Monday, February 27, 2023

1st Sunday of Lent, Year A The temptations of Christ in the desert (Gospel: Matthew: 4:1-11)



Since I was ordained a priest almost 25 years ago, one of the temptations for me and I’m sure most priests, has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of the presence of God. I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as becoming present in each mass when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way. It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it just seems to be a strange religious ritual. So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular every to help us believe?


The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness gives us the answer. This is an extraordinary story because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation. At some stage he must have told his apostles what happened there and what he had to go through.  


Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God. For any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use. Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers, or otherwise Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to use them. There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height, or to turn stones into bread, because we know we couldn’t do it anyway. So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus, to misuse his power.


His first temptation was to find satisfaction in material things. ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’ In this case it was bread to a man who was starving. But Jesus said, ‘No. Man does not live on bread alone.’ The human being is not satisfied by material things. Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by offering them just what they want.’ This is what our society does. It tells us that if we have enough money and enough of the right products, then we will be satisfied, but we won’t. We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God, because we are spiritual and not just physical. Sooner or later our physical bodies will die and disintegrate. Only our soul will live on. Think of all the time and energy we put into making sure our bodies are healthy and yet within a few years all of us here will be gone to the next world. How much time do we put into preparing our soul—the only part of us that will survive—for the world to come? Are you helping your children to be equally prepared for the world to come, or are you just focusing on their success in this life, which will soon be over, and perhaps sooner than you expect?


Jesus’ second temptation was to work signs and wonders for the people. ‘Throw yourself down from the temple since God will save you.’ If he started doing this, then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time, but Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart. You cannot buy love and that is why Jesus chose the humbler way and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.

Think of the many miracles that Jesus worked. He always played them down and asked people not to talk about them. He didn't want people coming after him to see signs and wonders. When He fed the five thousand people with five loaves, they came back the next day for more. But he said, 'You are only coming after me because you have enough bread to eat (material things).' Then He said, 'Don't work for food that won't last, but the food that lasts forever.' In other words, look for spiritual fulfillment because material things can never fulfill us. Not even our dearest loved ones can completely fulfill us. Only God can do this. If we look to material things, and even to people hoping to find fulfillment, we will be disappointed.


The third temptation was to compromise with evil. This is a big temptation for most people. When you hear people say ‘The Church needs to get with the times’ this is often what they mean. The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings to the more difficult moral demands of our age. It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow, to keep people happy. But that is not what we are asked to do and when Jesus was tempted this way, he rejected it outright. He was being tempted to compromise with evil, just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced. But right is right and wrong is wrong. We must not compromise with the ways of God. Yes, it is more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it, than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change. I don’t understand some of the teachings of Christ, but I will try and accept them because they come from him. That is why the teachings of our Church don’t change, because we believe they come from God.

Remember Jesus' teaching on the Eucharist in St. John's Gospel. 'Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life within you.' It says that when He taught this the people were so shocked that many of them said, 'This is too much. Who could accept that?' And from that time on, many of the people who had followed him to that point left him. But what is interesting is his reaction. Nothing! He didn't change anything He had said, He just let them walk away. His teaching is his teaching and it doesn't change because it is truth. We can accept or reject it, but it stays the same. 

The first reading is the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve. They represent our first parents. The tree of good and evil can be understood as the limits that God sets for us. We must not be the ones who ultimately decide what is good and evil. God shows us what is good and evil and we need to listen to and accept his teachings, or we will get ourselves in trouble. ‘Recognise your limitations. Don’t play God.’ But Satan—the Deceiver—tempted them to ignore the word of God and they did. As a result they opened up a whole world of sin and evil. See how he twisted what God had said: ‘Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’ That is not what God said at all. But they chose to listen to Satan instead of God. They rejected God’s word. We continue to do the same today. We think that we know better than God’s teachings and that we can decide what is ultimately good and evil. People justify abortion in all kinds of ways, yet God’s law says, ‘You shall not kill.’ So much of our country has abandoned the ways of God and look at our society. It is falling apart. Constant killings, for no apparent reason and we still defend our rights to be able to kill and lie and cheat.


It is good to ask yourself, ‘Who do I listen to?’ Whose teaching will I live by? Will I keep going back to God’s commandments—commandments, not suggestions—or will I listen to the opposite, which is from the deceiver? Living by the ways of God may seem ‘impractical, unrealistic,’ but they are what makes our society work. We are still quick to justify a different way, but whose voice do you want to listen to? We will be tempted again and again, to compromise, just as Jesus was in the wilderness, but we have to go back to whether we accept God’s teaching as God’s teaching, or not. If we want to live by God’s law, which is what works, then we have to keep going back to it and listening to it, to make sure we are not just taking our version of it.


In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders now, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced, but that is not how God works, and I think it is good to remember that, especially when we live in times of great change when God often seems to be very quiet. The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely. No one is going to force us.


Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.


Saturday, February 18, 2023

7th Sunday Year A (Mt 5:38-48) ‘You will not have my hatred’



Today we are presented with what is probably the most difficult commandment that Jesus gave: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ So far, I have never met anyone who wants to do this! Did Jesus really expect us to take that literally? Maybe it was just a figurative way of speaking? Jesus meant exactly what he said. Remember his own words when he was dying on the cross, a death that was considered so brutal that the Emperor Constantine eventually had it banned: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ The Lord does expect us to try and live this commandment, but how we are to do it is the key thing. Essentially it comes down to God’s power and strength at work within us, but that will only happen if we remain close to God. Our relationship with God is what gives us super-human strength, the kind of strength you need to love your enemies. That is also why Jesus gave us the Eucharist, so that we can be intimately united to him to give us the strength to be different. That is where we get our strength from. We continually read the Scriptures so that we are being formed in God’s way of thinking and not just a worldly way of thinking.  The two are radically different.


Think of all the commercials, radio and TV programs and newspapers, that we read and hear each day. We spend a lot of time feeding our mind with the values and thinking of the world around us. But the ways of God are not the ways of the world. They are quite different. Our culture tells us that we should sue people and seek revenge if we feel we have been slighted. There are so many commercials on TV encouraging us to sue people. That’s not what God tells us to do. Jesus says, ‘If you only love those who love you, then what reward can you expect? Everyone does that.’ But our faith calls us to go farther, to see the enemy as human before anything else. That can help us to be tolerant. It doesn’t mean that we can’t protect ourselves, or defend ourselves, but it helps us not to succumb to evil ourselves. Otherwise we are no different from our enemies. That’s exactly what Jesus puts to us in this Gospel. We are called to be different by the way we live and think. When we try and live this way, then we stand out because we are different. Then we are the salt of the earth and the yeast that makes the dough rise. We are small but we can have a big difference on the world around us, just like those parents who publicly said they forgave the people who killed their children. I am sure it was their faith that enabled them to do that, because that takes more than human strength. Our ability to do that, comes from our relationship with God. The more it grows, the more we immerse ourselves in God, the more we see the world differently.

I want to share with you an extraordinary example of this kind of heroic virtue, where someone refuses to hate.

In 2015, on Friday, November 13, gunmen broke into a concert hall and shot 129 dead. Just like the attack on the synagogue

Just three days later, a journalist by the name of Antoine Leiris, posted a letter entitled "You Will Not Have My Hatred". He posted it on Facebook less than three days after his 35-year-old wife of 12 years, Helen Muyal-Leiris, was killed. Muyal-Leiris was one of 129 individuals killed during the series of attacks in Paris on Friday night, Nov 13, 2015.

Friday night, you took an exceptional life -- the love of my life, the mother of my son -- but you will not have my hatred. I don't know who you are and I don't want to know, you are dead souls. If this God, for whom you kill blindly, made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife would have been one more wound in His heart.

So, no, I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. You're asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost.

I saw her this morning. Finally, after nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as when she left on Friday night, just as beautiful as when I fell hopelessly in love over 12 years ago. Of course I am devastated by this pain, I give you this little victory, but the pain will be short-lived. I know that she will be with us every day and that we will find ourselves again in this paradise of free love to which you have no access.

We are just two, my son and me, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world. I don't have any more time to devote to you, I have to join Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17-months-old. He will eat his meals as usual, and then we are going to play as usual, and for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.


We have heard it several times here in the States too. Remember the young man who entered a prayer gathering in Charleston North Carolina in 2015 and shot almost everyone there. The following day their families came out and publicly said they forgave that young man. Extraordinary courage and strength. There is great goodness in most people.

When Catholic churches were burnt to the ground in Northern Ireland during what was known as ‘The Troubles’, often Protestants would donate money to help rebuild them, but you don’t hear those things on the news. There is goodness in most people.


Another aspect of this is to try and see people as people, rather than Mexicans, or Irish, Christians, or Muslims. If we see them as human beings before anything else, that changes things.


A few years ago I was watching a documentary about a Kurdish women’s group of fighters in Northern Syria. At this stage there are over 20,000 of them. They have been fighting largely against Islamic State. The journalist interviewing them asked one woman who had been fighting for two years, what it was like to fight these people who were trying to kill them and their families and I was astonished at one thing she said: ‘We have to remember that they are people too.’ She was big enough, mature enough, to be able to see beyond Muslim Extremists. She could see human beings, even if those human beings had a very evil twist on reality and even though those same human beings were trying to kill her and her family.


I’m sure many of you also know of heroic stories of this kind. It’s inspiring how people can rise above evil and refuse to be drawn into it.


I want to finish with a short part of a very famous speech given by Martin Luther King Jr which reflects this:


To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail, we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead and we shall still love you. One day we will win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process. (Martin Luther King, Strength to Love)


Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.’


Saturday, February 11, 2023

6th Sunday Year A (Mt 5:17-37) If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven


Several years ago I heard a woman giving her testimony of how God had healed her from terrible sexual abuse she had suffered from her father, from an early age. She said that her family knew nothing but abuse, incest, pornography. She was even sold to other men by her father and yet they went to mass every Sunday as a family. To outsiders, they looked like a perfectly normal family. Obviously the practicing of their faith didn’t mean an awful lot.


Another time I met a man in a hospital in Ireland who told me angrily that it was alright for the Archbishop of Armagh (the head of the Church in Ireland), to pray for priests who had done wrong and to spend the whole day praying for them if he wanted, but that he shouldn’t expect him or anyone else to have to pray for them. In fact how dare he even suggest that anyone else should have to pray for such people.


If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’  In modern English we would say, ‘If your faith is only outward signs, like going to mass, and saying religious things, you will never go to heaven.’ You will never get to heaven! That seems pretty strong coming from a God whom we say loves us so much. God takes us seriously, but He expects us to take him seriously as well. In fact He insists that we do.


Understandably this man I mentioned was very angry and felt let down by priests who had done wrong. I don’t blame him for feeling angry, but the point is that he seemed to think that it was ok for him to go on practicing his faith, on the outside, so long as he didn’t have to do anything like forgiving, or praying for others who have done wrong, the very things that our faith is all about. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about and it applies to every one of us, priests, Religious, all of us. The Lord is saying, ‘Go deeper than what you can just see. Live from your heart. Pray from the heart. Let your outward practice of faith, like praying at mass and doing novenas etc., be a sign of what is already happening on the inside.’ 

Jesus also says something quite shocking. He says that if part of you causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better to enter heaven missing one of your limbs, than to go to hell with all your limbs. What is He talking about? He is talking about the seriousness of sin. Today we have lost a sense of the seriousness of sin. Sin is the one thing that can prevent us from reaching the happiness we long for. Sin is the one thing that can prevent us from going to heaven when we die. If we do not repent of what we have done wrong, we may not enter heaven. If sin is not serious, then Jesus dying on the cross was a waste of time. If sin is not serious, then the mass means nothing, because the mass, which is a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus, is all about the forgiveness of sins. That means that sin must be very serious.


Much of our world has lost an understanding of what sin is. You would be amazed at how many people come to confession and tell me they have no sins, or hardly any sins, even after several years. Sex outside marriage is considered normal and yet the Bible calls it the sin of fornication. Abortion breaks the Commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ and yet now it is called healthcare.


The first words of the first reading say, ‘If you choose, you can keep the Commandments; they will save you.’ If you choose. They will save you.’ All day every day, we are being given choices for good or for evil and we must choose. ‘Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses, he will have.’


Sometimes the Ten Commandments are considered irrelevant in our world. But if we don’t ultimately take the standard of what is right and wrong from God, then where will we take it from? If you exclude the Ten Commandments then we have to make the laws of good and evil ourselves. That was the sin of Adam and Eve. Satan said to them, ‘God knows that as soon as you eat [the fruit], you will become like Gods yourselves, knowing good from evil (Gen 3:5).’ It is interesting that Adolf Hitler saw the Ten Commandments as one of the biggest obstacles to the success of his new world order. He believed that we needed to be liberated from them in order to progress and yet look what happened when that’s what they tried to do. Over 60 million people died in WWII. The same thing happened under Stalin and Lenin in Russia. We need God's Commandments, because they are what keep us on the right path. 


Anything that offends God, is sin and we sin all the time. Sin is not just the big things, committing adultery, abortion, murder, stealing; it is also the everyday things that we do without even thinking about. We judge people: I mean we judge their heart. We see someone do something wrong, even minor things and we condemn them in our mind. That offends God. We speak badly of people—gossip—and that offends God. We lie and think it doesn’t matter and yet that is one of the commandments: ‘You shall not bear false witness.’ We get jealous, we lust, we refuse to forgive, we harbor bitterness and resentment, we use sharp words with people we have never even met. We neglect the people around us who need our help. We may think that we are only obliged to look after our families. If God gave you enough money to be comfortable, be thankful, but don’t forget you have an obligation to use it properly, not just for yourself and the same goes for me.


Recently I read of several cases where people experienced an illumination of conscience, that is, they were shown their own soul before God and how they would be judged at that moment if they had died. More and more people seem to be experiencing it. The testimonies of those who have experienced it are quite shocking. Many of them were well educated professionals and many of them Catholics too. They were shown everything they did in their whole life that offends God. Many of them were shown that if they had died at that time, they would have gone to hell, because they had pushed God so far away by the way they lived and in our world many of them would not be considered particularly sinful. Why did God allow them to experience this shocking illumination of conscience? to help them to change, because He loves us and doesn’t want any of us to be lost. Their lives changed drastically after this experience. Several accounts are written in a book called The Warning, by Christine Watkins. I would highly recommend it.


Maybe the language of being ‘lost’ and being ‘saved’ seems outdated, but it is what Jesus taught. It is real and the Lord constantly warns us to be careful of how we live, because our actions have eternal consequences.


The reason God keeps reminding us of what is sinful, is because He loves us. Sin damages us and God wants to protect us. So He guides us and shows us exactly what is right and what will damage us. If something is offensive to God, it will also hurt us.

Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses, he will have.’



Friday, February 3, 2023

5th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16) Share your bread with the hungry…


The Portiuncla, where St. Francis began his work.

Every so often the Lord raises up men and women who live their faith in an exceptional way. It usually seems to be at a time when people really need to be inspired and often when the Church is in crisis. At the end of the 13th century God called a man called Francesco, or Francis, to live in a radically different way. He was from a town called Assisi in Italy. Francis was from a wealthy family, but he felt that God was calling him to leave everything and follow him and so he did, to the horror of his father who strongly objected. Francis renounced everything and ended up having a show-down with his father in front of everyone on the street. His father gave him an ultimatum. So Francis stripped off all his clothes and walked away naked. Any belongings he had he gave away and went off to live on his own as a poor man, living only for God. Soon afterwards while he was praying alone in a broken down church, he felt God speaking to him from the cross and saying, ‘Francis, rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling down.’ So Francis started to collect stones and reconstruct that building. However, God had a much bigger project in mind. God was talking about the whole Church. Around the same time pope Innocent III had a dream of a poor man holding up the Church which was collapsing. It was a sign of the role that Francis was going to play. 


Not long after Francis began to live in radical poverty, others began to see the kind of simple way of life that he was living and one by one they began to join him. They spent their time looking after the sick, the lepers, praying together, preaching the Gospel and most importantly… inspiring people by the way they lived. Eventually when they had been living this way for a while Francis went to Rome to get permission for this new group to officially become a Religious Order. When some of the bishops were discussing this with the pope, one of them said, ‘It is not possible to live in this kind of extreme way,’ but one of the others pointed out that if it wasn’t possible to live that way, then it wasn’t possible to live the Gospel, since all he was doing was literally living the Gospel. And so he was given permission for his order, which he called the Order of Friars Minor, better known as the Franciscans. Today there are over 12400 priests and religious throughout the world.


You might wonder what difference could one man make, in a little known town in Italy, to the whole Church, which was going through a time of terrible corruption. But what he did was inspire, which is more important than any physical work that he did.


Today, over 800 years later, people are still inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, because we still need to be inspired. There have been others like him too, a modern-day example being St. Teresa of Calcutta. What is especially important about these people is not so much the work they do, as the effect they have on others. They usually become renowned all over the world, because they inspire. They preach about God by the way they live more than by anything they could say. The saying, ‘Let us go and preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words,’ is attributed to St. Francis.


The Missionaries of Charity in India at least, spend a lot of their time bringing people in off the streets who are dying. They clean them up as best they can and allow them to die with dignity. Most of these people would be Hindu or Muslim, but they don’t try to convert them. That is not what they are called to. They are called to bring the love of God wherever they find themselves, among the poorest of the poor. They say more about their faith in God by what they do than by anything they could say. There is a story of one man they found who was in a particularly bad way. It took them several hours to clean him up and then he said to them:

All my life I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.’ Mother Teresa went on to say: ‘It was so wonderful to see the greatness of a man who could speak like that, who could die like that, without blaming anybody, without cursing anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel - that is the greatness of our people.’


In the first reading today we are called to look out for those around us who are in need and there are always plenty of people around us in need, often hidden. Some time back I was talking to a man in Sarasota who is homeless. He told me that he had served in the military, he had also done time in prison and now he was homeless. He also said: ‘You know, doing time in prison is one thing, but trying to survive on the streets of Sarasota is quite another.’ It’s not what you would expect. While helping the poor materially is really important, respecting the dignity of each person is just as important. The way we look after people and treat people is how we tell the world what we believe in. It is not even about giving great amounts; it is about giving what we can with love and treating those around us with great respect, whether we like them or not and regardless of what they believe in, where they come from, even if they are legal or not. The first thing we are called to do is to take care of the person standing in front of us. The political side comes second. That is how we tell others about God.


In this Gospel Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world… the salt of the earth.’ When we live by the teachings of Jesus, we give hope to the people around us, because we show them that they are not forgotten. We become a light in the middle of a world of darkness and selfishness, which tells us only to take care of ourselves. Our world tells us that the only one who matters is me, that I am satisfied and have all I want. God teaches us the opposite. It is not all about me, it is about giving of myself to others. There is nothing wrong with having wealth. In fact it is a great blessing, but the Lord expects us to use it properly.


Think of how small grains of salt are and yet they can bring out the flavor of a meal. They affect their surroundings. We affect our surroundings, for better or worse. Is my focus only on myself and my family? If it is, I am not living the Gospel. That doesn’t mean we have to give away everything we have, but the Lord is telling us that we must also remember those around us who are in need. When we have enough, God is giving us the opportunity to share with others and if we don’t, we will be asked why we ignored them, because we are accountable for our actions and for using all that God has given us. ‘Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me’ (Matt 25:40). If we ignore the needs of those around us, we are ignoring Jesus. His words.


You may argue, ‘I worked hard for my money.’ I’m sure you did, but who gave you the intelligence, the opportunities, the health, the success?


Last week I was talking to a good friend of mine, who is quite wealthy. He was telling me that he had given away a large amount of money to a particular university. He said he couldn’t get over how much joy it gave him to do that. Not many people are in a position to do that, but that’s not the point. The point is that all of us can do a certain amount and we have an obligation to do so.


I’d like to finish with this prayer which sums theis message:



From a sign on the wall of Shishu Bhavan, the children’s home in Calcutta.

 People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.

Love them anyway.

If you do good people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.

Do good anyway.

If you are successful you win false friends and true enemies.

Succeed anyway.

The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.

Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.

Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spent years building, may be destroyed overnight.

Build anyway.

People really need help, but may attack you if you help them.

Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;

It was never between you and them anyway.


(from the book, ‘A Simple Path’)



Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds

and glorify your heavenly Father.’