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)