Saturday, October 20, 2018

29th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10:35-45) Bringing good out of evil

The only known photograph of Maria Goretti
Today I would like to tell you the story of a remarkable young girl called Maria Goretti, who died in 1902 three months before her 12th birthday. Maria was born into a farming family, near Ancona in the east of Italy. She was one of seven children. They were poor farmers and eventually had to sell their own farm and work for others. They ended up working on another farm in Paliano, about fifty miles south of Rome. Her father contracted malaria and died when she was just nine. They ended up sharing a house with a father and son by the name of Giovanni and Alessandro Serenelli. Their life was hard, but they were a close family. Maria generally stayed in the house doing housework and minding the youngest children, while the others worked on the farm.

Alessandro Serenelli, was eight years older than Maria and several times had tried to take advantage of her, but each time she refused. One day when he knew she was in the house on her own, he cornered her and threatened to kill her if she didn’t give in to him. She refused and kept saying that it was a mortal sin and God would not want it and that he would go to hell. Eventually in a rage, he stabbed her fourteen times, leaving her for dead. When her family found her, she was rushed to hospital, but she died the next day from her wounds. However, before she died she said that she forgave Alessandro because she wanted him to be with her in heaven when he died.

Alessandro was arrested and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Initially he was completely unrepentant. In fact, as is often the case with sexual predators, he blamed Maria, saying that if she had just given in to him, none of this would have happened. It claimed that it was basically her fault. However, six years later Maria appeared to him in a dream. She was holding lilies and she allowed fourteen of them to fall into his hands, but as each one landed in his hands it turned to ashes. This experience brought about a profound conversion in Alessandro. He understood the fourteen flowers to mean the fourteen times he had stabbed her and that she had forgiven him. From this moment on, his life changed completely. He became totally repentant and a model prisoner, so much so that he was eventually released three years early because of his exceptional behavior.

 When he was released, after serving twenty-seven years in prison, he went straight to Maria’s mother’s house and begged her to forgive him for what he had done. She said to him that if Maria was able to forgive him, she could too. The two of them attended mass together the next day and received Holy Communion side by side. Alessandro spent the rest of his life in a Franciscan monastery, helping out as a receptionist and in the garden.

Maria Goretti was canonized in 1950 by Pope Pius XII in St. Peter’s Basilica. Both Maria’s mother Assunta and Alessandro, as well as some of her siblings, were there for her canonization. Her canonization was the first one to be held out-doors in St. Peter’s square, because of the size of the crowd. It is estimated that about 500,000 people attended the ceremony. Alessandro died peacefully in 1970 at the age of 87. All this because of the bravery of an eleven-year-old girl, who was willing to suffer rather than offend God.

What has this got to do with us today? At the moment as we hear about so much evil, and sexual abuse, I think it is good to be reminded of the extraordinary good that God can bring out of the most evil of situations. Who would have thought that an 11 year old girl could inspire so many people and bring about the conversion of a murderer and rapist?

St. Maria Goretti, virgin and martyr, pray for us.

Friday, October 12, 2018

28th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10:17-30) For God, everything is possible.


There is a priest by the name of Benedict Groeschel from New York, he died in 2014. He founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a reformed branch of the Franciscans. Fr. Groeschel is an excellent speaker and in one of his talks he was saying that there is a man he knows in New York who is a multi millionaire, with more money than he could ever spend, or knows what to do with.  Benedict goes on to say that he was talking to this man at a particular conference and he—let us call him John Goldman—was saying to Benedict that he would like to put his money to good use, but he didn’t know what to do with it.  He admitted straight out that he had more money than he could ever spend.  Benedict said that if he wanted he could give a donation to one of the orphanages that they run in the Bronx, as it would make a big difference to them.  In spite of the fact that it was John Goldman himself who brought up the subject and admitted that he didn’t know what to do with all his money and wanted to put it to good use, by the end of the conference he still hadn’t agreed to part with one cent of his money. Benedict was saying that it was as if he was possessed by his wealth. He had no freedom. His wealth controlled him.

Most of us don’t have that kind of problem. In fact, most people have the opposite problem, but it is still very easy to become consumed even with the desire for money, or riches, or indeed anything. The problem is not the riches themselves, but our attachment to them.

In the Gospel which we have just heard, see how Jesus responds to the rich young man who is keen to live the right way.  When he asks what he should be doing to get to heaven, Jesus doesn’t say ‘You should sell all your possessions’.  First he just says, ‘You know the commandments; live them.’ It is only when he is pushed that Jesus then says ‘Go and sell all you own...’  What is he doing? Jesus is showing the young man that he is not as free as he thinks he is. In spite of the fact that he could probably buy anything he desires and do anything he wants because of his wealth, he is in fact a slave to his riches. Jesus is not just trying to make the young man feel bad, or guilty, rather, since he did ask, Jesus is pointing out where the problem is for him. The problem is not in having riches, but that we get so attached to them that we are no longer free. No doubt the young man felt he was living a good life, and he probably was, but the Lord wanted him to see that he was not half as free as he thought. You don’t have to be very wealthy for that to happen. 

St. John of the Cross says that if you become too attached to your rosary beads, get rid of them. He also says there is no point in taking a vow of poverty if you are still consumed with the desire for the things that you have given up. The freedom from them is what is really important.

There is a story of two monks out walking on a journey. They come across a creek and they meet a young lady who is trying to get across, but she is afraid. So one of the monks offers to carry her across. She accepts and he carries her across the creek and then they part ways. After some time the other monk says, ‘You shouldn’t have carried that lady across the creek. You are a monk!’ The first monk says, ‘When I carried her across, I left her down and walked away, but you are still carrying her in your mind.’ We can become obsessed with anything.

Thank God for what we do have, but ask yourself are you free from it, or a slave to it? Because if you are a slave to it—thinking that you could not do without it—then it is the master. Think of your cell-phone. Most of us would find it pretty hard to do without it.

Why did Jesus point this out to the young man? Because he wanted him, just as he wants us, to be free to open ourselves up to God. God is the only thing that is really important. Everything else is going to be left behind when we die, even our bodies. That is why Jesus is telling us not to get caught up in what is ultimately trivial. Enjoy what you have of course, but don’t let it become the master.


Most of us are probably much more attached to the things we have than we would like to be. I know I am. But perhaps the most important part of this Gospel is the last part. First of all Jesus says ‘How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’ and the apostles are astonished, just as most of us probably find this hard to understand too, since the  general thinking is that if we had enough money it would resolve most of our problems. But when the Apostles ask, ‘Then who can be saved?’, or in modern English ‘Who can get to heaven?’ then Jesus says ‘for people [by their own strength] it is impossible, but not for God.  Everything is possible for God.’ That is the really important thing to remember. Everything is possible for God. By our own strength we are very limited in what we can do, in spite of our best efforts, because we are weak and we easily get distracted by wealth, or work, or relationships or whatever. God knows well that we get caught up in all the wrong things, just like the rich young man in the story, but God is bigger than all of this. God is bigger than the mistakes we make, bigger than our mixed motivations for what we do. That is why we just keep coming back to him and asking him to help us, to forgive us, to guide us: and he does.
The disciples said: ‘If that is the case, then who can be saved?’
Jesus said: ‘For people it is impossible, but not for God;
because everything is possible for God.’

Thursday, October 4, 2018

27th Sunday of Year B (Mk 10:2-16) When life's plans don’t work out

Recently in our diocese we lost three priests. They all left for different reasons, which is sad. Each time that happens it makes all of us priests question our vocations and it brings up questions as to whether we will be able to persevere. Marriages often don’t work out and I’m sure when you know a couple who have just split up, it probably brings up fears and questions about your own marriage too. But just because Religious life, or married life, doesn’t always work out as we had hoped, it doesn’t mean we give up on them. We still do our best to hold onto the values that are important and to teach our children the same thing. Over 80% of people still believe in the value of marriage, which is good to know and thousands of young people are continually inspired to dedicate their lives to God in Religious life. Two of my family are divorced and I’ve already done my best friend’s wedding twice. I also know of many priests who have left the priesthood.

It is interesting that they had the same issues 3,500 years ago in the time of Moses. When Jesus is questioned about this, he makes the point that this was not God’s intention, but that doesn’t mean we give up when things don’t work out. The Lord never gives up on us, no matter how badly things turn out.

You know the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. He meets her in the middle of the day, on her own, which means that she was being shunned by other women. It would be normal for her to be with other women early in the morning, when it is cool. Jesus tells her he knows that she has been married five times and is now with someone else. But instead of being judgmental of her, he reaches out to her, gives her hope and courage. That is always what the Lord does. Jesus is always the one to give us courage. Satan, who hates and wants to destroy God’s creation, always discourages. He is the one who tells us we are useless, we are hypocrites and there is no point in going on. Jesus called him ‘the Accuser’. He constantly accuses us and points out our faults. If you are surprised to hear me talk about Satan, look at the Scriptures. Jesus frequently mentioned him. His existence is real and he works to destroy us and make us despair. Jesus is always the one to encourage us and who tells us not to be afraid.

366 times in the Bible are the words, ‘Do not be afraid.’ God is always encouraging us and is with us no matter what happens. In fact, He is always the one to reach out to us and assure us that He is still with us just as much as before.


When Jesus was asked directly about this, He said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her.’ It is not what God intended, but even when it happens, the Lord works with us, to help us move on. That is also what an annulment is about. It is the Church’s way of allowing a person to move on, by dissolving the previous sacramental marriage. An annulment doesn’t say that a marriage never existed. What it says is that all the elements for the sacrament of marriage were not there and therefore that marriage can be dissolved. You could say it is the merciful side of the Lord’s teaching, to allow people to begin again.

I am often asked if it is wrong to receive Holy Communion if someone is divorced. Being divorced is not a problem with regards to receiving Communion. The problem is when someone is then in a second relationship. If someone is in a second relationship without having the first one dissolved, or annulled, then technically they are committing adultery. That’s why we try to help people to get an annulment, so that they can move on.

One of the reasons Pope Francis often unnerves people, is because he reaches out to people who are in the ‘grey’ area, which is exactly what Jesus did. He hasn’t changed any Church teaching, but he is reminding us that things are rarely black and white and reaching out to people is what we are meant to be about, because that is what Jesus did.

I often think of one of the times when Jesus was so critical of the Pharisees (the religious leaders of the time) and he said, ‘Oh you Pharisees; you place great burdens on people’s shoulders, but you don’t lift a finger to move them’ (Mat 23:4). In other words, it is easy to just state  God’s law, but we must also help people when things have gone wrong.

The Lord is always the one to encourage us and He never abandons us, no matter what happens.