Friday, May 26, 2023

Pentecost Sunday (Gospel: 20:19-23 ) The renewal of the Church

 


 

In 1999, in preparation for the millennial celebrations, Pope John Paul II invited representatives from 54 different groups around the world to come to Rome. These groups were all started over the previous several decades by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To give you an example, some of the groups were, the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, Cenacolo, Charismatic Renewal. All of these different movements within the Church are really about different ways of living out the Gospel in daily life. These movements have been so successful that most of them have spread all over the world. In Rome there were 400 000 people present representing these 54 different movements. This event was a real celebration of what God is doing all over the world. 

 

In my hometown of Galway in 1988, a prayer group sprang up which was to bring many young people back to their faith, including me. Today there are 4 people in religious life from that group (two priests and two sisters in the Poor Clares) and many married couples who are really living the Gospel and teaching their children to do the same.  A friend of mine from that prayer group, who was one of the first people to welcome me to it, started a school of evangelisation for lay people in Knock in 2006. They had 17 students all eager to learn how to pass on the faith. While that prayer group is no longer there, two other groups came from it and the same thing is happening. 

 

All of these groups were started because God inspired people to act. The Holy Spirit moved people to act and they did. All of those groups were started by lay people.

 

We don’t often hear about these things, because they don’t make the headlines, but I think it is important for us to know that these things are going on all the time.  From what you read on the news you would be forgiven for thinking that the Church is on its way out, or that religion is no longer relevant. Nothing could be further from the truth and times of crisis, such as we are in now, often make people think about God and why we are here.

 




Although I never stopped believing in God, I stopped practicing my faith for a time, while I was in my teens. I found it harder and harder to relate to what was going on at mass. When I was 19 I found myself thinking that I wanted to be properly in or out, but not half way. That same year I came to the US and worked on Long Island for the summer as a student, in the A&P supermarket. It was a great adventure.

 

When I got home I came across a book which had been left in my bedroom called, Power for Living. I don’t know who put it there. This book was a series of testimonies of different well-known people, talking about their faith and how they came to know God. At the end of the book it said, ‘If you want to have God in your life, sit down now and ask him to come into your life.’ And so I did. I remember sitting on my bed and saying, ‘Lord, if you are really there, help me to know you.’ Little did I know what was coming next.

 

A few weeks later I was talking to a friend of mine by the name of Aidan. Aidan told me that he had met a mutual friend of ours called Louise when he was travelling on a bus. He said she had become ‘all religious and holy.’ She had been on pilgrimage to Medjugorje—the place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Our Lady had allegedly been appearing to six young people. While she was there she had had an awakening of her faith and was now filled with zeal and wanted to share it with anyone who would listen. I was intrigued by this, as I knew Louise, who was from a similar background to myself. So I called to her house and asked her what had happened. She was surprised that I asked her so directly, as she had been trying to find ways to bring this up in conversation, but I asked her before she could say anything. For the next hour and a half she told me all that had happened her and how God had revealed himself to her while she was there. At the end of it she asked me if I would like to come to a prayer meeting the next week. I wasn’t too keen on the idea, but Louise was clever and she asked another girl whom I had a crush on, to invite me. Naturally I went. Now they are both married and I’m a priest!

 





When I went to the prayer meeting I found myself in the middle of about 50 young people, who sang hymns, prayed the rosary, shared some Scripture readings, praised God out loud and called on the Holy Spirit. I had never come across anything like this before, but I could see what these people had was real and I wanted it. So I began to attend this group each week and they taught me about the importance of spending some time each day in prayer and so I did.

 

A few weeks later they started what is called a ‘Life in the Spirit Seminar’. This is a series of teachings over eight weeks, which teaches people about the reality of the Holy Spirit and the power of God in your life, how it is real and not just a religious idea. On the fifth week they pray with everyone, laying on hands as the Apostles did, praying that people might receive an out-pouring of the Holy Spirit. I was excited about what might happen, but when I was prayed with nothing in particular happened, except that I felt peaceful, though not unduly so.

 

However, over the following days and weeks I found that I had a burning desire to pray, such as I had never experienced before. I was in college at the time, studying marketing and I constantly wanted to go away by myself to pray. I also found that I began to hear the Scriptures as if I had never read them before and the words of the mass were suddenly alive as if I had never heard them before. Everything was different. The Holy Spirit had powered up my faith. From then on my faith was completely different, alive and on fire as it had never been before. That has stayed with me to this day.

 




About three years later I began to feel a call to become a priest and so I began my studies to for the priesthood and then I was ordained when I was 29. People sometimes ask why I didn’t want to get married. I was drawn to get married and I knew giving that up wouldn’t be easy, but the calling to serve God as a priest was stronger and hard to resist. It has not been an easy journey, but the Lord said it wouldn’t be easy. ‘You will be hated by all men on account of my name,’ but I couldn’t imagine a greater privilege. It is a mind-blowing idea, that through my hands as a priest, a piece of bread is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ and when I say the words of absolution, a person’s sins are taken away. I cannot imagine a greater privilege than this.

 

A few times I have gotten to the point where I didn’t think I could go on, not because I wanted to give up, but because I was really struggling and felt it was too much. But each time God has called me back and given me the grace to keep going. I know that is also because many people continually pray for me and other priests.

 

The first disciples had nothing to rely on except the power of God and that is why the Lord was able to do so much through them. They didn’t have any prestige, or titles. Nobody knew who they were. They had to rely completely on the power of God’s Spirit and they did.  Jesus had taught them to do this. He told them that they would receive the gift of the Spirit, which is what we celebrate this weekend and they were instantly changed from being frightened men in hiding, to unstoppable men, to the point of giving up their lives. This is the same gift that I received, though I suspect they received it in a more intense way.

 




The power of the Holy Spirit is what makes our faith alive. Without the Holy Spirit our faith is nothing. The very desire we have to know God comes from the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures would be just ancient writings, except that the Spirit sets them on fire. The bread and wine at each mass would remain just bread and wine, except that the Spirit transforms them into the Body and Blood of Christ, not just symbolically, but really and truly into the Body and Blood of Jesus. The reason why the Church is still here after 2000 years, is because the Holy Spirit continues to move and inspire people to act. No one is excluded, but it requires an openness on our part, because God will never force anything on us.

 

If you find your faith is not terribly alive, or it doesn’t seem very interesting, it means that you need to pray for the gift of the Spirit. God wants to give us the gift of his Spirit and is just waiting for us to ask. So ask!

 

Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth.’

 


Friday, May 12, 2023

6th Sunday Yr A (Gospel: John 14:15-21) If you love me you will keep my commandments

 



 

Something I often come across as a priest is this: when someone has died, or someone has become very ill, it often makes people angry, because they feel that God has let them down, or even betrayed them. Working in a hospital for a few years I would often hear people say: ‘I never hurt anyone. Why has God done this to me?’ ‘God owes me.’ It is as if there was a legal contract and if we keep our side of it, then God is obligated to keep his side of it, by looking after us and making sure that nothing happens to us. This is also one of the effects of Original Sin. We are suspicious of God and not convinced that He is good. We are quick to blame God when things go wrong and only to thank and praise him for the things that suit us.

 

The problem is that there is no love in this way of thinking. There is no love in a legal contract. It is just a contract, on paper, or by word of mouth. However, there is one big difference with the way God works. God relates to us on the basis of love alone. Everything that we have is a gift from God, out of love. We do not deserve any of it and we have not earned any of it. God does not owe us anything and will never owe us anything. If I manage to be faithful to my priesthood and to all that the Lord Jesus asks me to do as a Christian, then when I die, I cannot demand eternal happiness from him. He does not owe me anything. It is his undeserved gift, for no reason except that He wants to give it to me, just as we gifts to people we love, for no other reason than that we love them. That is why whatever we do on this earth for the Lord, is supposed to be done out of love for him and because he asks us to do it. Our relationship with God is meant to be one of love.

 

Look at the first words of the Gospel: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ ‘If you love me…’ What would you do for someone you love? Would you keep their wishes? Would you respect them? Would you keep their commandments, God’s Commandments?

 




It is interesting how many people have the idea that you should follow all the demands of your faith ‘in so far as they suit you’. If it doesn’t suit you then obviously you don’t do it. That is the mentality of our world and it is a selfish mentality. We are constantly told that we don’t owe anything to anyone and we shouldn’t have to do anything unless it suits us. What do I get out of it?

 

When you hear someone say that mass is boring, it really means they feel that they should get something out of it. It is about their satisfaction. But it’s not. Coming to mass each Sunday is about us making a sacrifice of our time to worship and acknowledge God, because He is God. No other reason is needed.

 

I have rarely heard people say they were bored at a funeral. That’s because they know why they are there.

 

The idea of sacrifice is not part of the thinking of our world. Jesus does not tell us to follow him on our own terms, but on his terms. In other words, we must try to live as He asks. They are commandments and not suggestions. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’

 

However, we must also remember that anything God tells us to do, is for our benefit. God knows exactly how we work and also what will help us to grow and blossom. He knows the path we need to follow, which will lead us to happiness. So, He points out the way and tells us how we need to live. ‘If you live as I command you, you will be alright.’ Unfortunately we do not always trust God and we often think that we know better. That is also why they are commandments and not suggestions. God is well aware that we often think we know better, so He tells us which path is the one to take. For our part we must trust him, even when it does not seem to make sense to us.

 




Our faith can certainly be demanding, but any way of life worth living is demanding.  If I wish to be a Catholic and to follow the way of Jesus Christ, then this is what is expected of me. These are the demands of our faith, but while it is demanding, it is not beyond us, because God gives us the strength we need to live it. He gives us ‘The Advocate,’ the Holy Spirit, to give us both strength and understanding. The Spirit empowers us to live as God asks us to. Think of the Apostles when they received the Spirit. They were completely transformed and the Spirit took away all their fear. From then on they were able to preach with power and authority, because God had given them the strength they needed.

 

It says in the Acts of the Apostles that the Apostles continually prayed with people so that they would receive the gifts of the Spirit, what we call Confirmation. The Lord gives us everything we need to live as He asks, so we can never say that it was too much for us. Not only that, but the Lord comes to us himself in the Eucharist, to accompany us every step of the way. So we are not walking this journey on our own. Jesus is with us for as much as we allow him to be.

 

Jesus also says that the Spirit is ‘The Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept.’ At this time in particular we need that truth, because it has become so distorted. How do we know what really is true? Ask the Spirit. Pray to the Spirit. God speaks to us through his Spirit, through his words and through his Church. If you are confused about what really is right and wrong regarding all the crazy teachings we are hearing about, read the Scriptures and pray to the Spirit. Jesus says, ‘He will teach you everything.’

 

The farther people stray from God, the more confused they get, until they no longer know what is right and wrong. But we are blessed, because all we have to do is read the Scriptures and listen to the Spirit teaching us through his Church. That way we are not dependent on any one person, or their interpretation of Scripture. ‘The Spirit of truth will teach you everything.’

 




Something I’m also asked a lot is how we are supposed to pass on our faith to the next generation. The second reading addresses this perfectly. ‘Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and reverence.’ The best way to pass on our faith is to live it as well as we can. The crazier our world gets, the more people are trying to find meaning. When we live our faith seriously, it makes us different and people notice that. They may not say it to you, but people l do notice. One thing that people notice is that we have a sense of purpose and that we are not overcome by the craziness of our world at this time, because we know where to keep our focus and that is on the Lord. We are already seeing signs of this happening. I have noticed more younger people coming to Church, because they are searching. If people ask you why you believe what you do, or why you are not overwhelmed by what is happening, then you have the chance to ‘Give a reason for the hope you have.’ But for the most part, we just live this relationship with God.

 

In the early Church, people were drawn to the Christians because of the values and purpose they had. They were also living in a time of craziness, but they bore witness by the faith they had.

 

Remember too that God is as interested in your children’s faith and wellbeing as you are. You created their bodies. God created their souls. Don’t underestimate how much God is working in their lives, even though you may not see it. Just keep praying for them and doing penance for them and offer all that you suffer, for them.

 

 

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and reverence.’

 

If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

 


Saturday, May 6, 2023

5th Sunday of Easter, Year A (Gospel: John 14:1-12) Life after death

 



This Gospel passage is one that I nearly always read at funerals. To me it perfectly sums up so much of what we believe happens at death. So often we think of this life as being everything and when it’s over, we go to some kind of spiritual retirement home, where we ‘rest in peace’. In some ways that is to see it the backwards. Our society tells us that this life is everything, so enjoy it all you can and try and gain as much pleasure and satisfaction as you can, before it’s over. The Lord tells us that this life is a time of getting ready for the world to come, which is what we are created for. This is our time of learning about love and service and about God. It is also our time of free will when we must choose to accept or reject God. When our time on earth is complete, the Lord will take us to be with him forever, unless we have rejected him.

 

I am going to prepare a place for you…’ There is a place waiting for us.

I will come and take you to myself, so that where I am, you also may be.’

 

When our time on earth is complete, the Lord will come for us. Even just to put it that way, as opposed to saying, ‘when our life is over,’ makes a big difference. Our life isn’t over, just our time on earth. Our mortal bodies will die, but then we will have glorified or spiritual bodies and we will no longer be bound by time and space and where we will live more intensely than we do here on earth. We will experience everything just as we do now, but at a higher level of intensity than we do now.

 

The most difficult thing anyone can face is the death of a child, or someone dying much younger that we feel they should die, through violence, or cancer, or anything else. Why does God allow this to happen? We don’t know. But if we can go back to seeing our time on earth as the time of preparation for the world to come, then it means that those we have lost have gone ahead of us sooner than we expected. Their time on earth was completed sooner than we expected, but sooner or later we will catch up with them again. That is the hope that our faith gives us and there is really no greater hope than this.

 




If our life on earth was everything, then the death of those we love is the worst disaster imaginable. But if our time on earth is only temporary and leading to something else, then that changes everything. Sooner or later we will catch up with those who have gone before us.

 

St. Paul writes, ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19). The whole point of our faith is what it is leading us to.

 

So what is the purpose of our time on earth? We were created to share in God’s happiness. When we are very happy about something, our instinct is to share it with people. We have a party to celebrate happy events, because we want others to share in our joy. God created us to share in his happiness. After giving our first parents this happiness, which is explained through the story of the Garden of Eden, we lost it, which was not what God wanted for us. So God won it back for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now it is offered to us again, but we must consciously choose it.

 

Our time on earth is that time of choosing for God or against God; choosing to love or not to love. We are created to love and serve God and to share in his happiness. Our time on earth is meant to be a time of service, to God and the people around us. It is meant to be a time of giving of ourselves, sacrificing ourselves, for the people around us, just as Jesus did.

 




In St. John’s Gospel, at the last supper, it says that Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles and then He said to them: ‘You call me Teacher and Lord and rightly, for so I am. If I your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.’ (John 13:13-14)

 

In other words, we are meant to serve and sacrifice of ourselves. It is easy to forget that when we are constantly being told that everything is about our own fulfillment. It is not just about our own fulfilment, although in fact the more we give of ourselves, the more we will be satisfied.

 

Does it really matter what we do, since God loves everyone and everyone goes to heaven? That is not what Jesus taught. Many times Jesus taught that we must be careful how we live, because it will determine what happens to us after death. We choose for or against God by the way we live. God has created us to be with him in heaven, but it is not a given. It depends on how we live and what we choose.

 

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives the parable of the sheep and the goats, explaining this:

31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

 




Many people scoff at the idea of hell, or say that a loving God would never create hell. But if heaven is real and we have free will, then it must be possible to not go to heaven. Otherwise we would be forced to go to heaven, which contradicts the idea of free will. So if heaven is beauty, joy, peace, light, happiness, love and the total fulfillment we all long for, then to reject that would be to be left with the opposite: ugliness, hatred, darkness, pain, isolation and the eternal frustration of never having the fulfillment we long for. It is not that God sends people to hell, rather that people choose hell by rejecting God.

 

It is interesting that any place where apparitions of Jesus or Mary have occurred, the visionaries have nearly always been shown heaven, hell and purgatory, to remind us that these are real.

 

The various trials that we continually go through are also part of this journey to heaven. Every trial we go through gives us the opportunity to grow. When things go wrong we can curse God, or ask God to help us. Every struggle we go through helps to form us as people, one way or the other. When you think you are going crazy and can’t take any more, try and remember that no matter how bad things get here, it is temporary. Sooner or later our time here will be complete and then, God willing, we will go to be with our loved ones once again, where we will experience the fulfillment that we all long for.

 

I want to finish with the following quotation from a famous Protestant minister called John Owen. When he was dying he was dictating some letters. He said, ‘Write, “I am still in the land of the living”, and then he said, “No, change that. Write, “I am still in the land of those who die. Soon I hope to be in the land of the living.”’

 


Friday, April 28, 2023

4th Sunday of Easter Yr A (Jn 10:1-10) I am the good shepherd

 



Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

 

Twice I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land. It was a wonderful experience to be able to visit all the places where Jesus lived and preached. I remember being struck at seeing shepherds leading their sheep, something which I had never seen in any other country, because they are a different kind of animal. At one stage we were about to celebrate mass in the place that is celebrated as ‘The Shepherd’s Field,’ where the shepherds who saw the angels were meant to have been. As we were getting ready for mass, two heads popped up over the hill and then two sheep came to us and walked right into the middle of everyone and began poking around. The only sheep I have ever seen would run away. In Palestine the shepherd walks in front and the sheep follow in a line behind. You can still see them doing this in the fields. It makes more sense of what we read in the Scriptures where Jesus says ‘I know my sheep and mine know me’ and ‘He leads me to green pastures.’

 

I also remember hearing a story of a tourist who was visiting one of these places and was looking at the sheep. To his horror he watched as the shepherd took one of the lambs and deliberately broke its leg. When he saw this he went over and began to chastise the shepherd, saying ‘I saw what you just did. How dare you hurt an animal,’ etc. The shepherd got angry and said ‘You know nothing about what is going on here.’  He then explained to the tourist what he was doing. He said that the lamb was constantly running away, because he was afraid of the shepherd and so he was constantly in danger of getting lost, or being eaten by a wild animal. When this happens the shepherd breaks the leg of the animal and immediately puts it into a splint to heal. During the time it is healing, he carries the animal on his shoulders. By the time it has healed the lamb is no longer afraid of the shepherd and stays close to him and is therefore no longer in danger of getting lost. They actually do this. Sometimes the Lord allows us to struggle which keeps us coming back to him for mercy. It says in Romans, ‘God made all people prisoners of disobedience, so that He might show mercy to them all.’ (Romans 11:32).

 

Today is vocations Sunday, also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’; a day when we remember and pray for priests and priestly vocations. St. Thérèse of Lisieux said she could never understand why people were always saying that we should pray for priests, until she went on a pilgrimage to Rome with several priests. Then she understood! Priests are just men like any other men, with the same strengths and weaknesses. The priest is meant to be a shepherd, one who leads people to God, or points people in the direction of God. If I am to do that, my life as a priest must be completely centred on God to begin with, because I cannot give you what I do not have. Nothing I have of myself as a human being will be of any use to you. The only thing that I have which is of any use to you is what I receive from God. I am only a vessel or instrument of God; at least that is the idea.

 




We also know that we priests are not always as good as we should be. Sadly, we have often let people down in different ways and sometimes even led people away from God, which is something that we will be held accountable for.  In the book of Ezekiel God says to the prophet, ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves. Should not shepherds take care of the sheep?’ (Ex 34:2). I always find that line a bit frightening. God has given me the gift of the priesthood, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility. I will be answerable for how I have lived it.

 

So why does God keep on calling people who are weak? Why doesn’t He pick stronger people, or more reliable people? I have no doubt it is to make it all the more obvious that we are only instruments that He uses. Of ourselves we are nothing, but the message that we pass on to you from God is everything. It is like a glass of really good wine. Whether the glass itself is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, is irrelevant. What matters is the content. If you find yourself disappointed with a priest, or if he lets you down, try and remember that. Also, the priest is not the Church. He is one person and a certain amount of people will always cause scandal. One out of twelve of the Apostles betrayed Jesus.

 

The devil is clever and will jump on any bad experience you have had with a priest, in confession, or any conversation. I’m always amazed at how many people have walked away from the Church because of one bad experience with a priest. Would you never go shopping again if you had a bad experience with a cashier, or with a waiter in a restaurant? But the devil will say, ‘See, this is what the Church is like. Why would you want to be part of that?’

 

While it is a great help if the priest is a holy man, the only thing that is really important is the message that he is bringing. We are only messengers, or as St. Paul says, ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Cor 4:7). We are only cracked-pots that carry this extraordinary treasure. What matters is the treasure that we bring to you and not the one who carries that treasure. That treasure is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that He has won eternal life for us through his death and resurrection; that He is Lord of all things and all things are subject to him; that He has given us the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins. That is the only thing that matters. Jesus is the one who offers us the fullness of life, and He is the only one who can offer it. We continue to turn to him for life and hopefully we priests will continue to be vessels, or instruments, helping people to rediscover these extraordinary treasures which God has given us, in spite of our weakness.

 

St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests

What if the priest is not a very holy man and even living a bad life? Is God less present in the mass or anywhere else, because the priest is not a good man? Of course not. God would never let his presence depend on the holiness of a priest. Even if the priest does not give good example, the bread and wine still become the Body and Blood of Christ; sins are still forgiven through confession, the sick receive the same grace when they are anointed.

 

I know a lot of priests and most of them are good men and many of them are holy men, but we also need prayer, because we are human beings and we are subject to the same temptations as everyone else. We need your support and that is how it is meant to work. The shepherd guides the flock and the flock take care of their shepherd. That has also been my experience and I thank you for that. We all try to play our part.

 

God has given us the priesthood so that we can have the Eucharist, the gift of Jesus himself. The two are intimately linked and are a great gift to us. Everything God gives us is to help us and because He loves us.

 

I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’

 

 

 

 

 





Thursday, April 27, 2023

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A (Gospel: Luke 24:13-35) "The truth will make you free"

 



 

One of the hardest things for any of us to face and understand is suffering. The question that always comes up is, ‘If God is good and all-powerful, why is there suffering in the world?’ Why doesn’t God stop it? No good ever seems to come from suffering, so why does God allow it? There is no easy answer, but a big part of it is free will. God gave us free will, but with freedom comes responsibility.

 

Today there is a lot of talk about freedom, protecting our freedom at all costs. What is freedom? Real freedom is living in God’s kingdom, living by the teachings of God. Doing whatever you want, regardless of the consequences, does not lead to freedom, it leads to chaos and evil, which lead to suffering. Go back to the story of Adam and Eve. God told them they could eat of any tree in the garden, except for the tree of good and evil. He was telling them not to step beyond their limitations—the tree of good and evil. Recognize and respect your limitations as human beings. They experienced fulfillment and happiness because they were living in the realm of God, as He asked them to. As long as they didn’t ‘play God’ they were fine. But they were tempted to disobey God and they gave in to the temptation. They didn’t listen to what God told them. They gave in to the temptation that ‘they could be like gods’, in other words, to do whatever they wanted, respecting no limitations and look at what happened. They brought chaos into the world. Sin.

 

In documentaries on drug smuggling, I have often heard the journalist ask the dealers or smugglers, ‘Are you not concerned about all the deaths that these drugs cause?’ and they nearly always give the same answer: ‘I just bring the drug, it’s up to the people to do whatever they want with it.’ In other words, I take no responsibility for my actions. We tell our young women that they can dress whatever way want, no matter how provocative and if it causes men to sin, that is their problem. I take no responsibility for my actions. Our society tells us that it is ok to sleep around and you don’t have to take responsibility for the consequences. If a young woman gets pregnant, we tell her that she can have an abortion. I take no responsibility for my actions. That was what Adam and Eve did. They were told by the devil that it was freedom not to listen to God but to do whatever they wanted, but it wasn’t. God showed them what true freedom was, but they rejected it. Living by God’s Commandments is what brings true freedom.

 




Look at what is happening in our world today. So many people have abandoned the ways of God, refuse to listen to God, even deny God and sin continues to multiply. We see more and more evil. What is good is often called evil—‘everyone should be able to do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences’—and evil is called good: abortion, euthanasia, telling children to choose their own gender. It is against God’s commandments, and they lead to destruction and death. And if you criticize what God tells us is evil, then you are called evil and hateful. People are being accused of hate speech, just for quoting Scripture.

 

It says in the prophet Isaiah, ‘Woe to those who call evil good evil and good evil… Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.’ (Is 5:20a-21)

 

Recently you heard me talk about the Church in Germany, where many of the bishops have decided they now know better [than God’s word] and so can go away from Church teaching. They have now decided that it is ok to bless gay marriage, even though this goes against Church teaching. ‘Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes.’

 

Throughout history God continually offered the Jewish people the chance to enjoy true freedom, by living his Commandments, but they continually rejected it. Moses said to the people:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. (Deut 30:15-16)

 




True freedom is to live under God’s commandments, but it comes with responsibility. We have free will, but we are also responsible for our actions. So God points out specifically what we need to do, by giving us the Commandments. This is the path for us to find freedom.

 

I remember seeing one of those programs called Super-nanny, where they bring a psychologist into a family where they are having a lot of problems with their kids. In this particular case, two young children were becoming wilder and wilder and the parents didn’t know what to do. The psychologist pointed out that they needed definite rules and guidelines as to what they could and could not do. As soon as the parents began to do this, the children began to settle down. The parents initially had been afraid to enforce any rules, or guidelines, but in fact that is exactly what was needed. The children were happier once they knew their boundaries.

 

The Lord does the same with us. He gives us the guidelines that we need to follow and as long as we follow them, we will find inner peace. It might seem like a contradiction to say that we will be free once we submit ourselves to a set of Commandments, but that is exactly what happens. It brings inner freedom.

 

In the Gospel today when the two disciples are downcast and can only see what has gone wrong, it says that Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. Only in God everything makes sense. He showed them that despite the human evil that led to the betrayal and death of an innocent man, God brought the greatest good imaginable out of it; not only a man rising from the dead, but opening the way for us to return to the original happiness we had lost through disobedience. Even though we sin and cause suffering, God can still bring great good out of any situation, but we will only recognize that in God. That is why it is so important that we keep going back to listen to what God is saying to us in the Scriptures, so that we can see things from God’s perspectives and not just from human perspectives. Our life on earth, only makes sense in God.

 

The two disciples were thinking only in human terms and could only see what had gone wrong and that it hadn’t turned out as they had hoped. ‘Our own hope had been that he would be the one to free Israel…’ ‘We are so disappointed.’ But Jesus helped them to see that God has a much higher purpose that goes beyond what we can see. His plan for us is happiness and freedom, but not in the way we think. He shows us what we need to do—follow his teaching; be responsible for our actions—and that will lead to the greatest freedom, but we must listen to what He says.

 

If you live in my word, you will be my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.’ (John 8:31-32)


Friday, April 14, 2023

2nd Sunday of Easter: Divine Mercy Sunday (Gospel: John 20:19-31) 11 hours in heaven. The story of Jim Woodford.

 



Today I would like to share with you an amazing story  I came across recently about a man named Jim Woodford, now in his seventies, I think. Jim was born in Newfoundland and became one of the youngest qualified pilots in the world at age 19 and spent his career as a commercial pilot flying all over the world. He was a very successful pilot and business man and did very well for himself financially.

 

Jim was never a religious man. He believed in God, but just didn’t pay any attention to God or church practice, although his wife was a devout Christian.

 

Some time after he retired, he contracted a rare disease called Guillain-Barré, which attacks the nerves and causes severe pain and can leave you very debilitated, which it did. He ended up living in constant severe pain and very limited in what he could do. So he began to take strong pain killers.

 

One day when he was out on an errand in his pickup truck, he stopped on the crest of a hill to watch the sunset. Waiting for another burst of pain he noticed that he had some pain killers in the car. He reasoned that because he had built up quite a tolerance to the pain medication, he could take a few more than normal and so he did. He did not intend to overdose, but that is essentially what he did. He then found himself about to pass out and as he was fading away, he said the words, ‘God forgive me.’

 

Jim Woodford


After some time he woke up and all the pain was gone. He got out of his truck, walked several yards and was amazed at how well he felt; no pain whatsoever. Then as he looked back at his truck he noticed that someone was in his truck. He was both surprised and angry. He started walking towards his truck and as he got closer and looked to see who was in his truck, he saw his own body there, slumped over the steering wheel, bleeding from his mouth. His soul had left his body, but he still had all his faculties, except no pain. He then found himself beginning to rise and going through a tunnel of light at great speed and finally coming to rest in a place of incredible beauty, the likes of which he had never seen before. He realized it must be heaven.


He also noticed what seemed to be a dividing line in front of him. To his right, this place of incredible beauty, but to his left a downward slope to a huge opening of darkness and swirling clouds, with a terrible stench. He knew this was hell. Then he began to see demons coming up for him, calling his name. At that moment he cried out three words, ‘God, save me!’

 

Suddenly he noticed from heaven, three bright lights coming towards him at great speed. They turned out to be angels who took him away from the precipice of hell and brought him into heaven. They then began to show him heaven in great detail. I won’t share with you his description of what he saw, because I wouldn’t do it justice and it is too long, but it is worth reading. The only thing I will add, is that he finally came to meet Jesus who was in blinding glory. And Jesus said to him, ‘James. What have you done with the life my Master gave you?’ He had no answer, as he realized that his life had been totally selfish. It wasn’t that he had done evil things, but everything he did was focused on himself and his own fulfillment.

 

Finally Jesus said to him, ‘James, my Son, this is not your time yet. Go back and tell your brothers and sisters of the wonders we have shown you.’

 



During this whole experience Jim had been clinically dead for eleven hours. The doctors kept his body alive so that his family could come to say a last goodbye to him, but he was clinically dead. Then, to everyone’s astonishment he started to wake up. Although there were tubes in his throat he immediately began trying to speak about Jesus and what he had seen, although it was hard to understand him. He remained in hospital for some time and eventually made a full recovery. He was also completely healed of all pain, although the evidence of the disease was still in his body. As you can imagine, from that time on, his life was completely different and he began to give his testimony, sharing his experience with people.

 

I know a man in Christ, who fourteen years ago, whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, only God knows, such a man was caught up to the third heaven… and heard inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak.’ (2 Cor 12:2-4).

 

In the Scriptures there are also several places where people have been shown parts of heaven and they always find it hard to put words on what they have described. ‘I saw what seemed to be like a human being…’

 

Why am I sharing this with you? We are not obliged to believe any of this, as it is just one individual’s experience. But God gives people experiences like this, to encourage us. Many people live in fear of death and what lies beyond. Will we know each other, will it just be some kind of semi-conscious state? Reading testimonies like Jim Woodward’s are inspiring and that is why God allows some people to have them, because we need encouragement and reassurance.

 

There is also something else worth pointing out. Although he was not a religious man and had lived a very self-centered life, just six words saved him: ‘God forgive me,’ when he was passing out, and ‘God save me,’ when he was about to go to hell. That is a reminder of the infinite mercy of God. The Lord promises his mercy to anyone who sincerely turns to him.

 




Think of the good thief dying beside Jesus on the cross. ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.’

 

God has created us to be with him in heaven and God has already gone to the ends of the earth, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, so that that can happen. If this is what God wants for us, then that is where we will go if we make any effort to live as God asks us to live. it is not about living a perfect life, because there is no such thing, but about trying. The path to heaven is not an easy one.

 

Enter through the narrow gate. Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many go enter it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to live and only a few find it.’ (Matt 7:13-14)

 

I believe one of the biggest challenges on our journey to God is just being faithful, keeping at it, getting up again each time we fall. That’s why it’s a narrow winding road, because trying to live as God asks us is demanding, but it is the road that leads to God!

 

Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23: 42-43)


Jim Woodford's testimony is available through his website: www.jimwoodford.com and his book: Heaven: An Unexpected Journey.


Monday, April 10, 2023

Easter Sunday

 



A friend of mine whom I grew up with asked if I would do his wedding. I was happy to. Not presuming he is a practicing Catholic I asked him if would be receiving Holy Communion. He said he would like to, but he said, ‘As a scientist, I do not believe in the resurrection.’ He is a pathologist, the doctors who perform autopsies. Every day he is looking at dead bodies and for him, the idea of a body being raised from the dead is preposterous. From a scientific point of view it is impossible and irrational, but what does impossible mean for God.

 

An empty tomb proves nothing and it was only after Jesus began to appear to the Apostles that they gradually were convinced in the truth of the resurrection. In fact in one account it says that Jesus admonished the Apostles for their lack of faith. He gave out to them for refusing to believe! (See Mark 16:14-20)

 

There is an amazing line in St. Matthew’s account of the passion. During the trial of Jesus, because there is conflicting evidence against him, which is of no use to them, the High Priest eventually puts it to Jesus directly: I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”


And Jesus answered:

 “The words are your own. Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:63-64).



In other words, Jesus says “Yes I am the Son of God.” For Jesus to make a claim like that he must have been either a liar, insane, or he was telling the truth, because it is an extraordinary thing to say. We believe it was the truth and that is exactly who Jesus is, not just a holy man, or a prophet, but the Son of God.

 

In the book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, St. John the disciple of Jesus who stood at the cross, recalls a vision he had where a man appeared to him. He says that he saw what seemed to be a man. His hair was white as wool, or snow. His eyes were like fire. His skin was like shining bronze and out of his mouth came a double-edged sword. He says that he was so afraid when he saw this that he fell down as if dead. Then this person or being that he saw touched him and said 

Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one. I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld” (Rev 1:17b-18).

 




Who was this person? It was of course Jesus, risen from death. Not just the Jesus whose name we so often use carelessly as a swear word, but Jesus who is the Son of God. Now John, who had this vision, had known and lived with Jesus for at least three years, so why would Jesus appear to him in such a terrifying way? Perhaps to remind him and us of who Jesus really is, that is, the Son of God. He is not just Jesus our brother, though He is that too. But He is also Jesus the Son of God, before whom the whole of creation will bow down, who will judge the living and the dead and who will come again in glory. I think it’s important that we remember that.

 

Why is the resurrection so important? To understand that we have to go back to the beginning. God created us to be happy. The story of Adam and Eve helps us to explain that. God gave them paradise and every delight they could ask for. But He also warned them to recognise and respect their limitations. ‘Do not touch the tree of good and evil.’ In other words, don’t play God. Don’t be the ones who decide what only God can decide. But they became arrogant and they listened to a lie, the lie which said, ‘You can be like God, knowing good from evil…’ Satan tempted them and they gave in to the temptation. But as soon as they had done this, chaos followed, because we cannot live without God and without God’s guidance.

 

This is the same sin that we see happening all around us at this time. Much of our society has decided it doesn’t need God and that we will decide who lives and who dies (abortion and euthanasia), what is male and female, what is good and evil. But the same thing happens. When we try to play God, chaos follows and that is exactly what we see happening all around us.

 




The worst problem of the Original Sin, was that they had no way of undoing the damage. They had lost the happiness God had given them and they could not get it back. But because God loves us, He wouldn’t leave us in that state and so through the death and resurrection of Jesus, He won it back for us and now offers it to us. He says, ‘I have done this for you and I offer it to you when you die (heaven), but you must choose it.’ Because God respects our free will, He allows us to accept or reject it. For Christians, baptism is how we choose it. Being baptized is to say, ‘Yes, I believe this. I want this and I choose this.’ That’s why we state what it is we believe at every Sunday mass in the Creed.

 

What does this mean for us in concrete terms? It means that what all of us long for—happiness and being reunited with the people we love—is waiting for us if we choose it. There is no greater hope than this. All of us want to be happy and all of us want to be with the people we love. And now that is waiting for us if we choose it. That’s why Easter is so important and is the greatest hope there is.

 

Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld.”

 


Sunday, April 2, 2023

Palm Sunday Year A (Matthew 26:14-27:66) God in the midst of chaos

 




The account of the passion really speaks for itself, but I would like to share a few thoughts with you.


I don’t know about you, but something I find very disturbing in our modern world, is the amount of corruption everywhere. Lying and cheating seem to be accepted as normal practice by many. We read about corruption in just about every government and every organisation, including the Church. Struggles for power, people being tortured. It is horrible to read about these things, and we often seem to be so helpless. Where is the loving God we speak about, who brings justice?

 

The readings today paint a similar picture. The only man who was completely innocent and who only did good throughout his life, is betrayed by a close friend, arrested, tortured, given an illegal trial—it was illegal according to their own law—and on the basis of false evidence is put to death. Where is the justice in that? Where is our just and loving God? How could God allow such a terrible miscarriage of justice?

 




And yet out of all this chaos and terrible injustice, God brings about the most extraordinary good for the whole human race, something no one could ever have foreseen, but it happens by means of his suffering. Jesus makes it possible for us to go to heaven when we die. Because of this terrible evil, brought about by human hands, God does something unimaginably wonderful.

 

There is a line in the Exultet—the hymn sung at the beginning of the Easter Vigil—which says, ‘Oh necessary sin of Adam, which won for us so great a redeemer.’  ‘Oh necessary sin.’ If Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, there would have been no need for the Incarnation and so we wouldn’t have Jesus. This event changed the whole course of history. Everything was different after this, but what was really going on at that time was not obvious. In fact no one knew what was really happening. It was only afterwards, when Jesus himself began to reveal it to the disciples, only then did they begin to understand what it all meant and even then it took a while for them to grasp it.

 

So is there a message in all of this for us today, apart from remembering what happened? Can these events still speak to us now? In many ways our modern, so called ‘civilised’ society sounds remarkably like the one Jesus lived in. There was great corruption then and there still is. But there is above all else, a message of hope in all this, that even though there is a lot of evil around us and there always has been, it doesn’t stop God from being present to us, and guiding us through the chaos, as it were. Not only that, but the very difficult events that we come up against, God can and does bring extraordinary good out of, even the worst of situations, but we don’t always see that good. All these events took place for our benefit and that is a reminder that God is just as much with us now as He was then. That is why we go over all these events each year, to remind ourselves what has happened, what God has done for us and that God is still with us, even in the midst of chaos.

 



Having the hope that our faith gives us, makes all the difference in the world. You can see in the faces of so many people, fear and anxiety, because they have nothing to put their hope in except other human beings. That is a sad way to live your life, because people will let us down. God is the only one who will not let us down, even though we may not see that until afterwards.

 

Oh necessary sin of Adam, which won for us so great a redeemer.’