Friday, July 27, 2018

17th Sunday Year B (Gospel: John 6:1-15) Juares, Mexico and the multiplication of food

The world we live in makes it very easy to be cynical. There are explanations for so many things, and people are quick to dismiss what cannot be proved. The miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish is one that I have often heard explained away too. Today I would like to tell you about a similar miracle which happened quite recently.

The city of Juares, in Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, is currently considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with constant killings because of the drug wars. In 1972 a priest by the name of Fr. Rick Thomas and a sister Maria Virginia, were the instruments of an amazing miracle.

In 1964 Fr Richard Thomas, a Jesuit, had been appointed to El Paso. Around 1969/1970 he was profoundly touched by God and started charismatic prayer meetings in the parish. Sr. Maria Virginia, DC, was also an inspired leader. During one prayer meeting in 1972 they read the passage in Luke 14:12-14 which says,
When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relations, or rich neighbors, in case they invite you back and so repay you. When you have a party, invite the poor… for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again.

The prayer group decided that on Christmas day that year, 1972, they would provide a Christmas lunch to the poor who lived and worked in the dump in Ju├írez. The poor people in the dump used to separate the rubbish into various types, cans, bottles, cardboard etc and then sell it to a co-op which would in turn sell it on. They lived in the dump and worked 7 days a week for $5. The prayer group had prepared food for 125 people on Christmas Day. When they got to the dump Fr Richard and the group discovered that they had two labor unions or trade unions. One union could not go into the other’s area. Eventually Fr Richard got them to come together in one area for the food. Three hundred and fifty people turned up, so Fr Richard explained that there was not enough food for everyone, but they would share what they had. All 350 had enough food; the dump people took some food home and then came back for more, again and again. Afterwards, there was food left over, so much so that Fr Richard and the prayer group took the leftovers to three orphanages.

According to Father Richard, he and those who were there have encountered the inexplicable multiplication of food on dozens of occasions — right up to today; at times aware of what is happening, in other cases noticing the miracle when they count up items in retrospect. In another example 350 cans of milk were brought to the poor, but every one of 500 who came actually got one. Sacks of flour have produced flour as if from an endless supply — to the shock of those handing it out. They have even taken measurements of what was removed and it simply doesn’t add up.

What happened was this: Fr. Rick and the others who worked with him were praying and they felt that the Lord was telling them to go to one of the prisons with food for Christmas day.  So they decided they would do just that and they brought what they thought would be enough food, but in fact they were seriously short. However, they just began cutting up the food and distributing it anyway and the food began to multiply, although they didn’t realise it for a while. They ended up having enough to feed all the prisoners and all the staff as well. They had also decided to go to one of the city dumps and bring a Christmas dinner for the hundreds of people there who live off the dump trying to find something to sell or reuse. They brought enough for about 150 people, but in fact 3 times that number turned up. Again they just started cutting up the food and distributing it, but no matter how much they gave out there was more food. The food was miraculously multiplying. Not only were they able to feed all those who turned up, but they had so much left over that it took them three days to get rid of all that was left over. There is a video of this available called ‘Viva Christo Re.’  Fr. Rick Thomas died in 2006.

One of the reasons I want to tell you about this miracle is to help you to believe that this miracle of the loaves and fishes, which we have just heard about, was real. I have sometimes heard it being explained away and people saying that in fact all that happened was that people were so embarrassed when they saw the little boy giving his food, that they produced their own food. It is sad when people rationalise the miracles of Jesus, as though nothing really extraordinary happened. If nothing extraordinary happened the accounts of them wouldn’t have survived 2000 years.  These miracles were real and they have been passed on to us to help us to believe and to understand what the teaching of Jesus is all about.

What is even more important than the miracles themselves is what they point to. In John’s Gospel the miracles are continually referred to as ‘signs’.  Jesus worked these signs and his disciples believed in him. All the miracles were pointing to who Jesus was, that He is the Son of God and to help those with him (and us) to believe in his teaching. His teaching is about the reality of God and the afterlife; that God is interested in us in a very personal way; and that God is very much with us. These are not just pious stories, but events that happened, so that we might believe.

When you think of a place like Mexico and the dire poverty that is there (a kind of poverty that we simply don’t have here) wouldn’t it seem to make more sense if the Lord worked a miracle of giving all these people work, or a better way of life? But instead the Lord gave them this miracle, this sign of his presence among them. It was a way of saying that ‘I am here among you and concerned for you..’ This gave them hope and courage and faith. Apparently after the miracle of food in the prison the whole place was completely transformed, staff and prisoners. They witnessed the supernatural and it gave them hope and a new purpose in their life. This hope is much more important than our physical needs, because hope gives the strength to endure, and to be strong in hard times.

The miracles of Jesus are also meant to help us in the same way; to encourage us, to give us hope and to remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord, the one Lord, who is with us and looking after us.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

16th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 6:30-34) The Lord provides

Every so often I come across someone who is very critical of St. Patricks’s College, Maynooth, the seminary I went to and how awful it is, etc. This is usually from things they have heard about it, as opposed to direct experience. Before I began my studies there I heard nothing but bad press as well. However, what I found there was quite different. Essentially Maynooth offered us a pretty good formation or training program, but all they could do was offer it to us. It was completely up to us whether we engaged in it or not. Like anything else, it was far from perfect and there were plenty of problems there too, but that is quite normal. However, the staff there were continually reminding us that our formation (or training) as priests was basically in our own hands.  They could not force us to comply with what they taught and if we decided to just have a great time while we were there, there was not a lot they could do about it. A few guys did have a great time and didn’t take their time there seriously, but inevitably they were the ones who hit a major crisis either just before or just after they were ordained.

While most of us are not going to be in a seminary, but just getting on with our lives wherever we find ourselves, the same holds true of our spiritual life. If I want to grow as a Christian it is essentially in my own hands. God offers us everything we need and more, but it is up to us whether we make use of it or not. It is the Lord himself who guides us, and that’s what today’s readings are all about. Even if the shepherds don’t do their job properly, the Lord is saying that He himself will look after us, and He does.

How does the Lord guide us? Firstly, through the sacred Scriptures, the Bible, which we listen to at every mass. If someone told you that God was going to speak to you if you read a certain book, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity? That is exactly what the Scriptures are. They are personal letters to us, where God speaks to us and tells us about himself, what our life is about and how He is inviting us to live. That is why we go back to the Scriptures in every mass, to see what God is saying to us. But this is not just meant to be for the mass. We are encouraged to go on reading it all the time ourselves. Do you want to know what God has to say to you? Then read the Scriptures. That is where you will hear God’s word, speaking to you personally. Do you have a Bible; then take it out. If you don’t, then buy one. If you’re not sure where to start, start with the New Testament. Read a chapter of the Gospels each day and just stop and think about it. Every day if you can, spend five or ten minutes reading some of the Bible. You’ll be amazed at how much God has to say. 

Secondly, the Lord teaches us through his Church. It is his teaching, and not just the teaching of a group of people. That is why we to try and live it and take it seriously, because it is what God himself is teaching us. It was what Jesus taught the Apostles and that has been passed on down through the centuries.

Thirdly, He gives us spiritual food and peace through confession so that we can begin again as often as we need to, and above all He gives us his own body and blood in the Eucharist so that we can be intimately united to him in the most extraordinary and intimate way.

It is both sad and strange that so often we come to see these things simply as some kind of obligation, or duty, which we have to put up with, instead of seeing them for the treasures that they are. Everything God has given us is pure gift, to help us. Often we need a reminder of what we have already been given. In different parts of the world, it is illegal to have the Bible and the mass. People go to great lengths to get the Scriptures, even learning off large passages so that they could pass them on. Mass has often had to be celebrated in secret. Sometimes it is only when we hear of these things that we realize how blessed we are to have what we have and to be able to practice our faith freely.   

If you ever find yourself wishing that God would speak to you or help you more, remind yourself of what you have already been given.

The remnant of my flock I myself will gather from all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their pastures.

Friday, July 13, 2018

15th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 6:7-13) If they do not accept you in any town, shake off the very dust of your feet as a sign to them.

The Irish College, Rome.
As a priest, I often find myself in a position which is very similar to what we hear about in the first reading from the prophet Amos (7:12-15), even though this is 2000 years later. In modern English it might sound something like this: ‘Look Fr. Murchadh go and talk about God somewhere else. We don’t want to hear about it here, we are important people and we are busy with our own lives.’ And I might say, ‘Why don’t you listen to me?! I didn’t choose to do this. God ordered me to go and speak to you, and now you can take it or leave it.’

In one way we priests—and indeed anyone who teaches about the ways of God—are still in the same position today. We are asked to pass on the same message of Christ, regardless of whether people listen to us or not. This is not an easy thing to do, as people often don’t want to hear what we have to say, especially if it’s controversial. There is a big temptation for us, for me, to try to say what people would like to hear, so that people will think well of me, because like anyone else, I want to be accepted by other people too. But that is not what we are called to do by the Lord. 

We are called by the Lord to do a specific job, and that is to tell people about him and his message; to tell people that Jesus is the way to the Father and that because of his death and resurrection forgiveness is offered to us; that He is the way for us to find happiness and that God has made himself known to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The message that the Lord calls us to preach, often meets with opposition, as it has since the first Prophets began speaking in his name, because that same message challenges us when we are doing wrong and no one likes to be told that they are doing wrong. Most of the Prophets were murdered because of what they said. It is interesting that almost all of them resisted when God called them to go and speak to the people. For the most part their response was, ‘No Lord, please ask someone else. I am not able to do that!’

Depiction of people going to John the Baptist
For me, there was a real sense of being called to be a priest, to be his messenger and that call continues every day. Twice in the last twenty years, I thought I could no longer continue, but again I had a distinct sense of being called to keep going and God gave me the strength to persevere. Many of the characters in the Bible were the same. The prophet Elijah, after working an extraordinary miracle, then has a death threat against him. He flees into the desert, sits down under a tree and says, ‘Lord, take my life, I am no better than my ancestors’ (1Kg 19:4). In other words, ‘I wish I was dead. I have had enough of this!’ It says that he lay down and went to sleep, but then an angel woke him and told him to eat the food that was there, as he would need it for the journey. God doesn’t let him off the hook, but pushes him to keep going.

The prophet Jeremiah complains that all he is getting for his preaching is abuse. He says that he tried to resist, but couldn’t.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jer 20:9).

God’s response is not to say, ‘Poor Jeremiah, you are having a bad day. Take some time off and you’ll be ok.’ No, the Lord pushes him to be strong and keep going.

(Far right) Fr. Ragheed Ganni, martyr, killed in Iraq 2007

In the last six years in Mexico, twenty-five priests were murdered. It’s not sure exactly why, but it is probably because they were speaking out against the terrible violence and corruption that exists, largely because of the drug Cartels. Preaching God’s word is not always popular, but that is what He asks us to do. I personally know two priests who were murdered: Fr. Ragheed Ganni (1972-2007) in Iraq for continuing to keep the church open and celebrate mass. He was continually warned by extremists to close the church, but he wouldn’t and so they ambushed him after mass and shot him along with three deacons. The other man I know, Bishop Michael Courtney (1945-2003), was working in Burundi, Africa, to bring about peace between two warring tribes. He was also ambushed and shot. That’s pretty-much what they did with the prophets too. If they didn’t like what they were hearing, they killed them.

So, pray for us priests that we will have the courage to do what the Lord calls us to do. Help us to be strong in our faith. It is not our place to preach our opinions, but to preach the Word of God. Our opinions will not help or nourish you, but the Word of God will. What we say should challenge you, because the voice of the Lord is a very challenging one. Hearing about all those priests and prophets who were killed might seem bleak, but it is really a sign of how powerful God’s word is and how much we need to listen to what God is saying to us.

Perhaps it seems like I’m preaching to the converted, but I believe that if we really want to grow in our faith, then we need to continually re-decide to follow Jesus Christ. The world around us may not agree with us, or like the way we live, but it has always been like that. Many people today are deciding not to be Christian anymore, sometimes consciously, sometimes through indifference. But the Lord is very strong in the Gospels about indifference. He demands a decision from us. 

If any place does not welcome you and people refuse to listen to you, as you walk away shake off the dust from under your feet as a sign to them.

Friday, July 6, 2018

14th Sunday, Year B (Gospel: Mark 6:1-6) Our weaknesses can help us

A few years back I was talking to a man who was telling me about himself. He said that most things in his life were fine, except for one thing. He had a terrible temper, which was so frustrating and he said, ‘If only I didn’t have this temper, everything would be perfect.’ I couldn’t help thinking that this weakness which was so frustrating to him, was probably also one of the things that helped him to stay close to God. If we thought we were perfect we would probably also think that we had no need for God. It is also true that when we are not aware of our weaknesses that we can become terribly arrogant.

There is a priest known simply as Brother Andrew, who co-founded the Brothers part of the Missionaries of Charity with Mother Teresa. In one of his books about his experiences, he begins by saying: ‘Few people would believe the weakness on which the Missionaries of Charity are built.’ He speaks a lot about his own weakness, although he doesn’t say exactly what it was, but that he suffered from some kind of addiction. But this weakness, which frustrated him so much, was also one of the things that made him holy. He doesn’t say that, but you can see it from his writings. The reason why God did such great work through him, through Mother Teresa and through so many others, was not because they were extraordinarily talented, but because they were aware of how weak they were and so they totally relied on God for everything.

The reason why God was able to do such wonderful things through the saints, is not because they were perfect, but because they were weak people who continually turned to God and so God was able to use them in an extraordinary way. It is very easy to get a false impression of what a holy person is. Books can often give us the impression that they were people who did no wrong. The truth is that saints were and are weak people, with just as many weaknesses as any of us, but they continually turned to God for help and as a result God was able to work through them in such an amazing way. To understand that, is absolutely key to growing in the spiritual life. If the saints were perfect people who never did any wrong, then very few of us could relate to them. But if they were weak people just like any of us—which they were—then not only can we relate to them, but it should help us to see that the exact same path is open to us, because it doesn’t depend on us being good enough, rather it depends on us continually turning to God.  That is the key.
There is no one here who doesn’t have weaknesses of one kind or another. It could be some kind of addiction, it could be a need to control, an emotional dependency, whatever. We all have something and as you well know it can be extremely frustrating.

I find it comforting to think that two thousand years ago, St. Paul was writing about the exact same thing (See today's second reading 2 Cor 12:7-10). Paul was a very intelligent man, well educated and obviously very talented and even though he had visions of Jesus which converted him and then he went and preached everywhere and worked many miracles, he too suffered from some kind of weakness, although he doesn’t say what it was. But in this second reading you can hear his frustration as he says that three times he asked God to take this thing away from him, and three times God said ‘No, my strength is at its best in weakness.’ This weakness, whatever it was, obviously helped him more than he realised. It kept him humble, which meant that he continually needed to turn to the Lord and ask for his help and that is why he and so many other men and women throughout the ages were such powerful instruments in God’s hands, because they relied totally on God and not on themselves. The Lord left them under no illusions as to their own weakness. 

I have no doubt that all of us probably feel we would be much better off if only we could overcome our weaknesses. But perhaps these readings will help us to see that the Lord knows what He is doing when He allows us to struggle with them. They are frustrating, yes, but they can also be a gift in the sense that they make us rely on the power of God more than on ourselves. It also reminds us that it is not a question of being ‘good enough’ for God. We will never be good enough, but that doesn’t matter. As long as we know that we are weak, then we will see that we have someone to turn to who really can and will help us. God is not put off by our weakness.
So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me.