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.

Friday, October 25, 2019

30th Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:9-14) Deception of the Occult

There is a lot of confusion these days as to what comes from God and what does not. I am talking in particular about things like fortune tellers, Tarot card readers, psychics, playing the Ouija board, or going to mediums and many other practices that come under the general term of Occult. A lot of people just consider them harmless fun; besides, what could possibly be wrong with them?

God expressly warns us in the Scriptures to stay away from such things. In the book of Deuteronomy it says:
You must not have in your midst anyone... who practices divination, or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices enchantments or who consults the spirits, no diviner, or one who asks questions of the dead. For the Lord abhors those who do these things (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

In another book it says, ‘Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you. I, the Lord, am your God’ (Leviticus 19:31).

I would like to try and explain why these things are wrong for us, because God doesn’t just give us rules for the sake of rules. If God tells us to stay away from something, there is a good reason for it, just like you will tell your children to stay away from the fire, or they’ll get burned. The Lord does the same for us, telling us what to avoid if we want to stay healthy.

So why are these things, which are now available everywhere, a problem? The first and most important reason is that they interfere with our free will. Our free will is a wonderful gift which the Lord has given us, because it means that we have the freedom to do anything we choose, be it good or evil, although real freedom is the freedom to choose what is good. We can even reject God if we choose. It is an extraordinary thing that the Lord who has created us to live in his presence forever, respects us enough even to giving us the freedom to reject him and sadly some people do this, by the way they live. Going to fortune tellers, or any of these other practices that I mentioned, is basically an attempt to gain knowledge of the future. Anything occult is an attempt to gain knowledge or power of the future. The problem is that if we think we have any kind of knowledge of the future, it is going to influence our freedom to choose, because we will probably start acting out of fear or what we think might be going to happen. The Lord does not want us to be afraid, but to be at peace. That is why the Lord does not reveal the future to us. We don’t need to know it. If we did, He would show us, because He wants the very best for us.

The second reason why these things are a problem for us, is that by dabbling in them we are going directly against something God has asked us, which is a way of creating an obstacle between us and God. We sin when we do this. From a spiritual point of view they can also have a hold, or influence over us. If God does not reveal the future to us, then where is this information coming from? It is not coming from the Lord, even if the fortune teller starts off by praying the Hail Mary, or Our Father, which I know some of them do. 

I worked with an exorcist priest friend of mine for a while and saw first-hand the mess that some people get themselves into, by dabbling in occult practices, which the Lord tells us specifically to keep away from. They are very real. Satan is cunning and will do anything to lead us away from God, because he hates God’s creation. Remember that Jesus spoke about Satan many times. He called him the liar and the deceiver. If Satan is not real, then Jesus is a liar, because Jesus frequently mentioned him in his teaching.

Let me give you an example. The former exorcist of this diocese told me one time, that he had been called to a house where footsteps kept appearing across the couch. When he went to the house he asked them if any of them had been involved in any occult practices. The lady of the house said that she and her daughter both practiced witchcraft. She was also living with a man who wasn’t her husband. He told them there was nothing he could do for them, unless they were willing to change their lifestyles. If you are living in a state of sin against God, you are opening yourself up to the powers of darkness.

I was called to a house one time, where radios and lights were coming on during the night. I asked them if they had ever been involved in any kind of occult practice. They said no, but they told me that the woman who lived in the house before them was a medium, calling on the spirits of the dead! They had just moved in. 

We have to ask ourselves, do I believe what Jesus said is true, or not? Either the Bible (the Scriptures) is the word of God or it isn’t. If it is, we need to listen to it. If it’s not true, then what are we doing here?

Several years ago the exorcist of the diocese of Rome, Gabriel Amorth, a bishop, wrote a book called An Exorcist Tells his Story. The reason he wrote it was because people were not taking it seriously enough. He said that more and more people were dabbling in occult practice and the Church was not taking it seriously enough. It's a book worth reading.

The Lord wants the very best for us and will continually guide us along the right path, the path that will help us to reach our full potential as human beings, but sometimes we get misled and go astray. That’s not a problem so long as we recognize it and come back again. I’m sure you want God’s blessing for your lives and for your families, just as I do, but if we mess with what God expressly tells us to stay away from, we will be blocking God’s help from us. 

If you have dabbled in any of these things at any stage, confess it, which is also what the Lord asks us to do. By confessing it you break any spiritual hold that it can have over you. By repenting of it you also open the door to God’s grace as well. Many times I have heard exorcists say that if someone who is possessed can make a good confession, then half of the work is already done. It makes total sense. The power of evil in their life is broken and God’s grace is allowed in. The devil loses his foothold.

If God has assured us of his help, then we would be foolish to look for spiritual help from any other source. We know that God wants the very best for us and if we believe that, then we must also listen to what He tells us to do and what He tells us to avoid.

I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)

Friday, October 18, 2019

Mission Sunday (Gospel: Luke 18:1-8) The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many

We are living in a time when we are seeing a lot of religious extremism. You could call it religion at its worst, when people do terrible things in the name of religion and of course it gives religion a bad name. One group can decide that they are right, while everyone else is wrong, or that they have the right to force their ideas on others. It can happen with any religion. I suppose one thing it brings up is the question of what the purpose of religion is in the first place.

Why do we have a Church and what is its purpose? We believe the Church is here because Jesus established it. The reason Jesus established it was to pass on his teaching about God; so that all people might come to know God and what God has done for us. 
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld can never overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mt 16: 18-20).

The difficulty, as always, is that the Church is made up of weak, sinful, human beings. In Jesus’ time on earth, he was let down several times by the very people he chose to lead his Church and that problem continues to this day. Because we are dealing with the weakness of the human condition, we are continually faced with similar problems. People in charge forget what they are about, or get caught up in the need for power and prestige. It has always been this way and probably always will be.

At one point, the Apostles James and John ask for ‘power’ and recognition. ‘Grant that we may have places at your right and left hand…’ And then Jesus tells them something interesting: 
You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them…This is not to happen among you… For the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus' way is different.
The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering. 

What God is saying to us is that his way is a very different way to what we are used to. It is not the way of power and might, but of littleness and of transformation through suffering. This is something that is very hard for us to get our heads around. We want our Church to be big and powerful. We want everyone to be part of it and to see how ‘right’ we are. But Jesus tells us that that is not how it works. ‘The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ So the first thing is that we are not meant to be big and powerful.

So then what exactly is the mission, or purpose of the Church? Jesus’ coming among us had a twofold purpose. He came among us to teach us about God; who God is and how He looks after us; about the reality of life after death; about the reason why we are here in the first place: to love and serve.

The second reason Jesus came among us was to die for us. Think of the line in the mass where the priest prays over the chalice: ‘This is the chalice of my blood... which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’ That is why Jesus came among us; so that our sins could be forgiven and that we would be able to reach the happiness that God created for us. You could say that Jesus came among us for our happiness. The mission of the Church is to make that known to all people. If it is really true, as we believe it is, then all people have a right to know this. They don’t have to believe it or accept it, but they do have a right to know about it and it is our mission to make that message known to everyone we can, because Jesus asked us to. Is this mission still being fulfilled today? It certainly is. Here am I in front of you 2000 years after Jesus walked on earth, proclaiming the same message.

In the news we continually read about all the terrible things that are done in the Church and in the name of religion and there are terrible things done. But we don’t hear about the wonderful work that is continually done all over the world. And we don’t hear about the fact that the Church continues to preach this message of Jesus—what we call the Good News, or Gospel—all over the world. I’m sure it will continue to be done in messy, inefficient ways, because we are dealing with human beings, but none the less it is being done.

How do we know that the Church is from God at all? To me, the greatest proof of this is the fact that it is still here at all. When you think of all the great superpowers that have come and gone: the Roman Empire, the Chinese dynasties, the great European superpowers. All were highly organised and efficient. Yet the Church, in spite of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc., is still here. How can that be? Because it is the power of God working in and through it. It is not dependent on human beings, but on the power of God. And so we continually turn to the power of God and pray that we will continue to be the kind of messengers and servants that He calls us to be.

Jesus Christ is Lord, Son of God. He was born of the Virgin Mary. He taught us about God and he suffered and died for us. Because of him we can have happiness with God when we die.  He is the one who makes sense of why we are here. This is the message we believe in and this is the message we will continue to try and pass on to all peoples.

'The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.'

Friday, October 11, 2019

28th Sunday Year C (Luke 17:11-19) Give thanks

I often find it amusing when it is lashing rain and someone says to me, ‘Isn’t it an awful day?’ And I say, ‘Yes, it is, thank God’. I usually get a weird look that says, ‘What do you mean, ‘thank God’?’ But why should we not thank God just because it is raining? The rain may not always suit us, the sun may not always suit others, but that’s no reason not to give thanks to God for it. It is a gift from him, like many other things, even if it doesn’t suit us.

We tend to see our world, or universe, as being the center of things, often with God as an optional extra as it were; someone on the outside. However, it is in fact the other way around. God is at the center of things and we are the optional extra. We were created by God and we need not be here. You might think that that makes us pretty small and insignificant. It does. We are. We like to think of ourselves as extremely important, especially the higher up we get in the world, but the fact is, we are all the exact same, with the same need for God. Once we begin to recognize this, it actually makes life a lot easier, because it takes a lot of pressure off us. The world doesn’t depend on us alone to save it. The future of the human race isn’t being sustained by me alone. The people of Fort Myers are not depending on me as a priest, to say the right thing, to make sure they all get to heaven and I’m very glad about that! 

The governments today often talk about their decisions as though they themselves were God, as though the future of the human race was solely in their hands. Fortunately for us all, it is not. We are important of course and we certainly have a big responsibility to do the right thing in the world and to make sure that there is a good future for those who come after us, but the Lord God of heaven and earth is also there helping us. We have a lot to be thankful for. 

At the moment we seem to be hearing almost nothing but bad news, how awful everything is and how little hope there is. It is very hard not to be affected by it, when we are getting this from the news on an hourly basis. By their nature, news programs tend to focus on bad and dramatic news, but I think it is important for us not to let that be the main influence on the way we think, or we will begin to see the world as a very dark place. Yes, we are in distressing times and there are plenty of problems, but the fact is that most of us are surviving. I would imagine that everyone here has enough to eat, has a roof over their heads at night. We probably have a car to get around in and we probably are able to provide for our children, even if it is not as lavish as we would like. The truth is we have an awful lot to be grateful for.

When I find myself becoming negative and wishing things were better—and believe me I complain just as much as anyone! —I find it a great help to start giving thanks to God for as many things as possible. In the morning I say, ‘Thank you Lord for a good night’s rest; thank you for a hot shower and a breakfast to eat. Thank you that I have decent clothes to wear and enough money in my pocket to survive. Thank you for the friends I have and also for the people I don’t like.’ I also try not to listen to too many news programs during the day as they tend to get me down. Remember that all of the things we listen to during the day, affect how we think and how we see the world.

All through the Scriptures, there are many examples of the people praising God in all kinds of situations. All the prophets and holy people continually bless and thank God for everything. They have a great sense of the holiness of God and of what is sacred and they continually acknowledge that.

When God reveals the answer that the king is looking for to Daniel, his first reaction is to praise God:
May the name of God be blessed for ever and ever,
since wisdom and power are his alone...
To you, God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise
for having given me wisdom and strength (Dan 2:20, 23).

Three men who serve king Nebuchadnezzar refuse to worship his statue as God.  As a result they are thrown into a fire.  But they remain faithful to God.  Azariah begins singing in the furnace:
May you be blessed and revered, Lord, God of our ancestors,
may your name be held glorious for ever. (Dan 3:26)

Then the other men begin to sing as well:
May you be blessed, Lord, God of our ancestors,
be praised and extolled for ever.
Blessed by your glorious and holy name... (Dan 3:52)

The message to us is to praise God no matter what and not just for what suits us, which is what we are inclined to do.  Take the rain...

When Tobit goes blind he prays to God to restore his sight to him.  But see how he begins the prayer:
You are just, O Lord, and just are all your works.
All your ways are grace and truth,
and you are the Judge of the world.
Therefore Lord, remember me... (Tobit 3:2-3)

Sarah cries out to God in her distress
You are blessed, O God of mercy!
May your name be blessed for ever,
and may all things you have made
bless you everlastingly.
And now I turn my face
and I raise my eyes to you...  (Tobit 3:11-12)

Our Lady's reaction to Elizabeth's greeting:
My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.

The Scriptures teach us to continually bless and praise God for everything, no matter what, while also asking God for what we need.

Think for a moment about the teachings of Jesus during his life on earth. They are very positive, very encouraging and very compassionate. Even when he spoke about the end of the world and the disciples said, ‘When will this happen?’ He basically said, ‘Don’t worry about that. It is not your concern.’ To sum up his teaching: we are asked to love and serve while we are here on earth. Then when our time is complete, the Lord will bring us home to be with him. That makes it very simple. We do our best and try to stay focused on the one who gives us life and gives us everything we have.

We have a lot to be grateful for. So maybe the next time you want to ask God’s help for something in prayer, take a moment first to thank God for the many things He has given you and then ask for your needs. And maybe even thank God for the rain the next time it’s lashing and you’re about to get soaked!

‘In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid, I have overcome the world.’


Thursday, October 3, 2019

27th Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Luke 17:5-10) The Sanctity of Life

By the time the average child has finished elementary school, they have seen 8,000 murders on TV. By the time they reach 18 they have seen approximately 30,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence on TV. That means that we are being told that life is cheap, killing is a normal part of our society.

There is a book I read called What I Met Along the Way, by Brother Andrew, a Jesuit priest who helped Mother Teresa set up the male part of her order. In this book he describes his journeys around the world visiting all the different communities. One of the things that is really striking, is that in the poorest of countries he always met the most joy in people. Even countries where there is terrible violence and injustice, sometimes with people being kidnapped and killed by the government, the ‘Disappeared’ as they are called, even there he met such joy in people. In first world countries he met the most despair, anger, hatred and loneliness. We are materially rich, but often spiritually very poor and it does just as much damage as material poverty.

In many assisted living homes for the elderly, where they are so well looked after materially, there is often terrible loneliness, because people have been abandoned by family. We need the love of other people because we have been created for love.

When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was invited to speak at Harvard University, do you know what she spoke about? Abortion. In many of her public addresses to people, such as at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, she primarily spoke about abortion. She says that abortion is the greatest threat to peace in our world. As long as mothers are prepared to kill their own children, how can we ask grown adults not to kill each other. In India she continually asks women not to have abortions, but to give up those children for adoption to so many couples who long to have a child, but are unable.

As long as a child is seen as an inconvenience, it means that we are focused on ourselves only. But God is asking us to give of ourselves until it hurts. He gave of himself until it hurts, even to the point of death. An unexpected pregnancy may well turn a woman, or a couple’s plans on their head, but this is a sacrifice that we are being asked to make.

If we remember that at the conception of each human being, an immortal soul is created, a soul that will be in God’s presence for all eternity, that will change our outlook on how we see a pregnancy. In New York, they recently passed a law that allows a woman to have an abortion up to full term, which means that a fully grown baby about to be born, can be killed in the womb. How can we have peace in our world and in our society as long as we are prepared to do that?

The other side of this is that many women, probably the majority, have abortions under severe pressure from boyfriends, or family. How do I know that? because so many women have told me this in confession. I have yet to meet any woman who didn’t regret it. Even several decades later they still carry that terrible pain, because we instinctively know that this is wrong. This could never come from God. If you were able to ask Jesus if this was the right decision, what would he say to you? The answer is obvious. Our task here is also to try and bring healing to women who have been hurt by abortion. I have no doubt whatsoever, that it is the greatest evil in our world and the greatest sin against God. Satan wants to destroy God’s creation and what better place to start than at the very beginning of human life.

Attempt to burn Mexico city cathedral, Sep 2019
Just last week a group of pro-abortion activists tried to burn down the cathedral in Mexico city. Why attack a Catholic church? There are plenty of other groups that oppose abortion too. Doesn’t that tell you something? Satan rages against God and will continue to try and destroy everything that God creates.

Recently I watched a video of a young couple receiving a new born baby for adoption. It was such an amazing site. Everyone in the room was in tears for the joy of what was happening. That is what God wants for us, the joy of life.

So we will continue to work hard for the preservation and dignity of life at all its stages. It is God’s greatest gift to us.

‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.'