Friday, August 28, 2020

22nd Sunday, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 16:21-27) Standing up for our faith; China man tortured.


In the Fujian province in China today, it is still illegal to be Catholic. But Catholics there risk their lives to have mass in their homes. One night in a particular house they were having mass in secret. They had sentries outside to watch for the police. At the end of mass, the sentries rushed in to say that the police were on the way. So everyone ran, including the priest, but the owner of the house had no where to go as it was his house. The police arrested him and took him away and he was tortured for about four weeks. They would strip him naked, use a cattle prod with high voltage and continually electrocute him all over his body. They kept saying, ‘Just tell us where the priest is and you can go home.’ But he knew that if he gave up the priest, his family and friends would no longer be able to celebrate the Eucharist, so he continually resisted in spite of the torture. After about four weeks of torture, they released him, as they realized they were not going to break him. As soon as he could, he arranged for passage to the United States and moved here. Now he was able to go to mass every day, in public, without any fear. But he also realized in the US that if he worked harder, he could make more money. And because he wanted to give as much as possible to his family, he began working harder and harder. Soon he didn’t have time to go to daily mass, so he just went on Sundays. Sometimes he would miss mass on Sunday because of his work. Eventually he only went to mass on Christmas and Easter. Finally he didn’t even go at Easter.

What Communism and torture couldn’t do, American culture was able to do without even trying; without even trying. Torture for four weeks couldn’t break this man’s love for the Eucharist, but materialist culture did it in a short time, without even trying.


The same thing happened in Poland. Communism was not able to break the people’s faith, but within a few years of Communism falling, materialism did, without even trying. The rate of practice dropped, because people got caught up in material things and became lazy. We get sucked into the lure of riches and that is also what has happened in this country. ‘How hard it is for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 19:23).

Every so often the Church becomes big and powerful and then it starts to get lethargic and lazy. Right now we have things easy, because we can practice freely and that’s when people get lazy. Look at what has happened in first world countries over the last several decades. There has been a continual abandoning of the faith. It is an age of apostasy. You will hear people say, ‘But I’m a good person…’ God doesn’t just ask us to be good people, but to acknowledge him, to worship him and live by his Commandments. The first commandment: ‘I am the Lord your God; you will not have strange gods before me.’ The first three Commandments are about God. Don’t misuse God’s name. Keep Sunday as a holy day, when God comes first. The first half of the Our Father is about acknowledging God.

‘But I don’t have time to go to church because my kids have sports.’ When you die and come before God you can tell him that you ignored his Commandments because your kids had sports. ‘Anyone who prefers father or mother to me, is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers sons or daughters to me, is not worthy of me’ (Matt 10:37). I know it is easy for me to say that and it is hard for parents to choose, because sports have been put on Sunday morning. Who do you think did that? Satan did, because he is smart and knows that parents will find it harder to choose for church.

To follow God is not easy. ‘Unless you take up your cross, you cannot be my disciple.’ Being faithful to God means having to make difficult decisions.


Pilgrims on top of 'Cross Mountain', Medjugorje.

The recent lockdown was a good reminder to us of just how easily the Eucharist can be taken away from us and that was a good thing, because it was a wake-up call. I have heard so many people say, ‘This is the US, we will always be free to practice our faith here.’ That was also said in all the countries where religious persecution began. It can happen much more easily than you might think. Ireland was 99% Catholic when the most savage religious persecution began, because the British government passed a few laws.

Do you really have complete religious freedom if you are put under pressure to choose between your children’s sports and going to church? It is a subtle, but real form of undermining faith.

If we want to remain strong in our faith, it takes work and fidelity. It takes a certain discipline and commitment. The Lord’s day must come before anything else. Worship of God must come before anything else. I must go out of my way to pass on the faith to my children. The best way for me to keep my faith strong and alive in our country, is to live it as well as I can. It starts with me, not with what the church down the road is doing. It starts with me. 

I often think of how people get so obsessed with gaining wealth, that they lose all sight of what their life is about, and this is exactly what the Lord says:

‘What profit would it be for a man to gain the whole world, but to forfeit his life?’

Let me share with you part of the testimony of a man called Dale Recinella. Dale was a very successful attorney based in Miami. He was also a devout Catholic. In 1984 he changed law firms and his workload increased greatly. The focus on his faith became more difficult, because of the demands of his work. However, he was able to provide a very nice life-style for himself and his family. 

In 1986 he handed over the deposit for the construction of their new dream-home in Tallahassee. That evening they went to out to dinner to celebrate, but first they went to mass. During the mass they heard the Gospel of the rich young man, who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-25). You know the story, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. He says that he already does this, so what else should he do. Jesus says, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go sell what you have, give the money to the poor and come follow me.’ But the young man went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth. And Jesus went on to say, ‘How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’

When Dale and his wife Susan heard this, it hit them in a different way. During dinner, Dale said to his wife, ‘Do you think he meant it?’ And Susan said she didn’t know, but nobody really takes that literally. They decided to pray about it and ask the Lord to speak to them. 

Some time later Dale woke up screaming in the middle of the night from a nightmare. Susan pressed him to tell her what had happened. He explained that he had suddenly found himself outside their house raking leaves with their kids. Suddenly he heard this voice of indescribable beauty which seemed to be coming from the setting sun. He wanted to follow it. Everything in him knew he had to follow it, but as he tried he could not and when he looked down he saw a massive chain attaching him to the house. He did everything he could to break the chain, but he could not. The voice was starting to fade and he was getting more and more desperate until eventually the voice was gone and he was left alone in the dark, which was when he woke up screaming. They realized that God was speaking to them and that they had choices they needed to make.

Eighteen months later, Dale and his wife were out eating and he had a raw oyster. As soon as he took the first bite, he knew something was wrong. Shortly after he found himself in hospital and the doctor telling him that he had 10 to 12 hours to live. He had eaten a deadly bacterium called vibrio fulnificus, which almost certainly causes death and there was nothing he could do. But after he went unconscious, Jesus visited him again. This time he found himself in a room and Jesus was in front of him in all his radiant beauty, but Jesus was looking at him with eyes of sorrow and the question Jesus asked him was, ‘What have you done with all my gifts.’ Jesus showed him all the gifts he had blessed him with, his intelligence, upbringing, education, personality and all the things that had helped to bring him worldly success. Immediately he began to defend himself saying that he had worked hard to give a good life-style for his family. They were safe, lived in a good neighborhood. His kids went to good schools and their future was well provided for. But he realized as he said this, that everything he was talking about was for himself. Everything he had gained was only focused on himself and his family. And finally Jesus said, ‘What about all my people who are suffering?’ He knew that he had no answer for this, only the shame of seeing his own neglect of everyone but himself.

To cut the story short, he woke up early the next morning to the doctors unbelief. They had no explanation for it and said that what had happened was inexplicable. He knew that Jesus had given him another chance. From then on he completely changed his life-style. They began to live a much simpler life and he ended up working in a prison ministry, helping those on death row.

Why did all this happen to him? Not just to speak to him, but also to speak to us. Our world tells us that we need only look out for ourselves. If we have enough left over and enough time, then we can also reach out to others. But that is not what the Gospel teaches us. The Lord teaches us that our gifts and talents are not just for ourselves, but also for the people around us. When we have been blessed with gifts and opportunities, they are not just for ourselves, but also to help God’s people around us. We may have been placed in the exact place we find ourselves, because God wants us to take care of others who need it. We must be careful to use our gifts and talents well, because they are not just for ourselves. They are gifts which have been entrusted to us. Thank God if you can enjoy a comfortable life-style, but remember who gave it to you and remember that we have a God-given responsibility to use those gifts properly. What we have here on earth is only for a very short time.

‘What profit would it be for a man to gain the whole world, but to forfeit his life?’


Saturday, August 22, 2020

21st Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20) You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

When Napoleon was taking over Europe in the 19th century, he met the Cardinal of Paris and he told him that he would take over and destroy the Vatican. The Cardinal told him that he wouldn’t be able. Napoleon assured him that he would. The Cardinal said to Napoleon, ‘We priests have been trying to destroy the Vatican for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able. You won’t be able either.’

I have often heard people say in interviews, ‘I’m not really very religious, I just go to church on Sundays,’ or words to that effect. I think we often put ourselves down and underestimate how much faith we have. The fact is that if you and I didn’t believe in God, in Jesus coming to us in each mass, that God works through the priest in the mass, we wouldn’t come here. This means that you probably have far more faith than you give yourself credit for. If we really didn’t believe, these things, we wouldn’t come here, because apart from faith, what we believe in sounds completely crazy.

Today’s readings make an interesting point. In this encounter between Jesus and Peter, Peter recognised that Jesus was the Christ, the one promised by God and immediately Jesus told him that he was a blessed man, because it was God the Father who had revealed this to him. The fact that we believe in God means we have been given the gift of faith. You might think, ‘Well, I just learnt about it from my parents’, or ‘I just grew up Catholic.’ but the fact is that many other people also learnt about it from their parents and don’t believe, so there must be more to it than that. No human being on their own, will convince you of God, even with the best arguments. I could stand here for hours and try to give you impressive explanations of why we should believe in God, but if the Spirit of God does not touch your heart, I would be wasting my time. It is God and only God who can convince you of his presence. The only thing we need in order to receive this gift, is openness. If we are open, we will come to know God, because that is what God wants for us.


The second thing that Jesus said to Peter tells us why we need the Church. Sometimes you will hear people say that they want God, but not the Church. That really means that they don’t understand what the Church is. Jesus said: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.’ He also said, ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’ In other words, Jesus was giving his authority to Peter and his followers to act and make decisions in his name.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah refers to this authority being passed on. The Lord says that He will place the key on the shoulder of Eliakim. The key is the symbol of authority. The authority is being passed on to the next leader. ‘When he opens, no one shall shut. When he shuts, no one will open.’ ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’ This is telling us that the authority bestowed on Peter is to be passed on to those who come after him. It is the same authority that is passed on. That is why we continue to listen to the teaching of the Church, because it is the teaching of Christ. It is from God, not man.

Was that a crazy thing to do? Why on earth would God give his authority to a group of ordinary and weak people, to represent him and speak on his behalf? What it means is that God would be working through these people, through his Spirit who guides the Church, who guides us all. So the Lord was saying, ‘I am going to work through human instruments, but it is my Church and it is I who will guide it.’


If you find that idea hard to believe, just think for a moment of all the different empires and superpowers that have come and gone over the centuries: the great Chinese empires, the Roman Empire, people like Napoleon, Hitler, all the different nations that were super-powers. They were all powerful, well organized and wealthy and yet they have all come and gone and they are no more. Why? Because they were of human origin. How is it that the Church is still here, considering we have had centuries of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc? And not only is it still here, but it is continually growing. The only reason the Church is still here, is because it is from God and it is God who is continually acting through it, in spite of all the mistakes we make, and we make plenty. The history of the Church is nothing to boast about. It was Jesus’ plan to have a Church and to work through it, so that we would have a very concrete way to relate to God and so He guides us through his Church and shows us the path to follow. So today, 20 centuries after Christ, here am I still passing on the message to you and even if I make a mess of it, the Lord will teach us what we need to know, just as long as we go on being open to him.

Jesus also said, “Anyone who listens to these words of mine is like a wise person is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock” (Matt 7:24). Jesus is saying, don’t build your faith on ‘nice ideas’ or just the things that suit you. We need a solid foundation for our faith, or it won’t last. That foundation is what is passed on to us through the Church, because that is his teaching.

A very common practice today is to take bits and pieces of faith; just the parts that suit us. We live in a society of convenience, so we are used to being able to pick and choose, but that thinking can flow into the practice of our faith. ‘It doesn’t suit me to go to church on Sunday, this week, so I won’t.’ It is a commandment of God, not a suggestion. ‘We can’t be expected to take all of it seriously…?’ We are expected to take all of it seriously, because it is from God. If it is truly from God, why would you take some of it and leave other parts? If it is from God, then we need all of it.


There will always be parts of our faith that we struggle with. That is normal, but it is not a reason to disregard them. Is it from God or not? Jesus is showing us that we need a solid foundation and that foundation is his teaching, passed on through his Church.

One other line from that Gospel is worth mentioning: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.’ In another translation it says, ‘and the powers of hell will not overcome it’ (New Living Translation). It is easy to get the impression that the Church is about to disappear at any moment. We see so much evil around us, which is very disturbing. Will the Church survive? That’s what the Lord is telling us. It will never be overcome, because it is from God.

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.’


Friday, August 14, 2020

20th Sunday Year A (Matthew 15:21-28) He answered her, not a word.


I think one of the frustrating aspects of prayer is that we often don’t seem to get an answer, or at least hear an answer. We are praying for something important, but God doesn’t seem to be listening, or is indifferent. Could this be true? Of course not. Jesus himself says, ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you’ (Matt 7:7). ‘Ask and it will be given to you.’ They are Jesus’ own words. That means that God always answers our prayers, but maybe not in the way we want, or in a way we recognize.

 In this Gospel, Jesus does something which is uncharacteristic of him. At first he seems to ignore this woman who is looking for his help, because she is a pagan, not one of the Jewish people. He does answer her, but not with words. It says, ‘He answered her, not a word’. He did answer, but he didn’t use words. His appearing to ignore her, drew out her faith. It made her persist and even be daring and he acknowledges her faith.

A man called Marino Restrepo, from Columbia, grew up in a wealthy Catholic family, but in his teens drifted away from his faith until he no longer practiced at all. He was a talented musician and artist and became very successful in Hollywood as a producer and director. He lived a very sinful life, with non-stop affairs and drugs, seducing others and being seduced and also introducing other people to drugs. He also got heavily involved in New Age practices, leading him farther and farther away from God.

On Christmas of 1997 he went back to Columbia to visit his family. His four sisters, who were still practicing Catholics, got him to go to church for Christmas, even though he no longer believed. It had been 33 years since he had been in a Catholic church. One of the devotions there, was a novena to the Infant Jesus of Prague. It began on December 16th and concluded on Christmas Eve. He heard the priest say that anyone who prayed this novena with devotion, would receive a grace. This caught his attention, but not in a religious way; in a greedy and superstitious way. He figured that he might be able to get something out of this prayer. So he prayed to the Infant Jesus of Prague, that Jesus would change his life: that he would be able to retire with a lot of money and live like a king with at least three women on an Indonesian island he had seen in pictures. That is exactly what he asked for. (Below: FARC Rebels in Columbia)

FARC Rebels in Columbia

The day after the novena ended, which was Christmas day, he celebrated with friends and family. That night he went to visit an uncle on his plantation. When he arrived at the gates, he was stopped by six masked men, who dragged him out of his car and took him away. He had been captured by FARC rebels, who hoped to get a large ransom from his family. He spent the next six months tied up in a cave in the jungle. He very undernourished and nearly died.

One night, during this nightmarish ordeal, he had a very powerful spiritual experience. He had an illumination of conscience (see the book The Warning, by Christine Watkins, for the full story, pp 183-212). The Lord showed him his soul and his whole life up to that point. It lasted about eight hours. He says it was a very frightening experience, because he had been living such a sinful and worldly life for so long. The Lord allowed him to see that if he had died at that point, he would have gone to hell, because this was what he had already chosen by the way he was living.

Six months after he was kidnapped, he was unexpectedly released. Physically and emotionally he was in terrible shape, but he survived and gradually recovered his health. From then on he completely changed his life. He sold his apartment in Manhattan, quit his job in production and began to live a much simpler and more prayerful life. He has dedicated the rest of his life to sharing his story and has travelled all over the world.

Why am I telling you his story? Apart from the fact that it is an amazing story, he prayed that God would change his life and allow him to retire with great wealth, etc. God did answer his prayer and changed his life, but not in the way he could ever have imagined. (Below: Marino Restrepo).

The answers we get when we pray for things, may not be what we wanted and sometimes we may not even recognize the answer until years later, but the Lord tells us that He does answer us. Often God’s silence, which can be so frustrating, can be the very thing that helps us to grow in prayer. If we got everything we asked for instantly, would we grow spiritually? Probably not. But when we have to strive and persevere for it, we grow.

You don’t give your children everything they ask for, instantly, because you know that it can often do them more harm than good. You can see a bigger picture when you are older. God sees the whole picture and knows what will help us and what will not. The answers we get may be silence, but God does answer us. St. Monica, prayed for 33 years for the conversion of her son Augustine. He eventually became a Catholic, then a priest, then a bishop and today he is recognized as one of the great saints of our Church. St. Monica had great faith and never gave up. If the Lord had answered her instantly the first time she prayed, would her faith have grown as much? Probably not.  


A Canaanite woman of that district came out and called, ‘

Have pity on me Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.’

But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

19th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 14:22-23) God's subtle presence



The work of a priest is a hard thing to properly explain. On paper it doesn’t seem like there is a lot to do and if the Church were just a big business, it would be very hard to see the priesthood as being ‘productive’. In fact we would probably all be fired, because a lot of the time we don’t seem to be ‘doing’ an awful lot.

The most important thing that I can do as a priest is to celebrate the mass. There is nothing more important than this, because every time I celebrate mass, I am bringing Jesus to people in the Eucharist. That is primarily why a priest is ordained and that will always be the greatest thing I can do. Having nice church buildings and good parish programs, etc, are all important, but there is nothing more important than having the mass. When we have Jesus, we have everything, because He is the one who created us and He is the one we will be with for all eternity, so what could possibly be greater than for us to be able to receive him each day?

For the most part God’s presence among us is very subtle, sometimes frustratingly so. It is easy to miss it and even to think that God is not there at all. Think of how many people pass by a Catholic church each day and really believe that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is present there? Probably very few. Think of when you come into the church for mass, do you really believe that Jesus is here in the Eucharist? That is what we say we believe.

The first reading about the prophet Elijah refers to this. Elijah is considered the greatest of the prophets and the writings about him are full of extraordinary happenings. Just before this passage, where he encounters God, Elijah has just worked an amazing miracle, calling down fire from heaven to show up the false prophets who are misleading people. Then Queen Jezebel threatens to kill him because he has just killed her prophets. So he flees into the desert and sits down and wishes he was dead. ‘I have had enough Lord, take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.’ (1 Kings 19: 4b) In a way I think it is good that we read about someone like Elijah wishing he was dead, feeling that he can’t go on any farther. Many people can relate to that. But note how God responds to him. He doesn’t tell Elijah to rest and take a few weeks off. Instead he pushes him to keep going. It says that Elijah lay down and fell asleep, but he is woken by an angel who tells him to eat the food that he finds beside him. Elijah eats the food, but then goes back to sleep. But the angel wakes him again and tells him to eat all the food because he will need it for the journey. Then he is told to continue on his journey and eventually he comes to the mountain of God where he has this strange encounter we read about.

Then he sees these frightening powers of nature: a storm force wind, followed by an earthquake and then a fire; all great signs of the powers of nature, which can be so frightening, but it says that God wasn’t in any of these wonders. And then there was the sound of a gentle breeze and Elijah knew that God’s presence was there. In some translations it says, ‘A still, small, voice.’ Why did God send the storm, the earthquake and the fire? I think that God is reminding us that his presence is very subtle and easy to miss, but just because God doesn’t come to us in the form of thunder and lightning, or something very dramatic, doesn’t mean that He is not there. Sometimes I think that it might even be easier if his presence was more dramatic. Then we would be under no doubt about God being there. It would probably be terrifying, but for whatever reason, the Lord prefers to stay hidden from us. Think of each time we come to receive Holy Communion. How much more hidden can you get? Who would believe that God comes to us in the form of a tiny piece of bread? It sounds completely crazy, but this is what Jesus himself has taught us and that is why we believe it is true.

Perhaps when you come up to receive Holy Communion today, think of the gentle breeze that passed in front of the prophet Elijah. God was in that gentle breeze. Jesus is also present to us here in the tiny piece of bread that we receive, which has become his Body and Blood.

I want to finish by telling you about another Eucharistic miracle that began almost 300 years ago in Siena, Italy, but still continues today.

On 14th of August, 1730, as the townspeople were attending devotions for the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, a thief broke into the tabernacle in the Franciscan church and took the gold ciborium, which contained the sacred hosts (Holy Communion). It was only discovered the following day and caused great distress that the hosts had been taken, as this was a sacrilege. The celebrations for the feast were cancelled and the people were asked to pray in reparation and that the hosts would be found.

Two days later a priest was praying in a church when he noticed a host sticking out of the poor box in the wall. On opening the box he discovered the hosts, which were now quite soiled, as the poor box was only opened once a year. They cleaned the hosts as best they could and they were brought back to the Franciscan church where they were kept in a separate ciborium. Normally they would decay within a few years, but these hosts continued to remain perfectly fresh, even smelling fresh.

Fifty years later, in 1780, the hosts were examined by the head of the Franciscans at that time and were again found to be perfectly fresh.

In 1789 another examination was done by the Archbishop of Siena, Tiberio Borghese, along with several others. Under a microscope the hosts still showed no sign of decay. They decided to put several similar unconsecrated hosts aside in a sealed container. Ten years later these were examined and they had completely decayed, with only a yellow dust remaining.

Two other scientific studies were done of the hosts and to this day, almost 300 years later, they have remained perfectly fresh and intact. They can still be seen in the Franciscan church in Siena.

The Lord continues to give us so many signs and reminders of his real presence in the Eucharist and yet we doubt. In the Gospel, Peter was actually walking on water. But then he began to think about it and his logical mind told him it was impossible and so he began to sink. Jesus’ response, ‘Man of little faith. Why did you doubt?’

There is so much that we cannot understand and many mysteries of our faith that contradict the laws of nature. Those hosts in Siena are an ongoing, living, miracle. So is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Science cannot explain, what it is made from or how it is still there.