, especially when the economic boom was here.  Many people got completely carried away with money and forgot themselves.  I suppose now that things are harder it’s a lot easier for us to focus on what is really important.  That is much harder, but it is also helping us.

God is showing us that to have the right kind of strength for the journey, we need the right kind of food, and Jesus is this food.  ‘I am the bread of life’.  That is why Jesus gives himself to us in the Eucharist and speaks to us through his word, so that we have all the nourishment that we need for the journey.  If we know what our life is about, it is much easier to keep going even when we are struggling physically.  Where do we get direction from? In Jesus.  He is the one who makes sense of everything for us.

Now I know that there are also real worries such as how am I going to provide for my family when I’ve no work.  But what God is telling us is that if we focus on him first we will begin to discover that He will look after all of these needs as well.  Jesus must be at the centre, everything else second.
I am the bread of life. 
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry;
Whoever believes in me will never thirst.