Saturday, August 26, 2023

21st Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20) 'On this rock I will build my Church'


Chapelle l'├ęcole Militaire, where Napoleon made his confirmation

Recently I was invited to a confirmation, which was held in the same chapel where Napoleon made his confirmation 200 years earlier. It is part of the French Military Academy, in Paris.

When Napoleon was taking over Europe in the 19th century, he met the Cardinal of Paris and he told him that he intended to take over and destroy the Vatican. The Cardinal told him that he wouldn’t be able. Napoleon assured him that he would. The Cardinal said to Napoleon, ‘We priests have been trying to destroy the Vatican for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able. You won’t either.’


I have often heard people say in interviews, ‘I’m not very religious, I just go to church on Sundays,’ or words to that effect. I think we often put ourselves down and underestimate how much faith we have. The truth is that if you didn’t believe in God, in Jesus coming to us in each mass, that God works through the priest in the mass, you wouldn’t come here. This means that you probably have far more faith than you give yourself credit for. If we really didn’t believe these things, we wouldn’t come here, because apart from faith, what we believe in makes no sense.


Today’s readings make an interesting point. In this encounter between Jesus and Peter, Peter has come to realize that Jesus is the Christ, the one promised by God. The Father in heaven has revealed it to Peter and Jesus points this out to him. He didn’t come to this conclusion by himself. It was a revelation from God. And because of this Jesus knows that Peter is the one who has been chosen as the first leader of the Church.


This also tells us that the fact that we believe in God means we have been given the gift of faith. You might think you just learnt about it from your parents, but the fact is that many other people also learnt about it from their parents and don’t believe, so there must be more to it than that. No human being on their own, will convince you of God, even with the best arguments. I could stand here for hours and try to give you impressive explanations of why we should believe in God, but if the Spirit of God does not touch your heart, I would be wasting my time. It is only God who can convince you of his presence. The only thing we need in order to receive this gift, is an open heart. If we are open God will make himself known to us, because that is what God wants for us. The more open we are, the more God will reveal himself to us. That is why before every mass I pray that the Spirit will anoint the words I speak, so that your hearts may hear what God wants you to hear.


St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

The second thing that Jesus said to Peter tells us why we need the Church. Sometimes you will hear people say that they want God, but not the Church. Jesus said: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.’ He also said, ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’ In other words, Jesus was giving his authority to Peter and his followers to act and make decisions in his name. The decisions they made on earth, would be recognized by the Father in heaven.


Why would God give his authority to a group of ordinary, weak people, to represent him and speak on his behalf? It means that God would be working through these people, through his Spirit who guides the Church, who guides us all. So the Lord was saying, ‘I am going to work through human instruments, but it is my Church and it is my Spirit that will guide it.’ If you find that idea hard to believe, just think for a minute of all the different empires and superpowers that have come and gone over the centuries: the great Chinese empires, the Roman Empire, people like Napoleon, Hitler, Communist Russia and all the different nations that were super-powers. They were all powerful, well organized and wealthy and yet they have all come and gone and they are no more. Why? Because they were of human origin. How is it that the Church is still here—and not only still here, but still growing—considering we have had centuries with plenty of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc? The only reason the Church is still here, is because it is from God and it is God who is continually acting through it, in spite of all the mistakes we make, and we have made plenty.


The history of the Church is nothing to boast about. It was Jesus’ plan to have a Church and to work through it, so that we would have a very concrete way to relate to God and so He guides us through his Church and shows us the path to follow. So today, 20 centuries after Christ, here I am still passing on the message to you and even if I make a mess of it, the Lord will teach us what we need to know, just as long as we go on being open to him.


Jesus also said, “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a man who builds his house on solid rock” (Matt 7:24). Jesus is saying, don’t build your faith on ‘nice ideas,’ or just the things that suit you. We need a solid foundation for our faith, or it won’t last. God gives us that foundation through the teachings handed on by the Apostles and bishops down through the centuries.


Every so often I have met people who have told me that they believe in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, sometimes from different religions, maybe with some superstition thrown in. That is what Jesus is referring to when He says, ‘Anyone who does not listen to me is like someone who built their house on sand.’ It won’t last. When there is any challenge to it, it will collapse, because it has no foundation. Our faith needs a solid foundation, and that is what the Lord gives us through his Church.

At this time there is a lot of turmoil even within the Church, with ideas being put forward which are not Church teaching. Don’t let that disturb you. It’s not the first time this has happened and certainly won’t be the last.


If you are confused about any teaching, just go to the Catechism. It is a whole compendium of the Lord’s teaching which He has given us through his Church.


And perhaps the most important line in today’s Gospel, ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.’ ‘The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.’ The powers of darkness may seem to be getting the upper hand, both in our world and in our Church, but Jesus himself tells us that those powers can not overcome his Church, because it is his Church. It is not of human origin. Pope’s will come and go, bishops will come and go, priests will come and go, but the Lord’s Church remains constant because it is from God. So don't be disturbed with all the changes. Everything is in God's hands and nothing can happen which the Lord does not permit.


You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.’


Saturday, August 19, 2023

20th Sunday Year A (Matthew 15:21-28) Love of neighbor is what wins people's hearts


A few years ago, a young man said to me, ‘Isn’t it a bit arrogant of you Catholics to think that you’re right and everyone else is wrong?’ He wasn’t trying to be nasty, he was quite genuine. I said to him that I didn’t see it as a matter of us being right and others being wrong. I said that we believe that God made himself known to the human race first through the Jewish people, but ultimately through the person of Jesus. Jesus taught us about the Father and how God calls us to live a particular way, to love God and those around us, to have respect for all people. He taught us that he is the Son of God and that all who want to come to the Father must go through him. There is only one way to the Father, which is through him. Anyone who follows this particular way of life as God has revealed it through Jesus, is a Christian and we believe as Catholics that we are following what he taught in the fullest way. It is not necessarily a question of others being wrong, but it does mean that for us this is the way we believe is the right one to follow.


You might remember the Harvard professor Roy Shoeman, who had been raised in a Jewish family, but lost his faith. One day when he was walking out in nature, God pulled back the veil between heaven and earth and allowed him to see everything. God showed him his whole life and how God had been there with him all along, helping him, especially through the most difficult times of his life. Roy said to him, ‘Please let me know who you are so that I can follow you. If you are Mohammed, I will be a Muslim, or if Buddha I will be a Buddhist, so long as I don’t have to become Christian.’ He felt that if he became a Christian he would be betraying his Jewish heritage. What is interesting is that God did not tell him what way he had to follow, but let him search and find out for himself. Eventually he ended up becoming a Catholic.

We also believe that the teachings of the Apostles are very important, because Jesus gave the Apostles his authority to teach and that is why we try and live by the teachings of the Church, because we believe they are the teachings of the Apostles which come from God. We may struggle with them at times, but because we believe they are God’s teaching, we don’t replace them with any other ‘human’ wisdom.

It is also very important for us to have respect for people of other faiths, other Christians and non-Christians as well, even if we totally disagree with them, and this is what the Lord helped St. Peter to understand. He writes,

"Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience so that those who slander your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their accusations" (1 Pet 3:15-16). 


Those who don’t believe as we do, are just as much part of God’s family. Jesus frequently spoke to and helped people who would have been considered pagans to the Jews. In this Gospel he heals the daughter of a woman, who was a pagan. Perhaps it was to teach the Apostles and us, that God doesn’t discriminate.


What converts people is witness of life, not preaching, not telling others what to do. We will only convince other people of the ‘rightness,’ or goodness of our faith, by the way we live it and by the way we love them. Love is the only thing that really convinces people. Frank Duff, who started the Legion of Mary, which is now world-wide, said, ‘Win an argument, lose a soul.’


It is interesting that the Missionaries of Charity—the order started by Mother Theresa—never try to convert the people they help. In India much of their work is bringing very poor people in off the streets, people who are dying and allowing them to die with dignity. Most of these people would be Hindu and Muslim, not Christian, but they don’t try to convert them. They just love them, show them that they are wanted and that they are important and they do more to preach the Gospel this way, than by anything you could ever say. This teaches people about God more than anything else.


I can stand up here and argue for hours about all the reasons why others are wrong, or how we are right, but that doesn’t necessarily convince anyone. If I do not love the people I meet and try to respect those around me, then I am wasting my time preaching, because people will only be convinced by the way I live, first.


I heard a story about a priest who went to stay with his niece and her husband. This couple had no time for the Church and in fact were into the occult and various practices which were quite anti-Christian and of course they were nervous about how it would go. But when the priest came he just stayed for the few days and showed them great respect and love and never said a word to them about the various things they were into. When he left they were so moved by the fact that he never said anything to them, never criticized them, but just loved them, that they actually began to rethink their approach to the Church. Love is the only true witness to God.


People often ask me what is the best way to help their children who no longer practice their faith. The best way is to live it as well as you can yourself. You don’t have to say anything and it is usually better you don’t. How we live our faith is what will speak to others more than anything else.


In the Gospel, Jesus seems to ignore the woman who is asking for his help, which seems uncharacteristic of Jesus. But what the text says is that ‘He answered her not a word.’ He did answer her, but his answer was not with words. In doing this he was drawing out her faith as he knew she had great faith, which she then showed.


God’s answer to our prayers often seems to be silence, which can be very frustrating. But imagine if God instantly answered every request we made. It would be easy to become lazy in our faith. God would just be something to fix problems. By making us persevere in asking for our needs, like this woman, God is helping us to grow. Just like when we are growing up, parents don’t usually give everything a child wants instantly, or they would never appreciate anything. If you have to wait and work for something, you appreciate it much more. In not seeming to answer our prayers, God is calling us to persevere in faith and that is one of the ways that we grow.


Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.  But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience so that those who slander your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their accusations (1 Pet 3:15-16). 


Friday, August 11, 2023

19th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 14:22-23) A still, small, voice


As a parish gets bigger there are more and more demands on me as a priest and everyone working here. It always makes me think about the priesthood and what my work is about. To me the greatest privilege of being a priest is that I can bring Jesus to people in the Eucharist, wherever I am sent. This is the most important part of any priest’s work. Everything else is secondary, because the greatest gift the Lord has given us is the gift of himself, of his body and blood in the holy Eucharist. I am sure there are at least two reasons why He gives it to us. First, because He wants to be intimately part of our lives and everything we do. Second, because God knows how much we need his strength to make it through this life, which is difficult at the best of times and so He gives us his very self, which we can receive into our own bodies, every day if we wish. If we really believe this, then we can never say that we are on our own. The Lord is saying, ‘You are not on your own. I am here with you every step of the way.’


For the most part God’s presence among us is very subtle. It is easy to miss it and many people do miss it, thinking that God is not there at all. Think of how many people pass by a church each day and really believe that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is present there? Probably very few. The Lord seems to keep himself hidden from us.


The first reading about the prophet Elijah refers to this. Elijah is considered the greatest of the prophets and a man very close to God. God wanted to let him experience his presence and so He sent him to this cave on the mountain side. Then there was a great storm-force wind, something we can relate to in Florida. But it says that God was not in the storm. Then there was an earthquake and then a fire, all great signs of the power of nature which can be so frightening. The powers of nature remind us how small we are and how helpless. But it says that God wasn’t in these either. And then a very gentle breeze, or whispering sound and God’s presence was there. In some translations it says, ‘A still small, voice,’ something you could easily miss.


Why did God send the storm, the earthquake and the fire? I think that God is reminding us that his presence is very subtle and easy to miss, but just because God doesn’t come to us in the form of thunder and lightning, or something very dramatic, doesn’t mean that He is not there. How did Elijah know God was there in the gentle breeze? Because he was used to listening to God and he was able to recognize God’s presence. If he wasn’t paying attention, or only focused on what was dramatic, he could have missed it.


The powers of nature can be very frightening, as we know from hurricanes. But God is reminding us not to be focused on what is loud and dramatic, as that is not where we will find him. God is just as powerfully present, but we will not notice his voice unless we stop and listen. That is why it is good to try and be quiet when you come to the church before mass. We are about to encounter the all-powerful God, but we may not notice his presence if we are just talking. It is the same after we have received Communion. Try and be silent and listen. And it is not that we are listening for a message, or word, rather that we are being aware that we are in his presence. If you don’t stop and listen, you can miss it.


Then we have the wonderful image of the storm in the Gospel. Jesus comes walking across the water toward them. You can imagine how terrifying it would be to see someone walking on water if you were out at sea. Anyone would think it was a ghost. Then after asking Jesus to invite him to come across the water, Peter really does walk on water. I think that is the part that is easy to forget. Peter did walk on water, but when he took his focus off Jesus, he began to think rationally and that this couldn’t be happening and then he began to sink.


Just that event is a great image for what is happening around us. We are in a time of turmoil, with swirling clouds and stormy seas. All we hear about is the chaos and how terrible the world is and it feels like we are sinking. But the Lord is telling us to focus on him, not on the storm. When Peter focused on Jesus, he did what we say is impossible. As soon as he took his focus off Jesus and back to what was happening around him, he began to sink. The Lord is reminding us to do the same. If we continually focus on the storm around us, with all the negative voices of the media, telling us of the terrible things happening in our world, we will become overwhelmed and we will sink. If we focus on the Lord, we will see something completely different.


It is heartbreaking to see so much suicide around us, but I have no doubt that is at least partly because people have lost faith and they don’t know where to turn. As a result they become overwhelmed with the world and despair. What they need is what we have: Jesus. In St. John’s Gospel Jesus says ‘In the world you will have trouble, but do not be afraid, I have conquered the world’ (John 16:33). He didn’t say we would have it easy, but He tells us to stay focused on him and then we will get through whatever we have to face. He is not asking us to do it by ourselves, but with his strength.


Sometimes I think that it might be easier if the Lord’s presence was more dramatic. Then we would have no doubt about God being there. It would probably be terrifying, but for whatever reason, the Lord prefers to stay hidden from us. His coming to us in Holy Communion is a great example of this. How much more hidden can you get? Who would believe that God comes to us in a tiny piece of bread? It sounds completely crazy and to many people it is crazy, indeed too crazy to be true, but this is what Jesus himself has taught us and that is why we believe it is true. It is the Lord himself who has taught us this.


Perhaps when you come up to receive Holy Communion today, think of the gentle breeze that passed in front of the prophet Elijah. God was in that gentle breeze. Jesus is also present to us here in the tiny host of bread that we receive, which has become his Body and Blood. That’s also why we should try and receive it with the greatest reverence. It is not a symbol; it is the Body of Christ. That’s also why you should never walk away with it, but consume it when it is given to you and then listen for the still small voice.


To help us believe, the Lord keeps giving us signs and wonders. So many Eucharistic miracles. Here is just one.


In the church of St. Francis of Assisi in Siena, Italy, in 1730, on the eve of the feast of the Assumption (which will be this Monday), someone stole a ciborium from the tabernacle, which contained hundreds of hosts. As you can imagine people were very upset and searched everywhere for the hosts. The following day a lady in another church noticed some hosts sticking out of one of the poor boxes. They opened it and found the hosts. By now the hosts were dirty and covered in cobwebs. So they decided to leave them in a container to decay naturally. However, after several months they were still perfectly preserved and still smelled fresh. Today, almost 300 years later, they are still perfectly preserved and in a glass container for everyone to see.


Eucharistic miracles continue to happen all over the world right up to today. Many of them are where the host has actually turned into a piece of flesh. Scientific studies have shown each time that it is real human heart tissue, always with blood type AB. One of the more recent ones in Buenos Aires in 1996, showed that it was real human heart tissue, from the left ventricle of the heart and it was taken from a man who was under extreme stress, or badly beaten. The crucifixion.


After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.

When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak

and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.


Saturday, August 5, 2023

Transfiguration of the Lord (Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9). "This is my Son, listen to him"


St. Pius of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio)

During his life on earth, a priest known simply as Padre Pio (1887-1968)—now St. Pius of Pietrelcina—was considered to be probably the most photographed man in the world. He was a Capuchin Franciscan priest who lived in an obscure monastery in the east of Italy in a small village called San Giovanni Rotondo. He is probably most famous for the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ, which appeared in his body when he was 31 and remained visible for over 50 years. The wounds bled about a cup-full of blood each day. They were examined many times by doctors, but they could give no explanation. Just three days before his death in September 1968, the wounds disappeared completely and his skin became like new with no trace of the stigmata. He was forbidden from showing the wounds to people, so he usually wore gloves, except when celebrating mass.


He was known to have had the gift of miraculous healings, of reading hearts—where in confession he could tell people if they were omitting something—of levitation and even bilocation. On several occasions he was seen in two different places at the same time. He heard confessions for up to 19 hours a day. People from all over the world came to make their confession to him and often had to wait for several days before they were able to go to confession. Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) went to him for confession as a young priest and Padre Pio told him that one day he would be given the highest post in the Church.


There is a story of one lady who came a long distance to go to confession to him. She had to wait about three days before it was her turn. When she began her confession, he just closed the confession ‘window’ on her without saying a word. She was furious. When she went back to the hostel where she was staying, the lady of the house seeing her anger, told her to think about what she had said to Padre Pio. As she reflected on her confession, she began to realize that it was not a sincere confession and that she was just going out of curiosity. She then prepared properly and after several more days went to confession to him again. This time he was very kind and respectful towards her. She needed this tough love, to realize her insincerity.


During the mass he regularly experienced the passion of Christ and his mass would often go on for up to three hours. He said that more souls came to him from purgatory asking him to pray for them, than people on earth.


As you can imagine, the Church was highly suspicious of these so-called mystical gifts and put many restrictions on his ministry. They were afraid that the gifts might be a deception and that he was misleading people. At one stage they decided to move him, so that people could not get to him, but the local people caused such an uproar that they were unable to move him. They eventually decided to forbid him from saying mass in public, or from hearing confessions. This lasted for two years. When he was told that these restrictions were being placed on him, his response was, ‘God’s will be done. The will of the superiors is the will of God.’ It is interesting how he understood the importance of obedience to his superiors. The temptation might be to fight back, but he was totally resigned to this.


Why did tens of thousands of people from all over the world go to see him? No doubt it was because his mystical gifts were a kind of window into the spiritual world, which is something we all hunger to see or experience. We need help to believe and the Lord knows that and so He continually gives us mystics like Padre Pio, and all kinds of extraordinary miracles—over 140 Eucharistic miracles to date—apparitions, physical miraculous healings and so many other signs. Many of the teachings of our Church, especially the teaching on the Eucharist, where we believe that the bread and wine really and truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, are difficult to believe because we don’t see anything. We just see the priest holding the host and saying the words, ‘This is my Body which will be given up to you.’ God is well aware that it is difficult to believe and so He continually gives us all kinds of extraordinary signs to help us. They are all around us if we just open our eyes.


In today’s Gospel we have the account of the transfiguration, when Peter, James and John were given this amazing vision and window into the spiritual world. Try to picture it in your mind as if you were there. Imagine being with someone you consider to be a very holy person, who could work miracles. Suddenly his whole body becomes blinding light, so much so that you can barely look at him. At the same time two other people appear and you are looking at this amazing sight. You can almost picture Peter standing there dumbfounded wondering was he dreaming and then coming out with the non-sensical works, ‘Lord it is wonderful for us to be here…’ Then there is suddenly a cloud all around you, so that everything is hidden and you hear a voice from the sky saying, ‘This is my Son the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Can you imagine the effect something like that would have on you?


Why did Jesus allow them to see this? It seems that He was giving these three men a more intense training than the others. Apart from her parents, they were the only ones He allowed with him when He brought the 12 year old girl back to life. They were also the three He kept close to him in the Garden of Gethsemane, when they saw him falling apart with fear, knowing what was about to happen to him.


No doubt one of the reasons Jesus allowed them to experience this vision was to strengthen them, to leave them in no doubt about who He really was. It says that this happened shortly before the passion, when they would be so disillusioned by what was happening. How could He be executed? What about all the miracles? Nothing made sense. But then they would remember this vision and it would help them not to despair. It would help them understand that there was something bigger happening. They had been allowed to see through to the other side. It was real. They weren’t just imagining.


The two men who appeared with Jesus were Moses and Elijah. Moses represented the Ten Commandments and Elijah represented the prophets, as he was considered the greatest of the prophets. For the Jewish people, the Law and the prophets were the path to heaven. If they lived by these teachings, this is what would lead them to heaven. The vision was showing them that Jesus was now the fulfilment of all that had come before. He is now the gate to heaven—‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6). Jesus is now the one we must listen to. He is the doorway to heaven. It is only because of his death and resurrection is it possible for us to go to heaven. And think about what they heard the Father say, ‘This is my Son the Beloved, listen to him.’ Of all the voices shouting at us through the media and different people, there is only one that we need to listen to and that is Jesus. What all of us want—happiness and being with the people we love—is to be found in Jesus. Keep listening to Jesus, to what He is saying to us. Nothing else is important.


Does this have anything to do with us today? Is it just a story in the Bible? No, it is real. It is another account that these men really saw and it is recorded for us to help us to believe. The spiritual world is real and when our time comes we will cross over into it. For now we need all the help we can get to believe and the Lord continually gives us signs and wonders to help us to believe, because He knows how difficult we find it. So when you find yourself becoming sceptical, read up on some of these mystics, or Eucharistic miracles or apparitions. They Lord has given them to us to help us. In our world it is very easy to become dismissive of spiritual things, but they are real, just as real as what we can see.


Suddenly He was transfigured before them

and his face shone like the sun

and his clothes became white as light.

And behold Moses and Elijah appeared to them

and they were conversing with him.