Thursday, March 29, 2018

Holy Thursday 'This is what I received from the Lord'

Tonight we celebrate a very special mass, the first mass, when Jesus took the bread and wine and told the disciples that this was his body and blood. It is also on this night the first priests were ordained. The Passover meal which they were celebrating, was and is a very special meal for the Jewish people. It was the feast that remembered their being set free from slavery. During that meal they sacrificed an animal, a lamb if possible, and the blood of the lamb was marked on the doors of their houses as a sign that they belonged to God, so God would protect them. They were saved by the blood of the lamb.

During this meal Jesus did something totally unexpected, which has left us baffled ever since. He suddenly told them that the bread which was in his hands, was now his body, and the wine that he was holding, was his blood and that they should both eat and drink it themselves, and repeat this ritual to remember him. This is what St. Paul says in the second reading which is the oldest account of the mass in the Bible: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’ We did not invent what we call the mass; the Lord Jesus himself gave it to us directly and asked us to repeat it as a way of remembering him. That is why we never change it for something else. That is why we also call it the mass and not a service.

From the very first time that Jesus taught the people about receiving his body and blood, it caused division. It says in John’s Gospel that when he gave this teaching the people complained and said ‘This is too much. Who could accept this?’ and many people stopped following him after that. But he didn’t go after them and say ‘Wait, let me explain!’ He just let them go. 

Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist? I’m sure it was for two reasons. First, because he wanted us to know that He is intimately with us always. We can receive the body and blood of Jesus into our own bodies every day if we wish. Every time we celebrate the mass Jesus becomes present to us in the form of wine. It is not just a symbol, or a reminder, but this is really and truly the body and blood of Jesus in an extraordinary way. It is completely beyond our understanding, but Jesus doesn’t ask us to understand it, only to believe in it.

The second reason is so that we could be present at the greatest event in history, the sacrifice of Calvary: the offering of God the Son to God the Father. That is what the mass is; the offering of God the Son to God the Father, an offering which the Father can not refuse, and that’s why the mass is so powerful. It is the perfect prayer, the perfect sacrifice which makes up for our inadequacies. Jesus makes it possible for us to be present at this event every time we celebrate mass.

Then another crucial thing happened. Jesus got down and washed the feet of the disciples, to teach them something. I always smile when anyone is asked to come up for the washing of the feet because if they do volunteer, you can be sure they will have carefully washed their feet, so really there is no need to wash them. But Jesus got down on his hands and knees and washed dirty, sweaty feet. Why did he do this? To show them that they were being called to a life of service. If he was prepared to serve them, they must also be prepared to serve everyone. That is what our work as priests is supposed to be about: it is meant to be one of service to the people. It is also the mindset that we are all called to have as Christians; service; looking after whoever is in need. 

Now here is the essential thing. Peter’s reaction explains it all. Peter felt he could not allow Jesus the Lord, to wash his feet, because he was a sinner. He wanted to keep Jesus at a distance because he was a sinner. Remember his reaction to the miracle of the great catch of fish? 'Leave me Lord. I am a sinful man' (Luke 5:8). This is the typical reaction of most of us. We say ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  We don’t really believe that God could love us as we are. We are afraid to allow God to come too close. But Jesus’ answer was to say that he ‘must’ do this. In other words he was saying ‘Peter, you must not allow your unworthiness to keep me from you.’ God is well aware of what we are like and all the things that we’ve done wrong, but it doesn’t stop him from loving us and even from washing our feet. For our part we must not be afraid to allow the Lord to come close to us either. He offers himself to us, so let us never be afraid.

‘This is my body which will be given up for you.’






Friday, March 23, 2018

Palm/Passion Sunday (Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:47) Would God abandon us?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, to his resurrection; events which changed the course of history forever. Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die. It’s that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet.  They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Yet within a few days everything changed. He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed. Today we read the full account of his passion. It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one. That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time. In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, St. Paul wrote, ‘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). If we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point. The truth is that we are preparing for something wonderful that is waiting for us, should we choose it.

Everyone suffers, as you know; there are no exceptions. Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  But even if everyone else seems to abandon us, at least we can always turn to God. But where do we turn when God disappears too? There is no where left to go. This is the worst kind of suffering. God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  What does this mean? It is the beginning of Psalm 22 which is a Psalm that ends in victory, but it can also be understood in a different way. It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father. He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there? Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God. By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering, as it were. After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there. We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

Even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, in fact we have not. But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God. It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it.

I also want to mention Our Lady. She was also at the foot of the cross. Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king. He would be called Son of the Most-High God. What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes? Although Mary must have suffered terribly with all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope. She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed without understanding. God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand. 

Psalm 22, begins with the cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ but it ends with the following words:
The Lord reigns, the ruler of nations.
Before him all the prosperous of the earth will bow down,
Before him will bow all who go down to the dust.
And my soul will live for him, my children will serve him;
People will proclaim the Lord to generations still to come,
His righteousness to a people yet unborn.
These things the Lord has done. (Ps 22:28-31)

Friday, March 16, 2018

5th Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 12:20-33)

Croagh Patrick, where it is believed Patrick spent time as a slave.

 I am Patrick, a sinner, unlettered, the least of all the faithful, and held in contempt by a great many people… (Confessions of St. Patrick, 1)

Although today is the 5th Sunday of Lent, I would like to talk about the saint we celebrated yesterday, St. Patrick, not just because I am Irish (!), but because the lives of the saints are so inspiring, but we are often given a very unrealistic picture of their lives. The truth is that most of them struggled a great deal during their lives, but the key to it was that they persevered to the end. They trusted in God against all odds and they kept going.

Every time we celebrate one of our saints—that is the official saints we recognize, since everyone in heaven is a saint—we are not just celebrating what that individual person has done, but rather what God has done through an ordinary, weak human being.

For many people St. Patrick’s Day has just become ‘being Irish’ day. A day to be proud of being Irish, but from a Christian point of view, it’s a day to celebrate what God has made known to us through another one of his instruments. It marks the day when Christianity was first brought to Ireland. And in sixteen centuries the faith in Ireland has developed to a great degree, even with times of savage religious persecution. So many men and women have been inspired to give their lives to God in the priesthood and religious life and in turn bring it to other countries, such as the United States. So many men and women have lived out their faith in ordinary lives, bearing witness to God by the way they live, thanks to the seeds planted by St. Patrick. He was the instrument God used to give us this great gift.

So why did Patrick go to Ireland anyway?  Did they really need Christianity? Didn’t it bring many divisions? The reason why Patrick went to Ireland was very simple: The Lord of heaven and earth wanted to make himself known to them and to know what He had done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God wanted us to share the joy of knowing him and to know what our life is about and why we were created. 

St. Patrick's seminary, where I and over 12,000 other men studied for the priesthood
Patrick was brought to Ireland initially as a slave. Through suffering and hardship, the Lord was helping Patrick to grow in the spirit. According to his own writings, he says that when he went there first he did not know the living God. But somehow God made himself known to Patrick. He says that he used to get up during the night to pray and no matter what the weather was like, he used to spend time praying each day. God was inspiring him to do this, to come to know him better, so that later he would be strong enough in his faith to see him through his difficult mission to the Irish people.

When Patrick finally escaped and returned to his own people he had a dream that the Irish were calling him back to them to teach them about God. Here is how Patrick describes the dream in which he was called:
I saw in a vision of the night a man coming as it were from Ireland, whose name was Victoricus, with countless letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter, which ran: ‘The voice of the Irish’; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter aloud I thought I heard at that very moment the voice of those who lived beside the wood of Voclut: ‘We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us’. And I was greatly troubled in heart and could read no further. (Confessions, 23)

Patrick says that his call to go back to Ireland brought him great pain. He didn’t want to go back to where he had been imprisoned. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to return to the very people who had enslaved you? But he believed that God was asking him to do this, and this gave him the strength that he needed. His faith meant enough to him that he wanted us to have it too.  But it wasn’t easy and he says that he met with great opposition:
[God] came powerfully to my aid when I was being walked upon… for many were trying to stop this mission of mine; they were even talking among themselves behind my back, and asking: ‘Why is that fellow thrusting himself into danger among a hostile people who do not know God?’ (Confessions, 46)

Daily I expect to be slaughtered, or defrauded, or reduced to slavery or to any condition that time and surprise may bring. But I fear none of these things because of the promise of Heaven, for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who rules everywhere. (Confessions, 55)

No one would have known Patrick when he came first and he had to start from scratch. But he came here and he preached to the people and taught the people about God, about Jesus and his death and resurrection, about Mary and the saints.  And his efforts paid off because he was prepared to give up everything, so that those people might be able to share in the same faith. The people must also have been ready to hear these words, or otherwise his work wouldn’t have borne such fruit. Only for his sacrifices I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you today.

The apparition at Knock in 1879
Then in 1879 during a time of great suffering in Ireland, 30 people in a small village called Knock, saw a vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God on the altar, accompanied by Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John the evangelist. It was a silent apparition that lasted approximately one hour but the people understood that it was a message of encouragement not to give up and reassuring them that they were on the right track. The Lamb of God on the altar was the symbol of the mass and it was accompanied by Mary and the angels and saints. It was heaven’s way of telling the people they were on the right track and that their perseverance was worth it. They had been through very brutal religious persecution, but they had remained faithful.

In recent years the faith has been greatly tested through scandals of various kinds.  Many people have fallen away and it is hard to blame them, but we persevere in our faith and if we want our children to have this faith too, then we will have to pass it on.  We do that primarily by the way we live, rather than by anything we say. We may not feel that we are having much effect on the world around us, but if we do our best to live it, then we are planting seeds all the time and perhaps that is all that we are called to do. There has been faith in this country for sixteen centuries, and please God we will have it for many more centuries as well. So, as we remember saint Patrick, let us give thanks to God for the faith that He has passed on to us through people like Patrick and so many others and let us also pray that we will have the grace to pass it on to those who come after us. 
I am Patrick, a sinner, unlettered, the least of all the faithful, and held in contempt by a great many people… (Confessions, 1)
Check out this interesting website on St. Patrick:

Friday, March 9, 2018

4th Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: John 3:14-21) For the forgiveness of sins.

Almost every time I celebrate the mass there is one line which strikes me more than any other. It is the line the priest prays over the chalice, ‘This is the chalice of my blood. It will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’ That short phrase sums up what the whole mass is about, what the death and resurrection of Jesus is about and what the whole celebration of Easter is about. God takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and dies for his people, for the forgiveness of sins. This is what our faith celebrates above everything else.

We believe in a God who not only created us, but is so interested in us and our happiness, that when we had lost it through sin, He made the ultimate sacrifice for his people, so that we would reach the happiness which He had created for us. If I don’t believe that much, then I am not a Christian, because that is exactly what the Christian faith is all about: a God who loves us so much that He has given everything for us. That is why we call it ‘good news.’ We have been given an incredible freedom, because of what God has done for us. It is the freedom of knowing that something wonderful is waiting for me when I die, if I choose to accept it.

There is an Arabic proverb which says: ‘It is easier to see a black beetle, on a black stone, on a black night, than for someone to see the pride in their own heart.’  How true that is. It also says in one of the Psalms, ‘[The sinner] so flatters himself in his heart, that he knows not his own sin’ (Ps 36:2).

In confession it is amazing how often people will say to me, ‘It is a year (or more) since my last confession, but I don’t really have any sins.’ It says in the first letter of St. John, ‘If anyone says they have not sinned, they are calling God a liar!’ That might seem a bit extreme, but it is not, because if we haven’t sinned, then the death and resurrection of Jesus was pointless; and that would also mean that the mass is meaningless. For us to deny our own sinfulness is more serious than we might think. If I fail to admit my own sinfulness, then I deny the need for God and for all that God has done for me. I am sure that if we could see our own souls before God, we would get quite a shock.

Let me share something personal with you. Years ago I was given this experience of seeing my own soul before God and it was quite terrifying. It lasted just a few seconds, but I will never forget it. For a brief moment I was shown what my soul, as a sinner, was like before God. At the same moment God allowed me to realize that if his mercy hadn’t sustained me, it would have killed me. It also helped me to realize how serious a thing sin is, because it is the one thing that can come between us and God. It is the one thing that could cause us to lose eternal happiness. That means that we need to take it seriously.

Of all the ways that we prepare for Easter, abstaining from things, giving to charity or whatever else, there is nothing more important in the eyes of God than confessing our sins. Why? because this is what God asks us to do. Confessing our sins is not just about us, it is also a way of saying that I recognise all that God has done for me, and I am responding to that.

Now I know that people say, ‘I can tell God I am sorry myself.’ Yes you can if you want, but that is also saying that I know better than what God asks me to do. Why did the Lord say to Peter and the Apostles, ‘Whoever’s sins you forgiven they are forgiven; whoever’s sins you retain they are retained’ (Jn 20:23)? He also said, ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me and whoever rejects you rejects me’ (Lk 10:16). It is good to remember those words.

A priest friend of mine who was an exorcist, told me the following: When a priest has to do an exorcism, if he can get the person who is possessed to make a confession, the job is already half done. Why? because when we confess, we turn back to God, we break the power of sin/evil and we open the door to God’s grace.

Just recently I was reading an article written by an exorcist here in the US and he was saying that when confession lines get shorter, evil increases. God has given us the means to break the power of evil, to continually bring his grace into our lives, but we don’t use it.

So, if you really want to receive God’s blessing this Easter, then do as He asks you and confess your sins. God gave us this purely for our benefit, not for his, or to keep the Church happy. It is a most extraordinary gift to us, to help us come closer to him, to be at peace and to be healed. The Lord doesn’t want us to be dragging our sins around with us, but He wants us to be free and at peace and that is why He has given us this extraordinary gift. At the end of a confession I often hear someone say, ‘I feel like a great burden has been lifted from me,’ and it has!
This is the chalice of my blood. 
It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

3rd Sunday of Lent, Year B (John 2:13-25) The commandments are there to give us freedom

I grew up in a large family, with three brothers and three sisters. It was a strict enough family and of course most of the time I resented the various rules we were given. I wanted to have things my way, but I wasn’t allowed to have them my way all the time, or there would have been chaos. Now that I am older I can see the wisdom of a lot of the rules that we were given, but at the time they often seemed unfair, or annoying at the very least. What we were taught served its purpose and helped to form us as children. It helped us to learn that there are basic guidelines that we all must adhere to if a family is to work.

A few years ago a friend of mine was at a business conference in Dublin and one of the speakers was saying that as a society we have forgotten some of the basic principles of living, such as honesty and integrity, respect for the human being. He was saying it was largely because of that neglect that we ended up in the last financial crisis we found ourselves in. Honesty and respect for the human being should be the norm and not the exception. If these are the principles out of which we operate, our society will be a lot healthier. 

A young man once asked me if it was wrong to lie? He was an intelligent man too. One of the Commandments tells us ‘You must not bear false witness’, that is, ‘You must not lie.’ That gives you an idea of the kind of confusion that is around us.

I know that in the past many people have had bad experiences of an over-demanding Church, which for a while focused too much on sin and everything that was wrong. That is not healthy. However, God has given us various teachings which are there to help us. The most basic of these are the Commandments. They are there to help us. Everything God gives us is to help us. God tells us that if you want to do well as a society, if you want to flourish, then stick to these principles: It is wrong to steal, to lie, to cheat, to kill, to commit adultery. We must honour God and respect Sunday as a holy day, a day when God is worshiped because God deserves to be worshiped, whether it suits us or not, and that must take priority over anything else. 

The Commandments of God are essentially a blue-print for living. If we follow these commandments and do our best to live them, we will do well as a individuals and a society. The Commandments are what will help us to become 'the best version of ourselves' that we can be. That is basically what God told the people through Moses, some 4000 years ago and those basic principles have not changed. All down through the centuries the people continually strayed away from the Commandments and worshipped false gods and when they did this their society began to fall apart. Then they realised what they had done and they asked forgiveness from God and tried to be faithful again. The Bible is essentially a collection of stories showing this. The people continually stray away from God, get into trouble, then realise their mistake and ask forgiveness and God always helps them back on their feet with great compassion.

Another thing that has not changed is that we are still very good at coming up with reasons why we don’t have to keep God’s commandments. People have always been good at coming up with excuses, but ultimately we are going against the very thing that will help us. True freedom is not just about being able to do whatever you want, but being able to choose what is good. Living by the principles God gives us is what leads us to true freedom. And yes this will mean that I can’t have everything my way, but we must choose who it is we wish to serve. If God asks us to keep Sunday holy, then what takes priority: worshiping God, or something else? If we live these commandments it will make us different from many others, but that is where we must decide who it is we wish to follow.

It is tempting to say, ‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind,’ or ‘God will understand.’ But if God doesn’t mind, then why did He give us the Commandments in the first place? Why did Jesus fly into a rage when he saw how the temple was being turned into a business instead of a place of prayer? God does mind because, God knows what is good for us and what will help us. The more we live by his teachings, the more we resemble God and so give glory to him.
I came that you may have life and have it to the full (John 10:10).