Saturday, November 26, 2022

1st Sunday of Advent (Gospel: Mt 24:37-44) Faith and Hope


I always like the fact that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the evenings are short and it is usually cold (unless you live in Florida!). Then we begin to light candles and put up colored lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King. It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy. ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time. 

Normally we think of Advent as preparing for the event of Christmas, but that is just part of it. Christmas and Easter are two halves of the same event, which happened over 33 years and they cannot be separated. That event changed history forever and opened for us the possibility of heaven when we die. What could be more wonderful than that and that is the hope that our faith gives us.

It is also a reminder that Jesus will come again in glory at the end of time. Each Sunday in the Creed we say, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ We don’t know when that will be, but we believe that it will happen, because Jesus has told us so. The Lord tells us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die, but the important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come and above all to die for us, so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.

The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us. The Lord is constantly speaking to us but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted. People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes, God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It's usually through other people, or through the Scriptures. It took me a while to learn how to listen, so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to try and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us. That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.

One thing that is characteristic of the Gospels is that they are full of hope. The message of God to us—the Good News—is always one of hope and it is certainly something we need in a world where we are constantly hearing of so many terrible things happening around us. We don't hear of all the wonderful things that are constantly happening around us: the many acts of kindness that people continually do for each other, looking out for each other especially when we are struggling. This is the Spirit at work in us and this is what makes the world bearable, in spite of the awful things that happen. Just a few years ago (Nov 2016), several serious fires were started in different parts of Israel, just to cause suffering. Then, to everyone’s amazement one group that came to help out, were firefighters from Palestine. As you know there is a lot of tension and hatred between these two countries at the best of times, but there is more goodness in people than evil. We just don’t usually hear about it. The generosity of people reaching out after the hurricane is another example of this.

Jesus reminds us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the eternal things. It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity. Even though worldly affairs are important, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God; the reality that we will die, that life and death are in his hands, and that whenever He does come for us, He must find us ready.


In one sense we can never be ready enough for God. How do you prepare to meet God? And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams, if we have made any effort to be ready.


Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken the other left. What does this mean? It means that although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind. If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we have missed what it is about, because there is much more to our life than this. 


Sometimes it is when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we have become immersed in the world. In an instant everything changes and the things of the world become insignificant. Naturally we have to get on with the day-to-day things of working and living, but we are being told to make sure that we also make time for God. Every day thousands of people die who were not expecting it; people going to work, dropping the kids off to school, or shopping. Then there is an accident, or someone has a heart attack and in the next instant they are leaving their bodies and coming before God. It happens to thousands of people every day of the week.


I also want to say something about suicide and all these terrible mass killings. I have no doubt that a big factor is that people have lost faith and lost hope. If you believe there is nothing after this life and you are struggling to cope with everything, then ‘ending it all’ might seem like a good option, because it seems to suggest bringing the pain to an end. But if you believe in God, in heaven and hell, that will give a very different perspective, because then we have something to hope for, especially when we are struggling. At times of terrible crisis, when a loved one dies, especially if it’s a young person, or people lose everything they worked hard for, having faith makes all the difference in the world. It doesn’t resolve the problem, but it does remind us that we are not here for long and what awaits us is worth persevering for. Our struggles are painful, sometimes unbearable, but they are temporary. We lose people we love, but we have the hope of being with them again. That is the difference that faith makes, and that’s also why it is so important that we do everything to pass on the faith to the next generation.


The feast of Christmas is the beginning of the greatest hope that exists: the hope that we are created for a purpose and that something wonderful awaits us when we die unless we reject it. If you can make yourself stop a couple of times during Advent and reflect on that and give thanks, that is one of the best ways that we can prepare for Christmas.


The Angel said to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid. I bring you news of great joy. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born for you; He is Christ the Lord."


Friday, November 18, 2022

34th Sunday, Feast of Christ the King (Gospel: Luke 23:35-43) Jesus Christ is Lord



You could sum up what I am about to say with four words: Jesus Christ is Lord. That is really all that matters. Jesus Christ is Lord.


Some time ago I was asked to visit a man in hospital. He was probably in his 70s. When he saw me he must have felt uncomfortable, as he began to tell me in so many words, how he didn’t really need me there, as he had a close relationship with God. He seemed to want to prove how tough he was. He then went on to talk about how he was on a first name basis with the Holy Trinity, describing how he related to the Father, Son and Spirit and the Virgin Mary, as if they were buddies at the bar. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but I remember finding myself being disgusted at the way he spoke, as it was so disrespectful. I don’t think he meant to be disrespectful, but it was.


The only way we should come before God, is on our knees with our face to the ground, in awe and reverence for who and what God is. Yes, Jesus is our brother, having taken on human flesh, but He is also the creator of the world, the one who will come to judge the living and dead, the one before whom everyone will bow down and tremble. It is so important that we don’t forget that. That is also why we begin every mass by acknowledging that we are sinners and asking for God’s mercy.


In the Prophet Isaiah, Isaiah is given a vision of heaven, where he sees God on his throne. His reaction? He is terrified. He recognizes his sinfulness before God’s holiness and he is afraid it will kill him.

‘Woe is me, for I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips, who dwell among a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ (Is 6:5) Then it says that an angel came down and touched him on the lips with a hot coal, to purify him and reassure him he would not die.


The Prophet Ezekiel is also shown a vision of heaven:

‘I then saw what looked like a throne made of sapphire. And sitting on the throne was a figure in the shape of a human. From the waist up it was glowing like metal in a hot furnace and from the waist down it looked like the flames of a fire. I realized I was seeing the brightness of God’s glory, so I bowed my face to the ground.’ (Ezek 1:26-28)

In Revelations, St. John the Apostle saw a similar vision of Jesus in his glory, except that Jesus comes towards him. He says he was so frightened that he fainted, even though he had lived with Jesus for three years.


It is very easy for us to become casual about our faith, but it is so important that we don’t, that we remember who and what God is, who Jesus is. It is a wonderful thing that Jesus invites us to have a personal relationship with him and he speaks to us as a friend, but we still have to be careful of how we approach God. He is the Lord and master of all things, the King of Kings, the judge of the living and the dead.


Think about when you receive the Eucharist. We are receiving the Body of Christ, not a thing, not holy bread, but Jesus. How do you dress? How do you hold it when it is put in your hand? Do you flick it back into your mouth, or walk away with it? When was the last time you confessed your sins, as the Lord asks us to, so that we are not receiving his Body and Blood unworthily? St. Paul writes:

‘Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, will be guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick and some have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor 11: 27-30).


Does that mean we should be afraid? No. It is the Lord himself who wants us to receive him in the Eucharist. Pope Francis puts it beautifully. He says, ‘The Eucharist is food for sinners, not a reward for saints,’ but we must be careful how we go about it. We can never be casual, or we bring condemnation on ourselves and that applies just as much to me. In fact, it is more serious for me, because the Lord comes into my hands as a priest in every mass. It is a great responsibility and one which often scares me, because I too will be accountable as his priest.


Often you hear people talking about God and religion as if it were something optional. You can take it or leave it, it’s up to you. God is not the optional extra. We are. God exists, but we need not be here except that God created us and keeps us in existence. God also entrusted his world to our care, not to do what we like with it, but to look after it.

On the last three Sundays of the year, including today, we read Gospels that refer to God’s judgement on us. The parable of the ten virgins, five of whom were left outside, because they hadn’t bothered to prepare. There is also the parable of the talents, where the one who did nothing with what he was given, was condemned. He wasn’t condemned because he did something, but because he didn’t do anything. He was indifferent. There is also the Gospel where we have the separation of sheep and goats.

‘When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the angels with him… and all the nations will be assembled before him. And He will separate them one from another as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’


One group was condemned. Why? because they didn’t do anything. They didn’t specifically carry out wrong actions, but they didn’t do anything. They had been entrusted with the world and the people around them and they ignored everything and did only what they wanted, ignoring God. The Lord is reminding us that it is his world, his creation and we have been entrusted with his creation to take care of it. It’s not just about us. It is about him. That is also why it is so sad when we get to the stage where we feel we can go completely against God’s Commandments and say that it is none of his business. We can do what we want. The Lord gave us specific Commandments to follow and we will be accountable.


For us to be faithful means we must make conscious decisions to follow God’s law, continually looking to see if we are living it. That’s why we keep reading the Scriptures. Often God’s laws make us uncomfortable, because it will challenge us when we are going off track. The irony is that it is God’s very laws that will lead us to the greatest freedom and happiness, but we must choose. We will be different and it will cost us, because we will meet resistance just as Jesus said we would. But what could be greater than following the very path that God points out to us, the only one that leads to happiness.


Much of our world has rejected the ways of God. In Ireland in 2018, there was a referendum to change the constitution, to allow abortion. It was passed and the night it was passed there was singing and dancing in the streets of Dublin, quite literally. There was a big gathering and a celebration with singing and dancing. Our culture has chosen the way of death, where we can decide what we do with life and death. That is the tree of good and evil in the Garden of Evil. God said to Adam and Eve you must not touch the fruit from the tree of good and evil. In other words, don’t play God. Don’t be the ones to decide what is ultimately good and evil. Only God can do that.


Now let me say a few things about our Church at this time. People keep coming to me distressed about what is happening in the Church, how there doesn’t seem to be much leadership and teachings seem to be changing. First of all, no Church teaching has changed. Church teaching doesn’t change easily. Our Pope often gives opinions which can be confusing because he doesn’t clarify what he means. But they are opinions not Church teaching and there is a world of a difference. Some groups within the Church, such as in Germany, are rebelling against Church teaching, but that doesn’t mean that Church teaching is changing, it just means one group is rebelling. That’s what happened at the Reformation with Martin Luther and maybe it will happen again, but the Church will keep going, because it is the Lord’s Church.


We have the Eucharist and the Scriptures here and that’s all that matters. We have the current mass and we have the Latin mass, which inspires many people and even though there are restrictions on it, it is still there and I have no doubt it will remain here too.


When you find yourself concerned about our Church, remember this: When Jesus established his Church He said to Peter—who was the first Pope—‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld cannot prevail against it’ (Matt 16:18). The powers of hell cannot stop it because it is from God. Despite all the odds, the Church continues to grow, not just survive, but grow. There has always been bad example and corruption and there always will be as long as there are human beings in the Church. But it is the power of God which keeps it going and growing. So don’t have any concerns about the Church. Right now it is going through a turbulent time and it is unnerving and distressing, but remember those words of Jesus. ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld cannot prevail against it.’


Remember the account of Jesus walking on the water. The disciples saw him and were terrified, as you would expect. But Jesus reassured them it was indeed him. So Peter said, ‘Lord if it is you, let me come to you across the water,’ and Jesus said, ‘Come.’ And Peter started walking on the water. He actually walked on water, but then he started thinking of the wind and waves and how this couldn’t be possible and he began to sink. As long as he was focused on Jesus, he was fine. As soon as he got distracted by the chaos around him he began to sink.


We can learn a lot from that. If we focus on the chaos around us, we can become overwhelmed by it. If we remain focused on Jesus, we remember who is in charge. It is his Church and it is his world.


‘…At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, in heaven on earth and under the earth, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father’ (Phil 2:10-11).




Monday, November 14, 2022

33rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass


The greatest thing I can do as a priest, is to bring the Eucharist to you in each mass and offer the forgiveness of sins through confession. There is nothing greater than this for any priest and this is basically what a priest’s life is about. Naturally it will involve a lot of other things too, such as visiting the sick, praying with people, hopefully being a ‘sign-post’ to God in some way, but above all it is to bring the Eucharist to people.


But why do we need to have the mass? Couldn’t we just celebrate mass once a month and then receive Holy Communion every week without a priest? Well we could if we didn’t have enough priests to celebrate the mass, but it is not the same thing for different reasons. It is not just about receiving Holy Communion, although this clearly is the most important part for us.


Every time a priest celebrates the mass, it is Jesus who is working through him on the altar. We say that the priest is alter Christus, ‘another Christ’. I am still a human being and a sinner, but Jesus acts through me as a priest in a unique way, especially when I celebrate the mass. That is why the priest always reads the Gospel, because they are the words of Christ, so it is Jesus himself speaking his own words to us, through the person of the priest.


Then at the consecration, when the priest says ‘This is my body which will be given up for you,’ we are present to Jesus being offered to God the Father on the cross.  We are there. Time stands still and we are present at the event of Calvary and the Last Supper. All we can see is a man holding up a small white piece of unleavened bread, but this is what is taking place. So why doesn’t God clearly show this to us? At least then everyone would believe. Perhaps it is because God wants us to believe, even though we do not understand. That’s what faith is. He wants us to come here and pray, even though we don’t have to. He wants us to freely choose for him and to make the effort to give him some of our time each week. God asks us to acknowledge and worship him, which is why we take the time to come together. It is often an inconvenience, but in a way it should be. God asks us to give of ourselves to him, since He has given us everything in the first place.


The mass is also the most perfect prayer there is, the one offering that cannot be refused, since God the Father could not refuse the offering of his Son, which is why we offer up so many things in each mass. We pray for the whole Church, the pope, bishops all of us here, those who are sick and have different needs, those who have died and we often mention someone in particular by name as well.


Like anything else we become familiar with it and take it for granted, but can you imagine if you weren’t familiar with what it was and someone said to you, ‘You have to come down to this place where the Christians have this extraordinary meeting each week. Jesus comes among them in what they call the Eucharist and He speaks to them through the Scriptures and then they actually receive the Body and Blood of Jesus!’ That is what the mass is. That’s what happens every time we come together. As soon as we say that we ‘have’ to go to mass, we are turning it backwards. We are looking at it as an obligation, a burden, instead of the most incredible encounter with God where we actually listen to him speak to us and are then united with him in the most intimate way possible.


In the year 170AD a man called Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Emperor describing what the Christians were about and what happened at each mass, as people were very suspicious about them especially when they heard about eating the body and blood of a man. But in his account of the mass back then, 1800 years ago, he describes almost exactly what we still do today, including the collection! It hasn’t changed because it came from Jesus and not from us.


At this time of the year we focus especially on the dead and we pray for them with the greatest prayer that we know: the holy sacrifice of the mass. We always come back to it because we don’t know of anything greater. If we had something greater, we would do that instead and even though if is only Catholics who believe that, it doesn’t matter. It is enough. God has given us this gift of faith and shown us this treasure in his world, and He invites us to come together and pray for his people, and for all the needs of the world, and to remember what He has done for us.


Here is something that probably never occurred to you. Each of us is a master piece carefully designed by God from all eternity. We think of our life as beginning at conception, which it does physically, where we are also given an immortal soul. But long before this God has carefully designed each of us, how we would look, the color of our skin, eyes, hair; the gifts we would have, the families we would be born into. Then at conception that masterpiece begins to take form.


When an artist creates a masterpiece, he doesn’t begin with a canvass putting on paint to see what will happen. He has an idea/picture in his mind as to what he wants to create. Then he begins to put together that creation and finishes with a masterpiece. And like any masterpiece, he takes great pride in it and great care of it.


The gift of the Eucharist is a reminder to us that we are that masterpiece and God is so interested in us that He remains intimately close to us and interested in us, guiding and teaching us every step of the way. He is not observing from a distance, but so close to us that we can actually receive him into our bodies. What could be more intimate than this? Through the Scriptures He continually guides, teaches, warns and admonishes us, because He is so interested in each of us, his masterpieces.


None of us is worthy of the Eucharist, and could ever be worthy, but it is God who makes it possible. That’s also why we always begin by acknowledging that we are sinners and we also acknowledge our unworthiness, ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ Jesus wants us to receive him and that’s why He gives himself to us.


So the next time you find yourself saying ‘I have to go to mass,’ stop yourself and remind yourself what it is: an extraordinary encounter with God, where God speaks to us and where Jesus comes among us and where we can touch and receive him.


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

Do this in memory of me.’

Friday, November 4, 2022

32nd Sunday Year C (Luke 20:27-38) Religious Persecution



A few years ago I got a phone call from a priest friend of mine in the Irish College in Rome, where I had studied for three years, to tell me the sad news that a mutual priest friend of ours had been shot dead in Iraq after celebrating mass. He was my next-door neighbor in Rome for a year and a half. He had just celebrated Sunday mass and was with three other sub-deacons and one of their wives. Their car was ambushed, the woman was taken out of the car and the three deacons and Ragheed were shot. The three deacons had given their time to try and protect Fr. Ragheed, as they knew he was in danger. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, has 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.


The killers then left the bodies booby-trapped in the hope of killing others as well. Ragheed was just 34. He is now a martyr of the church. He had studied to be a priest in Rome and spent several summers working in Ireland because it was too dangerous to go back to Iraq, but eventually he decided that it was time for him to go back to his home country as the people needed him. He knew that it would be extremely dangerous and to be honest I wasn’t that surprised when I heard this terrible news. About a year before, he had sent me an email telling me that armed men had come into his house and brought him out at gunpoint and then blown up the church. He sent me a photo of himself standing outside the church and it in flames. On Pentecost Sunday, just two weeks before he was shot, there had been another bomb attack on the church. His own bishop was kidnapped and murdered and his sister had a grenade thrown at her when she was going to prepare the church for mass.


Fr. Ragheed Ganni (1972-2007)

He also told me that over half of his parish had already left, because it was too dangerous. Anyone who could afford it had gone, but the poorer people were still there and the thing that will probably stick with me the most is this: he said that without the Eucharist, the people have nothing. That is why he was prepared to stay, because he believed that the Eucharist was everything, and the people needed this hope and so he was prepared to stay there and risk his life.


Sometimes it is when all our material comforts are taken away, that we suddenly realise the importance of having spiritual hope. It is not as obvious to us because we are fairly comfortable and thankfully we can practice our faith freely, but it is not so easy for many people in the world right now. However, often when people are suffering for their faith they are much more tuned in to their need for God, their need for the Eucharist.


Just before the war started in Iraq, I asked Ragheed what his fears for his country were. He told me that the problem wasn’t when the US forces moved in, but rather when they would leave again, because then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out. That is exactly what happened. He was from Mosul, which is the biblical city of Nineveh. Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh?


I am not telling you this story about Ragheed’s death to just paint a depressing picture of the terrible things going on in the world, but rather because it reminds me of the enormous treasure that God has given us in the Eucharist and the priesthood and what people will endure because of their hope in God’s promise of life after death. That gives people great inner strength to go through difficulties. We also need to hold onto that hope, the hope of the world to come. Hopefully we won’t have to experience that kind of persecution, but even for the ordinary difficulties that we continually face, it makes all the difference if we have the inner strength and hope that our faith gives us. What is that hope? It is the hope that something wonderful awaits us in the world to come if we choose for God. That helps us to keep going, to be faithful, especially when things are difficult.


Mosaic from the Irish College, Rome, with Fr. Ragheed depicted on the right.

Today’s readings are about this: religious persecution. In the first reading we hear about a family who are prepared to face torture and death rather than deny God and in the Gospel Jesus is reminding us that the life after this one is real and worth struggling to reach. People are prepared to die for the mass and for their faith because it is the greatest thing that God has given us. It is what makes sense of why we are here.


Just this past week a priest in Ireland spoke strongly about gay marriage and transgender ideology being pushed on young people. He said they were sinful, which is Church teaching. He has been removed from the parish by his bishop and not allowed to say mass in public.


A few years ago a young priest here in the States was preaching at the funeral of someone who had committed suicide. He said that suicide was a moral evil, which is Church teaching. I think it was insensitive to say it at that time, but he was removed from ministry by his bishop and told he needed to go for counselling.


Persecution is never far away. There is persecution from within the Church because people are afraid of offending others. ‘We mustn’t upset people.’ Jesus was crucified for what He said. The Apostles were killed for what they said and thousands more throughout the centuries.  People won’t lay down their lives for a nice idea, but they will lay down their lives for the truth, because if we deny the truth what are we left with?


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

As it happened I was in Rome shortly after Ragheed’s death and I was there for a special mass that was celebrated in the Irish College where I studied for three years. It was celebrated by several Iraqi priests, mostly in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, which Ragheed also spoke at home. It was very moving to see several other young priests there from Iraq who could easily face the same fate as my friend Fr. Ragheed.


During the mass, the words that kept going through my mind were the words of the consecration: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ Those words reminded me of Ragheed’s life. He was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people so that they could have the Eucharist, the greatest treasure that God has given us. In the same way the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us as well, so that we might have life. Ragheed was just 34. May we also have the grace to be faithful and persevere as he did.

Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr, pray for us.