Friday, September 24, 2021

26th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48) Different paths to God


One of the things I was very blessed with as a young priest, was getting to know a Baptist minister and his wife who worked in Galway: Kelly and Susan Curry. He and his wife came over from the States, because they felt the Lord was calling them there on a mission, although they didn’t know exactly what He was asking them to do. They ended up in my hometown and they set up a centre to encourage people to come back to their faith. They weren’t trying to convert people to become Baptist, rather this centre was about encouraging people to take their faith more seriously and since most of the people who came there were Catholic, they ended up helping more Catholics than anyone else. They started giving retreats in high-schools and they have had more and more requests from the schools. At this stage they are giving retreats to several thousand students every year. He also said that the schools are asking them to come to their schools because they have so many problems, but they also ask them if they can give the retreats without talking about God. And they said ‘no,’ they will be talking about God.


I have always admired Kelly and Susan’s open-mindedness, but the reason I feel very blessed to have come to know them is because it opened my mind to different ways of faith. I got to know Kelly best. He was obviously a man of God and filled with the Spirit. Kelly has been a great source of encouragement and support to me as a Catholic priest. As I got to know him it helped me to realise that God was working in and through him, just as much as through any priest I knew. Maybe that should be obvious, but when you grow up in one particular way of faith, without much exposure to many other ways of faith, it is not always obvious and often we can be suspicious of people who don’t see things as we do, but God works through different people in many different ways. Many people I know have been greatly helped by the work they do there in that centre. It is called An Tobar Nua (The New Well).


I know that at this time, many of you as parents and grandparents are distressed as you see your children no longer practicing their faith, or going to church. While it is a tragedy to us, it doesn’t mean that they have no faith. We believe God offers us an extraordinary treasure in the mass and through the different sacraments and of course we would like that for others, especially for our children, but at this time many young people have become disillusioned with the Church and with official religion and often for very understandable reasons. In many ways it is hard to blame them, they have probably more reasons than most to be turned off by it, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have faith, or that they are not searching for God. People are always searching for God. It is an instinctual need God has given us. While they may find it difficult to relate to the Church at this time, that doesn’t mean that God is not reaching out to them, or guiding them.


Just as getting to know my Baptist friend Kelly helped me to realise that here are many ways God speaks to people, it is good for us to remember that God continues to speak to  them and reach out to them, often in ways that we do not recognise, or would never have imagined. I am often struck by the great goodness that I have met in so many people, often people who have no interest in the Church at all, but they do their best to live good lives and help the people they meet, often with great generosity. Many do believe in God, but they don’t relate to God through the means that we are used to.


It is also surprising how people are still being drawn to the Church and to religious life. Nine years ago I spent a year with the Dominican order in Ireland. That year 5 young men joined the Dominicans in Ireland. The previous year 6 entered. The year before that 2 entered and the year before that 13. God is at work around us all the time and that should help us take heart.


The readings today remind us how God gives his Spirit to whomever He wishes, often in ways that we don’t expect. The Apostles were surprised, just as the men in the time of Moses were surprised, when they found others teaching and healing in God’s name, but Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t stop them…If they are not against us, they are with us.’ They were also surprised when the Gentiles—those who were not Jewish—received the gift of the Holy Spirit, sometimes even before they had a chance to pray with them. God was showing them that He is bigger than all of us and not just there for one group of people.


We believe that the path we follow as Catholics, is directly from God through Jesus and we have the privilege of knowing these things. Jesus has given us the most extraordinary gifts to help us: above all the Eucharist, the gift of his Body and Blood; the Word of God; the healing we receive through confession and many other things. We hope and pray that others will come to know these treasures too, but God goes on reaching out to people all around us in many ways which we will probably never know about until we get to heaven. Part of what we are called to, is to pray for the people around us that they will discover God too. We are blessed to have been given the gift of faith and the more we live it seriously, the more we will be a signpost to God, to the people around us.


I remember hearing a story of an elderly woman living in the suburbs of New York. Each morning she walked to church to go to mass and receive the Eucharist. There was also a lawyer who drove past her each morning on his way to work and scoffed at this old woman and her superstitious beliefs. On her way to the church she had to make her way up a steep hill and she was slow on her feet. One morning in winter there was a lot of snow and ice on the roads. The lawyer didn’t expect to see her. But then he passed her on the way up the hill on her hands and knees. Her faith and desire to receive the Eucharist was so strong, that she was willing to do this. He was so astonished that this lady would not even let ice and snow stop her, that it actually brought about his conversion.


Living our faith seriously is one of the most powerful ways we can help other people, especially during times of scandal. When people see that we are just as committed to our faith despite scandal or division in our Church, it makes them think. They may not say anything, or they may even make sarcastic remarks, but people do notice. If you want excuses to walk away from the Church, you have 2000 years of scandal to choose from.


At this time people need the witness of those who have faith more than ever, because so many have lost faith and don’t know where to turn. God has made us in such a way that we are not complete without him and even if people are not aware that God is what is missing, they know something is missing. In wealthier countries such as ours, people will try to fill that void with material things, but that can never satisfy. We may hope that our spouse will be our total fulfilment, but no matter how much we love them, even they cannot totally fulfil us, because only God can do that. I have no doubt that one of the reasons the suicide rate is so high, is also because of a lack of faith. If you don’t believe in anything beyond this life, then where do you turn to when everything is going wrong? When you do have faith, even when everything is going wrong, we do not give up, because we have the hope of knowing that this world is temporary. We have what people are looking for and the best way we can help them, is through prayer and by living our faith as well as we can.


Jesus said to the Apostles, “What about you? Are you going to go away too?” Peter said, “Lord where else can we go? You have the message of eternal life. We believe and know, that you are the holy One of God.”’ (John 6:67-69)



Friday, September 17, 2021

25th Sunday, Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:30-37) What is Salvation?



Why did you come here today? Why do Christians come together? To pray together, receive the Eucharist together and share the Good News of Salvation. But what exactly does salvation mean?

I remember seeing an old priest I knew when he was dying. He was curled up in the foetal position and he kept saying, ‘I’m never going to get to heaven…’ To me it was sad to see this man, a holy man, in such fear before he died. And it also said to me that he was not fully grasping the core message of our faith. He was basically saying that he was not good enough to get to heaven and he was right! None of us are and none of us could be good enough to get to heaven by our own strength. But the point of the message of Christ is that it is by his grace that we are given eternal life.

Since all have sinned...

Here is something that many Christians don’t get and this is really at the heart of our faith. Most of us believe that if we work hard enough at being good and doing the right things, we will be pleasing to God and we will become holy and so God will allow us to go to heaven. Right? Wrong! That is not the teaching of Christianity at all! The truth is that we cannot become holy enough by our own strength. We will always be sinners, we will always fall short, but it is God who makes us holy, if we are open to it.

No matter how hard we try, we will never be ‘good enough’ to go to heaven by our own strength. It is simply impossible because of the way we continually sin. So what are we to do? Think of it this way: it is as if we can get 80% of the way to coming close to God. But no matter how hard we try we will never be able to make up that other 20%. So what do we do? We don’t have to do anything because God makes up the difference for us. That’s what the death and resurrection of Christ means. Jesus makes up for us what we cannot do for ourselves. What do we have to do? We just have to accept that on faith. Listen to this quotation from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith (Rom 3:23-25).

God made all people prisoners of disobedience, so that He might show mercy to them all (Rom 11:32).

This may seem a bit simple, but this is where so many people struggle so much and get so disheartened by their own sins and weaknesses, addictions, inadequacies. We think that because we keep on struggling we will never be good enough. That is correct! We will never be good enough by our own strength, but that doesn’t matter, because Jesus has made up the difference and made us ‘good enough’ by his death and resurrection. All we have to do is accept that and how do we accept it? By faith.


All of us struggle. I always find St. Paul’s own testimony of his weakness so encouraging. Remember, this is Paul to whom Jesus appeared several times and through whom many miracles were worked and so many people were converted and yet listen to what he says:

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)

Here he is again:

Wherefore, so that I should not get above myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to batter me and prevent me from getting above myself. About this, I have three times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me; but he has answered me, ‘My grace is enough for you; for power is at full stretch in weakness... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is infected by death? Thank God through Jesus the Messiah (2 Cor 12:7, 24).

Paul struggled with sin and his own weaknesses, so did Peter, so did Mother Theresa and everyone else in history, but the key to it is to realize that God makes us ‘good enough’ through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is what salvation is.

Does that mean we can do anything we want?

And so, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only when I was with you but even more now that I am absent, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

We do our best to live holy lives, to follow the path that Jesus sets out for us, because this is the path that helps us to find the greatest fulfilment. It is not an easy path, but it is the most important one because it leads to God. God knows that the only way we will reach full happiness is in him. God points us in the right direction and calls us to follow this path, but it is up to us whether we do or not. Our struggles help us to grow in virtue, to become the best version of ourselves that we can be and we are called to this. The more we grow the more we resemble God and that is what God wants for us.

You will notice that people who are very holy are usually very much at home in their own skin. Is this because they have it all together and no longer sin? No. It is because they have come to realize that they must rely totally on God for everything and that everything is done for them in Jesus. This allows them to be at peace and they know that. It is Jesus who makes all things possible. He makes eternal life with God possible and they know that. So they rely totally on God and they submit everything to God’s mercy. The closer we get to God, the more it grieves us to offend him, not out of fear of punishment, but because we are hurting someone we love. Padre Pio has this beautiful saying: ‘My past O Lord to thy mercy; my present O Lord to thy love; my future O Lord to they providence.’ 

In the early Church the main thing that the Apostles preached was very simple. It was known as the Kerygma, which means to cry or announce: ‘Christ died for our sins so that we would be acceptable to God and that Jesus Christ is Lord’. We are created out of love and we are created for love; to be in the love of God for all eternity. All the writings in the Bible (the Scriptures) point to this.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

This is why the Apostles and so many others went crazy with this message and were happy to sacrifice the rest of their lives to pass it on. This is why the martyrs died for what they believed in, because there is nothing greater than this message and this is why we are here; to share and pass on this extraordinary message, which tells us that we were created with a definite purpose and that eternal happiness awaits us if we accept it. This is what our whole life is about.

What about all those who are not Christian or never come to hear of Christ? Can they go to heaven too? Of course they can, if they live the right way. No matter what religion they are part of, when they die all people will know at that moment, who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us by dying for us and then they must choose. Primarily they choose for or against God by the way they live their life.

For Christians, we understand that we must be baptized, accepting Jesus as Lord, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way for those who are not Christians. 

So is there any advantage to being a Christian? Yes there is. It is an enormous privilege, because it means that we already know what God has done for all humanity through Jesus and we have the gift of that knowledge to help us all through our life. This is why Jesus told the apostles to go and preach this message to everyone, because everyone should know about this. This is what makes sense of our life and gives us more hope than anything else.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11).





Saturday, September 11, 2021

24th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 8:27-35) ‘Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’


There is a story about some Christian missionaries who went deep into the Amazon to bring Christianity to the native tribes. They set up a small camp, put up some huts and built a small chapel. After some time some of the natives began to get curious enough to go to the camp. When it was quiet, one of them ventured into the chapel to see what was there. When he saw what was on the wall, he ran out screaming.


Today we are presented with one of the most difficult mysteries of our faith. The mystery of the cross. It is a turning point for many. This is where Christianity differs from many other religions. Many of the world religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism try to rise above suffering, so that you are no longer affected by it. For us we believe it is part of the way to God. We believe that our life is transformed through suffering. It is part of the path to heaven.


When we suffer we often cry out to God, ‘Why have you done this to me? Why do you allow this to happen to me?’ I should not have to suffer.’ I have often heard this in hospitals, where people say, ‘Father, why has God done this to me, what did I ever do wrong?’ as though it were a punishment. We forget the line from Scripture that says, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.’ It is part of our life on earth. 


In this Gospel, after Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus immediately starts to talk about how He will suffer. You would imagine that that would be the time when He would start talking about how the Kingdom of God would eventually win out and He would return as king. Instead, Jesus speaks about the suffering and death that awaits him. Peter wants to focus on the glory, which is real and to bypass the suffering that Jesus is talking about. In one of the other Gospels Peter says, ‘Heaven preserve you Lord, this must not happen to you’ (Matt 16:22). ‘You are to be the King and all people will bow down to you.’ And Jesus said, ‘Get behind me Satan (enemy) for the way you think is man’s way, not God’s.’ Jesus is saying, ‘You don’t understand this now, but it has to be this way. This is part of the path. If you want to follow me you will suffer too.’ None of us want to hear that, but it is what the Lord told us.


The cross that we have to carry is a combination of the trials and difficulties that we go through: health problems, losing work, marriage breakup, the death of our loved ones, unjust persecution and abuse. All of it seems wrong and unfair and we cannot understand why God allows it. We tend to see it as things going wrong. Remember Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by…’ (Matt 26:39). He did not want to go through what was about to happen. He was terrified, because He knew what faced him and in his humanity, He recoiled from it, as any of us would. He was afraid, but He also trusted that if the Father allowed it, then it had to happen.


The sufferings we go through have a part to play in our journey to God, but we don’t understand it, and that is part of the suffering. If we knew that good would come out of the various trials we go through, it would make it a lot easier, but we don’t and this is part of the suffering. Sometimes it is when we are suffering that God seems to disappear too, making it even harder. Remember Jesus’ words on the cross. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Matt 27:46). The Father allowed Jesus to feel abandoned, which is one of the hardest parts of suffering. There is no one left to turn to, not even God and Jesus was allowed to experience this too. Why did the Father allow Jesus to feel abandoned at the time when He most needed comfort? Because by doing that, Jesus experienced suffering to the maximum degree. We can never say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like! because He does.


This is one side of the cross: that we will suffer. It says in the Scriptures, ‘Christ had to suffer.’ And it also says, ‘The disciple is not greater than the master.’ In other words, we will suffer too. God is also saying to us not to be afraid of suffering. Don’t be afraid when everything seems to be going wrong, instead, turn to the cross, take it in your hands and kiss it, and say, ‘Jesus I know you are with me in this, help me to carry this cross’, and He will.


There is a beautiful tradition from Croatia where a couple getting married bring a crucifix to the church. The priest says a prayer of blessing over the cross and when the wedding is over the couple bring the cross to their new home and place it in a prominent position. The idea is that they will come before the cross in their sufferings and difficulties and ask Jesus to help them. They will not run from their problems, but face them and ask for God’s help; and most importantly that they will keep Jesus at the center of their home.


The other side of the cross is the victory of the cross. We tend to only focus on the suffering, but it was the power of the cross that broke the power of Satan and the power of sin and death. Through the suffering and death of Jesus, eternal life was won for the whole human race. That means that suffering has enormous spiritual power. The most powerful thing we can offer to God, is the suffering we go through. Think of the people you worry about and pray for. Offer your sufferings for them, uniting your suffering to the suffering of Jesus on the cross.


Think of your children, or grandchildren who have turned away from God and how much it grieves you. Offer the suffering that this is causing you, for them. It is a way of turning it around. We don’t want to suffer, yet the suffering we go through is also a weapon which we can use to help the people we love. That’s why we talk about the importance of prayer and penance. Penance is taking on some kind of suffering, even if small.


Do you believe in the power of the cross? Do you have a crucifix in your home? If you don’t, it says a lot about what you believe. By having a crucifix in your home where people can see it, you are saying ‘I belong to Jesus Christ. I believe in what he has done for me, Jesus Christ is Lord for me.’


There are many today who deny parts of their faith, while still claiming to be Catholics. They are not. To be a follower of Jesus, is to embrace what Jesus has taught us, all of what He taught us. God doesn’t ask us to accept the parts of his word that we like, but all of it, including the cross. But He also reminds us that the cross, the difficult parts, area also part of what lead us to him.


Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’

Friday, September 3, 2021

23rd Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 7: 31-37) The meaning of death


 Saturday is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, one of the most shocking events we will remember in our lifetime. It is hard to understand that people can be so filled with hatred and have such a twisted understanding of God, that they believe they are pleasing God by killing innocent people and that they will go straight to heaven for doing it. It is also a reminder of the danger of extremist views in any religion.


In the last few years we have seen quite a number of these terrible disasters, where thousands of people are killed in an instant, like the tsunami in Indonesia and the hurricane in New Orleans. The one that stands out most in my mind is the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, where over 230,000 people were killed in a few minutes; whole families wiped out in an instant. I remember one of the programs about it where they interviewed a man who had lost his wife and five children. What do you do after that? These things are very frightening and we hope and pray that they won’t come to our doorstep. However, one good thing that comes from them is that they make people think. They make us ask some of the most fundamental questions: what is my life about? Why am I here? What happens when I die?  Does anything happen when I die? Depending on how I answer these questions will make a big difference as to how I live this life.


If death is the final end of us, the extinction of our existence, then it is surely the greatest disaster imaginable and there is no way we can be consoled when we lose someone we love. However, if death is just the end of our time here on earth and is then the beginning of an eternal life of happiness with God, where we are reunited with the people we love, in a place where we will no longer suffer, or have to say painful goodbyes, then it is very different. If there is a place that we call heaven, then these disasters like 9/11, the tsunami, the hurricanes and everything else, while they are terrible events, they mean that those who have died have gone to the same place that we hope to go, but they have gone there sooner than we were expecting. They have gone on ahead of us. If they really have gone to this place called heaven, then it puts things in a very different perspective. If the life they are now living is much better than this one, and we believe this is true because God has taught us this, then we needn’t be sorry for them because they didn’t get to live this life for longer. When people die young, we tend to think it is unfair, because they didn’t get the chance to do so many things.  But if where they have gone is incomparably more wonderful than here, then we can be happy for them that they no longer have to go through the evils of this world. Personally, I would much prefer to be in heaven.


The hardest part is for those left behind, because we can’t see any further than death. We are suddenly cut off from the ones we love and it causes us great loneliness and pain. We believe and hope, yes, but we don’t know for sure, because the next world is hidden from us. Why is it hidden from us? Wouldn’t it be much easier if we could see what awaits us? It would be easier, but then we would not have the chance to grow in holiness, to grow closer to God. Part of the struggle of faith, is the fact that we don’t know and God calls us to persevere, to continue to do what is right, even though we cannot see what awaits us. He is asking us to trust him. There is this beautiful passage in St. John’s Gospel which I usually read at funerals:

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. Trust in God still and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come and take you with me, so that where I am, you may be too.’ (John 14:1 ff)


How are we sure there is a heaven? Mainly because God has taught us this and has taught us that this life is merely a preparation for it. If we believe that, and I certainly do, then it will make a big difference as to how we live this life. If there is nothing after this life, then you might as well grab all you can now, so to speak. But if there is something much better, as we believe, then it is well worth making sacrifices for it and not living in a totally selfish way.


Jesus spent most of his ministry teaching the people about the Kingdom of God, which begins here, but is mostly experienced in the next life. Why would Jesus bother doing this if it wasn’t true? Why would he go through the terrible death he went through, if there was nothing after? The miracles that Jesus worked were a sign of what awaits us. He brought healing everywhere he went. This was also a sign of what awaits us.


Over the last century Our Lady has appeared in many parts of the world, and one of the reasons is to remind us that heaven is real and that it is worth living this life as well as we can, because there are consequences to how we live.


When people die it is natural that we mourn for them, but if we want to show them that we love them, then the best thing we can do is to pray for them. Today many people will come to a funeral, but not that many of them believe in praying for the person who has died. Our prayers for them are of much more value than our tears.


When someone dies we usually find ourselves saying, ‘At least they are in heaven now.’ The reality is that they are probably not there right away, because very few people are so close to God when they die, that they are able to come into the direct presence of God. It would simply be too much for us. No sin can exist in the presence of God. How many people die without any sin, or without having to make any atonement necessary for their sins? So there is what we call Purgatory, a purification, a time of getting ready for heaven, or adjusting to the light, if you like. Imagine coming to a place where the light was a hundred times brighter than the sun. We wouldn’t be able for it right away, so we have to spend a while getting used to this more intense light, if you like, and also atoning for, or making up for, what we have done wrong that we have not repented for. Purgatory is a final purification. This life is a kind of purification too, but not as intense.


What about the idea of hell? Is that just a medieval fairy tale, to scare us?  It might sound strange but it makes a lot of sense that hell is real for the simple reason that we have free choice. We can choose to reject God if we wish. If God is all that is good, beautiful, loving, perfect, etc., then hell is the loss of all this: so hell is isolation, darkness, pain, separation, etc.


God has created us for happiness, for a life with him and united again with the people we love. And God who is all powerful, will do everything possible to get us there. So if we are open to God, even in the smallest way, we have nothing to worry about. We needn’t be afraid either for those we love if we are praying for them, because God is just as concerned about them as we are and will do everything to help them.


Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.  Trust in God still, and trust in me.’