Friday, July 30, 2021

18th Sunday Year B (Gospel: John 6:24-35) Work for food that endures to eternal life.



During the week a priest friend of mine was telling me that he was just back from holidays where he had been mountain climbing with a German priest friend of his. They were somewhere in the mountains on the Austrian-German border. His friend had a map, but it was five years old and one of the paths they took turned out to be very dangerous. It was basically no longer usable. He said that for most of it there was a rope on one side for safety, although there was a sheer drop on the other side.  But then they came to a place about 15 feet long where there was no rope, so they just had to cling to the side of the cliff on this extremely narrow ledge until they got past it. He told me that it was quite terrifying and a matter of slowly taking one step at a time, then finding proper hand grip, then another step. By the time he got to the far side he was quite exhausted and traumatised, but what interested me was that his friend, who is an experienced mountaineer, then told him to sit down and that they should eat something. When you have been through an experience like that, eating changes your metabolism and calms you down. And he said that it did just that. Within a short time he was fine again.


There is also an interesting story in the Old Testament where the prophet Elijah is on the run having just worked an extraordinary miracle, but now Queen Jezebel is out to kill him. So he escapes into the desert, but at one point he sits down feeling fed up and prays to God, ‘Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors’, or in modern English, ‘I wish I was dead; I’ve had enough’. Then he lies down and goes to sleep.  But then he is woken by an angel who tells him to get up and eat, so that he will have enough strength for the journey. There he finds food beside him. The right kind of nourishment is essential.


In this Gospel passage Jesus is just after working the miracle of feeding five thousand people with the five loaves and two fish and the people come after him to see more of this wonder-worker. However, as is often the case, the miracle Jesus worked was pointing to something deeper and He says to them, ‘You are only looking for me because you got free food, but you didn’t see the “sign.” What ‘sign’? What was He talking about? And then He says, ‘Don’t be concerned only with temporary food, but look for the food that endures forever.’ The miracle of multiplying the loaves, was a sign of something much deeper. Jesus then begins to teach them that there is another kind of food that we need for our whole life; not just material food that you eat, but food which brings meaning/purpose/direction. And then He tells them that He is this food which lasts forever and the kind of food we need for the journey which is our whole life. Jesus is the one who gives us strength and meaning to help us keep going.  He is the one who makes sense of what our whole life is about. If you don’t have the right kind of meaning or purpose for being here, then it is very hard to keep going especially when things don’t make sense, as they so often don’t.


In the second reading (Ephesians 4:17, 20-24) St. Paul says, ‘You must no longer live in the futility of your minds,’ in another translation it says, ‘Don’t live the kind of aimless life that Pagans live.’ That is exactly what can happen to us if we lose sight of faith, or get too caught up in the world and worldly worries. We forget what the real purpose of our life is. You see this happening all around us, especially when things are good economically. At this time more and more people are living aimless lives, focused only on themselves and their families, forgetting that there is something much bigger going on, which we are all part of, whether we like it or not. Our life is not just about ourselves. We were created by God, remain in existence because of God and can only go to heaven by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our life only makes sense in God. Apart from God our life is meaningless.   


I always find it sad to meet people at a funeral who have little or no faith. You can see that they don’t know what to turn to. They have no hope. They talk about the deceased as though their existence is over, because they see this life as everything. Now their life is finished. We believe almost the opposite. When we die, our time of service is complete. Our time of free choice is complete, but now we begin eternal life, either with or without God. If we really believe that, then painful and all as death is, we have the hope that sooner or later we can be with our loved ones again. It is only a temporary separation. The earthly part of our life is over, but our life isn’t over. We will live forever. It is just a question of where.


God is showing us that the right kind of food for the journey is Jesus himself. ‘I am the bread of life’. That is why Jesus gives himself to us in the Eucharist and speaks to us through his word, so that we have all the nourishment that we need for the journey. If we know what our life is about, it is much easier to keep going even if we are struggling physically. 


When God fed the people of Israel with manna in the desert, He told them to only collect enough food for each day. If they collected more than this, the food went off, except for the day before the Sabbath. The day before the Sabbath they were to collect enough for two days, so that they could rest on the Sabbath and when they did collect enough, it didn’t go off. He was teaching them to trust in him to take care of them on a daily basis. The Lord continues to do the same with us. That is also why He doesn’t reveal the future to us. He wants us to trust that He will take care of us.


The people asked Jesus, ‘What can we do to accomplish the works of God?’ In other words, ‘What is God asking us to do?’ and Jesus answers, ‘You must believe in the One He has sent.’ To fulfil what God asks us to do, we must believe in Jesus, in who He is, in what He has done for us and what He teaches us. When we die we will instantly stand before him for judgement. We would be foolish to wait until then to sort everything out, because then it will be too late. This life is when we are to put our affairs in order. Jesus is the only one who makes sense of it and Jesus gives us himself as the spiritual food we need. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we receive the gift of Jesus himself, not just a symbol, but really and truly Jesus himself and Jesus is a real, living person. Every time we listen to the Scriptures, we are listening to God speaking to us and speaking to us in a very personal way.


Jesus must be at the centre, everything else comes second.


I am the bread of life. 

Whoever comes to me will never be hungry;

Whoever believes in me will never thirst.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

17th Sunday Year B (Gospel: John 6:1-15) Juares, Mexico and the multiplication of food


City dump in Juares, Mexico

The world we live in makes it very easy to be cynical and skeptical. There are explanations for so many things, and people are quick to dismiss what cannot be proven. The miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish is one miracle that I have often heard explained away too. Today I would like to tell you about a similar miracle which happened quite recently.

The city of Juares, in Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with constant killings because of the drug wars. In 1972 a priest by the name of Fr. Rick Thomas and a sister Maria Virginia, were the instruments of an amazing miracle there.


In 1964 Fr Richard Thomas, a Jesuit, had been appointed to El Paso, in Texas. In 1970 he was profoundly touched by God and started charismatic prayer meetings in the parish. Sr. Maria Virginia, DC, was also an inspired leader. During one prayer meeting in 1972 they read the passage in Luke 14:12-14 which says,

When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relations, or rich neighbors, in case they invite you back and so repay you. When you have a party, invite the poor… for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again.


The prayer group decided that on Christmas day that year, 1972, they would provide a Christmas lunch to the poor who lived and worked in the dump in Ju├írez. The poor people in the dump used to separate the trash into various types, cans, bottles, cardboard etc and then sell it to a co-op which would in turn sell it on. They lived in the dump and worked 7 days a week for $5. The prayer group prepared food for 125 people on Christmas Day. When they got to the dump Fr Richard and the group discovered that they had two labor unions, or trade unions. One union could not go into the other’s area. Eventually Fr Richard got them to come together in one area for the food. Three hundred and fifty people turned up, almost 3 times as many people as they were prepared for. So, Fr Richard explained that there was not enough food for everyone, but they would share what they had. After they distributed it, all 350 people had enough food; the dump people also took some food home and then came back for more, again and again. Afterwards, there was still food left over, so much so, that they took the leftovers to three orphanages.


According to Father Richard, he and those who were there have encountered the inexplicable multiplication of food on dozens of occasions — right up to today; at times aware of what was happening, in other cases noticing the miracle when they counted up items afterwards. In another example 350 cans of milk were brought to the poor, but every one of the 500 people who came, actually got one. Sacks of flour have produced flour as if from an endless supply, to the shock of those handing it out. They have even taken measurements of what was removed and it simply doesn’t add up.


On another occasion Fr. Rick and the others who worked with him, were praying and they felt that the Lord was telling them to go to one of the prisons with food for Christmas day.  So they decided they would do just that and they brought what they thought would be enough food, but in fact they were seriously short. However, they just began cutting up the food and distributing it and the food began to multiply, although they didn’t realise it for a while. They ended up having enough to feed all the prisoners and all the staff as well. They had also decided to go to one of the city dumps and bring a Christmas dinner for the hundreds of people there who live off the dump. They brought enough for about 150 people, but in fact 3 times that number turned up. Again they just started cutting up the food and distributing it, but no matter how much they gave out there was more food. The food was miraculously multiplying. Not only were they able to feed all those who turned up, but they had so much left over that it took them three days to get rid of all that was left over. There is a video of this available called ‘Viva Christo Re.’  Fr. Rick Thomas died in 2006.


One of the reasons I want to tell you about these miracles is to help you to believe that this miracle of the loaves and fishes, which we have just heard about, was real. I have sometimes heard it being explained away and people saying that in fact all that happened was that people were so embarrassed when they saw the little boy giving his food, that they produced their own food. It is sad when people rationalise the miracles of Jesus, as though nothing really extraordinary happened. If nothing extraordinary happened the accounts of them wouldn’t have survived 2000 years.  These miracles were real and they have been passed on to us to help us to believe and to understand what the teaching of Jesus is all about.


What is even more important than the miracles themselves is what they point to. In John’s Gospel the miracles are continually referred to as ‘signs’.  Jesus worked these signs and his disciples believed in him. All the miracles were pointing to who Jesus was, that He is the Son of God and to help those with him (and us) to believe in his teaching. His teaching is about the reality of God and the afterlife; that God is interested in us in a very personal way; and that God is very much with us. These are not just pious stories, but events that happened, so that we might believe.


When you think of a place like Mexico and the dire poverty that is there, a kind of poverty that we simply don’t have here, wouldn’t it make more sense if the Lord worked a miracle of giving all these people work, or a better way of life? But instead the Lord gave them this miracle, this sign of his presence among them. It was a way of saying that ‘I am here among you and concerned for you.’ This gave them hope and courage and faith. Apparently after the miracle of food in the prison, the whole place was completely transformed, staff and prisoners. They witnessed the supernatural and it gave them hope and a new purpose in their life. This hope is much more important than just our physical needs being met, because hope gives the strength to endure, especially in hard times. To know that God is with us, not just in a general kind of way, but in a very intimate way, makes all the difference and gives us an interior strength for living.


It is very tempting to focus solely on the material needs of people. ‘We will eliminate poverty forever!’ Actually we won’t. Jesus himself said that the poor would always be with us. (Mk 14:7). People come to us all the time looking for material support, partly because they confuse us with St. Vincent de Paul society, but we try and help as many as we can. Whatever help we can give people is always short term, but what is more important is the fact that someone was willing to help them. I have had people burst into tears when we agreed to help them, simply because they were so desperate, but they also recognise it as God helping them in their need and that is far more important than the material help itself.


The miracles of Jesus are meant to help us in the same way; to encourage us, to give us hope and to remind us that Jesus is with us, aware of all our needs and constantly  looking after us. Our prayers may not always be answered in the way we would like them to be, but it is more important to know that the Lord is with us.


When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the prophet who was to come into the world.”




Sunday, July 18, 2021

16th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 6:30-34)) The Lord provides everything we need

St. Patrick's Seminary, Maynooth, Ireland (Est. 1795)

Every so often I come across someone who is very critical of Maynooth seminary—where I studied to be a priest—and how awful it is, etc. This is usually from things they have heard about it, as opposed to direct experience. Just before I began my studies there I had heard a lot of bad press as well. However, what I found there was something quite different. Essentially Maynooth offered us a pretty good formation, or training, but all they could do was offer it. It was completely up to us whether we took it on board or not. Needless to mention it was far from perfect and there were plenty of problems there too, but that is normal. However, the staff there were continually reminding us that our formation (or training) as priests was basically in our own hands. They could not force us to comply with what they taught and if we decided to just have a great time while we were there, there was not a lot they could do about it. A few guys did have a great time and didn’t take their time there seriously, but inevitably they were the ones who hit a major crisis either just before or just after they were ordained.


While most of us are not going to be in a seminary, but just getting on with our lives wherever we find ourselves, the same holds true for our spiritual life. If I want to grow as a Christian it is essentially in my own hands. God offers us everything we need and more, but it is up to us whether we make use of it or not. It is the Lord himself who guides us, and that’s what today’s readings are all about. Even if the shepherds He sends don’t do their job properly, the Lord is saying that He himself will look after us, and He does, sometimes in extraordinary ways, to remind us of how real He is and how much He is present to us, but mostly in less dramatic ways.


I’d like to share two stories with you, which both show the extraordinary lengths that Jesus will go to, to help us.


The first one is about a priest who lived in New Jersey. We will call him Fr. Malachy. One evening Fr. Malachy got a phone call from relatives in San Francisco, telling him that one of his cousins was very sick in hospital and probably going to die. Could he come over to be with him? So Malachy agreed and caught a flight to San Francisco.


When he arrived at the hospital he was met by an elderly nun at the door. When she realized he was a priest, she asked him if he would visit a man who was dying. She told him, "This man is very angry and probably won’t be receptive to you and will tell you to go away. He has already turned away two other priests, but he really needs to go to confession. Please don’t give up if he starts swearing at you." So Fr. Malachy went to the man’s room and sure enough as soon as he opened the door, the man started swearing and cursing at him and telling him to go away, he didn't want to see any priests. But Fr. Malachy held his ground and asked him why he was so angry. The man replied, ‘Don’t you know who I am? I murdered a whole family and have been twenty years in prison for it.’ He asked him what had happened. The man explained that he had worked on the railroads and his job was to change the tracks to guide the trains in the right direction. But at the time, he was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. One evening on the job, he fell asleep. The result was a train crash which killed five people, a couple and their three children. Fr. Malachy asked when this happened and the man explained that it was in 1976. Fr. Malachy said to him, ‘They were my parents and brothers who were killed.’ The man was stunned and didn’t know what to say. Fr. Malachy went on to say, ‘I forgive you. It was an accident and you were struggling with addiction. If I can forgive you, how much more will Jesus forgive you?’


The man had been so angry because he was afraid he was going to go to hell when he died and he was directing his anger against God and his representatives, his priests. So the man made his confession and was reconciled with God. He died not long afterwards. See the lengths God will go to, to show us how much He is looking after us.


The other story is about a priest who was working in Ottawa, Canada. This priest, Fr. John, had great devotion to the Divine Mercy, as revealed by God to St. Faustina Kowalska in Poland. One evening while at prayer he heard an interior voice telling him that he was to get up and go to Krakow, in Poland. The voice was so strong, he knew it was coming from God and he knew he had to do it, although this made no sense to him. He called a couple of friends and told them what had happened and that he was about to get on a plane to Krakow. They asked him what he was going to do there and he said he had no idea. Needless to mention they thought he was nuts. But this prompting was so strong that he knew he had to do this and so he got a ticket and flew across the Atlantic to Krakow. When he arrived he didn’t know where to go, so he decided to go and visit the shrine of the Divine Mercy. When he arrived at the shrine he spent some time in prayer. While he was praying the Divine Office, which all priests pray, he heard a commotion outside the door. He went outside to see a girl on the steps of the church with her parents. She was screaming. As soon as she saw Fr. John she began cursing at him in English and telling him to go away, she hated him and hated God, etc. She was possessed. So Fr. John went off to his hotel and got his holy oils and came back and prayed with her. He wasn’t allowed to do a formal exorcism, because you need special permission to do that, but he commanded the spirit to leave and blessed her with the holy oil. The girl screamed, but then the spirit seemed to leave and she became peaceful.


Divine Mercy Shrine, Krakow, Poland.

The next day when he was at his hotel, he got a message to say that some people outside wanted to see him. When he came down he met the same couple and the young girl. They had brought an interpreter. They explained to him that they lived several hundred miles from Krakow. But the day before, the girl had suddenly got an overwhelming urge to go to Krakow. She went in and woke her parents and told them she had to go to Krakow. They were asleep and told her to go back to bed; besides, Krakow was hundreds of miles away. But the girl kept insisting and insisting and eventually the parents agreed and set out for Krakow. They explained that the girl had become interested in witchcraft and magic, from watching Harry Potter. Eventually she started looking up how to practice magic and work spells, etc. In the end she had become possessed. They also realized that the time when she got this urge to go to Krakow was the same time that Fr. John had heard this inner voice to go to Krakow.


Now wouldn’t you imagine that the Lord might have gotten a priest that was already in Krakow, instead of bringing this priest all the way from Canada? But the Lord was showing them something and is showing us something, that is, the lengths He will go to in order to help us. He is constantly with us, constantly guiding us and will continue to do so until we get to heaven.


I have had one or two experiences like that, although thankfully I haven’t had to travel as far. Most of how God guides us is much less dramatic. But what Jesus is showing us is that He is present to us all the time and only wants us to reach this happiness which He has created us for. The Lord gives us several very powerful ways to guide, strengthen and protect us on this journey, but just as with the training in the seminary, all He can do is offer it to us. What help am I talking about?


Firstly, through the sacred Scriptures, the Bible, which we listen to at every mass. Do you ever wish God would speak to you? He does speak to us, all the time, so much so that He gave us a whole book of what He has to say to us, to guide and instruct us. Read it, every day, even if it is only for 10 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how much God has to say to you. Think of all the other information we take in each day, through all kinds of media, advertising, internet, television. What could possibly be more important than what God has to say?


Secondly, the Lord teaches us through his Church.  The teaching of the Church is his teaching and not just the teaching of a group of people. That is why we continue to try and live it and take it seriously, because it is what God himself is teaching us. 


Above all He gives us his own body and blood in the Eucharist, so that we can be intimately united to him in the most extraordinary way. The Eucharist really and truly is Jesus, not just a symbol, or some kind of special holy bread. He continually reminds us of this through all the different Eucharistic Miracles. He wants us to know that He is with us every step of the way in every situation. He is never not there. What more could we possibly ask for than Jesus himself and yet so often we just think of these things as just ‘religious things’, but not really a part of our day-to-day path. On the contrary, they are the exact things that we need for our day-to-day path and they reach into every aspect of our life.

He also gives us the extraordinary healing of confession. The Lord is well aware of how much we struggle with sin, which is why He has also given us confession to heal us, give us courage and the strength to get up and continue the journey.

We have been given all the help we could ask for and more. We don’t need something new. What we need is to see what we already have.


"The remnant of my flock I myself will gather from all the countries where I have dispersed them and will bring them back to their pastures" (Jeremiah 23:3)

Friday, July 9, 2021

15th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 6:7-13) If they do not accept you in any town, shake off the very dust of your feet as a sign to them.



As a priest, I often find myself in a position which is similar to what we hear about in the first reading from the prophet Amos (7:12-15), even though this is 2000 years later. In modern English it might sound something like this: ‘Look Fr. Murchadh go and talk about God somewhere else. We don’t want to hear about it here, we are busy with our own lives.’ And I might respond like Amos, ‘Why don’t you listen to me?! I didn’t choose to do this. God ordered me to go and speak to you, but now you can take it or leave it.’

In one way we priests—and indeed anyone who teaches about the ways of God—are still in the same position today. We are asked to pass on the same message of Christ, regardless of whether people listen to us or not. This is not an easy thing to do, as people often don’t want to hear what we have to say, especially if it’s controversial. There is a big temptation for us, for me, to try to only say what you would like to hear, so that you will think well of me, because like anyone else, I want to be accepted by other people too, but that is not what we are called to do by the Lord. 

The message God asks us to preach is what Jesus preached and what He told the Apostles to preach. Christ died for our sins, so that we could have eternal life. If we want to receive this eternal life, we must listen to his teaching, live by his Commandments and repent of our sins. The repentance of our sins is one part of that message that is getting very blurred at this time. We are being told that everyone must be accepted as they are. Certainly, everyone is welcome in the Church, but God’s calling is also one of repentance. In the Gospel it says, ‘So they went off and preached repentance.’ If my way of life is not in accordance with what God asks of me, I must change. That is the basic calling of the Gospel and it has not changed and will not change, because God’s message does not change.

Think of the people Jesus met in the Gospels. The woman caught in adultery. Jesus finishes by saying to her, ‘“Has no one condemned you? She replied, “No one sir.” “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin anymore.”’ (John 8:10-11). Matthew the tax collector gave up the corrupt way he was living when he began to follow Jesus. It was the same with all the others who began to follow Jesus. St. Paul completely changed his life after he encountered Jesus. He stopped persecuting the Christians. The basic call of God for all of us is one of repentance.

In Nazi Germany, I’m sure many of the people considered themselves good people, law abiding citizens, who tried to do the right thing. So why did such terrible evil come about? Because they were measuring themselves by their own standards, not by God’s standards. The same applies to us. We must be careful not to measure ourselves by our own standards, or by society’s standards, but by God’s standards. That is why we keep listening to his Word, and asking ourselves what is God asking of me right now? How is my life situation according to God’s word? It is easy to say that I love God and I am a good person, but what God asks of us is very specific: put God first, not yourself; not even your family. Do not misuse the God’s holy name. Keep Sunday as a day when God is given priority, not just when we try to fit him in. Honor your father and mother, whether you love them or not. Do not kill, steal, cheat, lust, lie, or covet. Accept what God teaches us as right and wrong. We must not be the ones to decide what is ultimately right and wrong. That is what is happening in our society at this time. We are being told that we must be tolerant of what God tells us is wrong. We are told that marriage is whatever you want it to be. God tells us that marriage is a life-long commitment between a man and a woman. We are being told that there are no differences between a man and a woman. God tells us that there are very definite distinctions between men and women, which He created and He decides. God tells us what is right and wrong and we must not change that.

The temptation that Satan presented to Adam and Eve, was to be like God and to become the ones who decide what is ultimately good and evil. That’s why God told them not to touch the fruit of the tree of good and evil. Listen to what Satan said: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). But they gave in to the temptation and decided that they could be the ones to decide what was good and evil and be like God. Look what happens in our society when we do that. It implodes, falls apart.

The Lord tells us that if we reject his order of creation, then we will no longer enjoy his blessing and protection. ‘You’re on your own.’ 

The message that the Lord calls us to preach, often meets with opposition, as it has since the first Prophets began speaking in his name, because that same message challenges us when we are doing wrong and no one likes to be told that they are doing wrong. Most of the Prophets were murdered because of what they said. It is interesting that almost all of them resisted when God called them to go and speak to the people. For the most part their response was, ‘No Lord, please ask someone else. I am not able to do that!’ God told them to point out what was wrong, what was not in accordance with his will and they were hated and killed for it.

The prophet Elijah, after working an extraordinary miracle, then has a death threat against him. He flees into the desert, sits down under a tree and says, ‘Lord, take my life, I am no better than my ancestors’ (1Kg 19:4). In other words, ‘I wish I was dead. I have had enough of this!’ It says that he lay down and went to sleep, but then an angel woke him and told him to eat the food that was there, as he would need it for the journey. God doesn’t let him off the hook, but pushes him to keep going.

When Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, he resists. Listen to his response:

Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jer 1:6-8) 

When Moses was called his response was to give all the reasons why he shouldn’t go and eventually he just says: ‘Please Lord, send someone else!’ (Ex 4:13)

Over the last decade in Mexico, twenty-five priests were murdered, probably because they were speaking out against the terrible violence and corruption that exists, largely because of the drug cartels. Preaching God’s word is not always popular, but that is what He asks us to do. I personally know two priests who were murdered: one in Iraq for continuing to keep the church open and celebrate mass. He was continually warned by extremists to close the church, but he wouldn’t and so they ambushed him after mass and shot him along with three deacons. The other priest I know was working in Africa to bring about peace between two warring tribes. He was also ambushed and shot. That’s pretty-much what they did with the prophets too. If they didn’t like what they were hearing, they killed them.

So, pray for us priests that we will have the courage to do what the Lord calls us to do. Help us to be strong in our faith. It is not our place to preach our opinions, but to preach the Word of God. Our opinions will not help or nourish you, but the Word of God will. What we say should challenge you, because the voice of the Lord is a very challenging one. Hearing about all those priests and prophets who were killed might seem bleak, but it is really a sign of how powerful God’s word is and how much we need to listen to what God is saying to us.

Perhaps it seems like I’m preaching to the converted, but I believe that if we really want to grow in our faith, then we need to continually re-decide to follow Jesus Christ. The world around us may not agree with us, or like the way we live, but it has always been like that. Many people today are deciding not to be Christian anymore, sometimes consciously, sometimes through indifference. But the Lord demands a decision from us. 

Moses said to the people: “For I am commanding you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, statutes, and ordinances, so that you may live and increase, and the LORD your God may bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.…” (Exodus 30:16)

If any place does not welcome you and people refuse to listen to you, as you walk away shake off the dust from under your feet as a sign to them. (Mark 6:11)





Sunday, July 4, 2021

14th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 6:1-6) The thorn in the flesh


A few years ago I was talking to a man who was telling me about himself. He said that most things in his life were fine, except for one thing. He had a terrible temper, which was so frustrating and caused him great distress. He often lost his temper with his family and he was so ashamed of it. He said, ‘If only I didn’t have this temper, I’d be perfect!’ I couldn’t help thinking that this weakness which was so frustrating to him, was probably also one of the things that helped him to stay close to God. If we thought we were perfect, or even fairly together, we would probably not be aware of our need for God. If we are not aware of our weaknesses, we can become very arrogant.


There is a priest known simply as Brother Andrew, who co-founded the Brothers part of the Missionaries of Charity, with Mother Teresa. She asked him to help her found the male branch of her order. He was a Jesuit priest. In one of his books about his experiences, he begins by saying: ‘Few people would believe the weakness on which the Missionaries of Charity is built.’ He writes a lot about his own weakness, although he doesn’t say exactly what it was, but that he suffered from some kind of addiction. But this weakness, which frustrated him so much, was also one of the things that helped him to grow in holiness. He doesn’t say that, but you can see it from his writings. The reason why God did such great work through him, through Mother Teresa and through so many others, was not because they were extraordinarily talented people, but because they were aware of how weak they were and so they came to totally rely on God for everything.


The reason why God was able to do such wonderful things through the saints, is not because they were perfect, but because they were weak people who continually turned to God and so God was able to use them in an extraordinary way. It is very easy to get a false impression of what a holy person is. Books can often give us the impression that they were people who did little or no wrong. The truth is that the saints were and are weak people, with just as many weaknesses as anyone else, but they continually turned to God for help and as a result God was able to work through them in such an amazing way. To understand that, is key to growing in the spiritual life. If the saints were perfect people who never did any wrong, then very few of us would be able to relate to them. But if they were weak people just like any of us—which they were—then not only can we relate to them, but it can help us to see that the exact same path is open to us, because it doesn’t depend on us being good enough, rather it depends on us continually turning to God. That is the key.


There is no one here who doesn’t have weaknesses of one kind or another. It could be some kind of addiction, it could be a need to control, an emotional dependency, whatever. We all have something and as you well know it can be extremely frustrating.


I find it comforting that two thousand years ago, St. Paul writes about the exact same thing (See this Sunday’s second reading 2 Cor 12:7-10). Paul was a very intelligent man, well educated and obviously very talented and even though he had visions of Jesus which converted him and he then went and preached everywhere and miracles were worked through him, he too suffered from some kind of weakness, although he doesn’t say what it was. But he understood that the Lord allowed him to suffer this way, because of the extraordinary things God had done through him. In the second reading he starts of by saying,

That I might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me…” You can hear his frustration as he says, “Three times I asked God to take this thing away from me, and three times the Lord said ‘No, my strength is at its best in weakness.”


This weakness, whatever it was, obviously helped him more than he realised. It kept him humble, and helped him to be aware of how much he needed the Lord’s strength and ask for his help and that is why he and so many other men and women were such powerful instruments in God’s hands, because they relied totally on God and not on themselves, as they were well aware of how weak they were.


I have no doubt that all of us probably feel we would be much better off if only we could overcome the weaknesses we struggle with. We could then serve God better, because we would be more pleasing to him. But perhaps these readings will help us to see that the Lord knows what He is doing when He allows us to struggle with them. They are frustrating yes, but they can also be a gift, in the sense that they make us rely on the power of God more than on ourselves. It also reminds us that it is not a question of being ‘good enough’ for God. We will never be good enough, but that doesn’t matter. As long as we know that we are weak, then we will see that we have someone to turn to who really can and will help us. God is not put off by our weakness.


The Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous—and all the other addiction groups—is essentially the Christian life in twelve steps. It begins by acknowledging that I have a problem, an addiction, which I cannot overcome by my own strength and so I must turn to a higher power, God. I also must acknowledge my past wrongdoing, which is confession and try to make amends, which is penance. Then I must try and live a spiritual life. The reason it is so successful and has helped so many people recover, is because it is based on living the Christian life as the Lord has revealed to us. God knows what works and if we listen to what He tells us, we will succeed.


Success in God’s eyes is often very different from success in our eyes. We tend to think that success is worldly success, achievements in work and education, making enough money to live comfortably. All those things are good and we certainly should try and use our gifts to the best of our ability, but they are not the most important thing.


In worldly terms, many of the saints would be considered failures. Often their lives were filled with apparent failures, sometimes with them ending up in poverty or sickness, unable to care for themselves. But in God’s eyes they are something very different, because it was often those earthly failures which brought them closer and closer to God.


When we die and come before God, having become president, or ending up on the street will make no difference. What will make a difference is how we have lived and everyone can live as God calls us to live, regardless of their situation.


Many of the saints were only recognised for their holiness after their death. St. Therese of Lisieux (Teresa of the Little Flower), died at the age of 24. When she was dying, she overheard two of the other sisters in her convent talking about her. One sister was saying to the other, “I wonder what mother abbess will say about Therese at her funeral, because she never really did anything.” She was just 24 when she died, unknown in a convent in a small town in France, with no apparent achievements. Now she is a canonized saint and doctor of the Church.


So the very things that cause us the greatest frustration, those weaknesses that we often don’t seem to be able to get past, are often the same weaknesses which can help us to grow in holiness. All that matters is that we keep striving to grow. The saints were not people who didn’t sin, rather people who kept getting up again each time they fell.


So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast, so that the power of Christ may stay over me.”