Friday, April 30, 2021

5th Sunday of Easter Yr B (Gospel: John 15:1-8) The priesthood and the Eucharist



Perhaps one of the strangest things that Jesus did before he ascended to heaven, was to entrust his Church to priests; ordinary, sinful, weak human beings. This is something that we do not understand, but we believe. Through the gift of the priesthood, He gave us the most extraordinary gift of all, the gift of the Eucharist, which is the gift of Jesus himself really and truly present in the form of bread and wine. There is no gift greater than this, but the fact that he made it depend on priests is what is so strange.


I am sure that one reason in particular why he did this was to make it obvious that it is God who is at work and that the Lord is in no way dependent on the gifts or skills of human beings alone, especially not us priests.


There is a great story in the Old Testament which explains this; it is the story of Gideon (Cf. Judg 6:11 ff).  Gideon and his people were being wiped out by the Amorites and it was a time of great suffering for them. Then one day the angel of the Lord appears to this man Gideon and says, ‘Hail valiant warrior. The Lord is with you.’ In reply Gideon says, ‘If God is with us how come we are being wiped out?’ A fair question! The angel goes on to tell Gideon that God has specially chosen him to lead his people to freedom from their enemies. But Gideon asks an interesting question. He says, ‘Why would God pick me, since I am the weakest member of my family and my family is the weakest family in my tribe?’ In other words, why would God pick the weakest of the weak to lead his people to freedom? It doesn’t make any sense by our way of thinking, but the angel convinces him that God has chosen him and he will be alright. Gideon is then told to raise an army and so he gets together 30,000 men, but then to his astonishment God tells him to reduce the number of men to only 300 and he tells him why, and this is the crucial bit: ‘Lest the people think that it is by their own strength that they have won victory over their enemies.’ God chooses the weakest man around, with only a handful of men to conquer the enemy, so that it will be totally obvious that it was the power of God that made this happen. 


If Gideon had been a great warrior and he conquered his enemies with a huge army, then no one would be surprised. But when the most unexpected person leads a handful of men and conquers a huge army, then everyone says ‘Look what God did! What a miracle!’

I believe that God picked various men to be priests for the same reason, so that it would be obvious that it is God who is at work.  So He picks weak, ordinary men, to make it all the more obvious that the Church is still here because of him and not because of priests.


St. Paul also speaks about this in one of his letters. He writes, ‘We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us’ (2 Cor 4:7). God uses ordinary cracked pots  (‘cracked-pots’) to carry his message, to make it obvious that it is from him.


A 'mass rock', where masses were celebrated in secret during times of persecution.

When the priest says the words of consecration at each mass the Holy Spirit immediately and humbly comes down and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. God acts on the words of a human being! I don’t understand it, but I believe it. And when the priest says I absolve your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit immediately wipes away those sins.  God is so humble that He will act on the words of a human being.


Satan does not want us to receive the Eucharist, because he knows it really and truly is the body and blood of Jesus and throughout the centuries he tries to stop us. If you want to prevent people from receiving the Eucharist, the easiest way is to get rid of the priests, since you cannot have one without the other.


I want to share with you the story of one such incidence which took place in the west of Ireland in the early 1700s. During this time the British government passed what were called the Penal Laws, which made it illegal to be priests, or for people to attend mass. Their reasoning was that if they could crush the people’s faith, they would be able to control the people. It was a very difficult time for the people, as they had to practice their faith in secret. Many priests were hunted down and killed.


During this time there was a young man called Sean Malowney, who became known as Sean na Sagart, which means ‘Sean of the priests.’ As a young man he was very wild with no respect for anything or anyone. Eventually he was caught stealing a horse and sentenced to death. As he was about to be hanged, instead of showing any remorse, he continually cursed and blasphemed. The local sheriff Bingham, who was under great pressure to get rid of the priests, noticed the fearlessness of this man and he offered him a deal. He would release him if he agreed to hunt and kill priests. Sean happily agreed to this and was set free. He would get £5 English pounds for every associate pastor (curate) killed, £10 for every pastor (parish priest) and £20 for a bishop. £1 at that time would buy 15 cows, which was a huge sum of money.


Sean then began to hunt and kill priests and he was particularly good at it. He would cut off their heads and bring them to the court where he would get paid. He then threw the heads into a nearby lake, which is called Loch na gCeann, which means the Lake of Heads and it is still there. The local people could not stop him because he was protected by the British soldiers.


In one particular town there were two priests by the names of Fr. Kilger and Fr. Burke. Sean knew of this but he could not track them down as the local people hid them. So he devised a scheme to catch them. One night he went to his sister Nancy, who lived in the area and made as if to be dying. He told her that he knew if he died that night there was no chance for his soul and he wished to repent and confess his sins.  Nancy was skeptical at first, but eventually he convinced her and so she went to find the priests. When she told the priests they knew it could be a trap, but they also knew they couldn’t refuse him if he was truly repentant. Fr. Kilger went to hear his confession. Sean pretended to be very weak and could only whisper. As Fr. Kilger came close to hear him, Sean stabbed him in the heart.


The grave of Sean na Sagart, now split in half by an ash tree

The next day he was to be buried. At the graveside Fr. Burke came disguised as a woman to bless him. Sean spotted him and put a gun to his head, but the gun jammed.  Fr. Burke fled, but Sean pursued him and the chase lasted all day. Eventually Sean got close enough that he was able to throw his knife which stabbed him in the leg and disabled him, but as he was about to kill him, another man intervened, shouted to the priest to throw him the knife and then killed Sean with his own knife.


The soldiers had Sean buried in the local cemetery, but after they left, the locals dug up his body and threw it in the lake. The priest, however, said that he should be buried properly and so they found Sean’s body and buried him. Normally Christians were buried facing East as a sign of waiting for the risen Christ, but they buried him facing north, which was a pagan burial and a sign of no hope as it never faced the rising sun. An ash tree sapling then grew up and split the gravestone in half. It is still there today. I got a friend who lives near by to take some photographs of it just a few days ago and although it is Spring and everything is in blossom, there are hardly any leaves or buds on the tree. It is a very eerie sight.


I think it is good to hear these stories. They remind us of the risks people were willing to take to receive the Eucharist. It helps me to remember what an extraordinary gift it is. It is easy to take it for granted, because we are free to come to mass, to receive the Eucharist and practice our faith. I am sure if we were faced with persecution like that, people would still risk their lives, because what could be greater than being able to receive the body and blood of Christ. I think it can also help us to remember the respect we need to show when we come to receive Holy Communion; how we approach it, how we dress, how we receive.


To receive Jesus is to receive life itself. May we always have a sense of the greatness of this gift.


‘This is my Body which will be given up for you.’

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Third Sunday of Easter (Luke 24:35-48) “Repent, therefore and be converted…”


Pope John Paul II said that modern society has lost a sense of sin and it is so true. We live in a time where sin is continually denied. What is evil is considered good and no one is allowed to say otherwise, or they are considered hateful. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says, ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil… Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight’ (Is 5:20). That is exactly what we see around us at this time, even within the Church. I read recently that the German bishops are on the verge of breaking with Rome. They disagree with some of the moral teachings of the Church and believe that they know better, thanks to modern developments in science and psychology. ‘Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes…’ They are basically saying, we know better than God’s word.


Much of what was considered sinful in the past is now accepted as normal. If you go back a few decades, sex was only considered to be acceptable within marriage. Now look where we are. Largely because of TV and music videos, we have come to accept it as normal for any relationship, any time. Yet in the Scriptures, it is called fornication and it is a sin, which means it is offensive to God. While that might be considered old-fashioned, there is great wisdom in it for many reasons. If intimate relations are kept only for marriage, that would stop most sexually transmitted diseases instantly. It would also drastically reduce the amount of abortions. Research shows that teens who sleep around experience a higher rate of anxiety and depression. God in his wisdom knows what works best for us, just like any parent looking out for their children and He shows us what will work best, what will bring the greatest joy and peace, but we have to listen.


As we try and be faithful to the laws of God, we must also pass this teaching on to the next generation. If we don’t teach them what is respectful in church, what is morally right and wrong, who will? TV and internet are probably the biggest sources of influence for most people, especially the younger generation. We must not be afraid to point out what is right and wrong, even if everyone else is saying it is acceptable.


It is interesting that people who are considered holy, are referred to as God-fearing people, rather than God-loving people. Of course, God-fearing also implies God-loving. There is a healthy fear of God, just as there is a healthy fear of our parents. ‘I would never do that, because my mother would kill me!’ That is a healthy fear. ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov 9:10). We tend to focus more on the importance of knowledge, which is good, but knowledge without wisdom can be dangerous. In Nazi Germany, the people were well educated and had all the information and knowledge they needed, but there was no wisdom, which led to terrible evil. A very important thing to pray for, is wisdom, knowing what is important and what is acceptable to God. It is an ongoing choice for us to keep asking what God wants us to do and the answers are in the Scriptures, which is why we keep going back to them. If we want to negotiate all the obstacles we are facing, we have to keep asking God to guide us.


One of the central teachings throughout the Bible, is repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is mentioned in the first reading and the Gospel today. Jesus sends the Apostles out to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When the Apostles started preaching, Peter said, ‘Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away’ (Acts 3:19). The blood of Jesus was shed for the forgiveness of sins. Throughout the Old Testament God continually called the people to repent of their sins, not just individually, but also as a society. God calls us to do the same. That is something that we have also lost sight of to a large degree. ‘It is several years since my last confession, but I haven’t really sinned.’ In St. John’s first letter he says, ‘If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar’ (1 Jn 1:10). If sin is not real, the crucifixion is meaningless and there was no need for Jesus to come among us.


Scripture says, ‘Though the righteous falls seven time, he gets up again.’ In other words, we continually fall, but we also continually get up again, repent.


One of the lines that strikes me repeatedly is where Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ (Matt 7:21). It is easy to say I am a Christian and I love God, but Jesus says that is not enough. We must do the will of the Father in heaven. He is saying that if we want to go to heaven, we must do the will of the Father in heaven.

Recently I read an article where a young lady was saying that she wasn’t going to let her Christian faith stop her from putting pictures of herself on one of these adult websites, where she could make money from it, as if the two were compatible. They are not. It is not those who say, ‘Lord, Lord, who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.’


Everything that God commands us and shows us, is to help us, because He loves us. Even when He punishes the people for the sinfulness, it is out of love for them so that they might repent and come back to him.


One of the consequences of Original Sin, is that we are not convinced that God is good, that God has our best interests at heart. Remember how it says that after Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God. ‘Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God… and they hid from the Lord God among the trees’ (Gen 3:8). Suddenly they were afraid of God, although they hadn’t been up to that point. They were no longer convinced that God was good and that He had their best interests at heart. The effects of their sin has carried through to us and as a result we are not always convinced that what God tells us is sinful, is really that bad. I need to accept God’s word as truth, because it comes from God, even if I don’t understand it. If you are questioning whether something is no longer sinful, read the Scriptures and the Catechism, because what is sinful rarely changes.


It is not those who say to me ‘Lord, Lord, who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.’



Friday, April 9, 2021

2nd Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday (Gospel: John 20:19-31) Peace be with you


In December 2005 it was announced on the news that a man called Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Féin’s top men (Sinn Féin was the political wing of the IRA), confessed to having been a British spy for the previous twenty years.  People were shocked and astonished that this could have happened. The man obviously could not live with this any longer and so he went public and confessed what he had done. He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was murdered four months later. God be good to him. I remember thinking at the time that he must be living in terrible fear; fear of being hunted down and killed. He had betrayed many and now he would be afraid of what they would do to him. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.


2000 years earlier on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, who they believed was the Son of God. Judas had betrayed him for money. Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus. They all betrayed him. Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room, afraid. Why are they afraid? First because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates. If you remember in St. John’s Gospel, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it says that some time later they had a dinner for him. Many people came, not only to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus who had been raised from the dead. Wouldn’t you?! But it also says that the authorities decided it would be best to get rid of Lazarus as well as Jesus. Tie up any lose ends, as we would say. So, the Apostles had good reason to be afraid, from a human point of view.


Perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them. They had betrayed the Son of God. It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.


Then something beautiful happens. Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’ The first thing he does is to take away their fear. There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before. There are no words of judgement, about how they were unable to be faithful. Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘It’s alright.’


I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed Jesus and indeed sometimes wish I was not a priest, when my own sinfulness gets the better of me. And in case you think I am just trying to be holy by saying this, I am not. I am a sinner, just like anyone else. That is one thing that God has left me under no illusions about. Sometimes I think it would be better for me not to be a priest as I would not have to deal with what is sacred. I could run and hide, so to speak. Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish. Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man’ and what was Jesus’ response? ‘Do not be afraid.’ Now, after the resurrection, after the betrayal, injustice, panic, when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease. ‘Peace be with you.’ 


Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘Do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned. Peace be with you.’ God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns, or giving out. He knows what we are like. He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace, as long as we are willing to repent. I find that very comforting.


Think too of Thomas, who in his grief at the death of Jesus, would not allow the words of others to convince him that Jesus was alive. When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful. And then when Jesus did appear to him, He was so kind in helping him to believe. No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe. No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement. That is so characteristic of how Jesus dealt with people. Always with compassion, mercy, love and encouragement.


Today is also known as ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’. Let me tell you one short story which to me says it all. There is a story told of a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home. He decided to desert the army, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death. Now this man was the only son of his mother, who was now widowed. His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person. She pleaded for her son and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world. The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on the man. Napoleon said in reply, ‘He doesn’t deserve mercy’. But the mother replied to Napoleon, ‘If he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’


Mercy is a gift. God’s mercy is a gift. We don’t deserve it, but God longs to show us his mercy and that is one of the reasons He appeared to St. Faustina and asked her to spread this devotion to his mercy, because God does not want us to live in fear, but to be assured that any effort on our part to live as He asks, is enough. We will never manage to live perfectly, but as long as we are striving to grow closer to God, that is enough. God has created us to be with him and God will do everything possible to make that happen, except force us. There is nothing we can do which God will not forgive if we ask him. That is God’s promise to us. All we have to do is reach out to him.


Peace be with you. It is I. Do not be afraid.’



Saturday, April 3, 2021

Easter Sunday (Gospel: John 20:1-9)


There is an extraordinary line in St. Matthew’s account of the passion. During the trial of Jesus, because there is conflicting evidence against him which is of no use to them, the High Priest eventually asks Jesus directly: I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

And Jesus answered:

 “The words are your own. Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:63-64).


In other words, Jesus says “Yes, I am the Son of God.” For Jesus to make a claim like that he must have been either a liar, insane, or he was telling the truth, because it is an extraordinary thing to say. We believe it was the truth and that is exactly who Jesus is, not just a holy man, or a prophet, but the Son of God.


In the book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, St. John the Apostle, who stood at the cross, recalls a vision he had where a man appeared to him. He says that he saw what seemed to be a man. His hair was white as wool, or snow. His eyes were like fire. His skin was like shining bronze and out of his mouth came a double-edged sword. He says that he was so afraid when he saw this that he fell down as if dead. Then this person or being that he saw touched him and said, 

Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one. I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld” (Rev 1:17b-18).


Who was this person? It was of course Jesus, risen from death. Not just the Jesus whose name we so often hear used carelessly as a swear word, but Jesus who is the Son of God. Now John, who had this vision, had known and lived with Jesus for at least three years, so why would Jesus appear to him in such a terrifying form? Perhaps to remind him and us of who Jesus really is, that is, the Son of God.


From a human point of view Good Friday is the ultimate sign of despair and failure. Everything falls apart and everyone is devastated. There is a terrible miscarriage of justice and Jesus, the one everyone was putting their hope in is tortured in a very savage way and killed. Even Jesus on the cross feels abandoned by the Father. He is not actually abandoned by God but that is how he feels and he cries out “My God, my God why have you abandoned me.” The ultimate suffering is to feel that we have been abandoned even by God. From a human point of view it couldn’t get any worse. 


Then we have the silence of Holy Saturday when Jesus is in the tomb. People are in shock, numb from what has happened and not sure what to do next. And then we come to Easter Sunday, the opposite of Good Friday and the ultimate symbol of hope. The unimaginable happens and rumours start to spread that Jesus is alive. ‘But that is impossible!’ many said. Most of the disciples would not believe it initially, yet that is what happened. From a human point of view, it is impossible and naive to think such a thing could happen, but there is more than human work here. The power of God has brought about something extraordinary which no human mind can take in. This is what God has made known to us.


A childhood friend of mine asked me to do his wedding, which I was happy to do. I asked him if he would be receiving Holy Communion, as I didn’t know if he was a practicing Catholic. He said he would like to, but he told me he didn’t believe in the resurrection. He was a pathologist (the doctors who do autopsies). He said as a scientist he couldn’t accept the resurrection. I admired his honesty.


From a scientific point of view, it is impossible, but so is creating something out of nothing. If God is real and God has created the universe, why would raising someone from the dead be impossible? But that is where faith comes in. Rationally it is not possible, but for God everything is possible. Remember when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said she was to become the mother of Jesus. Then he told her that Elizabeth was already six months pregnant, ‘Because nothing is impossible for God.’ (Luke 1:37)


Throughout the bible there are many accounts of God intervening in nature. Many of the women in the Old Testament conceived miraculously when they were either barren or well past the age of childbearing. Just because it is beyond our understanding, or logic, doesn’t mean it cannot happen.


I think there is a certain humility required with faith. We would like to think that with enough scientific development, we would be able to explain everything, but we can’t. Even science is full of contradictions.


Easter is the ultimate symbol of hope, because now the worst thing imaginable, which is death, is no longer permanent. God has opened a doorway for us to something wonderful when we die, so that we can see and be with our loved ones again. Think of the people you love who are dead. Without Easter they could not experience happiness now and neither could we when we die. So now our life has greater purpose than just what happens here and that gives us a greater hope than anything else. Now we have reason to keep going even when things are difficult. Now we are given purpose and we have a better sense of what our life is about. that is, our journey that will lead us to God if we remain open to it.


Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld.”