Friday, October 30, 2015

Feast of All Saints – Gospel: Matthew 5: 1-12 This is our feast day


During the papacy of John Paul II I heard a priest friend of mine saying at one stage that he thought it was crazy the way John Paul was making (or ‘canonizing’) so many saints. He was saying, ‘What is the point of it?’ But I told him that I disagreed with him because I believed that one of the things that the pope was doing was showing us that holiness is something that all of us are called to and that many people reach. The great thing about what John Paul was doing was also the fact that he officially recognised (canonized) so many lay people as saints.  In the past there was a misconception that one usually had to be in religious life to become a saint and generally those who were canonized were priests or religious. The truth is that there are many saints all around us, but most of them we will never know about until we reach heaven ourselves. Everyone who reaches God in heaven is a saint and that is our destiny. That is what we are called to.                                   

A common misunderstanding that many people have is that a saint is someone who never does anything wrong. That is naive and completely unrealistic. If you read any reasonably accurate life of any of the saints you will notice two things that all of them have in common. First of all they were ordinary people who struggled with their humanity like any of us, but they also had a great love for God and they were open to God. Secondly, they all suffered quite a lot during their life and this struggle, which all of us are faced with, is part of what brought them closer to God. The suffering they went through—which all of us also have to go through, because it is just part of the journey—was part of what formed them and drew them closer to God.  Perhaps one of the differences between them and some other people would be that in spite of the difficulties they were faced with, they kept coming back to God. They kept getting up again when they were knocked down. There is a proverb that says, ‘It doesn’t matter if you fall seven times, so long as you get up eight times.’ The saints didn’t give up. When we are down it is often very tempting to say, ‘Where’s the point? I couldn’t be bothered.’ It is not always easy to get up again, to admit we are wrong, or to have to try again, but that is what we are called to. That is what makes a person blossom.

God is calling all of us along the same path; the path which leads to him. It is not the easiest path, but it is the only path that is really worthwhile. That is why Jesus taught us, ‘What use is it for someone to gain the whole world, but to lose his soul?’ Everything here is passing and no matter how much we ‘achieve’ in the world’s eyes, that is not what counts before God. That is also why it doesn’t matter before God whether we have been successful or not, as the world sees it. It is great if you have, but it is not what is important before God. That also means that the person who has become the head of a big company has no advantage over someone who is unemployed, or is even living on the street, because that is not what counts before God. We are not called to be ‘successful’, but to do our best. What we are called to above all else, is to love God and to love the people around us and this is possible for everyone. 

The one thing that God will never do is force us to follow him or to love him. God continually draws us forward, but we can resist, and we often do resist. However, the beautiful thing is that no matter how many times we resist or turn away, God will continually call us back and lovingly welcome us back every time we turn to him again. That is largely the struggle which we have to go through in this life until we get to heaven ourselves. It is not guaranteed that we go to heaven for the simple reason that if it was, then our free will would mean nothing.  But heaven is what God wants for us and the Lord will make that happen unless we totally and completely reject God by the way we live. Sadly some people do seem to completely reject God and everything to do with God by the way they live. Yet we never know that for sure and that is why we can never judge the heart of another person, even if their actions are wrong.

‘It doesn’t matter if you fall seven times, so long as you get up eight times.’

Saturday, October 24, 2015

30th Sunday, Year B (Gospel: Mark 10:46-52) What do you want me to do for you?

Imagine for a minute if at one time in your life before you die, the Lord himself appeared to you and asked you one question: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ What would you ask him? Maybe it would be a cure for a physical illness, or for someone you know. Maybe it would be to resolve a difficult situation to be sorted out, like a marriage that’s in trouble or maybe for help for your children. Perhaps it would be for more faith. If you are foolish it might be for lots of money.

I think I might ask God to give me the faith to recognise what we already have been given. We ask for help all the time, we ask God to be present to us, we ask God to forgive and heal us… and He does, but we often don’t recognise it.

I think that if I had greater faith to recognise what God has already given me, I would ask for very little else, because God has given us everything that we need. We would like to know that Jesus is close to us and looking after us: and He is. In the mass Jesus becomes present to us in the bread and wine through the priest and we can take him into our own bodies. How much closer could we get to the Lord than to receive him into our own bodies? And we can receive him every day if we wish. We want to know that we are forgiven and we want to be healed. The Lord offers us this gift through confession, but we don’t often make use of it.

If we believe that He is Lord of all things, who has made everything and who has power over everything, the One who will come to judge the living and the dead, then why should we be afraid of any situation or anyone we encounter, if we believe God is so close to us? Why should we be afraid of the world or of anyone in it if God is with us?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, ‘So do not say, what are we to eat, what are we to drink, what are we to wear? Your heavenly Father knows all your needs. Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be given to you as well.’ (Mt 6.31)

How do we become more aware of this presence of God around us? Through prayer. That’s why Jesus spent so much of his time trying to teach people to pray, so that they would become aware of the reality of God with them and around them. When we pray, and give time to God and the things of God, we learn to recognise how much God is all around us, in everything we do, in everyone we meet. I always think it is lovely to see so many people calling into the church every morning, just for a moment; to be silent, or to speak to the Lord, or to ask for something. These are all different ways of praying, of being with God and simply acknowledging God’s presence. We talk about God sometimes as if God were the optional extra in our world. The truth is the other way around. We are the optional extra. God is there one way or the other, whether we acknowledge him or not, but we are only here because God has created us and keeps us in existence.

I heard a priest say once, ‘If God isn’t in your money He isn’t in your life.’ In other words God must be in every part of our life, if He is there at all. Otherwise we are practical atheists.  We can know that God is there but do absolutely nothing about him. That is practical atheism. You know that your next door neighbour exists, but if you never speak to him, or meet him, or bother with him he or she might as well not be there. That is practical atheism and there are a lot of practical atheists around. 

If God is to be part of our life, we have to do something about it. That’s why we pray and come to the church and try to listen to God. We make space for him so that we can hear him. We pray in whatever way our life makes it possible. Speaking to God in your car on the way to work; that is prayer. Being aware of God in your home, even if it is noisy, is prayer. Reading the word of God; spending some time in silence. God has plenty to say, if we take the time to listen.

The more we pray, the more we will recognise that God has already given us everything we need. God is deeply concerned about us, about every aspect of our lives and God always answers us when we pray, but it may not be the way we expect.

What do you want me to do for you?’ 
The blind man replied, “Master, I want to see.”
Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.
Jesus did not refuse him. Why would he refuse us either?

Friday, October 16, 2015

29th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10: 35-45) The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many

Balintubber Abbey in Ireland where mass has been celebrated for over 500 years.

We are living in a time when we are seeing a lot of religious extremism. You could call it religion at its worst, when people do terrible things in the name of religion and of course it gives religion a bad name. What it often amounts to is the weakness of human nature and how one group can decide that it is right while everyone else is wrong or that they have the right to force their ideas on others. It can happen with any religion. I suppose one thing it brings up is the question of what the purpose of religion is in the first place. Why do we have a Church and what is its purpose? 

We believe the Church is here because Jesus established it. The reason Jesus established it was to pass on his teaching about God; so that all people might come to know God and what God has done for us. 
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld can never overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mt 16: 18-20).

The difficulty is that the Church is made up of weak, sinful human beings. In Jesus’ life-time on earth he was let down several times by the very people he chose to lead his Church and that problem continues to this day. Because we are dealing with the weakness of the human condition, we are continually faced with similar problems. People in charge forget what they are about, or get caught up in the need for power, or whatever it might be. It has always been this way and probably always will.

It’s interesting what happens in today’s Gospel. James and John ask for ‘power’ and recognition. ‘Grant that we may have places at your right and left hand…’ And then Jesus tells them and us something interesting: 
You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them…This is not to happen among you… For the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The first reading also confirms this:
The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering. 

Maynooth seminary in Ireland where over 12,000 priests have been ordained

What God is saying to us is that his way is a very different way to what we are used to. It is not the way of power and might, but of littleness and of transformation through suffering. This is something that is very hard for us to get our heads around.  We want our Church to be big and powerful. We want everyone to be part of it and to see how ‘right’ we are, but Jesus tells us that that is not how it works. ‘The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ We are not meant to be big and powerful.

So what exactly is the mission, or purpose of the Church? Jesus’ coming among us had a twofold purpose. He came among us to teach us about God; who God is and how God looks after us; about the reality of life after death; about the reason why we are here in the first place: to love and serve.

The second reason Jesus came among us was to die for us. Think of the line in the mass where the priest prays over the chalice: ‘This is the cup of my blood which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ That is why Jesus came among us; so that our sins could be forgiven and that we would be able to reach the happiness that God created for us, which we call heaven. You could say that Jesus came among us for our happiness.  The mission of the Church is to make that known to all people. If it is really true, as we believe it is, then all people have a right to know this. They don’t have to believe it or accept it, but they do have a right to know about it and it is our mission to make that message known to everyone we can, because Jesus asked us to. Is this mission still being fulfilled today?  It certainly is. Here am I in front of you 2000 years after Jesus walked on earth, proclaiming the same message.

In the news we continually read about all the terrible things that are done in the Church and in the name of religion and there are terrible things done. However, we don’t hear about the wonderful work that is continually done all over the world and we don’t hear about the fact that the Church continues to preach this message of Jesus—what we call the Good News or Gospel—all over the world. I’m sure it will continue to be done in messy, inefficient ways, because we are dealing with human beings, but none the less it is being done.

St. Patrick's seminary, Ireland

How do we know that the Church is from God at all?  To me the greatest proof of this is the fact that it is still there at all. When you think of all the great superpowers that have come and gone: the Roman Empire, the Chinese dynasties, the great European superpowers. All were highly organised and efficient, yet the Church, in spite of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc., is still here. How can that be? Because it is the power of God working in and through it. It is not dependent on human beings, but on the power of God and so we continually turn to the power of God and pray that we will continue to be the kind of messengers and servants that He calls us to be.

Jesus Christ is Lord and Son of God. He was born of the Virgin Mary. He taught us about God and he suffered and died for us. Because of him we can have happiness with God when we die. He is the one who makes sense of why we are here. This is the message we believe in and this is the message we will continue to try and pass on to all peoples.

‘The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Friday, October 9, 2015

28th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10: 17-30) Everything is possible for God

There was a priest by the name of Benedict Groeschel from New York, who founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He died last year (3rd Oct, 2014). Fr. Groeschel was an excellent speaker and in one of his talks he was saying that there was a man he knew in New York who was a multi millionaire, with more money than he could ever spend, or knew what to do with. Fr. Benedict went on to say that he was talking to this man at a particular conference and he—let us call him John Goldman—was saying to Benedict that he would like to put his money to good use, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He admitted straight out that he had more money than he could ever spend. Benedict said that if he wanted he could give a donation to one of the orphanages that they ran in the Bronx, as it would make a big difference to them. In spite of the fact that it was this man himself who brought up the subject and admitted that he didn’t know what to do with all his money, but wanted to put it to good use, by the end of the conference he still hadn’t agreed to part with one cent of his money. Fr. Benedict was saying that it was as if he was possessed by his wealth. He had no freedom; he wasn’t able to part with it.

Most of us don’t have that kind of problem. In fact most people have the opposite problem, but it is still very easy to become consumed even with the desire for money, or riches, or indeed anything. The problem is not the riches themselves, but our attachment to them.

In the Gospel which we have just heard, see how Jesus responds to the rich young man who is keen to live the right way. When he asks what he should be doing to get to heaven, Jesus doesn’t say, ‘You should sell all your possessions’. First he says, ‘You know the commandments; live them.’ It is only when he is pushed that Jesus then says ‘Go and sell all you own...’ What is he doing? Jesus is showing the young man that he is not as free as he thinks he is. In spite of the fact that he could probably buy anything he wants and do anything he wants because of his wealth, he is in fact a slave to his riches. Jesus is not just trying to make the young man miserable, but rather since he did ask, Jesus is pointing out where the problem is for him. The problem is not in having riches, but that we get so attached to them that we are no longer free. 

You don’t have to be very wealthy for that to happen either. St. John of the Cross says that if you become too attached to your rosary beads, then get rid of them. He also says there is no point in taking a vow of poverty if you are still consumed with the desire for the things that you have given up. The freedom from them is what is really important. Thank God for what you do own, but ask yourself are you free from it, or a slave to it? Because if you are a slave to it—thinking that you could not do without it—then your possessions are the master.

Why did Jesus point this out to the young man? Because He wanted him, just as he wants us, to be free to open ourselves up to God. God is the only thing that is really important. Everything else is going to be left behind when we die, even our bodies. That is why he is telling us not to get caught up in what is ultimately trivial. Enjoy what you have, but don’t let it become the master.

Most of us are probably much more attached to the things we have than we would like to be. I know I am, but perhaps the most important part of this Gospel is the last part. First of all Jesus says ‘How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ and the apostles are amazed, just as most of us probably find this hard to understand too, since the  general thinking is that if we had enough money it would resolve most of our problems. But when they ask ‘Then who can be saved?’, or in modern English ‘Who can get to heaven?’ then Jesus says ‘For people [by their own strength] it is impossible, but not for God. Everything is possible for God.’ That is the really important point to remember. Everything is possible for God. By our own strength we are very limited in what we can do, in spite of our best efforts, because we are weak and we easily get distracted by wealth, or work, or relationships or whatever. God knows well that we get caught up in all the wrong things, just like the rich young man in the story, but God is bigger than all of this. God is bigger than the mistakes we make, bigger than our mixed motivations for what we do. That is why we just keep coming back to him and asking him to help us, to forgive us, to guide us: and He does.

‘If that is the case, then who can be saved?’
‘For people it is impossible, but not for God; because everything is possible for God.’

Friday, October 2, 2015

27th Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Mark 10:2-16) Life is sacred

By the age of 18 most people have seen approximately 3,000 murders on TV, which is a frightening number. It also means that even by 18 we have become largely desensitized to killing and death. When soldiers went to Vietnam and shot the enemy, apparently they expected to see the enemy get up again. Killing wasn’t real for them. A friend of mine who was an army officer but later became a priest told me that killing even one person has a profound effect on us. It is not normal for us to kill and we instinctively know that it is not right. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

As a priest I worked in a hospital for a few years and also in a hospice for four years.  When you see many people die in the hospital it makes you think a lot. People say to me, it must be very depressing; but it’s not, it’s just very real. It can be very beautiful, especially if you have faith, because what you see happening is someone going from this life into the next, and that is a great privilege. One minute you are looking at a living breathing person, who has a personality and different characteristics peculiar to them.  The next minute you are just looking at a body. Something has changed.  It’s not just that the body has stopped working, there is much more to it than that. The spirit has gone, the soul has moved on to the next world; and this is so real. What’s left in front of you is only a body. It’s not the person you knew, only part of that person, because we are body and soul.

If we were just a body, just flesh and bones, then we wouldn’t be able to have ideas, or hope, or faith, and above all, we wouldn’t be able to love.  Love is very much a mark of the human soul.  It is God given.  It tells us that there is something of God in us. If you didn’t know the patient lying in the bed in a personal way, they could be just anybody. But if they are someone you know, then their soul speaks to you and that’s why death hurts so much, because of the separation, the loss of love.

This is one of the gifts that God has given to us which resembles him: the ability to love. It is this ability to love that makes us beautiful. Even if I don’t have the most beautiful body, it doesn’t matter, because the soul is what is really attractive, not the body. The more we learn to love, the more beautiful we become.

When God creates us he gives us a spirit, which will live forever. Imagine all of us here in this church will live forever. The people you know who have died are still alive in a different world. We will see them again. When God creates us, we are created in his image and this means that we have the potential to become more like him and the more like him we become, the more beautiful we become. That’s what holiness is: closeness to God. As we come closer to God our spirit or soul becomes more beautiful because we are becoming more like God. Holy people reflect God best and that is why they attract others like magnets, because they are beautiful. That’s why God keeps calling us to holiness, because God wants us to be beautiful. He has created us to be beautiful.

We believe that our souls are there from the first moment of conception and this is why hold that life is sacred from conception to natural death, because it comes from God, and returns to God; and God has told us not to kill. God is the only one who can give and take life.

Much of Mother Teresa’s work in India, was taking dying people off the streets and allowing them to die with dignity.  She didn’t try to convert them, or try to make them live longer, she and her sisters just helped them to die with people around them who showed them love.  Why? because God is in each of us and each life is sacred.

You will hear it said that protecting life has nothing to do with God or religion, but I would say the opposite. It really only makes full sense when you remember where we come from. If God had nothing to do with it, then it couldn’t really be that sacred, but we believe that life is totally sacred and so we must protect it always, no matter what the arguments are against it.  Every life is sacred from its very beginning at conception to it's natural end.
‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)