Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Ascension to Heaven (Gospel: Luke 24:46-53) Jesus is Lord

Several years ago I had the privilege of being at one of the ‘Intercession for Priests’ retreats given in Dublin every summer by Sr. Briege McKenna and Fr. Kevin Scallon. This particular year they were celebrating 25 years and the retreat I was at, was given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. Fr. Cantalamessa is a Capuchin priest and the preacher to the Papal Household (to the Pope). He is and an extraordinary preacher and it was a very inspiring few days.

One of the themes that he kept coming back to is that ‘Jesus is Lord’; just that. The essence of our faith is really very simple and this is one of the key elements of it. Jesus Christ is Lord and if we believe in him and ask forgiveness for our sins, then we are forgiven and have eternal life with him. ‘If you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved’ (Rom 10:9). Some months later Cantalamessa was visiting the national seminary of Maynooth, where I studied and he gave one talk and again he kept coming back to this fact: Jesus is Lord. One of the professors sitting beside me said quietly, ‘It seems a bit too simple really!’ I knew what he meant, but the truth is that it is very simple. We tend to make it more complicated. Jesus Christ is Lord. Our sins are forgiven in his name and we have eternal life through him.

Why is it so important to realize that? Because if that is true, then Jesus is the one person we need to turn to and listen to continually. Of all the information we take in each day, through advertising, news and tv, what could possibly be more important than what Jesus has to say to us? He is the one who has created us, who knows what our life is about, who makes sense of why we are here, and whose death and resurrection means that we will live forever with him. How could I not listen to him, if I believe that is true? All of us want to make sense of our life, to understand why we are here and where we are going and he is the one who completely knows these things. How could I not keep turning to him if this is so?

In today’s first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls the Lord’s ascension into heaven. Just before Jesus was taken up to heaven, the Apostles asked again, ‘Lord has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ They are still trying to make this happen in Israel today. In spite of all the time with Jesus and the extraordinary things they saw, the Apostles still had a very earthly way of thinking. ‘When will we have the power and glory? When will our nation be totally ours?’ Yet Jesus was showing them that this was not important at all. Worldly ways and worldly thinking are not important. Preaching about Jesus and our eternal life in him was the only thing that mattered. They were to receive power, but not worldly political power where everyone would acknowledge their greatness. Instead they were to receive the power of the Spirit, which would enable them to preach about Jesus, what He has done for us, what our life is about and how we have life in him if we choose it. That was the only thing that mattered. All of them were to suffer for their preaching too, but that also was secondary. They would be misunderstood by the world, as so many who preach the Gospel still are, but that message must be proclaimed all the same.

In modern missionary work, it is sometimes argued that we should not be talking about God, but only helping those who are in need. While it is true that we must do all we can to help those who are in need, the message of the Gospel should also be preached to people because they have a right to hear it. People have a right to know what God has done for them. It is up to each person whether they choose to believe it or not, but they have a right to hear the message that we have eternal life in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our material needs are important, but if we neglect the spiritual needs, we may lose any sense of purpose and what our life is about. This is just as bad as being without food, as it can cause people to despair. So we try to continue to pass on the message that the Lord Jesus asked us to: Jesus is Lord and in him we have eternal life with God. He is the only one we need to turn to.

One of the commands that Jesus gave the Apostles before he ascended to heaven was this:
19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mat 28:19-20)

For all of us who believe in Jesus, we are also asked to reach out to others, to make disciples of others. How on earth are we supposed to do that?’ Reaching out to people around us can be as simple as inviting someone you know to come to church. There are a lot of people who are lapsed, or who have never gone to church. So many people around us do not have a sense of the greater purpose of why we are here. This is so important, because it is what makes sense of our life. Everyone needs to know this and we have been blessed with this knowledge, but Jesus calls us to share it with others. I know of several people who ended up coming back to church simply because someone who knew them encouraged them to.

Jesus ascending to heaven before the Apostles’ eyes, was also a confirmation to them and to us, that something wonderful awaits us when we die. They watched it happen! Life after death is real and it is waiting for us. Almost every week I anoint people and send them off to the next world. It makes the transition very real because I see it so often. Sooner or later it will be our turn.
Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. They worshiped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy and they were continually in the Temple praising God (Lk 24:51-53).

Thursday, May 23, 2019

6th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 14:23-29) If anyone loves me he will keep my word

Think for a moment of someone who means a lot to you, someone you really love. It might be your husband or wife, it might be a very good friend. When you love someone you will do things that they ask you, because you love them. They may ask you for a favour which doesn’t really suit you, but you will probably do it anyway because you love them. Trying to please them is a way of showing that you love them.

Our relationship with the Lord works the same way. We try to follow the way of life that he taught us, because we love him. We try to keep his commandments, because we love him and we believe in what He has taught us. Trying to follow his teaching is a way of showing God that we love him and not just because we love him, but also because we believe what God teaches us gives us life. The path that He has pointed out to us is the one that will help us the most and lead us to the greatest happiness. The difficulty is that we cannot see that, so we are often tempted not to bother. 

Because of what we call Original Sin, we do not enjoy the harmony within our own selves that God originally intended for us. In other words, there is a struggle going on within us and one of the effects of that, is that we don’t always see things as clearly as we should. We often find it difficult to choose even what we know is right. We are often suspicious of God and his teachings. We are not always convinced that God is trying to help us. Think for a moment of times when you see some situation of terrible suffering on the news, a natural disaster, or with someone you know, and you find yourself saying, ‘How can God allow this to happen?’ as though God were to blame. We often see his commandments as a burden for us, instead of a blueprint, or plan, that will lead us to the most fruitful way of living. We don’t see clearly; we are even suspicious of God.

Because God is all wise, because He can see the whole picture and journey that is ahead of us, He gives us laws which He knows will help us. They are commandments, not suggestions. In the Old Testament, when He gave the law to Moses, He said very definitely, ‘Choose today blessing or curse, life or death.’ One way leads to life, the other to death. Each of us still has that choice.

There is a tendency today, to believe that we can just pick the parts of our faith that suit us and ignore the other ones. I’ve often heard people saying, ‘God will understand.’ Or, ‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind’. But why would God give us commandments if He doesn’t mind?

Modern media doesn’t help us either, because it continually shows us that sleeping around, stealing, murdering, lying and ignoring God, are quite acceptable. And if we are told something often enough, we will begin to believe it. That’s how advertising works. If you keep repeating the message it will stick.  It is de-sensitizing us to sin and to what is wrong.

Now to go back to the words of Christ: ‘If you love me you will keep my words.’  And then He says, ‘Peace I leave you, my own peace I give you.’ It’s as if He is saying this is what follows when you live my words. We receive peace, a deep peace which is the assurance of God’s presence, even when we are struggling. The Lord knows well how much we struggle to live by his teaching. Everyone who tries to live it struggles, but the Lord is telling us not to be afraid of the struggle, because it is the path that leads to heaven, the only path worth following.

If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

Thursday, May 16, 2019

5th Sunday of Easter Yr C (Gospel: Jn 13:31-33A, 34-45) By this love you have, people will know you are my disciples

A few weeks ago two of our young people were confirmed. The bishop prayed with them and asked God to bless them with the gift of his Spirit. Why? Because without the gift of the Spirit we cannot live the Christian life. It is the Holy Spirit, a real person, who makes it possible for us to believe and to live as Christians. The Spirit gives us the desire to pray, to know God, and the ability to love.

No doubt most of us here were confirmed at around the same age. We probably had a day of great celebration with our families and then forgot all about it. Did you notice a profound difference in your faith afterwards? Probably not. But why not? If we have received the all-powerful Spirit of God, who was there at the beginning of creation bringing order on chaos, the same Spirit that transformed the disciples and turned them into unstoppable warriors for God, why don’t we feel a difference too? Perhaps it is because we never asked! That probably sounds silly, but I think it is really true.

Although the Holy Spirit is so powerful, He totally respects our freedom and our individuality. The Spirit is not going to force himself on us unless we ask for him to act. It is as if He waits quietly in the background until we ask him to make our faith alive. The Apostles were waiting and praying for the Spirit in the upper room. They were open to him and they were asking for this power, because Jesus had told them to. Most of us were never taught to actually personally ask the Holy Spirit ourselves to make us more alive in our faith. I think this is something we don’t emphasize enough.

When I was 19 a group of young people taught me to do just that. They taught me to really ask the Spirit to come alive inside me. And then they prayed with me that this would happen, and boy did it happen! When they prayed with me, initially nothing seemed to happen, but in the days that followed I began to notice that things were happening. I was in college at the time studying marketing. I began to have a profound desire to pray. I became aware of the Scriptures and the mass as though I had never heard them before. They were suddenly alive. It was like someone had switched on my faith. The Spirit had suddenly come alive and it changed my life. That was thirty-one years ago, but the effect never wore off, so it wasn’t just a passing phase, or just youthful enthusiasm. I say this because you don’t have to be someone extraordinary, or holy, for this to happen. All you have to do is ask, but most of us were never taught this.

God deeply desires to make us alive in every sense.  ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10). And God will make us alive if we ask. If you wish that your faith was more alive, or that God meant more to you, then ask God’s Spirit to come alive inside you, because the Spirit is already there and is waiting for your response. Maybe you were confirmed 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago, but the Spirit is still with you and is waiting for your invitation. Perhaps you never asked. Ask God to make your faith alive. 

What am I supposed to say?’, you may wonder. Say, ‘God make my faith alive. Holy Spirit let me know that you are real. Set me on fire with love for you.’ If you make that prayer sincerely, you will see the result and I guarantee you will see that I am not making this up.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we must love each other as he loves us.  How did he love us? He spoke the truth; he challenged people; he saw the good in everyone, regardless of their background; his life was one of service and total sacrifice and God asks us to do the same. That is not easy. He tells us that this is what will mark us out as his followers. People will know that we are Christian by the way we love each other. If you go anywhere in the world and meet any community of Christians, be it a parish or small group, you will know straight away whether they are alive or not, by the way they love each other and it is a really wonderful thing to meet when you do. 

But where does this strength and energy to love others come from? People can be very demanding and unreasonable, even when you try to help them. The strength to love and the ability to love comes from God. That is one of the things that the Holy Spirit gives us. It is the most important thing of all. Having the fanciest and most organised church, with every kind of facility and program you could ask for, is completely empty, unless there is love there, unless the Spirit is there. When we have the gift of God’s Spirit, we have everything and the Spirit gives us the power to love as we should, because it is too difficult by our own strength.God doesn't ask us to do this by our own strength, but by his strength. 

Now let us take a moment to make that prayer. Close your eyes for a moment and listen. Pray these words in your heart if you dare:            
Holy Spirit I believe in you. Make my faith alive. Help me believe in everything Jesus taught. Help me to believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Set me on fire with love for you, so that I may live the life that Jesus calls me to live. Come Holy Spirit of God and transform me, as you will. Amen.’

By this love you have for one another
Everyone will know that you are my disciples.’

Thursday, May 9, 2019

4th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 10:27-30) They have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb

The chapel of the Irish College, Rome.
Several years ago I had the privilege of being able to study in Rome for 3 years. While I was there I lived in the Irish College, which is both a seminary and post-graduate college. As there are not enough Irish students to fill the college, it is now quite an international college. For one of my years there we had students from 23 different countries. This makes for a great cultural experience and it gave me a great sense of the universal Church. I was there studying and living with other young men from all parts of the world. We came from many very different cultures, but we all shared the same faith and the same enthusiasm to make it known to other people. It was very inspiring to live in such an environment, although of course it also had its moments as we had very different ways of doing things.

One man who was my next door neighbour for a year and a half, was Ragheed Ganni from Iraq. I didn’t even know there were Catholics in Iraq until I met him. He was a young, highly talented and very likable priest. He was from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which is the ancient city of Nineveh (Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh). Ragheed completed all his studies for priesthood in Rome, since if he returned to Iraq during his studies, he may not have been able to leave again to complete them. So he studied in Rome, living in the Irish College and spent many summers in Ireland.

During our time there, the American invasion of Iraq took place and the over-throwing of Sadam Hussein. This was a very difficult and stressful time for Ragheed, as he watched his country being thrown into turmoil, while daily wondering if his family were safe or not. Having someone in the room next to me who was going through this, made the war very real. Just before the war started I asked him as an Iraqi what were his fears about what would happen. He said that the problem was not so much when the Americans took over, as when they later pulled out. He said that then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out as the Muslim factions would not have any tolerance for them. That is exactly what happened.

Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni (1972-2007)
In 2003 Ragheed returned to Iraq. It was now a very different country to the one he had left. To get into the country he told me that he had to fly into Syria and then take a bus across the border. I received a few emails from him after he returned. He said that there was a curfew almost every night and that it was becoming more and more difficult for the Christian community there. One day he sent me an email with photos of his church on fire. He said that gunmen had come in and taken him out at gunpoint. He thought he was going to be shot, but instead they blew up the church. Ragheed was able to return to Rome at least twice over the next three years, and I met him on one of those visits. He had put on some weight, and he said that this was because he could not go outside to exercise, as it was too dangerous. As time passed more and more of his parishioners began to leave and those of us who knew him worried for his safety. Whoever could afford to leave the parish got out. Ragheed knew that staying on in Iraq was becoming increasingly dangerous, but he believed that that was where God was asking him to be. He wanted to remain with his people so that they could have the mass. In spite of death threats and the obvious danger, he continued to minister to his people and they continued to come to pray and celebrate mass. One of the neighboring churches was hit by a car bomb killing two people and injuring many. The bishop’s house was blown up and Ragheed’s sister was injured by a grenade which was thrown at her while she was going to clean the church in preparation for Sunday mass.  In spite of this Ragheed and the other priests continued to minister to their people.

On 3nd June, 2007 I received a phone call from a friend to tell me the terrible news that Ragheed along with three others, had been shot dead the day before. He had just finished celebrating the Mass and was leaving the church with another sub-deacon. Two other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them were in the car behind. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, had the courage to speak out. Here are some excerpts from an interview she gave to 
At a certain point the car was stopped by armed men. Fr. Ragheed could have fled but he did not want to, because he knew they were looking for him. They forced us to get out of the car and led me away. 
Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed,
I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?”  And he simply responded,
How can I close the house of God?” 
They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.’ At this point Bayan fainted.

Ragheed Ganni was only 35 when he was shot dead and had been a priest for just 6 years. 

Icon of Fr. Ragheed on the right, holding the martyr's palm
In the second reading from this Sunday’s mass (Apocalypse 7:9, 14-17) we hear of the great numbers of people who stand before the Lamb holding palms in their hands. When the writer asks who they are he is told,
These are the people who have been through the great persecution and because they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb, they now stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’

A few years after Ragheed’s death the chapel in the Irish College in Rome was redecorated by the artist Fr. Marko Rupnik (see the photo above). Behind the altar there is a breath-taking mosaic with Christ the Good Shepherd at the centre with several saints on either side including Fr. Ragheed Ganni to the far right holding the martyr’s palm. I always find it very moving to see this image having known Ragheed myself.

In different parts of the world many people continue to put their lives at risk in order to pass on the teachings of Christ as he asked us to. Many, including Ragheed, have paid with their lives. Although it is sad for me to think of Ragheed’s death, it is also a great source of strength and inspiration. Jesus told us we would be persecuted for following him, but he also told us that he is our shepherd who continues to guide and look after us. That doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer, but it does mean that he is always with us. Even though none of us want to have to suffer for our faith, what could be more important than to be faithful to Jesus? He is the one who makes sense of why we are here. Without Christ we are nothing. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 21:1-19) Weakness is not an obstacle

I always find it both amazing and amusing how in the presidential election the opponents of each candidate will go through the history of each person with a fine-tooth comb, in the hope of finding some small thing to discredit him, or her. It’s as if they are looking for the perfect person who is not allowed to have any defects. If they do find anything in their past such as smoking dope when they were a teenager, or something similar, they present this as a reason for him or her to be unsuitable for president now, as if you could find someone who didn’t have defects. Modern day media tends to do the same, gloating over the sins of an individual while showing no mercy whatsoever to that person for the mistakes they have made.

In contrast to that we have almost the opposite presented to us in today’s Gospel. Peter is confronted by Jesus in a loving but painful way, when Jesus asks him three times ‘Do you love me?’ Why did Jesus do this since he knew well that Peter loved him? Jesus was making Peter face his own weakness, the weakness that caused him to publicly swear that he never knew Jesus. This happened during Jesus’ trial when Peter tried to stay close to Jesus, but he was overcome with fear when individuals realised he was one of Jesus’ followers and then he denied ever knowing Jesus. After this happened it says that Peter went outside and wept bitterly, because of course he didn’t want to do this, but he was overcome by fear. 

In asking Peter three times ‘Do you love me,’ Jesus was helping him to heal, but also making him face his weakness. Jesus wasn’t going to just pretend that this never happened, because if he did it would have continued to haunt Peter for the rest of his life. Instead, Jesus confronts Peter with it and makes him face it. And then Jesus makes this same Peter the first pope. Jesus was saying, ‘I know you let me down because of your own weakness/fear; but that is not an obstacle for me.  Now face it and then I can really work through you.’  It is an extraordinary thought that Jesus wasn’t afraid to make Peter the first pope even when he knew that Peter had denied him. Our weaknesses are not an obstacle for God.

It is because the Lord loves us that he challenges us with our weaknesses.  We want to just gloss over them and pretend that mistakes never happened, but that doesn’t really help us.  If we are to heal and grow then we must face up to our weakness, which is difficult and painful but it’s also what helps us to grow. 

In the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous the first step to recovery is to acknowledge your weakness and that you are powerless over it. Only then can you begin to continue in the right direction. This is also one of the reasons the Lord gives us the facility to confess what we have done in total secrecy, so that we can heal. The idea that all our sins are totally forgiven by God if we ask for forgiveness is a hard thing to grasp, and many of us struggle to believe that this could really be so. And yet that is what the death of Jesus on the cross is all about: the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness has already been won for us; we just have to ask for it.

There is a lot more freedom in admitting that we are weak when we come before God, than in trying to prove we are perfect. If we had to be perfect it would put enormous pressure on us. Part of the freedom that our faith gives us is to realise that it’s ok to be weak, to have made mistakes. Ultimately we rely on the power of God and not on ourselves and that certainly is a relief.

Can you imagine if Jesus hadn’t challenged Peter in this way and then made him the first leader anyway? Peter would have continued to live in fear wondering whether his denials would come to light or not. Instead Jesus brings everything out into the open and basically says, ‘I know what happened and now you have repented, so don’t be afraid anymore.’ This is why the Lord keeps inviting us to come back to him, to confess what we have done wrong, so that we can be free and so that we can live in peace. Everything God does is done to help us.

Peter do you love me?’  ‘Lord you know everything, you know that I love you.’