Friday, September 29, 2017

26th Sunday, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 21: 28-32) Fatima and the vision of Hell




The vision of the children at Fatima

This year is the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima, where Our Lady appeared six times to three young children: Lucia (10), Franciso (9) and Jacinta (7). Last week I had the privilege of visiting Fatima with 16 other pilgrims from our diocese. One of the things that Our Lady showed the three young children was a terrifying vision of hell. Many questions came up about this vision and why Our Lady would show these children such a dreadful thing. So I would like to try and address this event.

Today, as you know, many people scoff at the idea of hell, as if it were some sort of medieval idea which we no longer need to believe; after all, everyone goes to heaven, right? I have no doubt that one of the reasons why Our Lady showed the children this vision—and it has happened in other places of apparition too—was to make us realize that hell is real and we should not be na├»ve to the idea. If this is the case, should we be afraid? I think the answer is both yes and no.

First of all, if heaven is real and we have free will, then it is completely logical that hell must be real too. To lose all that God wants to give us, God’s destiny for us, is hell. Heaven is total fulfillment in God, light, beauty, happiness, peace, joy and the love of God and those who have gone before us. We would never be in want of anything again. As yet we have never experienced this, so it is hard for us to grasp that such a place could exist. To lose that, or reject that, would mean to get the opposite: the loss of God, darkness, hatred, isolation and the eternal pain of knowing we have rejected the one thing that could bring us happiness. Images of fire are often used for hell, as this is an image we can easily understand, but the reality is that the eternal loss of God would be far worse, as it is the only thing that would fulfill us. If we have the free will to accept God and all that He offers us, then we must also have the free will to reject it, or otherwise it would not be free will. The vision of hell that Our Lady granted the children, is a reminder to all of us that hell must be real and we should not presume that all of us will go to heaven regardless of how we live. Our actions have consequences and we must take them seriously.

The shrine of Fatima today

Does that mean that those who do not go to church will go to hell? Of course not. Those who do not go to church have just as much hope of eternal life as we do, depending on how they live. Many people who do not go to church cannot understand or relate to formal religion. If I grew up in a family that never practiced religion, or where I was constantly told that the Church is corrupt and evil, then I cannot be blamed for not going to church. What is important is that I do my best to live a life where I continue to choose what is right. God guides us through our conscience, so that even those who have never heard of God still have the chance to live as God calls us to.

Just because we do go to church doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed go to heaven either. It depends completely on how I live from day to day. I have two good friends who are in the Poor Clare sisters in my home town. They dedicate their lives to God through prayer. People often say to me that they must be so holy and they probably are, but just because they are in a convent, any more than me being a priest, is no guarantee of being holy. It depends completely on how they live and on how I live.

So is there any advantage to being a Catholic? Absolutely! We are privileged to have been shown the way that God himself has revealed to us through Jesus. Jesus is the path to heaven and God has made this known to us. He has given us the gift of his Body and Blood in each mass and the Scriptures to guide us. This is a great blessing and honor for us and helps us to be faithful to the path that leads to God as we have been shown it. So we are truly blessed, but it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance than anyone else because it still depends on how we live from day to day. Going to mass each Sunday will not help me if I spend the rest of my week cheating, stealing and exploiting other people.

Lucia, Francesco and Jacinta around the time of the apparitions
By our own strength none of us could ever be good enough to reach heaven. No matter what we do, we will always be sinners, but it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that makes it possible for us to get to heaven, if that is what we choose. In one sense heaven will always be just out of our reach, because of our own sinfulness. But Jesus reaches down and lifts us up the rest of the way. That is what the death and resurrection of Jesus means and that is why we focus on it so much. Without his self-sacrifice we could not get to heaven no matter how much we tried. So from that point of view we need never be afraid of not being good enough, as it is God himself who makes us good enough, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. So long as we choose for God by the way we live from day to day, then we have nothing to be afraid of. Jesus assures us of his mercy, so long as we make the slightest effort to do the right thing. Falling into sin is not a problem so long as we are prepared to get up again and ask his mercy.

God has created us all to be with him in heaven. That is what God wants for us and God will make that happen unless we consciously and deliberately reject God by the way we live. God will not force us to love him and if we reject God’s love then there is nothing that God can do for us, because He has given us free will.

So going back to the question of whether we should be afraid of hell or not. We should be aware that it is real and that we could lose heaven if we reject God. At the same time we need never be afraid that we will not be able to reach heaven, because it is God himself who makes it possible. It is for us to continue to try and do our best. The Lord is asking us for effort not perfection.




Saturday, September 16, 2017

24th Sunday Year A Gospel: Matthew: 18:21-35 Forgiveness is a decision of the will




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. She felt that God was calling her to speak about the need for forgiveness and so she did. She was invited to speak all over the country and 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. 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 who was responsible for the death of her sister and father, all her preaching would be meaningless. So she found herself praying to God on the spot asking him to help her to forgive and she was finally able to put out her hand to him. The book is called The Hiding Place and it is an amazing story. 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.’

Probably the greatest obstacle to God’s helping and healing us, is our refusal to forgive. When we refuse to forgive someone we shut the door to God’s grace, we prevent God from healing us, but there is an important thing to remember about forgiving someone. Many people think that in order to forgive someone I must feel like forgiving them. In other words, the hurt has to have gone and so now I can forgive. That is not how it works. Forgiveness is not just a quetion of how I feel, or whether I feel like forgiving someone or not. Most of us when we are hurt, are often hurt for a long time, sometimes for years, and of course we don’t feel like forgiving. The deeper the hurt the longer it takes to heal, but forgiveness is a decision of our will, it doesn’t depend on whether we physically feel like doing it or not. ‘Lord I forgive this person because you ask me to’. It doesn’t mean that all the hurt will instantly disappear, but if we are prepared to do this much, then we open the door to allow God’s Spirit to begin to heal us. If I refuse to forgive, I am preventing God’s Spirit from helping me to heal. We may think that by refusing to forgive someone we inflict some kind of revenge on the other person. The truth is that they may not even be aware of the hurt we carry. Refusing to forgive someone who has hurt us does not hurt them, it wounds us. The resentment becomes a poison within us, which festers. God wants to heal us and help us move on, but we must be willing to forgive. It is not an easy thing to do, but we must try. That is why Jesus spoke about it so many times in the Gospels and in very strong terms. If we expect to be forgiven, we must also be prepared to forgive and I doubt that there is anyone who does not need to forgive someone. If you find yourself angry at someone, it usually means that you need to forgive them. Maybe a good question to ask yourself when you find yourself angry with someone is this: if I was in their position, would I hope that the person I had hurt would forgive me?


 For a few years I worked as a hospital chaplain and I met many old people, most of whom were at peace, having come through all the trials of their lives, but sometimes I would meet someone who was bitter and full of resentment, refusing to forgive. They had been hurt, but they refused to forgive and you could see how it had consumed them. It was a sad sight. It had destroyed them. People will hurt us, but we always have a choice to forgive them or not.

I am sure that all of us here expect that the Lord will forgive us. It’s what all the Gospels are about, it’s what we believe in and yet in no uncertain terms the Lord says, if you expect God to forgive you, you must be prepared to forgive others too.  That’s how it works. Forgiveness is a decision of our will that we must make. Once we do this, then we open the door to begin to heal.

Forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.’


Sunday, September 10, 2017

23rd Sunday, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20) Hurricane Irma


Today's homily is more of a short reflection than a homily, as today's circumstances are very different to normal. Right now I am with friends in Venice, SW Florida, as we await the full wrath of hurricane Irma. As of now we just have strong winds and rain, but by midnight tonight we are due to have the full force of the hurricane. People are scared, wondering what will happen. Many have already had to evacuate, not sure if they will have a house to return to, including me, as my house is close to the Caloosahatchee river, which could well overflow and burst its banks. Time will tell.

The Gospel that comes to my mind is the Gospel of Mark 4: 34-40. Jesus is out with the Apostles in a boat and a storm breaks out. The sea of Galilee is known for sudden storms. The boat begins to take water and they are terrified that they will drown. Jesus is asleep in the stern. The Apostles wake him and say 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' Jesus gets up and rebukes the wind and sea and all becomes completely calm. The Apostles are left speechless and say, 'Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?' It is a powerful image and even more so if you have seen the power of the sea in a storm.


For all the wonderful advances in technology that we have, it doesn't take long for mother nature to remind us just how small and mortal we are. When nature's forces awaken, all we can do is get out of the way. I believe that this can be a good thing. Depending on where we live, we can develop a false sense of security, especially in the developed parts of the world. Thank God we have all that we have, but when you think about it, there are so many parts of the world where they have to face natural disasters far more often and they are not half as well equipped as we are, but they manage. To be exposed to this reality can be healthy, in the sense that it brings up the bigger questions that we prefer to avoid: why am I here? what if I die? what happens then? Although these are scary questions which usually only arise when the reality of death seems closer than normal, it is also important that we address them. Otherwise we can lose sight of why we are here and get immersed in the world in an unhealthy way. 

The reality is that we only have a short time in this world and there is a reason why we are here. We are created out of love and we are created to love and serve. That is the purpose of our life. As we grow, we learn about what it means to love and serve, the sacrifices, the joys and pains, but we must also choose to love. This learning is part of what our life is about. Sometimes it is only in a crisis, when someone we love becomes sick or dies, or faced with a natural disaster, that we wake up to this reality. In times of crisis, the things of importance come to the surface and the worldly things disappear into insignificance. Times of crisis also bring great goodness out of people. Humanity shines.


So as we await this great storm, I give thanks to God for this reminder to us all of what we are about. Please God we will all come through it with a greater sense of purpose and even if we do lose our church or our homes it will be painful, but we will still have each other and we will manage. Thank you Jesus for everything.


Friday, September 1, 2017

22nd Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 16:21-27) Do not model yourselves on the world around you




Some time ago I was talking to a friend of mine in my home-town of Galway and we were discussing how much our society has changed. She was saying how it is acceptable now to be just about anything, but not Catholic and I think she is right. If you try to live as a Catholic it will cost you, and the Lord said it would. He was very clear about it.

Today’s readings are all about this. They are saying that following the way of Jesus Christ comes at a price. The early Christians were known as followers of ‘the Way’. Strange as it may seem, I think it can be a very good thing when it becomes more difficult, because sometimes it is only when you feel a bit of persecution that you begin to think about what you believe in and why you believe it. That is very healthy.

In the first reading the prophet Jeremiah is having a bad day. He is complaining about how difficult it is for him to be God’s spokesman and how much persecution it has brought him. He has had enough and he wants to quit. In fact he reminds me of being a priest. It can cause you a lot of grief and you meet a lot of people who turn their back on you, or are openly hostile to you, just as Jeremiah experienced. However, God continually encourages us to keep going, to speak about him and it is as Jeremiah said, like a burning fire within which is irresistible. I always find it consoling to remember that many of the great figures in the Bible also wanted to quit. The prophet Elijah after working an extraordinary miracle, is now running for his life as the queen wants to kill him and he sits down in the desert and says, ‘Lord I’ve had enough. Take my life. I wish I was dead.’

Sometimes people ask me why I became a priest and did I not want to get married? Of course I did, but just like in the reading, the call of God was stronger. It is hard to resist and it is like a burning fire inside. The strength of God is what keeps pushing me on, pushing all of us on.

Jesus spoke harshly to Peter, when Peter objected to the fact that Jesus was going to be arrested and killed. I’m quite sure any of us would have too, but the reason Jesus was so harsh with him was because Peter wanted what seemed easier. Our world will usually suggest what seems easier, but it is not always the right thing to do or a good thing to do. The Lord will take us in ways that we would sometimes rather not follow.  So why bother to follow them? Because the way of Jesus Christ is the way that leads to life. It can be hard, yes, but it is so worthwhile. It is the pearl of great price, which is worth giving up everything for.


The world around can offer us many attractive things and some of them very nice indeed, but it cannot offer us a life after this one. Only God can offer that. ‘What then will a person gain if he wins the whole world, but ruins his life?’ And so Jesus tells us not to be afraid of it, not to be afraid of being different, or following a way that is not always acceptable.

St. Paul says ‘Do not model yourselves on the world around you, but let your behaviour change.’ We cannot follow the way of the world and the way of Jesus at the same time, because the two are radically different.  But how can we follow this way if it is so difficult?  The answer is, by relying on the Lord himself. That’s where we get our strength from. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, that’s why he gave himself to us in the Eucharist. That’s why he invites us to come together every Sunday to listen to his words speaking to us and encouraging us, to build us up. I have always found that it is the people who really live their faith who are least disturbed by things going on in the world. They have an inner strength that that they get from their relationship with God, and that is there for all of us if we want it. I’m sure many of you experience this already. The Lord gives us everything we need, everything. All we have to do is reach out our hand and accept it.