Friday, March 31, 2017

5th Sunday of Lent Year A (Gospel: John 11:1-45) Our hope is in the Lord

Some time back I saw a program about Stephen Hawking, the English physicist who is confined to a wheelchair because of Lou Gehrig's disease, but whose brain is working perfectly, and who is an extra-ordinary genius. He wrote A brief history of time, attempting to explain the origins of the universe. Over fifty years ago he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and he was told he had at best two years to live. Today he is still doing ground-breaking work in physics although the only muscle that he can still move is one of his cheeks. There is a small sensor beside his cheek, which is attached to a computer. By moving his cheek he can speak to people and continue working through his computer.  No doubt one of the reasons why he is still alive is his will to live. He has an extraordinary determination to keep going.

There is so much more to being alive than just physical health, although that is what we all wish for. Many people would consider that life would not be worth living if you were in the physical state that Stephen Hawking is in, and yet look at what he has already done.

For a few years I used to work in a hospital as chaplain in my hometown of Galway. I often saw people who, having lost the will to live, would go down-hill very quickly and die. I also saw people who were told that they would probably not recover, but because they were absolutely determined to keep going, they would recover, often completely against the odds.  One of the key differences between those who keep going and those who don’t is something spiritual: hope. When we have hope we can keep going even against the odds. If we have no hope, we may not survive even the ordinary.

A few years ago in housing subdivision called Moyross, in Limerick city—one of the toughest and most troubled areas of that city—a new group of Religious have moved in. They are called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which were started by Fr. Benedict Goreschel in the Bronx, New York. They live very like the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) in extreme poverty. Apparently the area has been transformed, for the simple reason that they have given the people there new hope. By moving in there, they have shown those people that they are worth something and that in itself has given them new hope.

Because we believe that God wants us to be happy, to live life in all its fullness, that gives us hope which we are inspired to pass on to others. Because we have hope we are able to work to promote and strengthen married life even when it goes wrong; we continue to work with younger people and encourage them not to give up even when they have ruined their lives through drugs, or alcohol; we continue to work for justice and peace often in very difficult circumstances. Our faith in God gives us hope, which in turn inspires others to keep going. Think of the hope that Pope Francis has given people by the way he lives.

In this beautiful Gospel we hear how Jesus deliberately waited when he heard that Lazarus was sick, in order to work this miracle before everyone’s eyes. He wanted to show them something. He wanted to show them that God has power even over death and that if He allows people to die that it is not the end. Just as Jesus called Lazarus out of death, so Jesus will also call us out of death when we die and we will begin a new and wonderful life with him, if we have chosen life with God. We make that choice by the way we live. 

In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was helping people to believe in who he was. He is the one who has power over life and death. He is master of all things. He was also giving the people hope, showing them that there is a bigger picture that we do not understand. Death is not the end. Physical health is not everything either, but having hope is essential if we are to keep going through the many difficulties that we continue to face. Our hope in God and the world to come gives us strength to keep going even when we are suffering, or struggling, or when everything goes wrong. If we do not have hope we could despair. If we believe in nothing else apart from this world then it will be very difficult to keep going when faced with the many difficulties that we are so often faced with, which don’t seem to have any solution: situations of injustice that we can do nothing about; people killed through violence and hatred. If we believe in nothing else, then how are we supposed to keep going?

In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, which is in modern day Greece, St. Paul wrote the following: “If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:9). In other words if we think that this life is everything then we have completely missed the point. But our faith tells us that this life is only a small part of what is going on and it is so important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. I am sure that was one of the reasons why Jesus deliberately waited until Lazarus was dead before he went to him, so that he could bring him back to life in front of everyone, so that they would realize that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead and all things are in his hands.

“I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live and I shall resettle you on your own soil; and you will know that I the Lord have said and done this.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

4th Sunday of Lent Yr A (John 9:1-41)) The man born blind. Seeing beyond the senses.

I grew up in the West of Ireland, where the winters can seem endless because it is so dark for so long. Often it is weeks before we see the sun, but we know it is there. We know it because we can see the effects of it for one thing. God is something similar. We do not see him, but we know He is there, because we see the effects of God’s presence. We see people continually inspired to do good, even in the face of strong opposition. We see people willing to suffer to get justice and peace. You could be cynical and say that is just the goodness of human nature, but with faith we see something different. We see the power of God’s spirit at work. What gives people the strength to die for a good cause? Their faith. God inspires and gives us the strength to keep going, even when it’s difficult.

One of the things that is causing many of us pain at the moment, is the fact that so many of our younger people seem to have lost their faith. Parents are continually saying to me: ‘My children won’t go to church,’ or ‘My children don’t practice anymore; what should I do?’ Just because they cannot relate to the mass, does not mean that they don’t have faith, or that they are not searching for God. Almost everyone searches for God, but perhaps not in a way that makes sense to us. It is often more a question of them having lost faith in the Church as an institution than anything else and this is very understandable, since most of what they are hearing about it is negative, unattractive and sometimes scandalous. What can we do about it? To be honest I don’t know. It troubles me greatly and I pray continually for them and that God will show us what to do. To most of my generation and younger generations I am a complete mystery as a priest and sometimes I find that difficult too because all of us want to be accepted.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that God is acting in their lives and will continue to act, for two reasons: firstly, because they are also his children. He created them and He is more concerned about them than we are. Secondly because of the thousands of people who are praying for them, including us. God hears our prayers and God knows how and when to respond. We may not appear to see anything, but that does not mean that nothing is happening.

Now let us turn to this account of Jesus healing a man blind from birth. The fact that he was blind from birth emphasizes that giving him sight would be a complete miracle and totally unheard of. Once he is healed he then comes to believe that Jesus is Lord. The miracles that Jesus worked did more than just heal the person. These miracles were also pointing to who he was and is. When the man is questioned by the religious authorities he is not able to explain what happened or how, but simply that it did happen and that he now believes. He does not have the official ‘education’ or religious knowledge, to be able to know the things of God, and yet he comes to believe. On the other hand the religious leaders of the time had the official education. They were the experts, and yet they could not and would not recognize who Jesus was. Perhaps it was partly their religious knowledge which became an obstacle for them. Because Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath they concluded that he could not be from God, because that was their understanding of how God worked. They had a particular understanding of how God must be, and since Jesus didn’t fit this picture they concluded he could not be from God. Essentially their minds were closed and they didn’t want to know. God had to fit into their picture. But God often acts outside the way we think things should happen. The religious leaders were confined to a narrow understanding of God. You could say that they had a blindness of the heart. The blind man, on the other hand, was physically blind, but he had an openness of heart. Not only did he come to physically see, but more importantly he came to believe.

We have a particular understanding of what it means to believe and how we should express that faith: namely by going to church, praying and loving our neighbor. This is good and important, but that does not mean that God can not bring people to faith in a completely different way as well. The Muslims, Hindus, and many others believe in God too, but they have a very different understanding than we do. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It is just different.

The next generation may not understand God in the way we do, but we should not lose heart about that. God is just as interested in them as we are. He has created them to be with him in heaven, just like us. Our job is to go on bearing witness to God by living our faith as well as we can. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

3rd Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 4:5-42) Baptism and the waters of life

Today we have the baptism of an infant, Emmet Donato, who is just four months old. There is nothing like a new baby to give us hope; the promise of the next generation. The Gospel today is particularly appropriate for a baptism, where Jesus offers the Samaritan woman ‘living water’, which can only come from God. But why baptize a child at all? Why not wait until they are an adult and what is the importance of Baptism anyway?

Way back at the beginning we believe that God created everything, the heavens and the earth, the visible world and the invisible world. It is also worth mentioning that faith and science don’t contradict each other, they just look at things from a different perspective. Science looks at how our universe developed, step by step; what exactly happened. Faith asks why it is there in the first place, why is there anything instead of nothing. The two most important things that the creation story in Genesis tell us is that it was God who created and that what God created was fundamentally good. It also says that the human being was God’s greatest creation, God’s masterpiece, because we are made in his image with free will and the ability to love.

We also understand that somewhere way back at the beginning our first parents rejected God’s word, rebelled against what He taught them and so sin entered the world. That was the Fall, which is itself a very mysterious thing. The problem was that we ourselves could not repair the damage we had done. The bridge between heaven and earth had now been broken. So God came among us in the person of Jesus who was fully human and fully divine, in order to make up for the damage done. By sacrificing himself for us he reopened the way to heaven, the possibility of eternal life with God which we had lost. That’s why Jesus’ coming among us is so important and why Easter is such an extraordinary feast. It is the feast of our being set free. It is now possible to go to heaven again.

 When we baptize someone we are saying yes I believe all that God has done for me and I accept it. I want to be drenched in the life of God. When you step out into a summer down-pour in Florida you get soaked, ‘baptized’ in the water. That’s what it means. By being baptized we are saying ‘Let me have it!’ Let me have all that God has done for me. When we baptize an adult they first have to go through a time of preparation where they learn about our faith. Only when they are ready do they receive baptism. If we baptize an infant we do it on condition that they will be taught their faith as they grow up. Otherwise it would be hypocrisy.

In this Gospel Jesus has an unusual encounter with a woman. In the culture of the time it would have been unthinkable for a Jew to speak to a Samaritan woman on her own, and even more outrageous to share a drinking vessel with her. The fact that she was there in the middle of the day on her own also tells us something. Women would have gone to the well early in the morning or in the evening in groups and not with men. Being there on her own at noon indicates that she was not welcome in her community. She was shunned because of her lifestyle. But Jesus reaches out to her and offers her ‘the waters of life’. What is this life? It is life in Christ and all that he is offering to us. Following his teaching is the path that will lead us to heaven. Baptizing someone is offering them all that Jesus offered the woman and also offers us.

We only want the very best for our children and that is why we baptize them as infants and immerse them in all that God offers us. As they grow we try and pass on that same faith and that takes all of us. We bear witness to them by the way we live. If we do our best to live our faith it will help them to see how real and important it is too.

If you only knew what God was offering you and who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

2nd Sunday of Lent Yr A (Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9) This is my Son the Beloved, listen to him

A few years ago I was out with some friends having a drink. There was an American tourist there, a man about my own age, and he was on his own. So eventually he joined us and began chatting. He told us he a bit about himself and his wife and children at home. Then he asked me if I had any children. So I said ‘No, I am a priest.’ He was not expecting that reply, but then he said, ‘Yes, Jesus was a good man.’ I was thinking to myself, ‘You are right, Jesus was a good man, but he was also much more than that: he was and is the Son of God.’ That makes a big difference. 

Something that you will come across quite often in discussions on religion in general is the idea that Jesus is another one of the enlightened masters, like the Buddha, or Gandhi, or others like that. You will come across this in what is generally called New Age thinking as well. He is a prophet and a great teacher and spiritual leader, but that is it. However, for us it can not stop there. We believe that he is a human being, yes, but also fully divine. He is God, revealed to us in human flesh. If this is not true, then we should not be here. And if this is not true then what we do here in the mass is idolatry, because it would mean that we claim that this same Jesus the Son of God becomes present in the form of bread and wine. In a way it is no wonder that many other religions think what we do is completely crazy. It is hard to blame them.  But Jesus himself claimed he was the Son of God. Either Jesus was a liar, he was mad, or what he said was true. We believe that what he said was true, that he is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine.

This vision that the three Apostles Peter, James and John were granted on the mountain tells us a lot. These three Apostles seem to have been given a more intense training than the others. The Gospels tell us that on three different occasions Jesus allowed only them to go with him. Once was when he brought back to life the 12 year old girl, Jairus’ daughter. He only allowed her parents and Peter, James and John to be there. The other time was in the Garden of Gethsemane when he allowed them to see up close the fear and terror that he went through, knowing what was about to happen to him. He sweated blood, which is a real medical condition in extreme stress.

Why were they given this vision? It was for their benefit, to leave them in no doubt that Jesus was not just another prophet, even if a great prophet. He was the one seen in blinding glory, but then they heard this voice from the cloud saying ‘This is my Son the beloved... listen to him.’ It was another way of telling them, ‘Do not be in any doubt as to who he is. Listen to him.’ He is the only one whose voice we need to listen to. We are constantly being called in different directions. Different voices tell us what to believe, where to go. ‘Don’t listen to the Church because it is corrupt. The teachings of Christ are not real’, etc. But the Father says, ‘Listen to him’.

Why did these other two men, Moses and Elijah, appear with Jesus? Moses represented the Ten Commandments, which were known as the Law. This was the law they were to follow. Elijah represented the Prophets. The prophets were the ones whom God sent to point people back in the right direction. The Jewish people believed that if they followed the teachings of the Law and the Prophets, that was their path to heaven. Now Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus which was a sign that Jesus was now the new path to heaven. All of us will go to heaven through what Jesus has done for us. He is the new path to heaven, the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

Peter, James and John were also being strengthened for the passion which was to happen right after this event and in spite of being granted this vision, they fled when Jesus was tortured and killed. If it was that difficult for them, it is not surprising that we can find it difficult too, and that we doubt and wonder are we all daft to believe in these things. But that is why God granted them this vision of Jesus in his glory, which must have been quite terrifying at the time. God allowed them to see this so that afterwards they would regain their strength and courage. They saw Jesus in glory to show them who he was/is and also this is to remind us that this is how we will see him when we die.

We too need the same strength and courage, especially when we are all the time being told of how foolish it is to believe all this stuff and that we should really get with the times. The Church is out of date, corrupt, etc. If Jesus is just a man, or a prophet, then what we do here is wrong, in fact it would be blasphemy. But if Jesus is the Son of God, which we believe he is, then what happens in each mass is the most extraordinary miracle in the world and it is also the most incredible privilege for us to be able to receive his body and blood in each mass. Who could even think up such an idea as this except God? No human would try to convince other humans of something so outrageous. Jesus told us to repeat this ritual this ritual in his memory and so we do, so that we could have him with us continually in a beautiful way, where we can actually receive him into our own bodies. We did not make it up. 

In spite of the difficulty at times to believe and all the confusion that is around us, remember this event on the mountain and the voice that the Apostles heard:

This is my Son the Beloved... listen to him.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

1st Sunday of Lent The temptations of Christ in the desert

Since I was ordained a priest almost 19 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of the reality of God. I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, above all becoming present in each mass when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way. It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it just seems to be some kind of a strange religious ritual. So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular every once in a while to help us believe?

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is really the explanation as to why God doesn’t do more signs and wonders to convince us of his presence. This is an extraordinary story because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation. At some stage he must have told his apostles what happened there and what he had to go through. 

Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God. Now for any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use. Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers, or otherwise Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to use them. There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height or to turn stones into bread, because we couldn’t do it anyway. So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus, to misuse his power.

The first thing he was tempted with was to find satisfaction in material things. ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’ In this case it was bread to a man who was starving. But Jesus said, ‘No.  Man does not live on bread alone.’ The human being is not satisfied by material things. Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by offering them just what they want.’ We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God because we are spiritual and not just physical.

The second temptation that Jesus was presented with was to work signs and wonders for the people. ‘Throw yourself down from the temple since God will save you.’ If he started doing this then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time, but Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart. You cannot buy love, as you know, and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way, and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.


The third temptation was to compromise with evil. This is a huge temptation for most people. When you hear people say ‘The Church needs to get with the times’ this is often what they mean. The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings to the more difficult moral demands of our age. It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow. But that is not what we are asked to do and when Jesus was tempted this way he rejected it outright. He was being tempted to compromise with evil just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced. But right is right and wrong is wrong. We must not compromise on the ways of God. Yes it is more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.

In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders now, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced, but that is not how God works, and I think it is good to remember that, especially when we live in times of great change when God often seems to be very quiet. The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely. No one is going to force us.