Friday, May 27, 2022

The Ascension of the Lord into Heaven (Gospel: Luke 24: 46-63) 'He continued to appear to them and tell them about the Kingdom'


In my work as a priest, people often tell me about spiritual experiences they have had. Sometimes they are experiences of the Lord in some way, sometimes of someone who has died, asking for prayers, or something like that. A lot of people do in fact have spiritual experiences. However, often after a time, people begin to wonder whether they really did have these experiences, or was it all in their imagination. It is impossible to know and in one way it is not even important. Usually the experience will have helped them at that time and that was its purpose. Often the mistake people make is to try and figure out what it means and are they supposed to do something.


A man came to me early one Saturday morning. Initially I thought he was going to ask me for money, which is often the case, but in fact he wanted to go to confession. He told me that the previous night a friend of his who had died some time before, had appeared to him. He was obviously quite shaken by the experience and he realized that he needed to go to confession himself. It was a wake-up call for him.


Different spiritual experiences help us to be aware of just how real the spiritual world is, which we can become very skeptical of. We will say, ‘Yes, I believe in God, but don’t expect me to believe in angels, or the devil, or hell.’ Why are these any more extraordinary to believe in? If God is real, then the spiritual world is real. That means there is an awful lot we haven’t seen and don’t understand, but the Lord tells us that these things are real and so we should believe in them. Jesus often spoke about the reality of heaven, hell, Satan, angels, sin and so many other things and yet we doubt. It’s amazing how many people doubt the existence of hell, or Satan and yet Jesus often spoke about both. If they are not real, then the crucifixion was meaningless, because the whole point of the death and resurrection was to make it possible for us to be able to go to heaven, which means we could lose it, which means hell must be real. If we lose heaven, we are left with the opposite, which is hell.


In the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles—or the ‘adventures’ of the Apostles, as you might call them—Luke tells us how after Jesus rose from the dead, He continued to appear to the Apostles. Not just once, but many times. Why? No doubt to convince them that they had not imagined it. One thing that He did on at least two occasions was to eat something with them. The first time when he appeared to them in the room, they were all standing there speechless, and He said, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ So they gave him a piece of fish and He ate it in front of them. Then they knew it was not just a vision, but a real person, the same real person they had known before. It was not even food that He had brought with him, which could also have been part of a vision, but it was something they gave him and then they watched him chew it and swallow it. This was a beautiful and very human thing to do; something that we could completely relate to.  


Luke also says that he not only appeared to them, but He continued to tell them about ‘the Kingdom.’ What is ‘the Kingdom?’ He was telling them about the reality of heaven: life with God, which He has created us for; that it is real and that we could also lose it if we are foolish. There we will be reunited with the people we love and we will experience happiness there, in a way that we can not even begin to imagine now. He was probably also explaining to them what the purpose of his life on earth was, why He had to suffer and die the way He did, what all this meant for the human race; God’s plan for his people. Also He was teaching them how the Kingdom of heaven is where God’s will on earth is lived out. Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is among you/within you. (Luke 17:21). When we begin to live as God teaches us, his kingdom of heaven is established on earth. It is not one of political power, as the Apostles were expecting. It is one that starts inside the human heart. It will be fulfilled in heaven, but it begins on earth wherever people begin to live as God asks us to live.

I'm sure He also told them that He had a lot of work for them to do and that they must remember that their life here on earth was a time of service and not to worry if things were not easy, because when their work here was done He would bring them home to be with him again. What awaited them would be worth all the struggles they had to go through. What awaits us is worth all the difficulties we have to go through.  

Notice too, how they still didn’t understand about the kingdom of God/heaven, even though Jesus had risen from the dead. It says that they asked Jesus, ‘Now are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ It was only after they received the gift of the Holy Spirit that they began to see the bigger picture. Until then they were still thinking in earthly terms, political power, Israel being dominant.


Why were they suddenly able to go out and start preaching to everyone about a man that most people had never heard of and not only preach about him for a while, but for the rest of their lives with passion? Almost  all of them ended up being martyred, but they didn’t care, because they knew that the only thing that was important was to be faithful to the Lord Jesus, as best they could.


Why am I telling you all this? Because the same thing exactly applies to us. The Apostles were real people and these are real experiences that we are reading about. Our life on earth is just as short as theirs was and it is also a time of service, just as theirs was. For many of you it will be served by looking after your families and the people you work with. For priests and Religious it will be in a different way, but that is why we are here, to learn to love, to serve, to freely choose for or against God.


We are living in a time when people are very cynical and skeptical about religion and they point to the scandals within the Church as being ‘proof’ of just how hypocritical the whole thing is. We must not let that put us off. It has always been difficult to believe and probably always will be, but we ask the Lord himself to help us to persevere and not become negative, or cynical. In this Gospel it says that when Jesus appeared to them and was about to ascend to heaven, they worshipped, ‘but some doubted.’ Even with all they had seen, some of them still had doubts. It is normal to have doubts, but that is why we keep feeding ourselves with the things that will keep us close to God. If we fill our minds with only earthly things—think of all that you watch on TV—then the things of heaven can seem to be unreal. I have often noticed in Hollywood movies, if the hero or heroine is asked if they believe in God, they will nearly always say no. What does that tell you about Hollywood? It is saying that only foolish people believe in God.


If we truly believe that what awaits us is worth the sacrifice of anything, then it doesn’t really matter what happens to us in this life. It is only temporary. And when our time here is complete God will come and bring us home. I have no doubt that this is probably what Jesus was telling the Apostles about for those forty days. He wanted them to have no doubt about why they were here, so that we also could have a good understanding of our purpose here, through their teaching.


God has given us every possible help that we could ask for. If it seems too difficult it is only because we are not using the help that He has given us. What help? Above all, the Eucharist, which is the gift of Jesus himself; not a symbol, but really and truly the Body and Blood of Jesus. Also, his own words in the Scriptures; confession, etc. It is all there waiting for us. The clearer the picture we have in our own head as to what our life is about, the easier it is to keep going. That is also why we needn’t be afraid of anything in this world. If we offer ourselves to God, then why should we be afraid? All things are in his hands.


It often surprises me how fearful people are of death. So often I hear from people who are very sick, ‘At least I am still here.’ If we truly believe in heaven, why would we be afraid of death? Death is just the doorway to what we all long for. What awaits us is only joy. This is what Jesus taught the Apostles to pass on to us. If we have that hope, it changes everything that we face on earth.


May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,

that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call.



Saturday, May 21, 2022

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 14:23-29) If anyone loves me he will keep my word


Think for a moment of someone who means a lot to you, someone you really love. It might be your husband or wife, it might be a very good friend. When you love someone you will do things that they ask you, because you love them. They may ask you for a favor which doesn’t really suit you, but you will probably do it anyway because you love them. Trying to please them is a way of showing that you love them.


Our relationship with the Lord works the same way. We follow the way of life that He taught us, because we love him. We try to keep his Commandments, because we love him and we believe in what He has taught us. Trying to follow his teaching is how we show God that we love him and not just because we love him, but also because we believe what God teaches us gives us life. The path that He shows us is the one that will help us the most and lead us to the greatest happiness.


Because of what we call Original Sin, we do not enjoy the harmony within ourselves that God originally intended for us. There is a struggle going on within us and one of the effects of that, is that we don’t always see things as clearly as we should. We often find it difficult to choose even what we know is right. We are often suspicious of God and his teachings. After Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, it says they were afraid and they hid from God. They had never done that before. They were no longer convinced of his goodness.


We are not always convinced that God is trying to help us, or that God has our best interests at heart. Think for a moment of times when you see some situation of terrible suffering on the news, a natural disaster, or with someone you know, and you find yourself saying, ‘How can God allow this to happen?’ as though God were to blame. You hear that so often. We often see his Commandments as a burden, instead of a plan, or pathway, that will lead us to him, in whom is our full happiness. We are not always convinced that God is good and indeed that is one of the most common arguments that people give to deny the existence of God: ‘If God is good and all-powerful, He would not allow the suffering that we see and experience.’ If we choose to do evil, others will suffer. If God stopped us each time we were going to cause suffering, we would not have free will.


The Jewish people, were chosen by God to make him known to the world. Over hundreds of years, God formed a people, made himself known to them, gave them his law and showed them that God is a moral God, who loves us, who is interested in us, who created us to share in his happiness and who will hold us accountable for our actions. That understanding of God was unique for ancient times. In ancient times the general understanding of the gods, was that they were not particularly interested in us. When the Jewish people began to present their understanding of God as One interested in us and who loves us, it was unique.


God gave us the Commandments, to guide us and help us, but they are Commandments, not suggestions. In the Old Testament, when God gave the law to Moses, He said to the people,

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them…” (Deut 30:19 ff)


There is a tendency today, to believe that we can just pick the parts of our faith that suit us and ignore the other ones. I’ve often heard people saying, ‘God will understand,’ or, ‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind’. But why would God give us commandments if He doesn’t mind? Nowhere in Scripture does it say that God doesn’t mind. In fact it says the exact opposite. ‘If you love me, you will keep my Commandments.’ That is also why there is so much controversy with some of our politicians who say that they are Catholic, but who not only refuse to keep some of the Commandments, but who actively work against them. That is a contradiction. It is saying, ‘I love you Lord, but I will not keep your Commandments.’


Much of what we see on TV is telling us that God’s Commandments are not necessary and that much of what goes against his Commandments is quite normal. And if we are told something often enough, we will begin to believe it. That’s how advertising works. If you keep repeating the message it will stick.  It is de-sensitizing us to sin and to what is wrong. Many movies today show life-styles that go against many if not all of God’s commandments, and we watch them as entertainment. Maybe we should ask ourselves is it right for me to watch a movie that we know is going against God’s commandments?


Now to go back to the words of Christ: ‘If you love me, you will keep my words.’  And then He says, ‘Peace I leave you, my own peace I give you.’ Peace is what follows when we live his words. We receive peace, a deep peace which is the assurance of God’s presence, even when we are struggling. The Lord knows how much we struggle to live by his teaching. Everyone who tries to live it struggles, but the Lord is telling us not to be afraid of the struggle, because it is the path that leads to heaven, the only path worth following.


A lot of the chaos we see going on around us at this time, is the effect of people turning away from God. We see more and more anger, hatred, rage, even just on the roads. It is disproportionate. When people turn away from God, who is our only happiness, then they look for fulfilment in the world, where they will never find it. And so they become more and more frustrated and angry, because nothing earthly satisfies. They are not at peace and that anger and hostility spreads. Sadly that is also one reason why suicide is so common, especially among young people. Many do not have God, so when the world does not offer comfort and strength for the difficult things that we face, then people feel they have nowhere to turn and often despair. The very rules that we rebel against, such as the Commandments, are actually what will bring us peace.


‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give you. Not as the world gives, do I give it to you.’ Knowing that we are loved by God, that we have a purpose in being here and that there is something wonderful that awaits us after death, that gives us peace. When we have that inner strength, we are more at peace, because we know what we are about and that peace comes from living God’s Commandments.


‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’



Friday, May 13, 2022

5th Sunday of Easter. The Events of Fatima (Gospel Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35)


Fatima, Portugal.

This past Friday 13th was the anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, where three young children—Francisco Marto aged 9, Jacinta Marto aged 7 (brother and sister) and their cousin Lucia dos Santos aged 10—witnessed six apparitions of Our Lady. The year before, the archangel Michael appeared to them to prepare them for Our Lady’s visit. Then on May 13th 1917, Our Lady appeared to them for the first time. She would appear to them on the 13th of each month until October.


Our Lady told Francisco and Jacinta that they would die young, but first they were asked to pray much and suffer much for the conversion of sinners. Francisco died two years later aged 11 and Jacinta the following year aged 8. Lucia eventually became a Carmelite nun where she spent the rest of her life. Our Lady told the children that there would only be peace if her requests were heeded. She asked that people would pray the rosary daily, wear the brown scapular and that Russia would be consecrated to her. She told them that war was a punishment for sin and that only through prayer and penance could war be avoided. She also said that if Russia wasn’t converted it would continue to spread its errors (Communism and atheism) throughout the world. What became known as the three ‘secrets’ of Fatima were also given to the children. The first was a vision of Hell, the second was a prophecy of WW II and the third remained secret but was believed to have to do with the sufferings of the Church and the pope.


Why did Our Lady show young children a vision of hell? Probably to make us realize that it is real, that we can lose heaven and that our actions do have consequences. We will be accountable for the way we live. Does that mean that we should be afraid? No, but we must take our time on earth seriously. The Lord promises us that the smallest effort on our part to repent, is enough to win his infinite mercy.


Lucia, Franceso and Jacinta

Francisco, just 9, wanted to go with Our Lady to heaven, but she said that he wasn’t ready, as he needed to pray much for sinners, so that he wouldn’t come before God with empty hands. In other words, he needed to do many good deeds first.


One thing that Our Lady said to the children always stays with me. She said, ‘If men knew what heaven was like, they would do everything to change their ways.’


On the last day of the apparitions, October 13th, the people who came to the place of the apparition witnessed the miracle of the sun, which Our Lady had said would happen to help the people believe. It was raining heavily but then suddenly the rain stopped, the sun came out and many people saw the sun ‘dancing’ or spinning, with many different colors coming from it and finally the sun seemed to be careering towards the earth, but then stopped. When the miracle ended, everyone found themselves completely dry. It is believed that approximately 70,000 people witnessed this miracle. The miracle of the sun was granted to them to help the people believe in the reality of the apparitions.


Apart from the fact that it is an interesting story, what has this got to do with us today? Like so many other aspects of our faith it has everything to do with us. If God the Father sends Our Lady to us, there must be a serious reason for it. Our Lady has also appeared in many other parts of the world, especially over the last century and the message is always more or less the same. It is never about her, it is always her pointing us back to God. She tells us that the world is living as though God does not exist and that if we continue to live that way we will destroy ourselves. If we ignore God and his teachings, our society falls apart, because we cannot live without God and we need his Commandments and guidance to live as He calls us to live. She says that we need to pray, to repent, to go to confession, to receive the Eucharist and to read the Bible.

We just have to listen to the news to see what happens when we try to live without God. Greed, corruption, desire for power, all lead to misery and war. She said that war was a punishment for sin, which we brought on ourselves. God shows us the way, but if we ignore it we bring suffering on ourselves.


The apparitions happened during the first world war. Our Lady said that that war would soon end, but that if people didn’t heed her warnings, a worse war would follow, and it did: the Second World War. It is estimated that over 50 million people died in WWII.


The message is the exact same for us today. The world is living as though God does not exist. The solution to it, is to repent and turn back to God. And yes, we are here in church because we believe, but we must also pray for those who do not believe, so that they may not be lost. What happens to us on earth is often painful. We go through all kinds of trials and suffering, but what will happen to us when we die is for all eternity. The most important thing we can pray for is the conversion of sinners. It may sound a bit cliched, but it is not. We don’t want any of our family or friends to be lost. Therefore we must pray and fast and do penance for them.


In the Old Testament Moses said to the people:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them…” (Deut 30:19 ff)


We are offered the same choice today and the consequences are just as serious. If we want the world to be a better place for us and our children, then we must begin with ourselves. Sorting out the world’s problems is not where we start. We start with ourselves by obeying the Lord’s commandments; by repentance and prayer and keeping God at the center. That is what changes the world.


Our time on earth is the time of sacrifice, of love and service. We will struggle until the day we are brought home to heaven, but we need to remind ourselves that it is not all about us, but about loving and serving the people around us.


The truth is that we don’t take sin and repentance seriously enough. If unrepentant sin is the one thing that could cause us to lose our greatest happiness, which is life with God when we die, then we need to take it very seriously. God gives us all the tools that we need, the Eucharist, the priesthood to give us the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins, but we must choose to use them.


If you think back on your time in school: at the time it probably seemed long, but now it is already in the distant past and seems unimportant. Our life on earth is something similar. Now it often seems long and difficult, but soon our time on earth will be over and then it will seem remarkably short. How we live it, is what is really important.

God continually shows us exactly what to do and how to live, but we must choose to do it, or not.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to him. (Deut 30:19)


Our lady of Fatima, pray for us.

Friday, May 6, 2022

4th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 10:27-30) They have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb


Pontifical Irish College, Rome (founded 1628)

As a priest, I studied in Rome for three years, from 2002-05. While I was there I lived in the Pontifical Irish College, (founded in 1628), which is both a seminary and post-graduate college. There are not enough Irish students to fill the college, so it is now an international college. For one of my years there we had students from 23 different countries. It made for a great cultural experience and it gave me a great sense of the universal Church. I was there studying and living with other young men from all over the world. We came from many very different cultures, but we all shared the same faith and the same enthusiasm to make it known to other people. When we finished there, some of us went back to wealthier countries, some to parishes in dire poverty and others to war zones. It was very inspiring to live in such an environment, although of course it also had its moments as we had very different ways of doing things. One priest I got to know was from Serbia. He had been in the Serbian communist army and was an atheist. Eventually he converted and became a Catholic and then a priest. People’s stories are fascinating. Another man I met several times, was an Irish archbishop called Michael Courtney. He was the papal nuncio to Burundi. In 2003 he was ambushed and shot dead as he worked to try and bring about peace between two warring tribes.


One of my neighbors for a year and a half, was a priest by the name of Ragheed Ganni. He was from Iraq. I didn’t even know there were Catholics in Iraq until I met him. He was a young, very talented and very likable man. He was from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which is the modern-day city of Nineveh (Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh). Ragheed did all his studies for priesthood in Rome. If he had returned to Iraq during his studies he may not have been able to leave again to complete them. So he studied in Rome, living in the Irish College and he spent several summers in Ireland.


Fr. Ragheed Ganni

During our time there the Iraq war took place and the over-throwing of Sadam Hussein. This was a very difficult and stressful time for Ragheed, as he watched his country being thrown into chaos, while wondering daily if his family were safe or not. Having someone in the room next to me who was going through this, made the war very real. Just before the war started I asked him as an Iraqi what he thought would happen. He said that the problem was not so much when the American forces took over, as when they later pulled out. He said that there would be civil war between the Shiite and Sunny Muslims and then the Christians would be wiped, as the Muslim extremists would not have any tolerance for them. Sadly, that is exactly what happened.


In 2003 Ragheed returned to Iraq. It was now a very different country to the one he had left. To get into the country he told me that he had to fly into Syria and then take a bus across the border. I received a few emails from him after he returned. He said that there was a curfew almost every night and that it was becoming more and more difficult for the Christian community there. One day he sent me an email with photos of his church on fire. He said that gunmen had come in and taken him out at gunpoint. He thought he was going to be shot, but instead they blew up the church. Ragheed was able to return to Rome at least twice over the next three years, and I met him on one of those visits. He had put on some weight and he said that this was because he could not go outside to exercise, as it was too dangerous. As time passed more and more of his parishioners began to leave and those of us who knew him worried for his safety. Whoever could afford to leave the parish got out. Ragheed knew that staying on in Iraq was becoming increasingly dangerous, but he believed that that was where God was asking him to be. He wanted to remain with his people so that they could have the mass. In spite of death threats and the obvious danger, he continued to minister to his people and they continued to come to pray and celebrate mass. One of the neighboring churches was hit by a car bomb, killing two people and injuring many. The bishop’s house was blown up and Ragheed’s sister was injured by a grenade, which was thrown at her while she was going to clean the church in preparation for Sunday mass.  Despite this, Ragheed and the other priests continued to minister to their people.


Church burning in Iraq

On 3rd June, 2007 I received a phone call from a friend to tell me the terrible news that Ragheed along with three others, had been shot dead the day before. He had just finished celebrating Mass and was leaving the church with another sub-deacon. Two other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them were in the car behind. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, had the courage to speak out. Here are some excerpts from an interview she gave to 

At a certain point the car was stopped by armed men. Fr. Ragheed could have fled but he did not want to, because he knew they were looking for him. They forced us to get out of the car and led me away. 

Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed,

I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?”  And he simply responded,

How can I close the house of God?” 

They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.’ At this point Bayan fainted.


Ragheed Ganni was 35 when he was shot dead and had been a priest for 6 years. 


In the second reading from this Sunday’s mass (Apocalypse 7:9, 14-17) we hear of the great numbers of people who stand before the Lamb holding palms in their hands. When the writer asks who they are he is told,

These are the people who have been through the great persecution and because they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb, they now stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’


Part of the mosaic in the Irish College chapel depicting the martyr Ragheed on the right

A few years after Ragheed’s death the chapel in the Irish College in Rome was redecorated by the artist Marko Rupnik. Behind the altar there is a beautiful mosaic with Christ the Good Shepherd at the centre and several saints on either side including Fr. Ragheed to the far right holding the martyr’s palm. I always find it very moving to see this image having known Ragheed myself.

The chapel in the Irish College

In different parts of the world many people continue to put their lives at risk in order to pass on the teachings of Christ as he asked us to. Many, including Ragheed, have paid with their lives. Although it is sad for me to think of Ragheed’s death, it is also a great source of strength and inspiration. Jesus told us we would be persecuted for following him, but He also told us that He is our shepherd who continues to guide and look after us. That doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer, but it does mean that He is always with us. Even though none of us want to have to suffer for our faith, what could be more important than to be faithful to Jesus? He is the one who makes sense of why we are here and without Christ we are nothing. Our time on earth is temporary and we need to stay faithful to the only One who can give us eternal life.


The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.  I know them and they follow me.’