Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Presentation of the Lord. Why I am a priest.

Today I would like to share with you something more personal than I usually do. I would like to tell you why I am a priest. Not how I became a priest, but why I am a priest. I suppose it’s something you probably don’t think of very often, but people often ask me why I became a priest.

First of all I believe that God called me to be a priest. There was a real sense of God calling me in this way and it was a persistent call. Although it was something both exciting and wonderful, it was also something scary and painful. I knew it would mean that I would not get married, which was a natural attraction for me. But what I always say to people is that the calling to be a priest was stronger than the calling to be married, even though both were there.

The year I entered the seminary was the year when all the scandals began to break in Ireland. It started with my own bishop having had a child and it got steadily worse with all the sexual abuse scandals. This made all of us in the seminary think a lot about why we were there. Morale hit rock bottom, but perhaps that also made us choose to follow because we really felt we were being called to follow and serve God as priests. After I was ordained the scandals continued and the atmosphere in our society was very difficult. I know it was the same here in the US. Because of the way the media presented it, almost every priest was considered a pedophile, which was very difficult, as you can imagine. Why would I want to be part of an organization that tried to cover up such horrific scandals? The reason is simple: I believe.

I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord; that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, not in a symbolic way, but really and truly present. The bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Since I believe that is true, there could be no more extraordinary miracle to be part of as a priest. I always consider it the greatest privilege that I have as a human being and as a priest, that through my human hands, the Holy Spirit comes down and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, when I pray the words of consecration. How humble is God that He will obey the words of a human being. It is always a privilege to be allowed go to the altar and celebrate the mass, even when I’m half asleep on a Monday morning, or when I humanly don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes it scares me when God reminds me that I am a sinner and struggle like everyone else and yet He allows me to do this for you his people, because He wants us to be able to receive him in Holy Communion. For all of us that is an incredible gift. I do not understand it, but I believe it, because it was Jesus himself who taught us this.

Being able to hear confession is also a great privilege. To be God’s instrument to bring his forgiveness and mercy to people is something wondrous. That people will come to me as God’s instrument, is both humbling and wonderful. What I see when people come to confession, is not the sins they confess, but people coming before God for his mercy and that is a very beautiful thing to see.

As a priest I am often called to people when they are sick and dying, right to their bedside. And even though I do not know them, they will tell me things that they will not even tell their own families. Spiritually, I am preparing them for their journey into the next world. I am often asked to anoint someone when they are about to turn off a life support machine, because the person is brain dead. I am asked to be there when families are going through great joys and great sorrows. Also, extraordinary things happen on a regular basis, where I am led to people who need me that I didn't know were there. For example, a couple of years ago I was going to see a patient in Lee Memorial hospital. In the elevator a young lady asked me if I was a priest. I told her I was. She asked me how would she be able to arrange for a priest to come to her husband who had fallen and broken his back? I offered to go with her right then and there. We went to the room where he was unconscious. She shyly said to me that they were Catholics but that they were not married in the Church. I told her this wasn't the time to be worrying about those things. So I anointed him and then she asked if I could bless her and her children, which I did. She was in tears, so grateful that God had sent a priest to her at this difficult time. That kind of thing happens to me all the time.

Is it difficult? Yes. I have struggled with it every day since I was ordained 21 year ago. Twice I almost left. In fact one time I thought it was all over and I had even told people that I was leaving, not because I wanted to, but because I thought that I couldn’t handle the stress of it anymore; the daily hostility I was experiencing and the sense of isolation I felt in some of the places I was working. Yet each time the Lord called me back and showed me that He would take care of it and He did.

In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 1:27) St Paul writes this:
God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.

In a mysterious way God seems to delight in calling and working through the nobodies of this world, so that it is all the more obvious that it is his power at work. This is something He continually shows me. My faith keeps changing and growing and the path is often difficult, but I believe it is the most important path we will ever be asked to follow and so I will continue. Every day I pray for the grace to persevere and be faithful. I suppose it’s something that all of us would do well to pray for. Am I happy as a priest? I don’t know if happy is the word I would use, but I feel very blessed to be a priest and I wouldn’t want not to be able to do this, for anything. Like everything, there are times of great happiness and times of sorry. I am extremely grateful that God has given me the change to do this with my life.

I would like to finish with this quotation where St. Paul is talking about his own life.
I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish, if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. (Philippians 3:7-8)

Saturday, January 25, 2020

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Gospel: (Matthew 4:12-23) The Word of God

Last summer when I was at home in Ireland, I was out walking with a priest friend one evening on the outskirts of the city. Part of the walk went through a wooded area and in one place, to our great surprise, we came across a pagan ritual going on, to celebrate midsummer’s night. There was a bonfire and a leader explaining what the whole thing was about. Perhaps what was even more surprising was the fact that almost everyone there was in their 20s and 30s. They were hungry for the spiritual, probably disillusioned with Church, but still searching for God. I would bet that probably most of those young people were baptized Catholic, but had drifted away. Here they were at a pagan ritual, because they were still searching for God. We search because we need something deeper than just the material things around us. We know instinctively that there has to be more than this.

What do you feed your mind with? What do you feed your body with? If you feed your body with unhealthy foods, you become sick. If you feed your mind with what is negative, you also become sick. Every day we hear hundreds of commercials, we listen to news programs and documentaries, movies, etc. All of these things affect how we see the world. If we hear only what is negative, it is easy to become cynical, or even despairing. Bad news is what sells. Good news doesn’t sell and so news programs focus on the awful things going on in the world. The thousands of commercials that we hear each week, tell us that we will not be happy unless we have enough material things. But if that is primarily what we feed our minds with, then we are going to see the world as a cruel, violent, place, where we need to focus solely on ourselves to survive, or we won’t be happy.

God speaks to us in a totally different way. In the Gospels it says that the first words of Jesus’ public ministry were, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Jesus was saying, ‘Focus on me, turn to me and you will find what will feed you, what will fulfill you.’ One of the ways that God speaks to us in a very powerful way, is through the Scriptures, the word of God. The more we hear the word of God, the more it forms our thinking and how we see the world. The ‘kingdom of heaven’, which Jesus speaks about, is a whole way of seeing the world. The more we focus on God, the more it changes our mindset, our world view.

The Scriptures—the Bible—are words that are addressed to us personally. They are words meant for each one of us, personally. The Bible is actually a collection of 73 books, written by many different people over a period of 1500 years, in different cultures and different languages. We believe they are inspired writings, written by human hands, but inspired by God. All the different books and passages are telling us something about God, about our own lives, why we are here, how God asks us to live so that we will flourish. We only hear short passages each Sunday, or each day, which makes it hard to grasp what the book or story is about. Part of my job is to try and help make sense of it. God shows us the path which will help us the most. He gives us wisdom for ordinary everyday situations, to guide us. God reveals to us how He sees us, the value we have in his eyes; that we are infinitely loved and of infinite worth.

A few weeks ago I spoke about Fr. Greg Boyle, who works in gangland in LA. What is most striking about his writings is that he show that when the young people he works with begin to realize that they are of value in someone’s eyes, that they are loved, they begin to change and change dramatically.

Of all the information you feed your mind with each day, how much of it is from God? Probably very little and yet God has a lot to say to us.

Pope Francis has asked to have this Sunday, the third Sunday of the Church’s year, to be dedicated to the Word of God, reminding us of how important it is. It is meant to be an integral part of what we do as Christians.

Do you have a Bible, a current Bible that is readable? Where is it? Is it important to you? Maybe it’s not that important. If we believe it is the Word of God, literally God speaking to us individually, then what could be more important of all the things we take in each day, than to hear what God has to say to us? If you read one chapter of one book each day, which takes about 3 minutes, it will begin to change how you think and how you see the world, because then we will begin to see the world through God’s eyes. That’s what Jesus did, he spoke to the people and invited them to listen to him and all who did were changed forever. The Scriptures are those same things that Jesus taught the people and still wants to teach us, so that we will have hope and understand why we are here. The more we hear what God has to say to us, the more it changes how we see everything. Then the kingdom of God begins to grow among us.

What do you fill your mind with?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Death, Where is Your Sting?

This week I would like to share with you something personal. Today I buried my father, Breandán Ó Madagáin (1932-2020) and had the privilege of being able to celebrate his funeral mass, although, as you can imagine, it was very difficult. The following is what I shared at the mass.

My father and I, June 2019
My uncle Kevin, a priest of Dublin diocese who died several years ago, used to always say this at funerals: ‘We are never ready for someone to die. It always comes as a shock. But it’s good to remember that it wasn’t a shock to God. The Lord had been expecting him.’ When you think of that, it reminds us that there is a bigger picture that we forget about. All things are in his hands and everything fits together perfectly. God knew the exact moment when his earthly life would be complete and now he begins his eternal life with God, which is what we are created for.

There is a line in Scripture which refers to someone who has lived a long life, which says, he died ‘full of days’. That doesn’t just refer to length of life, but fullness of life. My father lived a full life, with seven children and fourteen grandchildren. He was married for 57 years. Initially he studied to be a priest and spent all seven years in Maynooth, the national seminary, but thankfully for us he changed his mind before he was ordained! He had a passion for life and for the Irish culture and lived his whole life in passing on the Irish language and culture. He loved the outdoors and gave us a sense of the marvels of all that has been created.

He also had a strong faith, which he carried with him until the end of his earthly life. Being a scholar he studied everything, sometimes to my great annoyance, as I would come home from the seminary and mention a book that I found interesting, but he would have nearly always have already read it. Once I gave him a book on St. Peter as a gift. Having read it he said it was quite interesting, but that it was actually heretical! I should have read it first. Now a wonderful thought, is that all the questions that he had during his life to do with his faith, have all been answered. Everything makes sense and everything fits together. We will only enjoy that clarity when we die ourselves. For now we will continue with all the questions that faith brings. We know what we believe, but it is still a very mysterious thing.

Drumacoo cemetery, which goes back to the 6th century
My father was a very talented man, with a brilliant mind. He achieved many things, and wrote many books. Probably his greatest achievement was to be become part of the Royal Irish Academy. But of all the things that we achieve in this life, the greatest thing we are called to, is to love. There is nothing greater than this, because this is how we imitate God ourselves. Love is our highest calling and we know that this is what he did his best to live, not just with his family but with people he came to know everywhere. This is our purpose on earth, to love and to serve those around us. During our time on earth we learn what it is to love and to serve and we must choose to do this, or not, to accept God, or not. We have been given this freedom.

There is a beautiful sculpture I came across a few years ago, which depicts an old woman about to go through a doorway. She has one hand on the door and is looking back over her shoulder at her life. Then you can see on the other side of the door, the same person coming through as a young lady, meeting Jesus. That is what we believe happens. We are created to be with God and that is what awaits us unless we reject it, which we can do.

In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul expresses it this way: ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied.’ If we think that this life is everything, then we have completely missed the point. The point is that we have been created for something wonderful and our time on earth is a getting ready for that.

Sometimes at funerals people talk about the person who has died as if that were the end of their existence. We hear that ‘their memory lives on,’ as though that were the only thing that lived on. That is not what we believe. Breandán is more alive now, than we are, because he is no longer restricted in the way that we are. He is no longer limited physically, or emotionally, as we are and he lives more intensely than we can. That is also what awaits us and what could be a greater hope than that?

The cruelest part of death, is that we are left with so many questions. The person we love is taken from us and we don’t know what they experience now. We know what we believe, but we haven’t experienced that yet and so it is very mysterious. God knows how painful this is for us. When these questions come up, think of the words of St. John's Gospel: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. Trust in God and trust in me.’ Jesus is telling us that he knows this doesn’t make sense to us, but it will when we die ourselves. Meanwhile he asks us to believe that what he taught us is true. ‘When you are ready, I will come to take you with me.’ Then everything will make sense.

I would like to finish with this quotation from a Protestant minister called John Owen. When he was dying he was dictating letters to some friends. He said, ‘Write down, “I am still in the land of the living.” Then he said, ‘No, change that. Write down, “I am still in the land of those who die. Soon I hope to be in the land of the living.”’

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis. (May his sweet soul be at God's right hand)

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognize Jesus Christ as Lord

The great 20th century theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84) wrote, ‘The Christian of the future will either be a mystic, or will not exist at all.’ We are called to be mystics, that is, to continually seek and be open to what is mysterious. Sometimes I think we can be too inclined to ‘explain away’ everything in our faith, when in fact it is very mysterious and should be. The truth is that God continues to speak to us in unexpected and mystical ways. And God will continue to draw us closer to himself, as long as we remain open to that journey. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a 16th century mystic, said that the Lord will bring us to the greatest union with him in this life, as long as we remain open to it. She said that the only thing that prevents us from reaching the deepest union with God, is our own fear and unwillingness to go any farther. God wants us to be as united with him as is possible in this life. Why doesn’t that happen to more people? Because we become afraid and want to put the brakes on. It is easier to settle for a basic understanding and practice of our faith and not go any farther.

The feast of the Epiphany is the feast of Christ being revealed to the world. The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was. They are supposed to have come from different countries, pagan countries, who did not know the true God. They were astrologers (those who study horoscopes!), which is expressly forbidden in the Scriptures.
          Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the
fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in
witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord. (Deut 18:10-14)

The Magi (possibly ZoroAstrian priests) represent all the peoples of the world since they were not Jewish, but came from pagan nations who did not know the true God. It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and race. All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. God guided them through what they were involved in, astrology, which was how they were searching for God. It is a reminder to us that God can and does use all and every means to speak to us and draw us closer to himself.

The three gifts are symbolic. Gold is the symbol of a king. Jesus is a king, King of kings and the master of the whole universe. The use of frankincense is a sign of recognising a divinity, or God. Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering He will go through to win eternal life for the human race. 

If you think of most of the figures in the Bible to do with Christmas, they all had mystical experiences which led them closer to God. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary; he also appeared to Joseph. Angels appeared to the shepherds and a star guided the, or Magi.

Different events and experiences often open people’s hearts to God. Sometimes it is through a crisis, such as sickness, or the death of a loved one, that gets us thinking differently. Many times I have seen people deciding to come back to Church after the death of someone close to them, because it has got them thinking about the more important things and that is always good. The Spirit keeps calling us to search for God. What is important is that we keep searching and remain open. It is good that we ask questions about what we believe in. I believe and accept that the Scriptures and the teachings of our Church are from God and I submit to them, but I will continue to ask questions. The more searching I do, the more my faith grows.

Each week when we come to the mass, we come to an encounter with God which Jesus revealed to us, which is why we never change it. That’s also why the time before mass is not just the time for a social gathering, but the time for us to prepare for this wonderful encounter with God through the Scriptures and the Eucharist. God wants us to meet him and hear him and this is one of the most wonderful ways that He helps us to do that.

It might seem a bit arrogant of us to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong, but that is not the case. People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to all people through different religions. Even for those who never come to know Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ and eternal life is still offered to them through him, just as it is to us. When they die they will see this at once. They will know immediately who Jesus is and what He has done for us.

Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin, God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can accept or reject this gift individually and we do this through our faith. All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not, but it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe. We accept life with God when we die which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever and that is the choice we must make.  

This is also where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong. Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church, give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong. All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or driving us farther away, from God.

We Christians are the people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us. We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way, but it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else. That depends completely on how we live our life. When we die we will realise that all this is really true. And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord. What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can just as it is for us. If they do this, God will also draw them closer to him and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 

Meanwhile we pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us Either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us and remember that they are also children of God.

Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God

 One of the titles of Our Lady is Theotokos, which means ‘God bearer’ and that is what she is, not just the one who physically bore the Incarnation, but also the one who continually brings Jesus to us.

At the foot of the cross, Jesus entrusted Our Lady to St. John and St. John to Our Lady. In St. John’s gospel, John the apostle is presented to us as the model disciple, in other words, what we are called to be. He represents all of us.

When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother: Woman here is your son. Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” So from that hour, this disciple took her into his home.…
(John 19:26-27)

Jesus entrusted us to her as our mother and as our mother she continues to look out for us and guide us when we are going astray.

In some of the different apparitions that have taken place, it is striking how Our Lady is always pointing to God, pointing to Jesus, the Eucharist, the mass and reminding us what our life here on earth is about. It is never about her.

As a mother, she continues to point out to us the path we need to follow and how we must take it seriously. This life is short and we need to use our time well. Here is something she said to Lucia in Fatima:

Pray much and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because there is no one to make sacrifices for them." 

In Lourdes she also asked for penance and sacrifices, but what is also striking is what is meant by penance and sacrifices.

Sr. Lucia—one of the visionaries of Fatima—said that many people become discouraged because they think that they will not be able to do much penance, but Our Lord explained to Lucia what he means by penance and sacrifice:

"The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.

Our world is seeing an unprecedented amount of evil at this time and I have no doubt that a lot of that is being caused because so many people have abandoned the ways of God.
People live as though this world were everything, with a ‘grab all you can’ mentality. To think this way is to completely misunderstand why we are here on earth.

In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, St. Paul wrote:
“If our faith in Christ is for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). If you think this life is what it’s all about, then you have completely missed the point!

At Lourdes Our Lady said to St. Bernadette: “I cannot promise you happiness in this life but in the next.”

The year before Our Lady appeared to the children at Fatima, St. Michael the archangel appeared to them. One of the things he said was this: More than all else, accept and bear with resignation the sufferings that God may send you.”

Jacinta (age 7 at apparitions; died age 9): “If [people] only knew what eternity is, how they would make all possible efforts to amend their lives”

Perhaps the best line to take with us today is what Our Lady said to the servants at the wedding at Cana. When she realized the couple had run out of wine, she pointed it out to Jesus. Then she said to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Our Lady:Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.”