Friday, May 27, 2016

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), (Gospel: John 6:51-58)

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.  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 a piece of bread becomes the body of Jesus when a priest says certain prayers over it?

In the second reading—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…’ (1 Cor 11:23). He doesn’t even say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself. 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, Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine. How are we supposed to understand this? We aren’t! I do not understand it at all, but I believe it and I believe it because it was Jesus who taught 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 we do 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. 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.’

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 priests 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.

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 penders, 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.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Feast of the Most Holy Trinity (Gospel: Jn 16:12-15) Created out of love; created for love

One of the most beautiful experiences we can have in this life is to fall in love. I’m sure most people here have been in love at least once. I have too, and it is a wonderful experience, though difficult too. As you know, it is the kind of experience that you want to last forever, but it doesn’t. It passes. Lovers always want to be with each other, and have eyes for no one else but each other. I suppose God made us this way so that we would be drawn to each other and commit to each other, in order that the human race would keep going.

The strange thing is that even though being in love is such a powerful experience, it is hard to say exactly what it is. It is a very mysterious thing. As it says in the Song of Songs: ‘Love is strong as death, passion as cruel as the grave’ (SS 8:6). It is so powerful and at the same time it is always just out of reach.

One thing we do know is that love comes from God. God is the first and the greatest lover. What we experience when we fall in love and later hopefully grow in the deeper stages of love, is something of what comes from God. We only have the experience of love because God gives it to us, and we are being invited to go deeper into a relationship of love all the time. The love that two people experience between each other is just a tiny reflection of this love that is God. 

Love also wants to share everything. Two people in love will share everything with each other. This is how we came to be here in the first place. The love that the Holy Trinity lives—a relationship of total and intense self-giving love—overflows to us. When you are ecstatically happy about something, you naturally want to share it with someone, or with lots of people. God wanted to share his intense joy and so He created everything, the spirit world and then human beings, in order that we could also experience and enjoy that same love. The fact that we are created last—according to Genesis—is a way of saying that we were the most important thing that God created. We are God’s masterpiece, because we resemble him more than anything else He created. 

However, in order for us to be able to love, God also had to make us free, so that we could freely choose to love or not, to reject God or not, because you cannot force love out of someone, it has to come freely. So now we have this bizarre situation where we are created to enjoy the love of God, which we will experience fully in heaven, but we also have the freedom to reject it.

I’m often amazed at the amount of parents who tell me in great distress about a child, or children who have rejected them. They cannot understand why. They did everything they could for their children and then their children turned their back on them. It happens quite often. We also do this with God. God offers us everything and gives us everything, but we can still reject him and people do.

I think that must have been one of the most difficult things in the life of Jesus, knowing that some people would still reject him in spite of the terrible sufferings he was going through to gain the possibility of eternal life for us. His death and resurrection re-opened the way to heaven for us, but we can still reject it.

The fact that we are here at all is a reminder of what the Holy Trinity is, a relationship of total self-giving love. A married couple is a reflection of what God is, because out of the complete self-giving of a man and a woman there is the potential for another person to be born. The love between the Father and the Son is another person: the Holy Spirit. It is a reminder of the extraordinary role that all of you married couples have in raising your families.  In giving of yourselves to each other and for your children, you are mirroring what God does. So the next time you are exhausted with the demands of your relationship or your children, remember this. Difficult and all as it is, you are imitating what God does, which means that you are called to something extraordinary.
The human being is God’s masterpiece.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Pentecost Year C (Gospel: John 7:37-39) The Spirit will teach you everything

A few years ago I had to go to our national seminary for a meeting, Maynooth. Before the meeting began I met three young men who were studying to be priests for our diocese and they invited me to stay on after the meeting for Evening Prayer and supper; so I did. In the evening I found myself in the chapel praying alongside 80 young men who were studying to be priests and it was wonderful to hear all these men singing to God and praying the Psalms together, knowing that they were dedicating their lives to serve God. At a time when it is not easy to be a priest it made me ask myself what on earth could draw them? The answer of course is God. The Spirit of God inspires people and moves people when we don’t expect it and often in ways we don’t expect either. But the Spirit doesn’t shout aloud like the news-papers do. The Spirit works quietly, but very powerfully.

I am often asked, especially by younger people, why I didn’t choose to get married and instead went on for the priesthood? Actually the way they usually put it is to say, ‘Did you not like girls?’ And I always say, ‘Of course I was drawn to get married, but the call of God was the stronger one.’ That is the only way I can explain it.

The year I began in the seminary was the year the first major scandal in our Church broke. The bishop of my own diocese, who lived just down the road from where I grew up, had fathered a child. That was 24 years ago and there have basically been scandals ever since and most of them much more serious. During my time in the seminary it was very disheartening with all the stories about child abuse in the papers for the first time, but it made all of us think carefully about why we were becoming priests and it still makes me think about why I continue as a priest. The reason more or less remains the same: I believe God called me and continues to call me to serve him in this way. Most of the time I’m not even sure I understand the calling or even what exactly the Lord wants me to do, but the ongoing call is unmistakable.

When I was nineteen I was invited to go to a prayer meeting in my hometown of Galway. At the time I wasn’t practicing my faith, but I was searching. At this prayer meeting I met 50 or 60 young people praying the rosary, singing hymns and reading Scripture. This was completely new to me and I was drawn to it. I could see that their faith was real and I was intrigued by it. These young people basically taught me how to pray and taught me that it was good to start the day by giving 10-15 minutes to God in prayer. So I began to do the same. Shortly after I began attending this prayer meeting they held what is known as a ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminar. This is a series of about 8 talks on the reality of the power of God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit—and how that same Spirit is just waiting for us to be open to him so that He can set fire to our faith, so to speak. So I began doing this seminar and was curious to know what, if anything, would happen. On the fifth night the people there prayed with each of us—just like the Apostles did—that we would receive a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. I remember being a bit disappointed at the time, because nothing particularly amazing seemed to happen to me. I felt peaceful, but not unduly so. However, in the days and weeks that followed I suddenly noticed all kinds of things happening. It was as though someone had flicked a switch and turned on the power. Suddenly my faith became alive in a way that it had never been before. The Scriptures began to speak to me in a profound way and I had a great desire to spend a lot more time in prayer. I also noticed that I began to hear the words of the mass as though I had never heard them before and I was completely blown away with it. Other people who did this Life in the Spirit seminar had similar experiences, the most common being that their faith became alive as never before. That was 27 years ago and the experience really changed the course of my life.  A few years after that I began studying to be a priest.

Today when I look around and see some of the problems in our Church, I think back on what the Lord has led me through and I am reminded that our Church is in good hands, because it is not in the hands of human beings but in the hands of the Most High God. Those of us who try to serve in it are only instruments and often not very good instruments, but it doesn’t matter as God does not depend on us to get everything right. God is not asking us to succeed, only to be faithful.

As we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, when the disciples’ faith was ‘switched on’, we turn once again to God’s Spirit and pray that He will help us never to lose heart, never to become discouraged, but to remember that God knows what He is doing. When we have the gift of the Spirit, which we have since our Baptism and Confirmation, we have everything. The guidance, wisdom and courage we need are there for the asking. It is for us to try and remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If we begin to rely only on our own expertise, our own ability, we will soon find that we come up short. If, on the other hand, we continue to seek the guidance of the Spirit, then we have nothing to fear, even though we may not know exactly what we are to do. God shows us what we need to do, as we need to know it. Most of the time we are not allowed to see very far ahead, but neither were the Apostles. They were just told to go and preach the Gospel, and that is what they did. 

The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name
will teach you everything 
and remind you of all that I have said to you (John 14:26).

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Ascension to Heaven (Gospel: Luke 24:46-53) Jesus Christ is Lord


Several years ago I had the privilege of being at one of the ‘Interession for Priests’ retreats given in Dublin every summer by Sr. Briege McKenna and Fr. Kevin Scallon. These are a series of retreats put on specially for priests. This particular year they were celebrating 25 years and the retreat I was at was given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa who is the preacher to the Papal Household (to the Pope). He is and an extraordinary preacher and it was a very inspiring few days.

One of the themes that he kept coming back to is that ‘Jesus is Lord’; just that.  The essence of our faith is really very simple and this is one of the key elements of it. Jesus is Lord and if we believe in him and ask forgiveness for our sins, then we have eternal life with him.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved’ (Rom 10:9).

Some months later when Cantalamessa was visiting the national seminary of Maynooth, he gave one talk and again he kept coming back to this fact: Jesus Christ is Lord. One of the professors sitting beside me said quietly, ‘It seems a bit too simple really!’ I knew what he meant, but the truth is that it is very simple. We tend to make it more complicated.

In today’s first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls the Lord’s ascension into heaven. Just before Jesus ascended the Apostles asked again, ‘Lord has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ In spite of all the time with Jesus and the extraordinary things they saw, they still had a very earthly way of thinking. ‘When will we have the power and glory? When will our nation be the most important?’ Yet Jesus was showing them that this was not important at all. Worldly ways and worldly thinking are not important. Look at what the desire for earthly power is doing in the Middle East. Preaching about Jesus and eternal life in him was the only thing that mattered. The Apostles were to receive power, but not worldly political power where everyone would acknowledge their greatness. Instead they were to receive the power of the Spirit, which would enable them to preach about Jesus, what He has done for us, what our life is about and how we have life in him if we choose it.  That was the only thing that mattered.  All of them were to suffer for their preaching too, but that also was secondary.  They would be misunderstood by the world, as so many who preach the Gospel still are, but that message must be proclaimed all the same.

Why was it so important that they proclaim this message? Because God is the only one who makes sense of why we are here in the first place and God wants his people to know this. And so Jesus came among us to teach us about God and to offer his life in atonement for our sins, so that we might have eternal life with God; or to put it another way, so that we might reach ultimate happiness and the total fulfilment that all of us long for. That message is just as important today as all of us look for happiness and fulfilment. In spite of the great advances of humanity, most people are aware that something far deeper in us looks beyond human achievement and we know that we will never be totally fulfilled by human accomplishments alone. So the Spirit encourages us to look to the things of God, the only place where we can find fulfilment.

In missionary work today it is sometimes argued that we should not be talking about God, but only helping those who are in need. While it is true that we must do all we can to help those who are in need, the message of the Gospel should also be preached to people because they have a right to hear it. People have a right to know what God has done for them. It is up to each person whether they choose to believe it or not, but they have a right to hear the message that we have eternal life in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God has asked us to make this known to all people. Our material needs are important, but if we neglect the spiritual needs, we may lose any sense of purpose and what our life is about. This is just as bad as being without food as it can cause people to despair. So we try to continue to pass on the message that the Lord Jesus asked us to: Jesus is Lord and in him we have eternal life with God.

Jesus ascending to heaven before the Apostles’ eyes was also a confirmation to them and to us, that something wonderful awaits us when we die. This life is not everything, but only a preparation for the world to come. Hopefully we will enjoy it and find some contentment in it, but we must not lose sight of what also awaits us. Life after death is real and this is what God wants for us. If we believe that, then it makes the harder times here on earth a lot more bearable.

Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.  They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy and they were continually in the Temple praising God (Lk 24:51-53).