Saturday, July 29, 2017

17th Sunday, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 15:44-52) The hidden treasure

 There are two lady friends of mine, good friends whom I’ve known for many years: Maura and Marina. Both were accountants, with good jobs and a nice lifestyle; great party goers and very popular. Then one day Marina announced to us all that she was going to leave everything and enter the Poor Clare convent, in my home-town. The Poor Clares are an order of contemplative sisters, which means they dedicate their lives to prayer. They don’t leave the convent, except for things like visits to the doctor, or to vote. Otherwise they spend the rest of their lives in the convent praying for all of us. People from all over the city and beyond continually go into them asking them to pray for different intentions. About two years later, my friend Maura did the same thing. This meant that they would give up their job and salary, their independence and nice lifestyle and also the chance to get married and have children. Marina’s family were very upset when she decided to do this, even though they were a very religious family themselves. In spite of their faith they found it very hard to accept. It is an extraordinary calling and one of great sacrifice.

Six year later, Marina made her final profession, taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Two years after that, Maura, my other friend, did the same thing. They will spend the rest of their lives in that convent praying and interceding for people, helping us by the sacrifice of their lives.

Every time a man is ordained to the priesthood, he also dedicates his life to God and to service of his people. He gives up the chance to be married and have children.

It’s not only Religious people who do this, many other friends of mine who are married have also changed the direction of their lives and begun to live more closely to God, trying to give time each day to prayer and to living out the faith that they believe in. They continue to work just as before, but they have begun to make a conscious effort to live by the Gospel they believe in and this happens all the time.

Why did my two friends decide to leave everything and spend the rest of their lives in a convent? Many people consider it is a total waste of a life. The Church says it is the highest calling that God can give to anyone, but what makes someone want to do this, or to become a priest, or to really try to live out their faith?

The answer is that they have found the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price that Jesus talks about. They have recognized that it is worth everything and so they have given everything for it. It is what Jesus often calls ‘The kingdom of heaven’. In other words it is the discovery, or realization that God is real and that what Jesus has told us about God, is true. It is as if this suddenly clicks into place and they can see it and it makes sense. They realize that God isn’t just an optional extra, but that God is at the center and we are a part of his world. We are the optional extra. We are the ones who would not be here except that God created us. God is at the center of everything and our life only makes sense in relation to him and in relation to what Jesus told us about him. Apart from God, our life makes absolutely no sense. To come to know this is worth everything, because it is the truth.

Just because someone finds this treasure, as Jesus calls it, doesn’t mean that they have to become a priest or Religious. Most people are not called to be priests or Religious, but to continue on as normal in society, working, having families and giving witness to the reality of God by the way they live. That’s what most of us are called to, but the fact that some people are prepared to live a life dedicated to God, shows the value of what they believe in, of what we believe in. It testifies to the fact that what we believe in has a greater and more lasting value than anything we can know in this world. It’s a sign that we believe there is more to come and that it’s worth waiting for, suffering for and making sacrifices for. That is also one of the ideas of celibacy, or the vow of chastity. People decided to give up the possibility of marriage, because they believe in the world to come. It is a sign of our faith in the next world, because that is how we will be in the next world.

God created us so that the most natural thing for us to do is to get married and what could be greater than what God has designed? But God has also called some to live in a particular way, to encourage and remind others that there is more to this life than meets the eye.

Often when I’m finding it tough going and wondering why I’m a priest or what it’s all about, I think of my two friends in the Poor Clares and their witness makes me say yes, it is worth the effort.

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,
which a person finds and hides again,
and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Friday, July 21, 2017

16th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43) The problem of evil

One of the most difficult questions in religion is about the problem of evil. If God is all good and all powerful, then why does evil exist? This is a big problem for most of us and it is not easy to answer. Many people will use it as an excuse to discard the argument for God. They will say that God could not exist if there is evil in the world. The answer comes down to two words: Free will.

A knife is a very useful tool. I can use it to cut bread or meat, but I can also use it to kill someone with. If I have free will then I can choose to do good or evil. I would not be free if God continually stepped in when I decided to do wrong. If God did this then I would not be free. We are free to do right or wrong, but our actions also have consequences, both in this world and the next, the next life being much more serious as they are eternal consequences.

 What about so many innocent people suffering because of the evil choices of others? The example that is most in our minds today is the so called Islamic State; religious extremists who believe they are doing a holy thing in wiping out those who see differently to them. They feel they have the right to do this, but all they are doing is causing immeasurable suffering. Why should children suffer because of the evil choices of others? Shouldn’t God step in? There is no easy answer to that and it angers just about everyone, because we know it’s wrong. The free choices of some people have consequences and sometimes those consequences do terrible things to others. Political leaders can make choices which are wrong and may cause immense suffering for people. Should God step in every time someone chooses to do wrong? If God did, then would we really have free will?

Another side of it is this: Evil was involved in the death of Jesus. Jesus was given up to the authorities because Judas chose to betray him, even though he regretted it afterwards. The religious authorities of the time had Jesus convicted through a trial which was illegal according to their own law. They chose to do what was wrong and yet the mysterious thing is that even though Jesus was betrayed, tried, tortured and killed by the deliberate choices of men who decided to do evil, yet look what God brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The course of history was turned around because of his death and resurrection. Eternal happiness was won for us. What does that tell us? One thing it tells us is that God can and will bring great good out of the worst evil imaginable. We often hear of people working so hard to correct injustice, where someone is falsely accused and imprisoned. People will fight for years to bring about justice and they also inspire others to do the same. Think of people like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They suffered greatly because of the evil choices of others and yet they brought about wonderful things and also inspired so many, because they were prepared to battle on in spite of the evil brought about by other’s free will.

In times of war we don’t always hear about the many heroic acts of justice and kindness that people do in order to help those who are suffering. Two years ago I remember hearing the account of a BBC journalist called Fergal Keane, who has covered areas of conflict for years. He told one story about two women in their seventies he came across in the Ukraine. They had lost everything, including their pension and they were now living in a basement. They didn’t know how they were going to survive. Sometime later many people wrote to Fergal asking him if he knew what had happened to them. So he went back to try and find them. He discovered that they were now living in another tiny room together, but they were also cooking food for many people fleeing the war. They were using what little they had to bring about relief for others, even though they had hardly anything themselves. When Fergal was asked how he was able to keep working in the midst of so much suffering, he said it was because of stories like this one which inspired him so much. People can also choose to do good in spite of the suffering caused by others.

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was asked about the problem of corruption and scandal within the Church. In his response he pointed to today’s Gospel and the parable about the wheat and the darnel, or weed. He said that Jesus is teaching that there will always be evil in the world. We try and deal with as much of it as possible, but there will always be a certain amount we can do nothing about and we have to learn to live with this. But Jesus also teaches us that it will ultimately be dealt with, because all of us will have to give an account of our actions. There will be justice when we come before God. Does that mean we should be afraid? Of course not. Jesus reassures us of his infinite mercy if we make even the smallest effort to ask for forgiveness, but we must not take it for granted either. I actually find it reassuring to know that all of us will be accountable for our actions, because when you think of people who choose to do terrible evil and cause so much suffering for others. It often seems that they are not brought to justice in this world. I find it comforting to know that they will not escape God’s justice. No one gets away. 

Does God ever intervene? It seems that sometimes God does intervene and people are miraculously cured or saved. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit continually whispers to us to help us make good choices, but we are free to listen or ignore those suggestions, just as we are free to listen to the whisperings of temptations.  

"The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom
all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

15th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:1-23) A sower went out to sow

Do you ever wonder why it is that some people believe in God and take the practice of their religion seriously and others don’t? How is it that some people are converted and others aren’t? Why did I come back to my faith at 19 and many of my friends did not? Why did so many people listen to Jesus when he preached? Nobody knew who he was and he had no education to boast about and yet he gathered a huge following of people wherever he went. You could say that it was because he was the Son of God; but nobody knew he was at the time. I am sure it was because he was preaching the truth and people’s spirits recognized this, because all of us are searching for the truth; the truth about God and the truth about life and we instinctively recognize it when we hear it.

Truth is attractive to us and it pierces right to the heart, so that when we hear it we want to hear more of it, even though it may be difficult or painful for us to hear. Our faith is about a search for this truth, which has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ. That’s why we keep struggling with it, even though it can be a bit up-hill at the best of times, but it is too important to ignore, and deep down, we all know that. People flocked to hear Mother Theresa whenever she spoke. They say that even his critics listened to Pope John Paul II, because they recognized that he spoke the truth, even if they didn’t like it.

In today’s parable Jesus is teaching us two things about religion. First of all, that it is a part of life that some people will hear about God and ignore it, or become preoccupied with something else, or not like the idea that it means you might have to suffer for it. Only a few will actually hear it and really grow because of it, as God intended. Those who do are generally in the minority, but the other thing is that, the rich soil that he talks about, which bears fruit, doesn’t happen by itself. In other words, it is not just fate whether we will be open to believe or not, we have a part to play in it. Rich soil only comes about with hard work and a lot of care; preparing the ground, getting rid of the weeds and stones. If the word of God is to grow in us, we have to make some effort to be ready for it and help it to grow. We are not going to grow in faith just by watching television. Jesus says, ‘Try to enter by the narrow gate. For the road that leads to hell is wide and spacious, but the road that leads to life is narrow.’ It may not be the most attractive road, but it is the most worthwhile one. If we want our relationship with God to grow, we must make it happen, by taking time to develop our faith, through prayer, reading the Scriptures, listening to God. It won’t happen without giving it time, a certain amount of time every day and there is always time, because we always give time to what is important to us. Would you expect a relationship with someone to grow without giving it any time? Of course not, and faith is no different.

I think we also have to be careful that we don’t come to the church with the mindset of ‘What will they have on for us today?’ Our coming to the mass each week is a combination of worshipping God, as God commands us to, searching for God and trying to hear what God is saying to us. Ultimately, we get to receive the Body and Blood of Christ reminding us of how close the Lord wants to be to us.

Every so often when I want to go to confession I have found myself before a priest who I don’t like, but I have no other option unless I want to put it off for another time. But that is when I try to remind myself that it is God’s grace and mercy I am seeking, even if the particular priest I find myself with is not who I would choose. I think that is also a good approach to the mass. It is important that we find ourselves a church which helps us to grow, but we also need to remind ourselves what it is we come for. It is not a form of religious entertainment, but our coming before God. It is better to go to a church that helps you to grow, even if it is not your own parish.

 God has given us free will, and He wants us to use it intelligently. Our future is not already set out for us, we have a major part to play in it. That is why God does not reveal the future to us and that is also why the Scriptures tell us it is wrong to go to fortune tellers and psychics, because it is only for God to know the future and also because they can mislead us and influence us into making decisions for the wrong reasons. God could give us the information we need much more accurately than any fortune teller, but He doesn’t, because we don’t need to know the future and God wants us to be able to make decisions about our life, freely.

The Lord is constantly throwing out seed on the ground. He continually invites us to follow him, no matter what stage of life we’re at and it’s never too late to start again.  God will continue to call to us to follow the path of faith, until we die. The invitation remains, but the choice is ours. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

14th Sunday, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 11: 25-30) Come to me all you who labor and are over burdened

Recently I was at home in Ireland on vacation, but I was greatly saddened to see the atmosphere in the country with regards to the Church. It has become very anti-Catholic. Much of this is understandable because of scandals that have happened in the past, but much of it is also grossly unfair. A few days ago I read that in the last 10 years, 8 priests in Ireland committed suicide, which is really shocking. I knew two of them. I don’t know exactly what happened to them, but it seems that they couldn’t take what was going on any more. I also know many who have left. One friend who left the priesthood recently wrote in an email to me that the priesthood had become so joyless and such a burden to him. He had little or no support where he was working and that is not how it is meant to be. Priests are meant to be the shepherds of the people and the people are meant to take care of their shepherds. Thankfully that has not been my experience here. People are wonderful in looking after their priests in this country and I am very grateful for that.

One of the politicians at home recently said that if you see a priest you should probably throw a stone at him and that the Catholic Church should be in the trash, where it belongs. That is religious persecution and inciting hatred, but the problem is that it is subtle. It would be much easier to deal with bloody persecution, because then you would know who is with you and who is not.  

Why is this happening, apart from the scandals that have outraged people? The reason is because Satan knows what God has given us in the Eucharist and he wants to do everything possible to take that away from us, or to make us turn against it and there is no Eucharist without the priesthood. So the easiest way to do it is to turn people against the priesthood. Jesus ordained that we would have the gift of his Body and Blood through the priesthood. Priests are ordinary, weak, human beings, just like everyone else, but for whatever reason Jesus made it so that priests would be his messengers and the instruments through which we would have the gift of the Eucharist, the gift of his Body and Blood.

Ireland is not the only place where this is happening. It happens continually in different countries, but it is usually more public and bloody. In China most of the Catholic Church has to operate underground, because the government doesn’t want it. In the Middle East at the moment great numbers of Christians have been executed because they are Christian. A good friend of mine, called Ragheed Ghanni, was shot dead in Iraq because he was a priest and refused to close the church.


Why am I painting such a bleak picture of what is going on? I think it is good that we are reminded of the gift that we have in the Eucharist and the lengths people are willing to go to, in order to make sure that we continue to have it. Thank God we do not have open persecution here, but it could happen. The Eucharist is the gift of Jesus himself, his Body and Blood and without our priests we will not have that gift.

Sometimes I get frustrated when I meet hostility because I am a priest, but then I am reminded that Jesus said it would be like this. ‘You will be hated by everyone on account of my name, but the one who perseveres will be saved’ (Mt 10:22). The other side of this is that we continually turn to Jesus to receive the strength we need to persevere. I don’t just mean priests, but all of us. Satan will continue to try and convince us that we don’t need the Eucharist, or the Church, and especially not the priests, but the reason he does that is because he knows that this is one of the greatest gifts that Jesus has given us, because it is the gift of Jesus himself.

So let us remember to pray for our priests, especially those who are being persecuted and let us also remember where our strength lies when we are getting frustrated or find it hard to keep going. Our strength is in Jesus, in the Eucharist which is really and truly the Body and blood of Jesus.

“Come to me all who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest.”