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.’