Friday, October 28, 2016

31st Sunday Yr C (Luke 19:1-10) Remembering the dead

There is a lady called Maria Simma (1915-2004) who became famous because the Holy Souls apparently used to appear to her and ask her for prayers for them. She lived in Austria as a peasant for most of her life. She tried religious life but was unable to continue because she was too weak physically. She actually tried three different convents but had to leave each in turn. She ended up doing simple work and living on her own. She only received education to the age of 12, but her mother had great devotion to praying for the souls in Purgatory and she seems to have inherited this too. 

The first time a soul appeared to her she was 25 years old (1940) and for the following several years only two or three souls appeared to her over the course of a year, but then from 1954 onward they continually appeared to her. In reading about her I found it very interesting to learn what some of the souls said to her. One case in particular is as follows. She recalls how a young man appeared to her asking her to pray for him. He told her the circumstances of his death. He lived in a mountain village somewhere in the Alps. He wasn’t a very religious man and in fact lived a pretty wild lifestyle. One year there were a series of avalanches. 

One night while he was asleep there was another avalanche and he woke up to hear the screams of people nearby who were trapped. He jumped up and rushed out to help them. His mother tried to stop him screaming, ‘Don’t go out, you will be killed too!’ However, he went anyway and he was killed. But he explained to Maria Simma that God in his mercy had allowed him to die at a time when he was being most giving, most self-less. This action had redeemed so much of what he had done wrong in his life. 

That story has always stayed with me since I read it. God in his mercy gives us the benefit of the doubt. He goes out of his way to make allowances for us, even excuses for us, you might say, because that is when all that we have believed in and struggled to be faithful to, will make sense.

When my Grandmother used to hear people using the expression, ‘rest in peace,’ she would sometimes say, ‘I don’t want to “rest in peace” I want to be alive and active!’ I think she had the right idea. What God has created us for in the world to come is something unimaginably wonderful and that is why God goes to such lengths to make sure we get there. The greatest thing God has done for us after giving us the gift of life, is making sure that we can reach that happiness and that is only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God will do everything to make sure we reach that happiness, but God cannot force us because of the free will He has given us, so we must be careful to make the right choices ourselves.

November is the month where we traditionally remember those who have died and it is good that we do. Starting with the feast of All Saints on Nov 1st we celebrate all those who are in heaven; probably many if not all of our family members who are now saints. Anyone who is in heaven is a saint. Even though we officially recognize just a few of them, everyone there is a saint. Then on Nov 2nd we have the feast of All Souls where we pray for all who have died.

Why do we need to pray for the dead? Aren’t they all in heaven? Hopefully most of them are, but if you think about yourself for a moment, if you died today, do you think that you would be ready to enter the presence of the all holy God straight away? I doubt if I would. Most of us probably need a little refining, or being purified before we are ready for that. A good analogy is of someone waking up in the morning and being faced with the blinding light of the sun. Initially even the bedroom light is too much and we have to slowly wait until our eyes adjust; the light of the sun would be absolutely unbearable at first. The funny thing is that we want to see the sun in the morning because it is beautiful, but at the same time we are not able for it straight away.

Traditionally the Church teaches us about Purgatory, which is the last stage of getting ready to be in God’s presence when we die. This is not a punishment; rather it is a purification to make us ready for the wonderful presence of God, which we will enjoy for all eternity. So in fact it is a great gift from God and not something we should be afraid of. The Church also teaches us that we can help those who are still at that stage of Purgatory by praying for them. That is why we pray for the dead in every mass we offer throughout the whole year and we remember them especially during the month of November.

In St.Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he says the following: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19). In other words if we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point of our faith. What God teaches us is that we are all the time preparing for the world to come. This life is a kind of school or training ground, where we are free to love or not, to choose for God or not and the choices we make have consequences. If we keep in mind that something wonderful awaits us, which is what we will experience sooner or later, that helps us not to get too immersed in the world. We all get distracted and bogged down with the worries of this life, but we need to keep reminding ourselves of what our life is about, so that we don’t waste it. If we keep in mind the thought and hope of the world to come, where we will experience life in a way we can never experience it here, it helps us to keep the right focus. Death is not something for us to be afraid of; rather it will be the beginning of something unimaginably wonderful.

I leave you with this thought: Why do those who have died not come back to tell us what it is like? I’m sure it is because they know that it is not necessary for us to know. The ‘not knowing’ is part of the struggle of faith. For now we try to believe and trust in what the Lord has taught us: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. There are many rooms in my Father’s house. If there were not would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?’ (John 14:1).

Eternal rest grant to them O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon them.  May they enjoy the happiness that awaits us all.

Friday, October 21, 2016

30th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:9-14) The need for forgiveness

There is an extraordinary true story about a woman called Corrie Ten Boom, a Protestant living in Holland during the Second World War. She lived with her sister and father and they used to read the bible every evening after dinner. During the war as Holland was occupied by the Nazis and Jewish people began disappearing, they ended up hiding people in their home, although they didn’t set out to do this. Eventually they were caught and sent to one of the Concentration camps in Germany called Ravensbruck. Her sister and father both died there, but she survived and was eventually released.  

When she returned home she began working to help the many people who were so hurt by the war and she felt above all that God was calling her to speak about the need for forgiveness. And so she did and she was invited to speak all over the country and then in other countries. While speaking in Germany one day, a man came up to her after her talk and thanked her for this message of forgiveness. He said, ‘It is good to know that Jesus forgives all our sins.’ She recognised him as one of the SS officers who had been in charge of their prison and who was responsible for the death of her father and sister. As he extended his hand to her, she found herself freezing up and unable to respond, but she realised that if she did not forgive this man then all her preaching would be meaningless. So she found herself praying to God on the spot asking him to forgive this man for her and finally she was able to put out her hand to him. The book is called The Hiding Place. She wrote:
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

One of the hardest things that any of us are faced with is trying to forgive people who have hurt us. Often the people who hurt us the most are the people closest to us. When people say to me that they are angry with someone, it nearly always indicates that they need to forgive that person. Let me try and clear up a few misconceptions about what forgiveness is and is not.
Forgiveness is a decision of the will, as opposed to something we feel like doing. Most of us rarely feel like forgiving someone and if we were to wait until we actually felt like it, we would probably not forgive at all. When I forgive someone I make a decision to forgive that person because the Lord is asking me to, not because I feel like it. The reason why it is so important to do that is because when we forgive someone we open up the door to God’s grace to help us begin to heal. If I refuse to forgive someone I am blocking God from helping me to heal from the hurt. We are the ones who suffer, not the person we are angry with.
We may think that if I say I forgive someone I am saying that what they did doesn't matter. When we forgive we are not saying that, or that we no longer mind, or that the hurt is all gone. But when we refuse to forgive someone, we are the ones who suffer. The anger, hurt and resentment eats away at us inside. It is a terrible thing to meet people late in their life who have continually refused to forgive. You can see the bitterness in them and it is a sad sight to see. None of us want to end up like that. The good thing is that it is never too late to forgive.
It is easy to think that if I don’t forgive someone they will go on suffering because of what they did. The truth is that they may not even be aware of it any more. We are the ones who suffer. We are the ones who lose out. The first step in the process of healing from the hurt is to make the decision to forgive them and say the words. ‘Lord I forgive this person because you ask me to.’ It doesn’t mean that everything will suddenly be alright, or that we will suddenly love that person. In fact we may need to say those words again and again, but slowly we begin to heal. When we make the decision to forgive, we allow God to heal us, because we are the ones who are injured.
Another thought is this: All of us make mistakes and do wrong. We are well aware of that. I’m quite sure that all of us expect and hope that God will forgive us, but Jesus was very clear that we also need to forgive others if we expect to be forgiven ourselves. Jesus gave some very strong stories about people who refused to forgive, finishing with the words: ‘And that is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you each forgive your brother from the heart’ (Matthew 18:35). In another place Jesus says:
If you come to the altar to make your offering and there remember that your brother has something against you. Go and be reconciled with your brother first. Then come and make your offering’ (Matthew 5:23-24). 

Even if it is the other person who has a problem with us, we are asked to at least be willing to reconcile, to reach out to them. If they don't accept it, that is their problem, but we must not be the one to refuse to reconcile.
I remember the story of two brothers who lived in an apartment block next door to each other and they had a falling out over something. They refused to speak to each other and would have nothing to do with each other. Eventually one of them began to leave a small bag of candy outside the door of the other and then the other brother did something similar. It was their way of saying I forgive you and I'm sorry, even though no words were spoken.
We also need to forgive ourselves for the sins we have committed. So many people carry the guilt and shame of sins from years ago. If we have asked for forgiveness then God has forgiven us, because He has promised us that. By dying on Calvary Jesus won that forgiveness for us. All we have to do is ask for it and it is ours, no matter how terrible the sin was. God assures us of his forgiveness for anyone who asks. We will always carry the memory, because that is the damage done by the sin, but we have the freedom to know that we are forgiven.
Finally, remember the lady I mentioned at the beginning, Corrie Ten Boom. When she was faced with having to forgive the man responsible for the death of her sister and father, she found it nearly impossible, but she prayed for the grace and it was God who enabled her to do it. By our own strength it is often nearly impossible to forgive, but that is where we turn to the Lord and ask him to help us, and He does.
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us…

Friday, October 14, 2016

29th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:1-8) Deception of the Occult

 There is a lot of confusion these days as to what comes from God and what does not. I am talking in particular about things like going to fortune tellers, Tarot card readers, psychics, playing the Ouija board, or going to mediums, and many other practices that come under the general term of Occult. A lot of people just consider them harmless fun; besides what could possibly be wrong with them?
God expressly warns us in the Scriptures to stay away from such things. In the book of Deuteronomy it says:
You must not have in your midst anyone... who practices divination, or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices enchantments or who consults the spirits, no diviner, or one who asks questions of the dead. For the Lord abhors those who do these things (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

In another book it says, ‘Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you. I, the Lord, am your God’ (Leviticus 19:31).

I would like to try and explain why these things are a problem for us, because the Lord God doesn’t just give us rules for the sake of rules. If God tells us to stay away from something there is a good reason, just like you will tell your children to stay away from the fire or they’ll get burned. The Lord does the same for us, telling us what to avoid if we want to stay healthy.

So why are these things, which are now available everywhere, a problem? The first and most important reason is that they interfere with our free will. Our free will is an extraordinary gift which the Lord has given us, because it means that we have the freedom to do anything we choose, be it good or evil, although real freedom is the freedom to choose what is good. We can even reject God if we choose. It is an extraordinary thing that the Lord who has created us respects us enough even to giving us the freedom to reject him, and sadly some people do this by the way they live. Going to fortune tellers or any of these other things that I mentioned is basically an attempt to gain knowledge of the future. The problem is that if we think we have any kind of knowledge of the future it is going to influence our freedom to choose, because we will probably start acting out of fear or what we think might be going to happen. The Lord does not want us to be afraid, but to be at peace. That is why the Lord does not reveal the future to us. We don’t need to know it. If we did, He would show us, because He wants the very best for us.

The second reason why these things are a problem for us, is that by dabbling in them we are going directly against something God has asked us, which is a way of creating an obstacle between us and God. We sin when we do this. From a spiritual point of view they can also have a hold or influence over us. If God does not reveal the future to us, then where is this information coming from? It is not coming from the Lord, even if the fortune teller starts off by praying the Hail Mary or Our Father, which I know some of them do. 

I worked with an exorcist priest friend of mine for a while and saw first-hand the mess that some people get themselves into by dabbling in these things that the Lord tells us specifically to keep away from. They are very real. Satan is cunning and will do anything to lead us away from God, because he hates us as God’s creation. And yes I did say Satan, which may surprise you, but if Satan is not real then Jesus is a liar, because Jesus frequently mentioned him in his teaching.

We have to ask ourselves do I believe what Jesus said is true or not?  Either the Bible (the Scriptures) is the word of God or it isn’t. If it is, we have good cause to listen to it. If it’s not true, then what are we doing here?

The Lord wants the very best for us and will continually guide us along the right path, the path that will help us to reach our full potential as human beings, but sometimes we get misled and go astray. That’s not a problem so long as we recognise it and come back again. I’m sure you want God’s blessing for your lives and for your families, just as I do but if we mess with what God expressly tells us to stay away from, we will be blocking God’s help from us. 

If you have dabbled in any of these things at any stage, confess it, which is also what the Lord asks us to do. By confessing it you break any spiritual hold that it can have over you. By repenting of it you also open the door to God’s grace as well.

In the readings today the Lord is assuring us that He does and will answer our prayers. We have to trust that the Lord in this. God only speaks truth. If God has assured us of his help, then we would be foolish to look for any spiritual help from any other source. We know that God wants the very best for us and if we believe that then we must also listen to what He tells us to do and what He tells us to avoid.
I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)

Friday, October 7, 2016

28th Sunday Year C (Luke 17:11-19) The need to give thanks to God for everything.

I often find it amusing when it is lashing rain and someone says to me, ‘Isn’t it an awful day?’ And I say, ‘Yes it is, thank God’. I usually get a weird look that says, ‘What do you mean ‘thank God’?’ But why should we not thank God just because it is raining? The rain may not suit us always, the sun may not suit others always, but that’s no reason not to give thanks to God for it. It is a gift from him, like many other things, even if it doesn’t suit us.

We tend to see our world or universe as being the center of things, often with God as an optional extra as it were; someone on the outside. However, it is in fact the other way around.  God is at the center of things and we are the optional extra. We were created by God and we need not be here. Now you might think that that makes us pretty small and insignificant in many ways. Well it does. We are. We like to think of ourselves as extremely important, especially the higher up we get in the world, but the fact is we are all the exact same with the same need for God. Once we begin to recognize this it actually makes life a lot easier because it takes a lot of pressure off us. The world doesn’t depend on us alone to save it. The future of the human race isn’t being sustained by me alone. The people of Fort Myers aren’t depending on me as a priest to say the right thing, to make sure they all get to heaven and it’s just as well! 

The governments today often talk about their decisions as though they themselves were God, as though the future of the human race was solely in their hands. Fortunately for us all it is not. We are important of course, and we certainly have a big responsibility to do the right thing in the world and to make sure that there is a good future for those who come after us, but the Lord God of heaven and earth is also there helping us. So we have a lot to be thankful for. 

At the moment we seem to be hearing almost nothing but bad news, how awful everything is and how little hope there is. It is very hard not to be affected by it when we are getting this from the news on an hourly basis, not to mention all the chat shows. By their nature news programs tend to dwell on bad and dramatic news, but I think it is important for us not to let that be the main influence on the way we think, or we will begin to see the world as a very dark place. Yes we are in distressing times and there are plenty of problems, but the fact is that most of us are surviving. I would imagine that everyone here has enough to eat, has a roof over their heads at night. We probably have a car to get around in and we probably are able to provide for our children, even if it is not as lavish as we would like. The truth is we have an awful lot to be grateful for.

When I find myself becoming negative and wishing things were better—and believe me I complain just as much as anyone!—I find it a great help to start giving thanks to God for as many things as possible. In the morning I say, ‘Thank you Lord for a good night’s rest; thank you for a hot shower and a breakfast to eat. Thank you that I have decent clothes to wear and enough money in my pocket to survive. Thank you for the friends I have and also for the people I don’t like. I also try not to listen to too many news programs during the day as they tend to get me down. Remember that all of the things we listen to during the day do affect how we think and how we see the world.

Think for a moment about the teachings of Jesus during his life on earth. They are very positive, very encouraging and very compassionate. Even when he spoke about the end of the world and the disciples said, ‘When will this happen?’ He basically said, ‘Don’t worry about that. It doesn’t concern you.’ To sum up his teaching: we are asked to love and serve while we are here on earth. Then when our time is complete the Lord will bring us home to be with him. That makes it very simple. We do our best and try to stay focused on the one who gives us life and gives us everything we have.
We have a lot to be grateful for. So maybe the next time you want to ask God’s help for something in prayer, take a moment first to thank God for the many things He has given you and then ask for your needs. And maybe even thank God for the rain the next time it’s lashing and you’re about to get soaked!

‘In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid, I have overcome the world.’