Saturday, December 28, 2019

Feast of the Holy Family (Gospel: Matthew 2:13-29) Our imperfect families

Our families are beautiful, because they are the families that God gave us, even though we may wonder at times if that could really be what God intended.

My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old. One time when I was about five I was brought to a party of a school friend, but for some reason I decided that I didn’t like the party and that I wanted to go home. I figured that the best way to do this was secretly. So I told my friend that I would hide out in the garden and that he should come and try to find me after a few minutes. I then made my escape and headed home. The only problem was that I had no idea how to get home. So I headed off and asked a post-man how to get to ‘York Road’ in Dun Laoghaire, where we lived. He looked at me suspiciously but told me where to go. When I finally arrived home I found a big police motorbike in the front drive. Maybe that’s where my love of motorcycles began! Everyone was out looking for me. My poor parents were not the better for this experience.  Family life is not easy.

This is a feast day which I think can often make us feel disappointed with our own families, although we don’t admit it, because it seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be. Things go wrong and we drive each other crazy. Someone gets into trouble and lets the family down. Marriages don’t always work out. We are afraid what others will think of us.

Me aged 4
Then we are presented with the ‘holy family’, who we imagine were living in bliss all the time. That is not reality. They were poor. When Jesus was born they were homeless. Then with a new baby they had to flee to Egypt to escape an attempt on the child’s life and became refugees. When Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon told them he was destined to be a sign that would be rejected. He would not be a ‘success’. Later they lost him for three days. Can you imagine the stress of losing one of your children for three days?

So why are they presented to us as a model? Perhaps because they had their priorities right. God was at the center of this family. It was the right environment for the person of Jesus to grow and mature. Jesus had to grow up as a person just as all of us do, learn to be responsible, learn the Jewish traditions and that takes a long time. It involves a lot of learning for each of us, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on the part of our parents, but how we are formed is vital. There is an African proverb which says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We all have a part to play, even if that is just encouraging those who are struggling. If there are young families around you who are struggling financially, especially one parent families, look out for them. There is a couple I know who were telling me recently that at one stage, because one of their children was sick, they lost their home in order to pay hospital bills. The husband told me that for several months they lived on next to nothing. We never know how people are struggling and we must look out for each other.

We know almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, but no doubt it was very important for his growing and maturing as a person, and to help him be ready for the mission that He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God and sacrificing himself for us.

My parents 58 years married, June 2019
The main role of our families is to provide a safe, loving environment for us to grow up in, so that we will blossom as people and learn how to deal with the world. None of us come from a perfect family, but that doesn’t matter. It is easy to become discouraged, thinking about how things might have been, or should be, but the bottom line is that we are the way we are. We come from the kind of imperfect families that we come from. The path through our lives often takes unexpected turns and things can work out a lot worse than we had intended. Does it matter? Not in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord is not the one to say ‘You should be different’. That is what people will say, but that is not what the Lord says. He is the one who always encourages, reassures and gives us new strength to keep going.

Think of all the people that Jesus came across in the Gospels. He took them exactly as they were, including many people who were causing public scandal. It didn’t matter what faith or cultural background they came from. He always showed great sensitivity to their dignity. Satan discourages, but God always encourages. What is important is not how we should be, but that we remain open to God. If we are listening and open, then the Lord can lead us forward. All God needs is our openness. Everything that we go through plays a part in forming us as people. The only thing that is important is that we are willing to get up again, to begin again and turn to the Lord for help as often as is necessary. 

Let us give thanks to God for the families that we grew up in, no matter how they are.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas; The Word was made flesh and lived among us.

Christmas is about what happens to us when we die. It is the feast of the greatest hope imaginable, because it tells us two things: First, that what all of us want—happiness—awaits us if we choose it. Second, that we have infinite worth and value in God’s eyes, regardless of how our life turns out. That is what we celebrate at Christmas.

The birth of Christ is the beginning of a great event that really has three parts. The Son of God comes among us, to live as one of us and experience the human condition with all its difficulties; to teach us about God and why we are here; and ultimately to sacrifice himself for us, so that we can reach that happiness.

This year alone we have buried 16 people from this parish and that doesn’t count all the people who died here and were buried elsewhere. If the Son of God hadn’t come among us and died for us, none of those people could be with God in heaven. That is our destiny, but it is only possible because of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That means that Christmas is the feast of the greatest hope imaginable.

It also tells us something that we find hard to grasp; that is, that we have an infinite value and worth in God’s eye’s, regardless of how our life turns out. It means that God will do anything to get us to heaven. We generally tend to think that if we really get our act together and if we become holy enough, that then we will be acceptable to God. That is not what God teaches us. God teaches us that He loves us totally and completely, as we are right now. We may think of ourselves as failures, or disappointments in the world’s eyes, but that is not how God sees us. Think of a little child. No matter how much that child makes a mess of things, you don’t love them any less. You love them just because they exist.

There is a Jesuit priest called Fr. Greg Boyle, who for the last thirty years has worked in the toughest gang-land areas of LA. He wrote a book called, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion. Up to the time he published the book in 2010, he had already buried 167 young people, from gangland shootings. In the book he talks about the fact that most of the young people who end up in gangs, really have little else. Most of them have grown up in homes with no parents, or with parents so wrecked by addiction that they might as well not be there, or of such violence that they have left and lived on the streets. They end up in gangs because the gangs provide them with a sense of belonging; a family of sorts. He says that they don’t plan their futures; they plan their funerals. Young women often want to get pregnant early, so that they will have the experience of having a child before they get killed. Most of them don’t expect to make it past 20.

Fr. Greg helps them to see that they are valued, that they have worth and that they are not failures. He says that so many of them have come into his office and just cried, saying that they are total failures and they live in shame. But once he takes an interest in them, learns their name, helps them to see that he has an interest in them, they begin to change and many of them then leave the gangs and even get jobs. Once they begin to feel loved and valued, their life starts to turn around. He has now set up an organization called Homeboy Industries.

Many of us are often afraid that we will not be good enough to get to heaven and that God might refuse us. We even joke about meeting St. Peter at the gates and him going through the log-book of our life, to see if we meet the grade. That is not what the Lord tells us. What the Lord tells us is that He has made it possible for all of us to get to heaven and the only reason it won’t happen is if we turn our back on God and we accept or reject God, by the way we live.

Pope Francis, when he was a much younger priest and head of the Jesuits in Argentina, made some very difficult choices during the military dictatorship in Argentina, resulting in at least two Jesuit priests being arrested and tortured for several months. One forgave him the other did not and considered him a traitor up to his death. He made bad decisions with very serious consequences. Years later the Lord made him pope. Yes, I said the Lord made him pope. Why would God choose someone who had betrayed other priests, even if he didn’t intend to? Why would God choose a failure? Because he was not a failure. He is a human being who made mistakes. Why did he choose St. Peter who also betrayed him? because he saw the greatness in him, just as He does in us. God sees the greatness in us. We are beautiful in his eyes, regardless of the mistakes we have made. And that is why He has made it possible for us to have eternal happiness when we die. And that is what we are celebrating at Christmas.

'The Word was made flesh and lived among us'.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

4th Sunday Advent Year A (Matthew 1:18-24) The difference our individual response makes

1600 years ago a man boarded a ship in Wales and sailed to Ireland. He didn’t want to go back here, as he had been made work as a slave in Ireland, but because of a dream, he believed that God was asking him to return. When he arrived in Ireland he began teaching people about the Christian God, about the death and resurrection of Jesus, about why this happened and about the eternal life that God now offers us. His name was Patrick; now St. Patrick.

About 2000 years ago a different man found himself in a very difficult situation. He was promised to a woman in marriage, already legally bound, but now she was pregnant. If he divorced her, as he was entitled to do, then she would be shamed and he didn’t want to do this. If he did not divorce her, then he would be shamed, as it would look like he had had sexual relations with her, which they were not allowed to have until fully married. This was of course Joseph and Mary. But then an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to take Mary as his wife and it says, ‘When he awoke, he did exactly as he had been commanded to do.’ 

Both of these men responded to a dream, prompting them to do the opposite of what they had intended to do, but look at what happened as a result. Because Patrick responded to the dream, Christianity was brought to Ireland. Because Joseph responded to his dream, Jesus was given the proper parents that God intended for him. No doubt the reason both of these men responded to God in this particular way was because they were open to God. They wanted to do what was right and to live as God asked. 

What God asks of us can be difficult, but it will always be the most worthwhile path.  We may be asked to give up all kinds of attractive opportunities in order to be faithful to our wife or husband and families. We may be asked not to be involved in certain kinds of activities which are against the teaching of God. Standing up for what we believe in can be very difficult, but sometimes God asks this of us.

All of us have a role to play, as fathers or mothers, single or married. You might be tempted to say, ‘Yes, but God does not speak to me like that.’ The truth is that God is speaking to us all the time and God is still asking us to live by his Commandments, even though it may mean going against the tide, being the minority. I think that I can safely say that pretty much everyone is very disturbed by the things we are hearing on the news every day. There are more and more murders and violence, for apparently no reason. Why is that? Could it be because many people have abandoned the way of life that God calls us to live? What can we do about it?  What we can do about it is to try and live the kind of life God calls us to. You can be cynical and say that it won’t make any difference, but I think that deep down we know that it can make a difference and that is precisely what makes the difference in any society. If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.

One of the things that happens in times of crisis, is that it brings great good out people. People of of their time and energy freely in order to help others. Think of something like hurricane Irma. The truth is that there is good in everyone, and sometimes it takes situations of difficulty to bring it to the surface.  You often see that at funerals, where neighbors are so good to a family when someone has died.

Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth, or the yeast (baking powder) that makes the flour rise.’ We may be few, but how we live is so important, because it influences the world around us. Making our society and our world a better place begins with me, where I live, with the people I deal with. That is what God calls us to. Remember St. Patrick, St. Joseph, Mary and so many others.  Their responses at the time probably seemed quite insignificant, but in the long run it changed the course of history. It is always the few people in society who try to live as God asks, that make the difference. That is also what God calls us to do: to live by his Commandments, to try and do what is right and not to be afraid or ashamed of what we believe in. If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did exactly as the angel had told him to do.’

Friday, December 13, 2019

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A (Matthew 11:2-11) Harvard atheist professor becomes Catholic

Roy Shoeman: atheist become Catholic
Today I would like to share with you an amazing conversion story I heard during the week, about a man by the name of Roy Shoeman, (born 1951). If you can watch the video of his story I would highly recommend it, as it is one of the most inspiring stories I have heard in a long time.  Here is the link:

Roy Shoeman was born and raised in a very Jewish family, the son of Jewish, German holocaust refugees. He received a very Jewish upbringing and education. He then went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), which is a very a technical and scientific institute. He says that in college he lost his faith and became an atheist. Having graduated from MIT, he went on to Harvard business school, and completed his degree in marketing. When he graduated at the age of 29, he was invited back to work on the faculty as professor of marketing. Obviously he was a very clever man.

As a child he always believed there must be a God and purpose to life. When he made his Bar mitzva, which is similar to Confirmation, he hoped that that it would be the beginning of a personal relationship with God, but it was not. He said that it was one of the saddest days of his life. He then got caught up with worldly living and went on through high school and college. But having become a Harvard professor and more successful than he ever dreamed of, he fell into the darkest despair of his life. He had everything, except meaning and purpose; in other words he had nothing.

One day he was out walking in nature and he had the most extraordinary experience of his life. He said that suddenly the veil between earth and heaven disappeared and he could see the spiritual world. He was intensely aware that he was in the presence of God and he could also see back over his life. He says that in an instant he saw most of what is taught in the Catholic faith, that we live for all eternity, that every action has a moral content which is recorded for all eternity; that everything that had every happened to him was perfect and in the hands of an all-knowing, all-loving God, not only including the things which had caused him the most suffering, but especially those things, that they all fitted together perfectly in God’s plan. He was also shown the two greatest regrets he would have if he had died. The first was all the time he had spent thinking he was not loved, when in fact he was held in perfect love all his life, by God. The second regret was all the time he had wasted doing things of no value in the eyes of heaven. While he felt that life had no meaning, he was shown that in fact life has an infinitely deep meaning and value. He was also shown that every moment has the possibility of doing something of value in the eyes of heaven and that each valued action we do, will be rewarded for all eternity.

He says that the most transformative part of this experience was being shown that not only was God with him all throughout his life and held him in the deepest love, but that God was with him through every joy and sorrow he ever experienced. What made him happy, made God happy and what made him sad, made God sad. He realized that we are created to worship and serve God for all eternity. He says he began praying and asking God what his name was. He wanted to know who God was so that he could follow that religion. He didn’t mind if it was the Buddha and he had to become Buddhist, or Krishna and he had to become Hindu, just so long as it wasn’t Christ and he would have to become Christian. He felt that way because coming from a Jewish background he said he would feel that he was going over to the enemy side, as it were. However, God respected this and did not reveal any name to him.

He then went home, happier than he had ever been in his life and began looking into various mystical ideas to try and find out who God was. Initially he tried New Age ideas, but he soon realized this was going in the wrong direction. He prayed every night that God might show him who He is.

A year to the day after this experience, he went asleep and was awoken and led to a room where he found himself in the presence of the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. Without being told, he knew immediately that this was Our Lady. She said to him, ‘Are there any questions you would like me to answer for you.’ He says that he wished he knew the Hail Mary, so as to show her honor and respect, but he didn’t. So, hoping to learn the Hail Mary, but being too embarrassed to admit he didn’t know it, he asked her what her favorite prayer was. She recited a prayer in Portuguese, which he remembered phonetically and later asked a Portuguese Catholic woman what it meant. She said it was the prayer ‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.’ In the dream he found himself asking her how it was that she was so profoundly glorious and majestic. In response, she looked at him with pity and said, ‘Oh no. You don’t understand. I am nothing. I am only a creature, a created thing. He is everything.’ When he woke the next morning he knew immediately that the God who had revealed himself to him was Christ and that he wanted to become Christian.

Right away he found himself going to a phone book, looking up the nearest Christian Church. He knew nothing about Christianity and the difference between Protestants and Catholics, but he found himself talking to a Protestant pastor. When he shyly asked him about Our Lady, the pastor was not respectful in how he referred to her and this made him realize that he was in the wrong place. In the days and weeks that followed he found himself visiting Marian shrines and realizing that they were all part of the Catholic Church. He also found himself going to mass at times. When he did this, he felt a profound desire, a greed, almost a lust, to receive the Eucharist, even though he had no idea what the Eucharist was. Within a short time, this led him to becoming a Catholic.

He says that not only did he find himself not leaving behind Judaism, but in fact he realized he was more Jewish than ever, because he was a Jew who had recognized the Messiah and was now following him. That’s exactly what the Apostles did. As Jews, they recognized Jesus as the Messiah and followed him. One leads directly to the other, which is exactly what we believe.

After he became a Catholic, he says he still struggled with some of the teachings of the Church and it was about 18 months before he fully realized that all the teachings of the Church were true, because they are from God. The one he struggled with most was the teaching that people could be condemned to hell for all eternity. Talking to a priest that was guiding him, he expressed his doubt about this teaching. But the priest said to him, 'But it is a dogma (official teaching) of our faith.' In other words we are obliged to believe it, as part of our faith because it comes from God. He realized that he had been deciding what he should and should not believe, as opposed to accepting the teachings of the Church, because we believe they come from God. Who was he to decide what should be believed and what should not be believed. If God had revealed them, then they must be true. From then on he was able to accept what was taught by the Church as coming from God, even when he found it difficult to understand. This can be a challenge for all of us, but if we really believe that what the Church teaches is God's teaching, then who are we to decide whether we will believe it or not?

God gives us the experiences of people like Roy, to help us believe. We all need help and encouragement, but testimonies like this are ongoing reminders of God's wonderful providence among us, guiding us and encouraging us.

Friday, December 6, 2019

2nd Sunday of Advent (Matthew 3:1-12) No Christmas without repentance

How would you feel if you got a Christmas card that read like this: 

Our thoughts of you this Christmas are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.”
Merry Christmas from Fr. Murchadh."

I suppose we would add Fr. Murchadh, or whoever sent it, to our list of x-friends!

Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc, but this is quite different from the original message. John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was very strong. ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and look for happiness in God.’ This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook. We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent. Just leave us alone and let us celebrate. We want absolution, but without having to confess. We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments. We want faith on our terms. That is called ‘cheap grace’. It is empty and it is not the message of God.

The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one. We can not come and pick what we like. Instead we come and ask what is required of us? That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘What must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. We are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them. If you’re not happy, move on; but this is not the message of the Gospels. In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us. We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms. 

Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman. He was totally focused on God. He knew what was important and he passed on the message he was told to pass on and it cost him his life. He was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth. We don’t always want to hear the truth because it is often demanding and challenges us to change.

If we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the message of John the Baptist. ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ The term ‘repent’ can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’ That is a particularly powerful message at this time in history. So many people are looking for happiness in the world, but now so much has collapsed and many have been bitterly disappointed and left with a feeling that all is gone. However, the Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness. It is only in God that we will find true happiness. The world will disappoint us; God will not. People will let us down, but God will not.

I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20) 

Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways. The Lord wants to be at the center of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’ 

The sin of Adam and Eve was a very similar sin to what we see going on today. It involved three things: (1) rejecting the idea that they had to serve God or listen to his commands; (2) that they could have everything they wanted on their terms, (3) that they were like God themselves. That is very similar to what we see going on in our world right now and it is a real temptation. Why should we have to obey commandments? We don’t like being told we have to obey anyone and yet the word obey literally means ‘to listen intently’ (from the Latin, ‘ob audire’). And if you think about it, it says that Jesus was obedient to the Father. Jesus was equal to the Father, but Jesus was also obedient to him. We are being called to listen intently to what God tells us, to acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we must obey—listen intently—to what He tells us if we are to find the path to happiness.

The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins. And yes, most of us don’t like to have to confess our sins, we think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do and if God asks us to do it, it is for our benefit. The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless. It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.

'I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me'. (Rev 3:20) 

Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways. The Lord wants to be at the center of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’

Friday, November 29, 2019

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Lk 21:25-28, 34-36)

I always like the fact that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the evenings are short and it is usually cold (unless you live in Florida!). Then we begin to light candles and put up colored lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King. It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy. ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time. 

Normally we think of Advent as waiting for the event of Christmas, but that is just part of it. Christmas and Easter are two halves of the same event and they cannot be separated
Each Sunday in the Creed we say that, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ We don’t know when that will be, but we believe that it will happen. The Lord asks us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die, but the important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come and above all to die for us, so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.

The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us. The Lord is constantly speaking to us but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted. People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes, God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It's usually through other people, or through the Scriptures. It took me quite a while to learn how to listen, so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to try and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us. That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.

One thing that is characteristic of the Gospels is that they are full of hope. The message of God to us—the Good News—is always one of hope and it is certainly something we need in a world where we are constantly hearing of so many terrible things happening around us. We don't hear of all the wonderful things that are constantly happening around us: the many acts of kindness that people continually do for each other, looking out for each other especially when we are struggling. This is the Spirit at work in us and this is what makes the world bearable, in spite of the awful things that happen. Just a few years ago (Nov 2016), several serious fires were started in different parts of Israel, just to cause suffering. Then, to everyone’s amazement one group that came to help out were firefighters from Palestine. As you know there is a lot of tension and hatred between these two countries at the best of times, but there is more goodness in people than evil. We just don’t usually hear about it.

Jesus reminds us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the eternal things. It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity. Even though the worldly affairs are important, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God; the reality that we will die, that life and death are in his hands, and that whenever He does come for us, He must find us ready.

In one sense we can never be ready enough for God. How do you prepare to meet God? And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams, if we have made any effort to be ready.

Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken the other left. What does this mean? It means that although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind.

If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we have missed what it is about, because there is much more to our life than this. 
Sometimes it is when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we have become immersed in the world. Naturally we have to get on with the day to day things of working and living, but we are being told to make sure that we also make time for God. 

I think a good recipe for a ‘happy’ Christmas, is to keep it simple and spend some time coming up to Christmas remembering what it is about. Even go to mass once a week, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days. That way we will remember what we are celebrating.

The Angel said to the shepherds: 
"Do not be afraid. 
I bring you news of great joy.
Today in the town of David
a Savior has been born for you;
He is Christ the Lord."

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) Power in weakness

In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John has a vision of a being that terrifies him. He describes what he saw like this:
…“I saw one like a Son of man…His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze…out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force” (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead, but then the being in the vision touched him and said:
Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld” (Rev 1:17-18). 

Who was this being? It was of course Jesus, the one that John had lived with for three years. Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this terrifying form? Probably to remind John and us, who He is; not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead. This is the one we believe in. When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.

At this time we are seeing great changes in the world around us. So much violence and hatred. It is a very disturbing, even frightening time, but I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in. If we put our trust and hope in earthly power, we will be disappointed, because people will let us down. If we rely too much on the human side of our Church, we will be disappointed, as we have been, but the one we trust in and believe in, is Jesus Christ, who is God. All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him. Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one. It is not. There is no question of evil being equal to God. All things are subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.

As a priest I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus is the one I worship as God and try to serve. If I stay focused on the world around me, I find myself getting depressed or disillusioned. Also, if I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church, I can also find it hard to keep going, but the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge. He is master of all things. What we have seen happening in the Church over the last few years is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin. So He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we have seen happening. I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him. There is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power like to show it off and make it felt. People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off. But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness. This is an mysterious thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross. God did the exact opposite of what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure. So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realizing that what they looked at was a demonstration of the power of God. This is why we use the symbol of the cross and why it is so powerful. This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death. 

St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength. We are never alone no matter what we are going through. God is with us.
Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we understand it and this is where many people find it hard to accept. We want something that we can see and touch. We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all. But God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.

If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.
Every being in heaven, on earth and under the earth,
shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus;
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Thursday, November 14, 2019

33rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) You are Peter...

There is some confusion at the moment regarding what Pope Francis has and has not said.  A number of people have mentioned it to me, so I would like to try and clarify a few things.

Several years ago, Pope Benedict XVI said that in the Gospels there was no mention of the animals in the nativity scene, but that they are referred to in the Old Testament. Either way, no one knows what was there, as these are traditions. The media reported that the Pope had said there were no animals in the crib. Not correct.

In Regensburg, Germany, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture encouraging dialogue between Christianity and Islam. In it he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor, who said, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." It was presented as the Pope saying that Islam had only evil to offer, which was not what he said and not what the Church teaches. He later apologized for the confusion and any offense he had caused, as he said this was not what he believed himself, but that is what was reported.

Pope Francis is unusual in that he is willing to step outside the box and reach out to people on the margins of society. This is a wonderful thing and it is exactly what Jesus did, but the difficult side is that it is often open to misinterpretation, but he has not changed any Church teaching.

On the flight home from World Youth Day in Brazil, the Pope was asked about the ‘Gay Lobby’ in the Vatican. One part of his reply was this:
“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully where it says… these persons must never be marginalized and “they must be integrated into society.”

It was reported that Pope Francis’ approach to homosexuality was going away from Church teaching. Not only was it not going away from it, but he quoted Church teaching.

In the last few weeks the ‘Amazon Synod’ was held, which addressed many of the issues of spreading the Gospel to the people of the Amazon and the difficulties with that. One thing that they concluded was that it would be acceptable to ordain men to the priesthood, who are deacons and already married. This was because of the huge shortage of priests in the Amazon region. We were given the impression that there were now going to be married priests. Not exactly true.

Perhaps the most controversial was a recent event in the Vatican. As part of the Amazon Synod and by way of showing respect for what is important to the natives there, a statue—which was reported as being Pachamama; a pagan goddess important to the indigenous people, though also representing Mother Earth—was brought into the Vatican. The Pope and cardinals were showing respect for what is important to these people, who are Catholic and the natives lit candles in front of it. In no way was there any kind of worship done, as this would be idolatry. It would be very similar to us lighting candles before the statue of Our Lady and singing a hymn to her. Some Christian groups consider that idolatry. But that is what was portrayed through the media. What the Pope is doing, is reaching out to people and showing respect for others and their backgrounds. These things are important to the Catholic natives of the Amazon.

Figurine brought into the Vatican
The same thing has been done for centuries. St. Paul did something similar in the Acts of the Apostles (17:23). While he was in Greece and speaking to the intellectuals there, he mentioned that among all their statues, he had noticed one statue with the name, ‘To an unknown God.’ He said this statue was in fact referring to the true God. In other words, he was using what these people could relate to, as a bridge, to try and teach them about God.

In a private comment afterwards, the Pope said that it was never his intention to give the impression that there was any kind of worship of this statue. Many people were upset by what happened and it is understandable. I think that one mistake the Vatican made in regard to this, was that they didn’t properly explain what had happened and so people were left to come to their own conclusions.

Recently it was reported, that in an interview with an Italian journalist by the name of Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis told him he did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The interview had taken place two years previous and he was recalling what was said from memory. On other occasions the same journalist acknowledged that some of his reports were not true to what had been said. The idea that the Pope doesn’t believe in the bodily resurrection is ridiculous.

So to conclude, don’t be afraid of what you hear reported in the media, as it is often not true to what actually happened. Pope Francis has not changed any part of Catholic teaching. What he is doing is reaching out to people in the ‘grey area’, and that is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus was also heavily criticized because he did not do everything exactly according to the Law, such as healing people on the Sabbath. Many people were scandalized by what Jesus did and said, because they had a very narrow understanding of their faith.

Going into the mess of people’s lives also leaves the pope’s actions open to misinterpretation. The teaching of the Church stays the same, although our understanding of those teachings is constantly deepening, but ultimately it is the Lord’s Church. He is the one guiding us and the Church will continue to exist and grow, because it is the power of God behind it. So don’t be too concerned when you hear about these things. You are usually not being given an accurate picture of what happened.

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Thursday, November 7, 2019

32nd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 20:27-38) Life after death

In the old version of Star Trek (and I think it is still the same) captain Kirk and his crew were able to be beamed from the Starship Enterprise onto a nearby planet or another ship. The idea behind this was that the machine they used to do this—called the ‘transporter’—was a sophisticated computer that was able to scan a person’s complete makeup and memorize the exact structure of the whole person. Then it changed this information into energy which it beamed to another place and then re-assembled the person; pretty clever. In fact scientists agree that in reality it would be impossible to do this because the human body is way too complicated. No computer could possibly store or analyse all the information in a single person.

Our Christian faith tells us that God is able to store and maintain the unique pattern that is at the core of each one of us, even after the earthly body dies. That unique pattern that makes up the core of each of us we call the soul or spirit. Then after our earthly body dies the Lord gives us a new body in the place we call heaven, for those who choose to go there; and we choose to go there by the way we live.

If God cannot do that then our earthly death would be the complete end of us. But we believe that God can and will do that. That is what makes the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead such a mind-boggling one. That is why the celebration of Easter is such a big event and is often called ‘the great miracle’. It was not automatic that Jesus would be raised from the dead, but it did happen because God worked an extraordinary miracle.

We often wonder what it will be like in the next world. Will it be like here, but only better? In this Gospel the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, are arguing among themselves and they put this idea of the resurrection to Jesus. So they give him a ridiculous example to make a point. It is a kind of test case. They presumed that because their example was so absurd, Jesus would have to admit that the idea of the resurrection just did not add up. But what Jesus basically said was ‘You are trying to figure out the next life in earthly terms; but you cannot do that.’ It is so different that we cannot even begin to think what it would be like.

Think of how a caterpillar goes into the chrysalis and then turns into a butterfly. You would not recognise one from the other; they are so different. You plant an acorn, but then a tree grows out of the ground. When Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, she didn’t recognise him. When he appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognise him either. He was different. He wasn’t just a human body brought back to life, but something quite different: what we call a ‘glorified’ body.

There is a friend of mine that I grew up with who is now a consultant pathologist.  They study the science of disease and do the post-mortem’s when someone dies. Before his wedding we were talking about different arrangements for the mass and he told me that he could not believe in the idea of the resurrection, because from a scientist’s point of view, it was impossible. I was impressed with his honesty about it. I suppose he was caught where the Sadducees were also caught. He was trying to figure out the after-life and the spiritual world, in earthly terms. This doesn’t work because it is completely different and we only know what is earthly, so it is very difficult for us to get our minds around the spiritual world because we have no experience of it.

That is why God asks us to believe without understanding. That’s what faith is.  God is saying, ‘Will you trust me on this?’ We would not be able to understand it even if it was explained to us because it is completely beyond our understanding. It would be like explaining a complicated physics or maths problem to a toddler. No matter how well you explained it he or she would simply not be capable of understanding it. 
We believe in life after death because Jesus has taught us about it and because He appeared to the Apostles after his death and to so many others down through the centuries to tell us, ‘This is real. Believe it and know that this life is waiting for you after you die if you choose it.’

A surprising number of people, who even call themselves Christian, do not believe in life after death. If we don’t believe that something happens after death, then it is pretty pointless being here now at this mass, because each mass we celebrate is a continual reminder that we believe in a life after this one which we are already preparing for. This also gives us great hope for those who have died, that we will be united with them again. This is a hope that we must hold onto. Every time we celebrate the mass we become present to the event that made life after death possible.  We become present at the death of Jesus on Calvary. Time stands still and we are there. Without this sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary we would not be able to go to heaven when we die and be reunited with those we love.

I want to finish with this quotation from a man called John Owen, who was a great Puritan minister. When he lay dying he was dictating some last letters to friends. He said to his secretary:
Write: ‘I am still in the land of the living’. 
Then he stopped and said: ‘No, change that to read:
I am still in the land of those who die,
but I hope soon to be in the land of the living’.’

Thursday, October 31, 2019

31st Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 19:1-10) Heaven, hell and purgatory

At this time of the year we focus on the dead and we pray especially for them. I actually like this time, because for me it is a kind of healthy focus on reality. The one thing all of us are sure of is that we will die and it is good to think of that every so often. Since we believe that we are destined for heaven, then we have nothing to be afraid of, but it is important not to take it for granted.

When we die, probably very few people are ready to come directly into the intense holiness of God’s presence. It would be too much for us. Think of when you wake up in the morning and you turn on the bed-side light. You turn away your eyes because you are not used to the light yet. Imagine getting the direct light of the sun? It would be unbearable for us. We have to gradually get used to it. Purgatory is something like this. It is the last stage of being made ready, before we can come into God’s presence. It is also when we may have to atone for sins from our lives. People often scoff at this idea, but think of it this way: if someone had committed a lot of sin during their life and repented just before they died, would it make sense that they would suddenly be in heaven? The Lord assures us of his mercy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to atone for our sins. The Lord has also taught us that we can help those who have died by praying for them. That’s why we dedicate a whole month to remembering them.

There was a lady from Austria by the name of Maria Simma (1915-2004). For many years of her life she experienced a very unusual gift, that is, she was visited continually by the Holy Souls, who asked her for prayers. God granted her this gift of interceding for them, no doubt also to help us to believe in the reality of what happens after death. When they came to ask her for prayers, many of them would tell her why they were in purgatory. A short book was written about her a few years ago, where she was interviewed and what is most interesting about it, is that what comes across more than anything else is the mercy of God.

Maria Simma (1915-2004)
One of the encounters that she had really struck me. She recalls that one night a young man of 20 appeared to her, asking her to pray for him. He told her why he was in purgatory. He had been a fairly wild young man with a bad reputation. He lived in the Alps and one winter his village was hit by a series of avalanches and quite a number of people were killed. One night when another avalanche struck, he heard the screams of people nearby for help and he ran down stairs to help them. His mother tried to stop him from going outside, knowing there was a good chance that he would be killed. When he went out he was in fact killed, but God allowed him to die at this time, because he was in the middle of doing something so good. In other words, God took him when he was at his best. I think that this is a wonderful way to understand what happens when people die. God will do everything He can to help us. Such is the mercy of God. God will always give us the benefit of the doubt.

St. Pius of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio, also experienced the same gift and he said that more people came to him from Purgatory asking for prayers, than pilgrims on earth. I have no doubt that one of the reasons why God gave him this gift, was to help us understand the reality of what happens after death. Most people need to go through some kind of purification when they die and while it is good to shed tears for them, we can help them by praying for them and offering the mass for them, which is the most powerful prayer we have.

When we die there can only be three things: heaven, hell, or purgatory. If heaven is real and we have free will, then we must be able to lose heaven too. If we had no option but to go there, then we wouldn’t have free will. If heaven is the total fulfilment of being in God’s presence, light, beauty, happiness and the company of other people we love, then to lose it would be to be left with the opposite, that is, darkness, pain, isolation, hatred and the knowledge of knowing that we have lost the possibility of eternal happiness. God does not send people to hell. People choose hell by the way they live, rejecting God and everything to do with God. Many places where Our Lady has appeared, she has shown the visionaries heaven, hell and purgatory, to remind us they are real. It is not something we should take lightly.

What about people who no longer go to Church, or no longer practice their faith. Just because they don’t practice, doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God or try to live the right way. It may just mean that they cannot relate to organised religion as we do, but we should pray for them, because having a framework is a great help. Continually going to church is going to help us stay tuned in to what is important, to what God is asking us to do and reminding us of what is right and wrong. It is not so easy to do this by yourself.

What about people who have never known Jesus? People primarily accept or reject God by the way they live. Just because they don’t understand God as we do, doesn’t mean they don’t believe, or that they reject God. Only God can judge us. Our job is to pray for those who don’t know God and hopefully to help them come to know him, by they way we live. Most of the people Mother Teresa’s sisters take in off the streets in places like Calcutta, are not Christian, but they don’t try to convert them. They simply love them and allow them to die with dignity. They say more about what they believe by those actions than by anything you could say.

If we make even the smallest effort to live for God, to live as God asks us, then we have nothing to be afraid of. The Lord continually assures us of his love and mercy for all who seek him. The important thing is that we remember that our choices have consequences.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am."

A book I would highly recommend is The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory: an Interview with Maria Simma, by Sister Emmanuel of Medjugorje.