Thursday, June 13, 2019

Feast of the Holy Trinity, Year B (Gospel: John 16:12-15) Made in his image

We believe that God was completely fulfilled, perfectly happy and content, not in need of anything, before God created the universe and the human race. Wouldn’t it make you wonder why God created us at all, since we have proved to be so much trouble? And God knew about all the trouble that it was going to cause. So why did God create us?

Think for a moment of some time when you were deeply happy about something: a wedding, a birthday, the birth of a child. Our instinct is to share it. We want others to be a part of that happiness and so we celebrate these times of happiness. That is one way to understand why God created us, simply because in his goodness He wanted others to share in his own happiness. And so He created the spirit world, that we understand as the angels and then He created the human race, in order that we could share in his happiness. The book of Genesis says that we were the last thing that God created, which is a biblical way of saying that we were the most important thing, the masterpiece of God’s creation. We are God’s greatest creation! God also created us to be like him, with the ability to love and reason and above all with free will.

However, there was one ‘catch’ as it were. In order for us to be able to love God we had to have free will, so that we could freely choose to love God, otherwise it wouldn’t be real love at all. Real love has to be free, since you can never force someone to love you. You can encourage them, but you certainly can’t force them. Love has to be free, or it isn’t love. So God made us free, which meant that we would have the freedom to love God and gradually find our way to happiness, or to reject God, which would ultimately mean we would lose the happiness that God intended for us. This is a great mystery. God created us and gave us freedom, even though He knew that some of his own creatures would reject him.  

A friend of mine, a very devout Catholic, after he was married and had children, said to me one time that when he looks at his children he couldn’t believe that God, who is so loving, would let people go to hell; that God would create hell. How could any parent allow their children deliberately to suffer? But the paradox is that no matter how much we love our children, we cannot force them to love us back. You know the pain of falling in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, or pushes you away. Hell is the pain that people who reject God end up with, because they reject the only one who can give us total fulfillment. If you push away total happiness, you get total misery. If you reject all joy, then you end up with all pain. That’s what hell is: losing all that can fulfill us and bring us joy. God doesn’t send us to hell. We choose it if we reject God. If we have real freedom then hell must also be real. If heaven is guaranteed for everyone, then we are not truly free, because to be truly free means we have the choice to love or not to love.

Here is the famous icon of the Trinity, known as 'Rublev's Icon', painted in the 15th century by Andrei Rublev. Icons are not just paintings, they are meant to be a kind of window into the other world. There is a whole ritual of prayer that goes with creating one and everything in the icon has a meaning. I just want to mention a few things in this image which are beautiful. In the Old Testament there is the story of Abraham making his journey, when three men suddenly appear to him. They are angels and he realizes after talking to them that he is talking to God. They represent the Trinity. The colors of the three figures tell us something. On the left is the image of the Father. He wears the color of gold, but it seems to be changing. No one can know the face of God. The Father is pointing to the Son who is in the center. He is wearing a dark cloak, the color of earth and a bright blue cloak the color of heaven. Jesus unites heaven and earth by his death and resurrection. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Jesus is pointing to the Spirit on the right. He is wearing light blue of the sky and light green of the ocean. The Spirit is the who brings order to the Father’s creation of heaven and earth. But the most interesting part of the icon is the space at the front. That is the space that is kept for us. God invites us to be part of his life. Our ultimate goal is to be united with God in heaven and the house in the top left, is the symbol of the Father’s house where there is a place for us. The image is also telling us that God is with us on our journey, which is long and tiring. So we rest with God and we also share the Eucharist to give us strength. The Eucharist is represented by the bowl in the center of the table, which contains the lamb. We are invited to be part of God’s life and God is with us every step of the way.

I think the most beautiful image we are given of how God loves us is in the story of the prodigal son. In this story, a father has two sons. One of them demands his inheritance before the father has died, which is the equivalent of wishing him dead to his face. He then goes off, wastes all the money and comes back to his father ashamed. While the Son has been away, his father is constantly waiting and hoping that he will return and when he does finally return the father just celebrates. There is no giving out, no warning that ‘This must not happen again,’ just celebration and rejoicing. The story of the prodigal son is teaching us how God is with us and how God sees us. No condemnation, only God’s desire for us to find happiness.

The Lord knows how difficult it can be for us to make the right choices and so He gives us people to guide us, the Commandments, the teaching of his Church, his own Word in the bible and many other things to help us along the way, so that we won’t be short of the direction and encouragement that we need.  He also sends us holy people every so often, like Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio, Therese of Lisieux, Mother Theresa, Pope Francis and many others, often people we know, because they radiate God and they are a real sign to us of the Lord’s presence among us. These people seem to radiate God and so many people are drawn to them because they sense that presence. That is why God sends us particular chosen souls every so often, to inspire us and remind us that we are not alone. I know of several people who worked with Mother Theresa and it completely changed their life, because they met God through her.

The feast of the Holy Trinity is a celebration of love; the Trinity is a community of Persons who share total love and joy between them, and this Holy Trinity reaches out to us with that same love and invites us to join them. If we respond to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, then we are gradually drawn more and more into that love. It starts in this world and it will be fulfilled in the next. The greatest way that we imitate God is by loving the people around us, sacrificing ourselves for others. That is what God did for us and that is what God invites us to do for each other.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
So that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.

Please note, I will be away for the next three weeks, so no homilies. God bless,



Thursday, June 6, 2019

Pentecost (John 20:19-23) The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything

In 1999, in preparation for the second millennium, Pope John Paul II invited representatives from 54 different groups around the world to come to Rome. These groups were all started over the last several decades and were all started by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To give you an example, some of the groups were, the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, Cenacolo, Charismatic Renewal, Cursillo. All of these different movements within the Church have been started by lay people and are really about different ways of living out the Gospel in daily life. These movements have been so successful that most of them have spread all over the world. For that meeting in Rome, there were 400,000 people present representing these 54 different movements. This event was a celebration of what God is doing all over the world. 

It is good to hear about these things every so often, because it would be easy to get the impression that the Church is dying, or that religion is on its way out. We won’t hear about this sort of thing on the TV, or in the papers, but it is happening all around us.

Just to give you an example closer to home of the power of God’s Spirit working among us. For many years I worked with a prayer group of young people in Galway, started by one lay person, a young woman. From that group there are currently seven people in religious life, and there are about twenty couples married, but more importantly it has helped many people come back to their faith and grow in their faith. Most of the group are now in their 40s/50s but they are people who are really trying to live out the Gospel in their daily lives. It was thanks to that group that I came back to my own faith, because I had also drifted away, and then later I became a priest. That is the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work, and praise God for it.

God doesn’t wait until we are ready. God acts when the time is right. He doesn’t wait for the hierarchy of his Church to decide what to do. I don’t mean that they are not important, but think of the times that Peter and Paul came to pray with people and before they had even started, the Holy Spirit came down on them. The Lord sends his Spirit to inspire and move people to step out in faith and live the Gospel, and they in turn move others, until soon the people are alive with faith again. In the Gospels Jesus says to the Pharisees, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit’ (Matthew 21:43). God doesn’t wait until we are ready. God inspires people to act when the time is right and that’s why new movements and religious orders keep springing up.

One time when I was working in a hospital in Ireland, I came into one area where I was going to visit patients who were newly admitted. One of the nurses told me that a man had been admitted who had taken an overdose of poison and was going to die. She said that he probably wouldn’t be too receptive to me. I decided to visit him anyway and prayed to God for guidance. When I got to the door of his room, which was open, I could see a young man by his bedside, who turned out to be his son. I stood at the door and I just said, ‘I heard what happened and I’m sorry. Do you regret it?’ The man said that he did regret it. As soon as he said that, I felt this strong prompting inside me saying, ‘That is a confession, so don’t ask for one.’ I really felt that was the Spirit speaking to me. I asked the man if he would like to talk, but he emphatically said that he did not want to make a confession. I told him that he didn’t have to. I spoke to him for a few minutes and he told me that on the spur of the moment he had taken a drink of a weed killer called Paraquot. The doctors told me that they could do nothing and that this would just burn through his insides and kill him. He now had to face his family. I asked him if he would like me to anoint him. Again he said that he didn’t want to make a confession. I told him that it wasn’t necessary and that the anointing included the forgiveness of his sins. And so I anointed him and left. He died a few days later.

Some weeks later a friend of mine was talking about a man in hospital who had taken an overdose of poison. He had refused to see two priests, but eventually he did see a priest, was anointed and died peacefully. It was the same man, but my friend didn’t realise I was the third priest. If I had known that he had refused to see two other priests, I probably would not have gone to him. But the Lord sent me to that man, he made his peace with God and died reconciled. That was the power of the Holy Spirit guiding me to him, just as we read of the Apostles being guided to different people and there are so many stories I could tell you of similar events.

Do you know what God’s Spirit is doing in the Church all over the world over the last few years? He is stripping it down so that it can become beautiful once again. Because of the scandals, He is removing all the prestige, power and respectability which we had come to depend on. We had become too powerful, too prestigious and it was causing us to wander away from what the Gospel is really about. The scandals have brought us to our knees and that is not a bad thing. God is, ironically, forcing us to turn back to depend on his Word and his Spirit and to get away from what we don’t need. God is rebuilding his Church because He loves us. When someone is sick with cancer, you remove the cancer so that the person becomes well again. When the Spirit’s work is finished the Church will be beautiful again. The Spirit is removing the cancer of sin and corruption, so that God’s Church can bear fruit again and God does this because He loves his Church.

Before he ascended into heaven Jesus told us that the Father would send us the ‘Helper’, who would be with us forever, and who would teach us everything. He knew that we would need help and so He sent us the best help that we could have, his own Spirit, to guide us and teach us. And He does teach us constantly, through the example of people He inspires, through the Word of God, through prayer when we are open to him, in fact, through many ways we will never even be aware of.  But the Spirit is very gentle and that is why we don’t notice him sometimes.

Remember this: in the mass, nothing would happen when the priest prays over the bread and wine, if the Spirit didn’t come down. Sins would not be forgiven through the priests if the Spirit didn’t act. Baptism and Confirmation would mean nothing, marriage and ordination would mean nothing, if the Holy Spirit didn’t act. We wouldn’t know how to pray or even feel the desire to pray except that the Spirit teaches us continually. Our preaching would have no effect if the Spirit did not anoint the words we speak.

Here is something that happens to me quite often. I preach a homily that I feel disappointed with, or that I thought I did not do well. Afterwards people come up and thank me for such a powerful message. That is the Holy Spirit.

The gift of God’s own Spirit is really the greatest thing God can give us after life itself, because when we have the Holy Spirit we have everything. It is also good to remember that the anointing of the Spirit does not depend on how brilliant, or learned we are. It simply depends on us being open to the Spirit. If you look at so many of the characters in the Bible God used, most of them were very insignificant people. God seems to delight in using ordinary and indeed ‘useless’ people, according to the world’s thinking.

In the first book of Samuel, it says that Samuel was sent to Jesse’s house to anoint God’s chosen instrument, the man who would be the next king. God tells him He will point out who it is. Samuel comes to Jesse’s house where there are seven sons. He looks at everyone in the household, starting with the eldest, but God did not choose any of them. Having seen all of the sons in the house, Samuel asks if there is anyone else. They tell him there is just the youngest who is out minding the sheep. He is the least important, who was not even considered, but he is the one God anoints and he turns out to be one of the greatest kings of Israel. That tells us something. We don’t have to be great for God to use us, just open. The more we root ourselves in God’s life, through his Word and through the Eucharist, the more the Lord will use us.

Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful people,
send forth your Spirit and we will be created,
and you will renew the face of the earth.