Friday, August 25, 2017

21st Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20) It was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven

 When Napoleon was taking over Europe in the 19th century, he met the Cardinal of Paris and he told him that he would take over and destroy the Vatican. The Cardinal told him that he wouldn’t be able. Napoleon assured him that he would. The Cardinal said to Napoleon, ‘We priests have been trying to destroy the Vatican for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able. You won’t be able either.’

I have often heard people say in interviews, ‘I’m not really very religious, I just go to church on Sundays,’ or words to that effect. I think we often put ourselves down and underestimate how much faith we have. The fact is that if you and I didn’t believe in God, in Jesus coming to us in each mass, that God works through the priest in the mass, we wouldn’t come here. This means that you probably have far more faith than you give yourself credit for. If we really didn’t believe, these things, we wouldn’t come here, because apart from faith, what we believe in sounds completely crazy.

Today’s readings make an interesting point. In this encounter between Jesus and Peter, Peter recognised that Jesus was the Christ, the one promised by God and right away Jesus told him that he was a happy man, because it was God the Father who had revealed this to him. This tells us that the fact that we believe in God means we have been given the gift which we call faith. You might think, ‘Well, I just learnt about it from my parents’, but the fact is that many other people also learnt about it from their parents and don’t believe, so there must be more to it than that. No human being on their own, will convince you of God, even with the best arguments. I could stand here for hours and try to give you impressive explanations of why we should believe in God, but if the Spirit of God does not touch your heart, I would be wasting my time. It is God and only God who can convince you of his presence. The only thing we need in order to receive this gift, is ‘openness’. If we are open we will come to know God, because that is what God wants for us.

The second thing that Jesus said to Peter tells us why we need the Church. Sometimes you will hear people say that they want God, but not the Church. Jesus said: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.’ He also said, ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’ In other words, Jesus was giving his authority to Peter and his followers to act and make decisions in his name.

Was that a crazy thing to do? Why on earth would God give his authority to a bunch of ordinary and weak people, to represent him and speak on his behalf? What it means is that God would be working through these people, through his Spirit who guides the Church, who guides us all. So the Lord was saying, ‘I am going to work through human instruments, but it is my Church and it is me that will guide it.’ If you find that idea hard to believe, just think for a minute of all the different empires and superpowers that have come and gone over the centuries: the great Chinese empires, the Roman Empire, people like Napoleon, Hitler, all the different nations that were super-powers. They were all powerful, well organized and wealthy and yet they have all come and gone and they are no more. Why? Because they were of human origin. How is it that the Church is still here, considering we have had centuries of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc? The only reason the Church is still here, is because it is from God and it is God who is continually acting through it, in spite of all the mistakes we make, and we make plenty. The history of the Church is nothing to boast about. It was Jesus’ plan to have a Church and to work through it, so that we would have a very concrete way to relate to God and so He guides us through his Church and shows us the path to follow. So today, 20 centuries after Christ, here am I still passing on the message to you and even if I make a mess of it, the Lord will teach us what we need to know, just as long as we go on being open to him.

Another time Jesus said, “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.” Jesus is saying, don’t build your faith on ‘nice ideas’ or just the things that suit you. Have a solid foundation for your faith, or it won’t last. That foundation is what is passed on to us through the Church, because that is his teaching.

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.

Friday, August 18, 2017

20th Sunday Year A (Matthew 15:21-28) Love of neighbor is what will convince

A few years ago, a young man who said to me, ‘Isn’t it a bit arrogant of you Catholics to think that you’re right and everyone else is wrong?’ He wasn’t trying to be nasty, he was quite genuine. I said to him that I didn’t see it as a matter of us being right and others being wrong. I said that we believe that God made himself known to the human race in different ways, but especially through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us to live a particular way, to love God and those around us, to have respect for all people. He taught us that he is the Son of God and that all who want to come to the Father must go through him. Anyone who follows this particular way of life is a Christian, and we believe as Catholics that we are trying to follow this way that he pointed out to us. It is not a question of others being wrong, but it does mean that for us this is the way we believe is right to follow. We try to live the teachings of Christ as best we can.

We also believe that the teachings of the Apostles were very important, because Jesus gave them his authority to teach and that is why we try and listen to the teachings of the Church, because we believe that they come from God. We struggle with them, and there is no harm with that, but we believe that God’s teaching is in them, and that’s why we don’t just replace them with ‘human’ wisdom.

It’s very important for us, as we try and live our faith, to have respect for people of other faiths, other Christians and non-Christians as well, even if we totally disagree with them, and this is what the Lord says to us in the readings as well. 
Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.  But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience so that those who slander your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their accusations (1 Pet 3:15-16). 

Those who don’t believe as we do, are also very much part of God’s family. Jesus frequently spoke to people who would have been considered complete pagans to the Jews. In this Gospel he heals the daughter of a woman, who was a pagan. Perhaps it was to teach the Apostles and us, that God doesn’t discriminate. Initially Jesus seemed to ignore her, but it was to draw out her faith and to let the Apostles see this. 

What converts people is witness of life, not preaching, not telling others what to do. We will only convince other people of the ‘rightness’ or ‘goodness’ of our faith by the way we love them. That is the only thing that convinces people.

It is interesting that the Missonaries of Charity—the order started by Mother Theresa—never try to convert the people they help. In India much of their work is bringing very poor people in off the streets, people who are dying and allowing them to die with dignity. Most of these people would be Hindu and Muslim, not Christian, but they don’t try to convert them. They simply love them, show them that they are wanted, that they are important and they do more to preach the teachings of Jesus this way, than by anything you could ever say. This is the greatest way to preach the Gospel. This teaches people about God more than anything else.

I can stand up here and argue for hours about all the reasons why others are wrong, or how we are right, but it won’t convince anyone. If I do not love the people I meet and try to respect those around me, then I am wasting my time trying to preach, because people will only be convinced by the way I live, first.

I heard a story about a priest who went to stay with his niece and her husband. Now this couple had no time for the Church and in fact were into the occult and various practices which would be quite anti-Christian and of course they were nervous about how it would go, but when the priest came he just stayed for the few days and showed them great respect and love and never said a word to them about the various things they were into. When he left they were so moved by the fact that he never said anything to them, never criticized them, but just loved them, that they actually began to rethink about their approach to the Church. Love is the only true witness to God.
Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.  But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience so that those who slander your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their accusations (1 Pet 3:15-16). 

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven

The feast of the Assumption that we celebrate today means very simply that Our Lady is in heaven. The teaching itself says: ‘At the end of her earthly life, the Immaculate Mother of God, ever Virgin, was taken to Heaven body and soul in heavenly glory.’ It doesn’t say how it happened or when it happened, but just that it did happen and that Mary is now in heaven, in body and soul. It is a way of saying that because of the extraordinary position that Mary was given, by being the Mother of Jesus, she shared in his sufferings and she also shared in his resurrection and so was taken up to heaven at the end of her life.

You could be given the impression that it would have been easier for Mary than for other people because she was without sin. However, the fact that she was without sin means that she would have been more sensitive to evil and would have suffered more because of it than anyone else. From what we know in the Scriptures, she suffered from the time that the Angel appeared to her and told her that God was asking her to be the mother of God. She was pregnant before she came to live with Joseph in a way that was impossible to understand from a human point of view. According to Jewish law, to be betrothed to someone meant that you were already married, but weren’t yet living with them. So how would Mary explain this to Joseph? What embarrassment, fear and tension there must have been for her. The birth of Jesus was in a very difficult situation. Later on, Mary and Joseph lost Jesus for three days and finally the arrest, torture and death of Jesus. But Mary never gave up hope. She continued to believe that God would make sense of it. After the resurrection she stayed with and encouraged the Apostles as they waited for the gift of the Spirit before Pentecost.
Over the centuries Mary has appeared in various parts of the world. What is significant in each place she has appeared is that what she asks is nearly always the same. She tells us that we cannot exist without God, that we need to turn away from sin, read Scripture, go to Mass and to pray and fast. She is always pointing us to Jesus. It is never about herself. She tells us that we need to confess our sins often, yet sadly very few people feel the need for this. I wonder who convinced them that it is not necessary? She also tells us that we cannot live without God. Our life makes no sense without God. We will only be on this earth for a short time, so we need to be careful how we use our time. It always makes me sad when I see or hear of people who get obsessed with money and material things, as if that was the answer to everything. It is also sad to see how people can become obsessed with power, which so often leads to the suffering of others.

The life of Mary is a wonderful witness to us for several reasons. One, it is a reminder to us of what God can do through a human being; a 14/15 year old girl. Mary is fully human and we should never worship her as that would be idolatry, but we give her great honor as Jesus did. We ask for her intercession as we continue on our journey to heaven. She has been through dreadful suffering, so we can ask for her help, knowing that she understands our suffering. When we find ourselves losing hope, remember that Mary never lost hope, in spite of that she had to go through. This feast of her being assumed into heaven is our reminder that this is where we are destined to go if we make the right choices.

Friday, August 11, 2017

19th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 14:22-23) Jesus in the Eucharist

Every time I have to change from one place to another like here, it always makes me think about the priesthood and what my work is about. To me the greatest privilege of being a priest is that I can bring Jesus to people in the Eucharist. This is the most important part of any priest’s work. Everything else is secondary, because the greatest gift the Lord has given us is the gift of himself, of his own body and blood. The reason why he gives it to us is first of all because he wants to be intimately part of our lives and everything we do. Second of all, because he knows how much we need his strength to make it through this life, which is difficult at the best of times, and so he gives us his very self which we can receive into our own bodies, every day if we wish.

For the most part God’s presence among us is very subtle. It is easy to miss it and many people do miss it, thinking that God is not there at all. Think of how many people pass by a church each day and really believe that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is present there? Probably very few. The Lord seems to keep himself hidden from us.

The first reading about the prophet Elijah refers to this. Elijah was one of the most extraordinary of the prophets and a man very close to God. God wanted to let him have an experience of his presence and so he sent him up to this cave on the mountain side. Then there was this huge storm force wind, but God was not in this. Then there was an earthquake and then a fire, all great signs of the power of nature which can be so frightening, but God wasn’t here either. And then when all the excitement was over a very gentle breeze and God’s presence was there. In some translations it says ‘A still small, voice.’ Why did God bother to send the storm, the earthquake and the fire at all? I think that God is reminding us that his presence is very subtle and easy to miss, but just because God doesn’t come to us in the form of thunder and lightning, or something very dramatic, doesn’t mean that He is not there. Sometimes I think that it might even be easier if his presence was more dramatic. Then we would be under no doubt about God being there. It would probably be terrifying, but for whatever reason, the Lord prefers to stay quite hidden from us. His coming to us in the Holy Communion is a great example of this. How much more hidden can you get? Who would believe that God comes to us in a tiny piece of bread? It sounds completely crazy and to many people it is crazy, indeed too crazy to be true but this is what Jesus himself has taught us and that is why we believe that it is true. It is the Lord himself who has taught us this.

 Perhaps when you come up to receive Holy Communion today, think of the gentle breeze that passed in front of the prophet Elijah. God was in that gentle breeze. Jesus is also present to us here in the tiny piece of bread that we receive, which has become his Body and Blood.

I want to finish with a story of a Eucharistic miracle that happened in Argentina while Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was cardinal there.

At seven o’clock in the evening on August 18, 1996, Fr. Alejandro Pezet was saying Holy Mass at a Catholic church in the commercial center of Buenos Aires. As he was finishing distributing Holy Communion, a woman came up to tell him that she had found a discarded host on a candleholder at the back of the church. When Fr. Alejandro saw the defiled Host, he placed it in a container of water and put it away in the tabernacle. That is what we do with a defiled host if we find one and it’s not possible to consume it.

Eight days later, upon opening the tabernacle, he saw to his amazement that the Host had turned into a bloody substance. He informed Cardinal Bergoglio, who gave instructions that the Host be professionally photographed. The photos were taken on September 6. They clearly show that the Host, which had become a fragment of bloodied flesh, had grown significantly in size. For several years the Host remained in the tabernacle, the whole affair being kept a strict secret. Since the Host suffered no visible decomposition, Cardinal Bergoglio decided to have it scientifically analyzed.

On October 5, 1999, in the presence of the Cardinal’s representatives, Dr. Castanon took a sample of the bloody fragment and sent it to New York for analysis. Since he did not wish to prejudice the study, he deliberatley did not tell them where the host came from. One of these scientists was Dr. Frederic Zugiba, a well-known cardiologist and forensic pathologist. He determined that the analyzed substance was real flesh and blood containing human DNA. Zugiba testified that, “the analyzed material is a fragment of the heart muscle found in the wall of the left ventricle close to the valves. This muscle is responsible for the contraction of the heart. It should be borne in mind that the left cardiac ventricle pumps blood to all parts of the body. The heart muscle is in an inflammatory condition and contains a large number of white blood cells. This indicates that the heart was alive at the time the sample was taken. It is my contention that the heart was alive, since white blood cells die outside a living organism. They require a living organism to sustain them. Thus, their presence indicates that the heart was alive when the sample was taken. What is more, these white blood cells had penetrated the tissue, which further indicates that the heart had been under severe stress, as if the owner had been beaten severely about the chest.”

Two Australians, journalist Mike Willesee and lawyer Ron Tesoriero, witnessed these tests. Knowing where sample had come from, they were dumbfounded by Dr. Zugiba’s testimony. Mike Willesee asked the scientist how long the white blood cells would have remained alive if they had come from a piece of human tissue, which had been kept in water. They would have ceased to exist in a matter of minutes, Dr. Zugiba replied. The journalist then told the doctor that the source of the sample had first been kept in ordinary water for a month and then for another three years in a container of distilled water; only then had the sample been taken for analysis. Dr. Zugiba’s was at a loss to account for this fact. There was no way of explaining it scientifically, he stated. Only then did Mike Willesee inform Dr. Zugiba that the analyzed sample came from a consecrated Host (white, unleavened bread) that had mysteriously turned into bloody human flesh. Amazed by this information, Dr. Zugiba replied, “How and why a consecrated Host would change its character and become living human flesh and blood will remain an inexplicable mystery to science—a mystery totally beyond her competence.”

I have no doubt that God gives us Eucharistic miracles every so often, to help us believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Jesus is present here in each mass and in the tabernacle where the extra hosts are always kept. Only faith in the extraordinary action of a God provides the reasonable answer—faith in a God, who wants to make us aware that He is truly present in the mystery of the Eucharist.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Transfiguration of the Lord (Gospel: Mt 17:1-9) This is my Son, listen to him

 With the times that we are living in there is a lot of talk about different religions like Islam and Judaism. I suppose this has been highlighted with all the terrorism that is going on and sadly people are often given the impression that religions like Islam are ‘dangerous’ because of these extremists, but that is not necessarily true. With every religion you will get extremists who will do crazy things and then give everyone else who is trying to live it, a bad name. It has happened in Christianity too. It only takes a small group of extremists to do a lot of damage. There is no doubt that God speaks to people through many different religions, but that also brings up the question, is Christianity just ‘another’ religion and does it really make any difference? Aren’t they all the same? We don’t believe that all religions are the same.

So what makes Christianity any different? Put simply, the person of Jesus. Either Jesus was who he said he was, or he was a liar, or he was mad man. As we know, his whole life pointed to the fact that he was who he said he was and perhaps this event that we remember today, the transfiguration, points to that more than anything else.

Jesus took with him his three closest men, Peter, James and John. These three were also the ones he took with him when he brought the 12 year old girl, Jairus’ daughter, back to life and they were also with him in the garden of Gethsemane. For some reason he allowed them to see more than the others saw. So they had this vision of Jesus in his glory, which completely terrified them. Everything they saw in the vision had a meaning. Moses and Elijah represented two things. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses and Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets, so he represented all that the prophets taught the people. For the Jewish people, following the teachings of the Law and the Prophets was their path to heaven. So for Moses and Elijah to appear with Jesus was saying that Jesus was now the path to heaven. He is more important than anything that came before him. He is fulfilling everything. Jesus is everything, fulfils everything, teaches us everything about God, not only by what he said, but also by everything that he did, above all his total self-sacrifice for us. That tells us that God loves us so much that He will give everything for us. If that is true then what is there that we could ever be afraid of?
Wouldn’t you wonder why didn’t Jesus let the other Apostles see it too? And why did he forbid them to talk about it until he had ‘risen from the dead’, which they didn’t understand either? You would imagine that it would have been more helpful if he allowed all of his disciples to see this vision, as it would have strengthened their faith, but he didn’t.

 What Jesus was doing was giving them a tiny glimpse of who he really was/is, so that they wouldn’t completely lose hope during his passion, which was to happen shortly after this event. Peter, James and John would need this more than the others, as they would be involved in it more than the others; in the garden of Gethsemane he kept them close enough to him so that they could see what was happening, and watch him almost going mad with fear of what was about to happen to him. It must have been very frightening to watch this.

What has this got to do with us today? Jesus didn’t make it that obvious who he was back then, even to his disciples. They also had to struggle with their faith. We have to struggle with our faith too. Wouldn’t it be much easier if Jesus appeared to us? Then we would have no doubts! But he doesn’t, and he didn’t with them either until much later, because they too had to grow, slowly and painfully in their faith.

The Lord keeps himself hidden from us quite deliberately. He gives us complete freedom to discover him, to believe in him, or not. He wants us to be completely free and everyone struggles to believe. It is part of the journey of faith. Sometimes if we need a little extra help, he gives it to us, but for the most part we seem to be left in the dark. Most of the people at that time were too, but they wrote about what they saw and heard. 

In the second reading St. Peter is talking about this event and he says, ‘We were there on the mountain and we saw the vision and heard the voice ourselves’. He is saying, ‘This really happened. We saw it!’ And he writes this to help us to believe. So yes we struggle to believe, but yes, we are meant to struggle, because it is part of the journey of faith.

So is there any difference between Christianity and other religions? Yes! Jesus is the difference. Put in the simplest terms: we try to live this way of life because this is how God made himself known to us through the person of Jesus Christ. This is the path He invites us to follow by listening to his teaching and trying to live as he lived. He also speaks to other peoples of different faiths, but this is what He has made known to us and we believe it is true and so we try to follow this path while at the same time remembering that God also speaks to people of other religions, but in a different way. Remember the words that the three Apostles heard on the mountain: ‘This is my Son the beloved. Listen to him.’ For us, Jesus is everything.