Sunday, December 27, 2020

Feast of the Holy Family (Gospel: Luke 2: 22-40) To love and to serve


My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old. One time when I was about five I was brought to a party of a school friend, but for some reason I decided that I didn’t like the party and that I wanted to go home. I figured that the best way to do this was secretly. So I told my friend that I would hide out in the garden and that he should come and try to find me after a few minutes. I then made my escape and headed home. The only problem was that I had no idea how to get home. So I headed off and asked a post-man how to get to ‘York Road’ in Dun Laoghaire, where we lived. He looked at me suspiciously but told me where to go. When I finally arrived home I found a big police motorbike in the front drive.  Maybe that’s where my love of motorcycles began! Everyone was out looking for me. My poor parents were not the better for this experience.  Family life is not easy.


This is a feast day which I think can often make us feel disappointed with our own families, although we don’t admit it, because it seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be. Things go wrong and we drive each other crazy. Someone gets into trouble and lets the family down. Marriages don’t always work out. We are afraid what others will think of us.


Then we are presented with the ‘holy family’, who we imagine were living in bliss all the time. That is not reality. They were poor. When Jesus was born they were homeless. Then with a new baby they had to flee to Egypt to escape an attempt on the child’s life and became refugees. When Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon told them he was destined to be a sign that would be rejected. He would not be a ‘success’. Later they lost him for three days. Can you imagine the stress of losing one of your children for three days?


So why are they presented to us as a model? Perhaps because they had their priorities right. God was at the center of this family. It was the right environment for the person of Jesus to grow and mature. Jesus had to grow up as a person just as all of us do, learn to be responsible, learn the Jewish traditions and that takes a long time. It involves a lot of learning for each of us, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on the part of our parents, but how we are formed is vital. There is an African proverb which says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We all have a part to play, even if that is just encouraging those who are struggling. If there are young families around you who are struggling financially, especially one parent families, look out for them. There is a couple I know who were telling me recently that at one stage, because one of their children was sick, they lost their home in order to pay hospital bills. The husband told me that for several months they lived on next to nothing. We never know how people are struggling and we must look out for each other.


We know almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, but no doubt it was very important for his growing and maturing as a person, and to help him be ready for the mission that He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God and sacrificing himself for us.


I met a man several years ago, who is now a friend of mine. He told me the story of his marriage which was so inspiring. When he was in high-school he was in a lustful relationship with a girl. He got her pregnant and she ended up graduating, six months pregnant. He decided to marry her for the child’s sake, but it was a loveless marriage for the first ten years. They just endured each other and spent any time they could, away from each other. Ten years into their marriage both of them were starting to take an interest in their faith. They decided to try and live their marriage exactly the way that the word of God directs. They started to live as faithfully to God’s word as they could. And he told me that it completely changed their marriage. They fell in love for the first time and their marriage has been wonderful ever since. They followed God’s directions and it worked. Why did it work, because God knows exactly what will work for us and He continually shows us. ‘Follow my directions and my commandments and your life will work.’ Who better to turn to when things aren’t working, than the One who designed us in the first place.


One very simple thing can make a huge difference as to how we live our life on earth and that is if we continually remind ourselves that our destiny is heaven. That is what we are created for. If we live with that in our mind, then we will live very differently on earth.


The word of God tells us that our time on earth is about service and sacrificing ourselves for others. That’s exactly how Jesus lived. He served others and completely sacrificed himself for others, ultimately with his life and He is the one we look to, to see how we should live. The world around us tells us the exact opposite. It tells us that our time on earth is about finding fulfillment and satisfaction in every way possible. It offers us every pleasure imaginable and tells us that we should have it all and if someone gets in our way, then we should move them aside so that we can find fulfillment. It is the opposite of the word of God. Who are you going to listen to?


The Holy Family were focused on God. They understood their role and their duties and that is how they lived. We are called to do the same.






Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas Day. We are of infinite value


Christmas is about what happens to us when we die. It is the feast of the greatest hope imaginable, because it tells us two things: First, that what all of us want—happiness—awaits us if we choose it. Second, that we have extraordinary worth and value in God’s eyes, regardless of how our life on earth turns out. That is what we celebrate at Christmas.


The birth of Christ is the beginning of a great event that really has three parts. The Son of God comes among us, to live as one of us and take on the human condition with all its difficulties; to teach us about God and why we are here; and ultimately to sacrifice himself for us, so that we can reach that happiness. Hopefully that happiness will begin in this life, but it will only be fulfilled in the world to come. Our Lady said that to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in Franc: ‘I cannot promise you happiness in this world but in the next.’ And in Fatima she said, ‘If people knew what heaven was, they would do everything to change their ways.’


This year alone we have buried 16 people from this parish and that doesn’t count all the people who died here and were buried elsewhere. If the Son of God hadn’t come among us and died for us, none of those people could be with God in heaven. That is our destiny, but it is only possible because of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That means that Christmas is the feast of the greatest hope imaginable.


It also tells us something that we find hard to grasp; that is, that we have an infinite value and worth in God’s eye’s, regardless of how our life turns out. It means that God will do anything to get us to heaven. We generally tend to think that if we really get our act together and if we become holy enough, then we will be acceptable to God. That is not what God teaches us. God teaches us that He loves us totally and completely, as we are right now. We may think of ourselves as failures, or disappointments in the world’s eyes, but that is not how God sees us. Think of a little child. No matter how much that child makes a mess of things, you don’t love them any less. You love them just because they exist.

There is a Jesuit priest called Fr. Greg Boyle, who for the last thirty years has worked in the toughest gang-land areas of LA. He wrote a book called, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion. Up to the time he published the book in 2010, he had already buried 167 young people, from gangland shootings. In the book, he talks about the fact that most of the young people who end up in gangs, really have little else. Most of them have grown up in homes with no parents, or with parents so wrecked by addiction that they might as well not be there, or of such violence that they have left and lived on the streets. They end up in gangs because the gangs provide them with a sense of belonging; a family of sorts. He says that they don’t plan their futures; they plan their funerals. Young women often want to get pregnant early, so that they will have the experience of having a child before they get killed. Most of them don’t expect to make it past 20.


Fr. Greg helps them to see that they are valued, that they have worth and that they are not failures. He says that so many of them have come into his office and just cried, saying that they are total failures and they live in shame. But once he takes an interest in them, learns their name, helps them to see that he has an interest in them, they begin to change and many of them then leave the gangs and even get jobs. Once they begin to feel loved and valued, their life starts to turn around. He has now set up an organization called Homeboy Industries.


He spoke about one instance where he remembered the name of one young man and when he saw him on the street one time, he called out his name, ‘Hey Mike, How are you doing?’ He said the young man was astonished and kept turning back smiling. He couldn’t believe that someone noticed him.


Many of us are often afraid that we will not be good enough to get to heaven and that God might refuse us. We even joke about meeting St. Peter at the gates and him going through the log-book of our life, to see if we meet the grade, or testing us with questions. That is not the teaching of our faith. What the Lord tells us is that we are not capable of getting to heaven by our own strength, but He has made it possible for all of us to get to heaven by his life, death and resurrection. The only reason it won’t happen is if we reject God and we accept or reject God by the way we live.


Pope Francis, when he was a much younger priest was head of the Jesuits in Argentina.  During the military dictatorship in Argentina he had to make some very difficult choices, resulting in at least two Jesuit priests being arrested and tortured for several months. One forgave him the other did not and considered him a traitor up to his death. He made bad decisions with very serious consequences. Years later the Lord made him pope. Yes, I said the Lord made him pope. Why would God choose someone who had betrayed other priests, even if he didn’t intend to? Why would God choose a failure? Because he was not a failure. He is a human being who made mistakes. Why did he choose St. Peter who also betrayed him? because he saw the greatness in him, just as He does in us. God sees the greatness in us. We are beautiful in his eyes, regardless of the mistakes we have made. We are never a failure in his eyes. And that is why He has made it possible for us to have eternal happiness when we die. And that is what we are celebrating at Christmas.


‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’

Friday, December 18, 2020

4th Sunday of Advent, Year B (Gospel: Luke 1:26-38) Who will save me from this wretched state?


Today I want to address a question that often comes up when people are talking to me in confession and it is related to what we celebrate at Christmas. Actually it is more of a fear than a question. Almost everyone talks about a particular thing that they struggle with, whether it be anger, gossip, a sexual weakness, an addiction, or something else and it causes no end of suffering and humiliation. No matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to overcome it. In fact I’ve often heard people say to me that they don’t feel there is any point in going to confession anymore because they just end up confessing this same sin again and again and they don’t seem to be getting any better, so where’s the point? It can make us afraid that we won’t be able to go to heaven because of our weakness. ‘Since I can’t overcome this sin, why would God allow me to go to heaven?’ That is usually the thinking behind it. However, when we think like that I believe we are really missing the whole point of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The truth is that no matter how hard we try to be holy enough and overcome our sins, our weaknesses, we continually fall short of the mark. That is our reality. When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul put it like this:

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are redeemed by his grace as a gift… to be received by faith (Rom 3:23ff).

In plain English that is saying to us, since all of us have sinned and can never be good enough for God by our own strength, it is God himself who has made up the difference for us. God has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fact that we will always be sinners and will always struggle with various weaknesses is no longer a problem, because God has made us ‘good enough’ through what Jesus did. That is what being ‘redeemed’ means. We cannot get to heaven by our own strength, by our own efforts, because we are too weak and too sinful and no matter how hard we try, we keep falling. But we don’t have to be afraid of that because Jesus has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves.

St. Paul also struggled with some kind of weakness that caused him great humiliation, in spite of the fact he had several visions of Jesus and of heaven and so many miracles that were worked through him. Listen to what he says about it:

I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate.  ...the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do. (Cf. Rom 7:14-24)

And finally he says, ‘Who will save me from this wretched state? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’ That is the same fear that people keep telling me about in confession: ‘Who will save me from this wretched weakness? How can I ever come before God in heaven when this is what I’m like?’ This is where God calls us to realize what Jesus has done for us. He has made up for our weakness himself. That is why the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas is such an extraordinary event, because it is the beginning of God making up for our weakness, our sinfulness. We are not able to be good enough for God by our own strength, but it no longer matters because Jesus has made himself the bridge between God and humanity. Now we can come before God without fear, because Jesus has made it possible. Each time we celebrate the mass we are becoming present to that event—the sacrifice of Jesus—which made it possible for us to go to heaven. No other sacrifice or offering to God will ever be necessary for us, because the selfless act of Jesus dying for us has done everything necessary. All we have to do is to accept it. No wonder we celebrate the mass every day, in every church all over the world.

The mistake we continually make, which causes us to be afraid, is to think that we have to become ‘good enough’ for God, but the problem is that that is impossible for us by our own strength. If we stop there, then we would have every reason to despair, but once we realize that it is Jesus who steps in and bridges the gap, then we have endless hope, because it no longer depends on us being good enough. All we have to do is accept this extraordinary gift from God.

Why does God allow us to go on struggling? God could take away these weaknesses from us if He chose. The reason is because the very weaknesses we struggle with, are often the very thing that keeps us close to God. They make us aware that we are weak and we need God’s mercy. Again in his writings St. Paul talks about his weakness—although he doesn’t say what it was—and how he begged God to take it away from him.

‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take this thing away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.’ (2 Cor 12:8).

No doubt he felt that he would serve God much better if he could overcome his weaknesses, but God doesn’t see it this way. We generally feel the same: ‘If only I could overcome my weaknesses/addictions, I would be more pleasing to God and I would serve him better.

A man said to me in confession one time, ‘I have a terrible anger and I lose my temper so often. It causes me great shame. If I could just get rid of this anger I’d be perfect!’ I said to him, ‘You thank God for that anger!’ You can imagine how easily we could become arrogant if we thought we had overcome our weaknesses and we were ‘blameless’ before God, as a surprising number of people think they are. St. Thomas Aquinas says, ‘The only thing that we can take credit for are our sins’. Everything we have is a gift from God, including our abilities, our education, our successes, our health. We have nothing to boast about before God and it is often our weaknesses that help us to see this.

So is Christmas relevant to us in a practical way in our day to day living? It certainly is, because the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus is what reassures us that no matter how weak or sinful we are, the path to heaven will always remain open to us as long as we ask God for it. All we have to do is accept from God this amazing gift which He is offering us. What is the best way for us to prepare for this wonderful feast? by doing what God asks us to do and that is to repent and confess our sins; to acknowledge our sinfulness before God and ask for his mercy.

 ‘Who will save me from this wretched state? 

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’ (Rom 7:24)




3rd Sunday of Advent Year B (Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28). Jesus is the only one to follow


If you think for a moment of some of the modern-day people in our world who were considered holy during their life-time: people like Gandhi, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, John Paul II, and there are many others. Why did people flock to see them? Mother Teresa was just a small, very wrinkly old lady and yet everywhere she went to speak, she drew thousands of people. Why? We have plenty of little elderly ladies here, so why did they go to her?  Because she was close to God, someone who was in tune with the ways of the Lord and who lived by them. People who met her said it had a profound effect on them. The same with Padre Pio and many others. They radiated God because they were close to God.


We are attracted by holiness because it gives us a sense of the presence of God. There is a difference between holiness and piety. Piety is when people can be very devout and into all kinds of devotions etc. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s not the same as holiness. Just because someone is pious doesn’t necessarily mean they are holy. Holiness is really about being close to God and becoming more like him. 


We are attracted to holiness because God is attractive. Where does beauty, joy, happiness, fulfillment, come from? From God. If God wasn’t attractive we wouldn’t keep coming to mass, we wouldn’t continually seek him out in different places. You may feel that you come to mass because you are obliged to, or because it’s the thing to do, but that’s not really the reason. You come here because God draws you here. God continually draws us to him, but gently. He will never force us and so we can resist if we wish.


A few years ago, I remember hearing that the biggest area of interest in bookshops was occult and spiritual books. That is another indication of people’s search for God. They are searching for spiritual meaning, but unfortunately looking in the wrong place.


God has created us in such a way that there is what you might call a ‘God shaped hole’ within us that only He can fill. Nothing else will fully satisfy us.  Material things that we can buy will satisfy for a very short time only. People will satisfy us for longer, but never completely. Only the Lord himself will fulfil us completely, because God has created us in such a way that we have a capacity for the infinite. Only what is infinite will fill us completely. So when we meet people who seem to be close to God, we are drawn to them, because we want to get closer to God. We can’t help it.


Sometimes when people get married, they are disappointed after a while, because they don’t feel completely fulfilled by their partner. No other person is going to completely fulfil us, because we would be asking them to do what only God can do. If we realise this then it can help us a great deal, but if we expect another mere human being to fill this God shaped hole within us, then we’re going to be disappointed. People will let us down, but God will never let us down.


In today’s Gospel we are again presented with John the Baptist; this strange man that so many people wanted to listen to. People were also drawn to him. Jesus said that he was the greatest man ever born of a woman, which is quite a thing to say about someone.  He was a prophet, but also much more than a prophet. He was the one that God sent to announce the coming of Jesus.


So what did John say? When he saw Jesus, he said to the people with him, ‘There is the lamb of God… follow him, not me. He’s the one you want, I’m not.’ Those words should sound familiar. When the priest holds up the host at communion he says, ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ It’s the same thing that John the Baptist said. John said, ‘Follow him.’ Mother Teresa said, ‘Follow him’. Padre Pio said, ‘Follow him.’ Our Pope says, ‘Follow him.’ He is the one we are looking for, but we often don’t realise it. Jesus is the only one who can fulfil us, the only one we need to keep our sights on. The world around us keeps changing, but God doesn’t. The world around us will disappoint us, but God won’t.


Where do you look for happiness, for fulfilment, because there is only one place we will find it and that is in God. And the way to find it is by listening to what He tells us to do. The more we try and be faithful to everything God tells us, everything, the more we will be fulfilled and the more we will find inner peace. We will also be able to be at peace in the middle of the chaos that is around us.


In Jesus’ public ministry, He was continually faced with opposition, with hatred and there were several attempts on his life. People took offense at what He said, because it showed them where they were in error and that they needed to change if they were to be faithful to God’s word. And yet Jesus was at peace in the middle of all these shouting voices, because He was completely united to the Father. Notice too how many times it says that Jesus went off by himself to pray, often sending the Apostles away, so that He could be by himself in communion with the Father. It says that before He chose the twelve Apostles from all the people who were following him, He spent the whole night in prayer.


If we want to be at peace in the middle of our chaotic world, we need to draw closer and closer to the Father. When a child is afraid or distressed, where do they go? They go to their parents, for strength, comfort and reassurance. In the Scriptures, God is often portrayed as a mother and as a father. For me the most helpful image of God is the image of a parent with their child. No matter how much that child messes up, his parents don’t love him any less, they just help him and love him, even if he has to be disciplined. It is always out of love and concern for the child. God continually gives us the same image.

Can a mother forget her baby at the breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you’ (Is 49:15).




Friday, December 4, 2020

2nd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: Luke 3:1-6) Prepare a way for the Lord


Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc, but this is quite different from the original message. Advent used to be a much more penitential season, like Lent, preparing us spiritually for the extraordinary event of Christmas. This is why we wear purple, the colour of repentance. Although I love to see all the houses around me beautifully decorated and lit up, it makes me sad to see how few of them have any reference to the birth of Christ. Without the birth of Christ and the death and resurrection, we could not go to heaven when we die. No wonder it is such an extraordinary event. But now, so many people remove any reference to Christ, in case someone is offended. We must stand up for our faith and never apologize for it. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Whoever confesses me before others, I will confess before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father’ (Matt 10:32-33). We proudly display our flag, but what could be more important than saying we belong to God.

John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was very strong. ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and turn back to God.’ This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook. We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent. Just leave us alone and let us celebrate. We want absolution, but without having to confess. We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments. We want faith on our terms. That is called ‘cheap grace’. It is empty and it is not the message of God.

The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one. We can not come and pick what we like. Instead we come and ask what is required of us? That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘What must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. We are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them to be. If you’re not happy, move on; but this is not the message of the Gospels. In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us. We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms. 

Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman. What an extraordinary thing to say. He was totally focused on God. He knew what was important and he passed on the message he was told to pass on and it cost him his life. He spoke out publicly against the King Herod, saying that the way he was living with his brother’s wife was immoral. ‘What you are doing is wrong!’ Out of anger Herod had him arrested, taking away his public ministry and then out of hatred, his wife found a way to kill him. People don’t like it when you point out that they are not living as God tells us to. John was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth. We don’t always want to hear the truth, because it often tells us that we need to change.


When John saw the religious leaders of the time, this is what he said:

Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown on the fire.' (Luke 3:7)

f we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the message of John the Baptist. ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ The term ‘repent’ can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’ That is a particularly powerful message at this time in history. So many people are looking for happiness in the world and are disappointed because they cannot find happiness there. The Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness. It is only in God that we will find true happiness. The world will disappoint us; God will not. People will let us down, but God will not.

The sin of Adam and Eve was a very similar sin to what we see going on today. It involved three things: (1) rejecting the idea that they had to serve God or listen to his commands; (2) that they could have everything they wanted on their terms, (3) that they were like God themselves. That is very similar to what we see going on in our world right now and it is a real temptation. Why should we have to obey commandments? We don’t like being told we have to obey anyone and yet the word obey literally means ‘to listen intently’ (from the Latin, ‘ob audire’). And if you think about it, it says that Jesus was obedient to the Father. Jesus was equal to the Father, but Jesus was also obedient to him. We are being called to listen intently to what God tells us, to acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we must obey—listen intently—what He tells us, if we are to find the path to happiness.

The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins. And yes, most of us don’t like to have to confess our sins, we think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do and if God asks us to do it, it is for our benefit. Do you want to experience God’s blessing in your life, God’s healing? Then confess your sins. This is what God asks us to do. 

The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless. It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.

I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)  

Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways. The Lord wants to be at the centre of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.

Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’