Saturday, January 28, 2023

4th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matt 5:1-12) Why I am a priest



There is a man known as Brother Andrew, who died a few years ago, who co-founded the Brothers of Charity along with Mother Teresa. She asked him to help her do this. He was a Jesuit priest. He begins a short book about his visit to their various communities around the world, with an extraordinary line. He says: ‘Few understand the great weakness on which the Missionaries of Charity are built.’ As he goes on, you can see more and more what he is talking about. He himself suffered from some form of addiction and he is quite open about it. This caused him great humiliation. At one stage he was even asked to leave the order, as some of them thought he had a drink problem. A few months later they realised they were quite wrong and asked him to come back. You can see from his writings the extraordinary things that God did through him, through all this weakness.


The Church has always flourished in weakness, in small, disorganised groups who are really open to the movement of the Spirit. The bigger and more powerful we become, the more we rely on ourselves. The Church is full of experts and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is when we begin to rely too much on our own expertise and not enough on the guidance of God’s Spirit, who so often moves in the most unexpected ways and asks people to do the last thing that most of us would choose.


Today I would like to share with you something more personal than I usually would. I would like to tell you why I became a priest, which is something I get asked all the time.


First of all I believe that God called me to be a priest. There was a real sense of God calling me in this way and it was a persistent call. Although it was something both exciting and wonderful, it was also something scary and painful. I knew it would mean that I would not get married, which is a normal attraction for anyone. But what I always say to people is that the calling to be a priest was stronger than the calling to be married, even though both were there. People often argue against celibacy, but the reasoning behind celibacy is making the sacrifice of married life, to completely dedicate yourself to serving God. It is also a sign of the world to come, since we won’t be married in the world to come and it is a reminder of that. People argue that if there were married priests it would resolve the issue of not enough vocations, but that is not necessarily so either, as the Orthodox Church, which is also Catholic, has married priests and they have the same shortage and problems that we have.


During my teens I drifted away from the practice of my faith for a while, but then through a prayer group, which was started because of the apparitions in Medjugorje, it brought me back to my faith and I began to take it more seriously than before. Then after three years going to this group and growing in my faith, I began to feel this calling again.


The year I entered the seminary was the year when all the scandals began to break in Ireland. It started with the news of my own bishop having had a child years before and it got steadily worse with all the sexual abuse scandals, which were truly horrific. Morale hit rock bottom while I was in the seminary and it made all of us think about why we were there. But God’s call is a mysterious thing and very hard to resist and so I kept going.


After I was ordained the scandals continued and the atmosphere in our society was very difficult to work in as a priest. I know it was the same here in the US. Because of the way the media presented it, drip-feeding story after story to the public, almost every priest was considered a pedophile, which was very difficult, as you can imagine. Why would I want to be part of an organization that tried to cover up such horrific scandals? The reason is simple: I believe.


I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord; that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, not in a symbolic way, but really and truly present. I believe that the bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus through the hands of a priest in each mass. I can’t imagine a greater privilege than being God’s instrument in this way. I always consider it an honor and a privilege to be allowed to go to the altar and celebrate the mass, even when I’m half asleep on a Monday morning, or when I humanly don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes it scares me when God reminds me that I am a sinner and struggle like everyone else and yet He allows me to do this for his people, because He wants us to be able to receive him in Holy Communion. For all of us that is an incredible gift. I do not understand it, but I believe it.


At times when I feel overwhelmed by my own weaknesses, I think of one of St. Peter’s first encounters with Jesus. Jesus asked him to use his boat as a platform to preach from. When He was finished He said to Peter, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch’ (Luke 5:4). Then there was the miraculous catch of fish. What was Peter’s reaction when he saw the miracle? He said, ‘Leave me Lord for I am a sinful man’ (Luke 5:8). He was afraid because he knew he was in the presence of someone holy, someone extraordinary. But Jesus replied, ‘Do not be afraid.’ And then Jesus called him to follow him. Our sinfulness is not an obstacle for God. God doesn’t need perfect people, just an open heart, because He is the One who does everything. We are just instruments.


I also believe that God speaks to us through the sacred scriptures. God actually speaks to us personally and God has much to say to us. He is constantly guiding us and teaching us. The scriptures were written by human hands, but they were inspired by God and that is why we never replace them with anything else. That is why we continue to read them over and over again and one of the things that I also love to do as a priest is to read the Gospel and try and make sense of them, try and help us to see what God is saying to us.


I also consider being able to hear confession a great privilege. To be God’s instrument to bring his forgiveness and mercy to people is something wondrous. That people will come to me as God’s instrument is both humbling and wonderful to me. You might wonder what could be so special about hearing all the sins that people have committed, but that’s not what I see. What I see is people repenting and wanting to be at rights with God, which is always very inspiring. I have heard confessions in many international places of pilgrimage, listening to people from all over the world and what is consoling is that everyone is struggling with the exact same sins, regardless of culture and background. It helps you to see that this is the human race. We are sick because of sin, and that is why we need the saving work of Jesus to set us free. We all struggle the same way.


As a priest I am called to people when they are sick and dying, right to their bedside, even though I do not know them and they will tell me things that they will not tell anyone else. I am asked to be there when families are going through great joys and sorrows.


Is it difficult? Yes. I have often struggled with it over the last 25 years. Twice I almost left. In fact one time I thought it was all over and I had even told people that I was leaving, not because I wanted to, but because I thought that I couldn’t handle the stress of it anymore; the daily hostility I was experiencing and the sense of isolation I felt in some of the places I was working. Yet each time the Lord called me back and showed me that He would take care of it and He did.

In the second reading today it says:

God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,

and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,

and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,

those who count for nothing,

to reduce to nothing those who are something,

so that no human being might boast before God.


In a mysterious way God seems to delight in calling and working through the nobodies of this world, so that it is all the more obvious that it is his power at work and this is something He continually shows me. My faith keeps changing and growing and the path is often difficult, but I believe it is the most important path we will ever be asked to follow and so by God’s grace I will continue. I would like to finish with this quotation where St. Paul is talking about his own life.


I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. (Philippians 3:7-8)



Friday, January 20, 2023

3rd Sunday, Year A (Matt 4:12-23) The priesthood and the Eucharist


Perhaps one of the strangest things that Jesus did before he ascended to heaven, was to entrust his Church to priests; ordinary, sinful, weak human beings, starting with the Apostles. Through the gift of the priesthood, He gave us the most extraordinary gift of all, the gift of the Eucharist, which is the gift of Jesus himself really and truly present in the form of bread and wine. There is no gift greater than this, but the fact that he made it depend on priests is what is so strange.


I am sure that one reason why he did this was to make it obvious that it is God who is at work and that the Lord is in no way dependent on the gifts or skills of human beings alone, especially not us priests.


There is a great story in the Old Testament which explains this; it is the story of Gideon (Cf. Judg 6:11 ff).  Gideon and his people were being wiped out by the Amorites and it was a time of great suffering for them. Then one day the angel of the Lord appears to this man Gideon and says, ‘Hail valiant warrior. The Lord is with you.’ In reply Gideon says, ‘If God is with us how come we are being wiped out?’ A fair question! The angel goes on to tell Gideon that God has specially chosen him to lead his people to freedom from their enemies. But Gideon asks an interesting question. He says, ‘Why would God pick me, since I am the weakest member of my family and my family is the weakest family in my tribe?’ In other words, why would God pick the weakest of the weak to lead his people to freedom? It doesn’t make any sense by our way of thinking, but the angel convinces him that God has chosen him and he will be alright. Gideon is then told to raise an army and so he gets together 30,000 men, but then to his astonishment God tells him to reduce the number of men to only 300 and he tells him why, and this is the crucial bit: ‘Lest the people think that it is by their own strength that they have won victory over their enemies.’ God chooses the weakest man around, with only a handful of men to conquer the enemy, so that it will be totally obvious that it was the power of God that made this happen. 

If Gideon had been a great warrior and he conquered his enemies with a huge army, then no one would be surprised. But when the most unexpected person leads a handful of men and conquers a huge army, then everyone says ‘Look what God did! What a miracle!’

I believe that God chose various men to be priests for the same reason, so that it would be obvious that it is God who is at work.  So He chooses weak, ordinary men, to make it all the more obvious that the Church is still here because of him and not because of priests.


St. Paul also speaks about this in one of his letters. He writes, ‘We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us’ (2 Cor 4:7). God uses ordinary cracked pots  (‘cracked-pots’) to carry his message, to make it obvious that it is from him.


When the priest says the words of consecration at each mass the Holy Spirit immediately and humbly comes down and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. God acts on the words of a human being! I don’t understand it, but I believe it. And when the priest says I absolve your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit immediately wipes away those sins.  God is so humble that He will act on the words of a human being.


Satan does not want us to receive the Eucharist, because he knows it really and truly is the body and blood of Jesus and throughout the centuries he tries to stop us. If you want to prevent people from receiving the Eucharist, the easiest way is to get rid of the priests, since you cannot have one without the other.


I want to share with you the story of one such incidence which took place in the west of Ireland in the early 1700s. During this time the British government passed what were called the Penal Laws, which made it illegal to be priests, or for people to attend mass. Their reasoning was that if they could crush the people’s faith, they would be able to control the people. It was a very difficult time for the people, as they had to practice their faith in secret. Many priests were hunted down and killed.


During this time there was a young man called Sean Malowney, who became known as Sean na Sagart, which means ‘Sean of the priests.’ As a young man he was totally wild with no respect for anything. Eventually he was caught stealing a horse and sentenced to death. As he was about to be hanged, instead of showing any remorse, he continually cursed and blasphemed. The local sheriff Bingham, who was under great pressure to get rid of the priests, noticed the fearlessness of this man and he offered him a deal. He would release him if he agreed to hunt and kill priests. Sean happily agreed to this and was set free. He would get £5 English pounds for every associate pastor (curate) killed, £10 for every pastor (parish priest) and £20 for a bishop. £1 at that time would buy 15 cows, which was a huge sum of money.


Sean then began to hunt and kill priests and he was particularly good at it. He would cut off their heads and bring them to the court where he would get paid. He then threw the heads into a nearby lake, which is called Loch na gCeann, which means the Lake of Heads and it is still there. The local people could not stop him because he was protected by the British soldiers.


In one particular town there were two priests by the names of Fr. Kilger and Fr. Burke. Sean knew of this but he could not track them down as the local people hid them. So he devised a scheme to catch them. One night he went to his sister Nancy, who lived in the area and made as if to be dying. He told her that he knew if he died that night there was no chance for his soul and he wished to repent and confess his sins.  Nancy was skeptical at first, but eventually he convinced her and so she went to find the priests. When she told the priests they knew it could be a trap, but they also knew they couldn’t refuse him if he was truly repentant. Fr. Kilger went to hear his confession. Sean pretended to be very weak and could only whisper. As Fr. Kilger came close to hear him, Sean stabbed him in the heart.


The next day he was to be buried. At the graveside the other priest came disguised as a woman to bless him. Sean spotted him and put a gun to his head, but the gun jammed.  Fr. Kilger fled, but Sean pursued him and the chase lasted all day. Eventually Sean got close enough that he was able to throw his knife which stabbed him in the leg, but as he was about to kill him, another man intervened and killed Sean with his own knife.


The soldiers had Sean buried in the local cemetery, but after they left, the locals dug up his body and threw it in the lake. The priest, however, said that he should be buried properly and so they found Sean’s body and buried him. Normally Christians were buried facing East as a sign of waiting for the risen Christ, but they buried him facing north, which was a pagan burial and a sign of no hope as it never faced the rising sun. A sapling then grew up and split the tomb in half. It is still there today and is a very eerie sight.

I think it is good to hear these stories, which remind us of the risks people were willing to take to receive the Eucharist. It helps me to remember what an extraordinary gift it is. It is easy to take it for granted, because we are free to receive it and practice our faith. I am sure if we were faced with persecution like that, people would still risk their lives, because what could be greater than being able to receive the body and blood of Christ.


I think it can also help us to remember the respect we need to show when we come to receive Holy Communion; how we approach it, how we dress, how we receive. To receive Jesus is to receive life itself. May we always have a sense of the greatness of this gift.


What if the priest is not a very good or holy man? Is God any less present in the mass if it is not a holy priest? Of course not. God would never allow his power to depend on the goodness of a human being, because none of us are good enough, or holy enough, to begin with. Even if the priest is a terrible sinner, God is just as powerfully present in the mass, in confession, and wherever He calls the priest to work. It is a great help for our faith if the priest is a holy man, but either way God is just as much present, because God gives himself completely to all of us in this extraordinary way, through the priesthood and it doesn’t depend on the priest being good enough and thank God for that!

I think one of the greatest proofs that the Church is from God is simply the fact that it is still here in spite of the fact that there have been centuries of bad example, bad preaching, scandals, etc, and yet it is still here. Think of all the great empires and dynasties that have come and gone and they were much better organised and impressive, but they are gone, and yet the Church is still here.


Finally, if you find yourself becoming disheartened by the bad example of priests or indeed anyone in the Church, remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:2: ‘The priests occupy the chair of Moses, so you must listen to what they say, but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach.’ In other words, we must try and listen to the teaching of Jesus passed on through the Church and through his priests, but don’t be put off when they don’t always live the way they should. What is important is the teaching of Christ and not the example of the priest. The teaching of Jesus is what we hold on to.


I have to confess that these readings always scare me a little when God warns his priests about the responsibility they have been given. The Scriptures are also full of very stern warnings to the priests to live as they should and not abuse their position. We will be accountable as God’s priests.


We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us (2 Cor 4:7).



Friday, January 6, 2023

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognise Jesus Christ as Lord


The great 20th century theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84) wrote, ‘The Christian of the future will either be a mystic, or will not exist at all.’ We are called to be mystics, that is, to continually seek and be open to what is mysterious. Sometimes I think we can be too inclined to ‘explain away’ everything in our faith, when in fact it is very mysterious and should be. The truth is that God continues to speak to us in unexpected and supernatural ways and God will continue to draw us closer to himself, as long as we remain open to that journey. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a 16th century mystic, said that the Lord will bring us to the greatest union with him in this life, as long as we remain open to it. She said that the only thing that prevents us from reaching the deepest union with God in this life, is our own fear and unwillingness to go any farther. God wants us to be as united with him as is possible in this life. Why doesn’t that happen to more people? Because we become afraid and want to put the brakes on. It is easier to settle for a basic understanding and practice of our faith and not go any farther. But the Lord will keep drawing us farther into the mystery of himself, as long as we allow him.


The feast of the Epiphany is the feast of Christ being revealed to the world. The three wise men, or astrologers/magicians, were led to this place where Christ was. They are supposed to have come from different countries, pagan countries, who did not know the true God. They were astrologers, which is expressly forbidden in the Scriptures.

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium, or spiritist, or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord. (Deut 18:10-14)


The Magi (possibly Zoroastrian priests) represent all the peoples of the world since they were not Jewish, but came from pagan nations who did not know the true God. It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and race. All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. God guided them through what they were involved in, astrology, which was how they were searching for God. It is a reminder to us that God can and does use all and every means to speak to us and draw us closer to himself.


The three gifts are symbolic. Gold is the symbol of a king. Jesus is a king, King of kings and the master of the whole universe. The use of frankincense is a sign of recognising a divinity, a God. Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering He will go through to win eternal life for the human race. It is used as a perfume and also for embalming. Joseph of Arimathea brought myrrh and aloes for the burial of Jesus’ body.


Many of the figures in the Bible who were associated with the birth of Christ, had mystical experiences which led them closer to God. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary; he also appeared to Joseph. Angels appeared to the shepherds and a star guided the Magi. An angel also warned the Magi not to go back to Herod.


Different events and experiences often open people’s hearts to God. Sometimes it is through a crisis, such as sickness, or the death of a loved one, that gets us thinking differently. Many times I have seen people decide to come back to Church after the death of someone close to them, because it has got them thinking about the more important things and that is always good. Sometimes the death of a loved one causes people to reject God, as they believe that God has been evil in taking their loved one away. But if our destiny is to be with God in heaven, then even though the death of those close to us is very painful, it just means that they have gone on ahead of us sooner than we expected. Sooner or later we will follow after them.


The Spirit keeps calling us to search for God. What is important is that we keep searching and remain open. It is good that we ask questions about what we believe in. I believe and accept that the Scriptures and the teachings of our Church are from God and I submit to them, but I will continue to ask questions. The more searching I do, the more my faith grows. God wants us to search and ask questions, because He has given us intelligence and free will. He wants us to use our free will, which is why He doesn’t force us to believe and also why he doesn’t reveal everything to us.


Each week when we come to the mass, we come to an encounter with God which Jesus revealed to us, which is why we never change it. That’s also why the time before mass is not just the time for a social gathering, but the time for us to prepare for this wonderful encounter with God through the Scriptures and the Eucharist. God wants us to meet him and hear him and this is one of the most wonderful ways that He helps us to do that. That’s also why it is so important that we dress respectfully and modestly in church, because we are coming into the presence of the living God. It deserves the greatest reverence we can give it.


It might seem a bit arrogant of us to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong, but that is not the case. People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to people of different religions in different ways. Even for those who never come to know Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ and eternal life is still offered to them through him, just as it is to us. When they die they will see this at once. They will know immediately who Jesus is and what He has done for us.


Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin, God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can accept, or reject this gift individually and we do this through our faith. All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not, but it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe. We accept life with God when we die which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever and that is the choice we must make.  


This is also where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong. Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong. All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or driving us farther away, from God.


We Christians are the people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us. We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way, but it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else. That depends completely on how we live our life. When we die, we will realise that all this is really true. And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord and that it is only through his death and resurrection that we have eternal life. What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can, just as it is for us. If they do this, God will also draw them closer to him and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 


Sometimes we may feel that we are alone on this journey and God is observing us from a distance, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus keeps showing us that He is with us every step of the way and in a very profound way He has also given himself to us in the Eucharist, which is really and truly his Body and Blood. That alone shows us how intimately close to us Jesus wants to be to us. Every day we can not only receive him, but also come and rest in his presence by simply being present before him in every church where the Blessed Sacrament (Holy Communion/ the Eucharist) is kept. The Lord has made this possible for us so that we can be in his presence in a very concrete way whenever we want. What could be more amazing than that?

Every morning we have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament from 7.15am to 9am mass and until lunch time on Fridays. Now we are hoping to have that on Friday evenings as well. If you want to grow closer to Jesus, come and spend time in his presence, especially during adoration. If you want God to bless your family, give of your time to worship him, especially before the Eucharist when we have adoration. He is the one who knows all the answers to the questions we have, whether they are to do with our faith, or decisions we have to make. Part of our faith calls us to make the sacrifice of our time to come and worship God, which is why we obligated to go to mass on Sunday. It is not just about what we receive, but it is also about giving of our time to acknowledge and worship the One who created us, without whom we would not exist. Just as we thank people who have helped us in any way, so we should also continually thank and praise God for not only helping us, but for creating us.


After mass there are people outside with signup sheets, where you can commit to give time to worshipping Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. So think about it, especially you who are retired. Do you want God to bless your family? Come and spend time in his presence. Do you want to help our parish, to bring people back to God, to help our country back on the right path? Come and spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And even if you can’t do it when there is adoration, make it a habit of visiting a church and spending time in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I have no doubt that if we really believed what we say we believe, namely that Jesus is really here present in the Blessed Sacrament in every tabernacle, the churches would be packed 24-7.


Meanwhile we pray that all peoples will come to know that Jesus Christ is Lord, even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us. All people have a right to hear this, which is why Jesus commanded us to preach to all nations and make him known. No one has to accept it, but they have a right to know what God has done for them.

Every knee shall bow

in heaven, on earth and under the earth

and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)