Friday, 18 July 2014

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Wisdom 12:13.16-19; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43

The parables Jesus told are rich in meaning. For some they are too rich; annoyingly so. Why can’t he just speak plainly? Why these stories? Why can’t he just say what he means? I don’t have time to sit and puzzle these things out.

The parables of Jesus are doors into mystery. Jesus places these doors in full view of the crowds, no one is excluded. A man of good will is always ready to open and enter  ... a man of ill will has better things to do.

Parables are human stories about divine things. They take human things like seeds and fields and wheat and darnel and harvests and fire and barns and use them in such a way that they begin to tell us the secrets of God.

A man sowed seed in his field ... . The sower is God. The field is the field of creation with all the oceans and fish, wildlife and plants, sun, moon, stars and Adam and Eve:  and indeed it was very good (Gn 1:31).

But, along came the enemy, a serpent called Satan. He hated God. All his ambition was to destroy the plan of God because it promised a happiness he had forfeited. So he tempted Adam and Eve to step over the line God had forbidden them to cross.

Adam and Eve were, in a sense, asleep, and fell for it. They disobeyed God.

God’s enemy had succeeded in planting darnel in the field of God’s good creation. The seed was called suffering, and how Satan rejoiced at God’s words: Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life. It shall yield you brambles and thistles, and you shall eat wild plants. With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread ... (Gn 3:17-19).

A man sowed seed in his field ... . The field here is the soul; the souls of Adam and of his wife Eve, and consequently, the souls of all humanity. The seed was light, peace, harmony, joy, innocence,  life. It was a good seed and very beautiful; its harvest would be eternal life ... and indeed it was very good (Gn 1:31).

Satan, the enemy of God, sneered with satisfaction when he saw that his seed was planted not only in the soil of the earth but also in the very souls of his victims. They were plunged into utter darkness; they were now enemies of God, fit only for hell.

Adam and Eve realised this: they realised that they were naked.

They hid from each other, they hid from God, and for their sin they blamed everyone except themselves. To the darnel of suffering was added the evil of death: For dust you are and to dust you shall return.

Who is there among us in this church who has not recognised the evil seed growing in their heart? How old were you when you first noticed it? Look at any child in the sandpit at the kindergarten. See the aggression, the selfishness, the little egos hard at work there. These children are yet innocent, oblivious of the darnel, but let those among us who believe themselves to be without sin, who believe they have conquered the passions, take great care not to be deceived.

A man sowed seed in his field ... . The field can also be seen as mankind as a whole. If the Master of the field in his wisdom allows the ‘subjects of the kingdom’ and the ‘subjects of the evil one’ to grow side by side it is because he knows there will come a time of separation, a moment of judgment.

The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that provoke offences and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. Then the virtuous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Listen, anyone who has ears!

Are we ready for this moment? The happy ending to the story is entirely in our hands.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9.11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

Jesus exclaimed, ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.'

The ‘learned’ and the ‘clever’ are really an unfortunate bunch mainly because they are blind. This is odd, really, since the gift they claim to have is sight or understanding. In fact, they sometimes claim to have more sight and understanding than the Church.

Jesus has no time for them at all; he prefers children: Let the little children come to me ... for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these (Mt 19:14).

So what is it about our Faith that is ‘hidden’ from the learned and the clever and revealed to mere children? I would say, ‘just about everything’ – especially its truths, and the spiritual logic which binds them together.

Children have a humility which trusts that what we tell them is true. However, they also have an almost inerrant intuition which tells them if we ourselves believe what we tell them. Take for example the eleven year old boy who no longer wanted to go to Mass on Sunday. I pointed out to him how faithfully his parents had been coming all these years and his reply confirmed what I myself already suspected. He said, ‘Mum and dad don’t really believe.’

I can only guess that this is one of the contributing factors to why so many people have severed their connections to the Church in the face of the abuse crisis. They came to realise that many priests ‘don’t really believe’.

But there is a deeper humility with a deeper clarity which grasps a deeper logic and understands that the divine face of the Church, as well as her creed, is often disfigured by her human face.

It is God’s little children who effortlessly grasp the fact that truth is not destroyed by those who betray it and that it cannot it be replaced by an ‘easier’ or more popular doctrine which is less likely to be betrayed.

God’s little children understand that the sacraments are not rendered ineffective by those who merely pretend to serve them and that the lovely and radiant bride of Christ, the Church, cannot be deserted at the altar because of the sins of others.

The learned and the clever, pointing self-righteous fingers, are left standing by the side of the road in a noisy, dissident throng. The humble travel on, deeper and deeper into the heart of Christ and deeper into the heart of his Church. It is from within this heart that they hear his call: Come to me ... .

My dear fellow little children of Christ, I invite you, when you are able, when you are ready, to turn your backs on the past and the sins of others. God will deal with the past; only God can deal with the past.

Let us again allow ourselves to hear the loving call of the Master: Come to me ... . It comes from many places but, as the Church teaches, it comes par excellence, from his abiding presence here in the tabernacle.

The call ‘to come’ is always firstly a call to the presence of the person of Christ – Come to ME... .

When we leave this Church after Mass this divine and this human presence will remain. This is the difference between every other building and a Catholic Church. People have told me this church was built with ‘seconds’ bricks. I have seen lovelier churches. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ has chosen to make his home here, in this place, in this house of bricks.

Many times already, in answer to his call, ‘Come!’, I have made my way here to sit before him, to listen to him and to speak with him. For me the words of the Entrance Antiphon ring with absolute truth: Your merciful love, O God, we have received in the midst of your temple. In this place there are treasures to be gathered; precious jewels to be received.

Christ rules the world from this humble tabernacle. When I pay a visit to this church I am in the presence of the great King of the Universe. All I need, all I long for, all I want is here!

And you know as well as I do that when we come in here to be with him, to say a Rosary or a Chaplet of Mercy or some other prayer, or just to sit, from behind us there are fingers, hands, arms reaching for us – trying to drag us out – telling us, ‘That’s enough now. Three minutes is enough. Don’t waste your time. There is so much to do out here.’

If we resist these voices, the ‘unspiritual’ self St Paul mentions in the second reading, we soon find ourselves exclaiming: What a wonderful place to be – alone with the Master – the God who made me. I am his and he is mine. He wipes away my tears, he restores my spirit, he give me confidence and hope – he gives me the one thing I crave – real love!

Jesus exclaimed, ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.'

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, apostles - Year A

Acts 12:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:6-8.17-18; Matthew 16:13-19

King Herod discovered two thousand years ago what so many today are discovering – that persecuting the Church is a crowd-pleaser. At least it pleases the crowds of those opposed to the Church. So Herod beheaded James and decided to arrest Peter. He had him put in jail under heavy guard and intended to try him in public.

Well, that seems straightforward enough. We know that the history of the Church is replete with similar stories of tyrants who performed similar outrages on similarly innocent Christians. Even today these outrages are being committed and it is even said that the number of Christians giving their lives for Christ today is greater than at any other time in our history.

So what is special about the incident described in the first reading today?

Firstly it involves Peter and therefore it involves the whole Church. Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia – Where there is Peter, there is the Church. Herod had imprisoned a man but not just any man. Herod had, in a sense, imprisoned the Church and so this simple matter of a Christian imprisoned and awaiting trial takes on a much larger dimension. Of course, Herod would not have been aware of this but we are.

Secondly, all this took place we are told ‘during the days of Unleavened Bread’ which means during the time of Passover and immediately this confrontation is plunged into and identified with the painful remembrance of the Passion of the Lord himself. Not only is Peter, the Vicar of Christ, being taken where he ‘would rather not go’ but the whole Church is being dragged through the purifying and life-giving Passion she must daily share with the Master.

Herod is very good at what he does and Luke leaves us in no doubt about this. He shows us with carefully selected details how, humanly speaking, the situation was entirely hopeless for Peter and, by implication, for the Church.

Herod assigns four squads of four soldiers to guard Peter in turn. That means that at any one time there are at least two soldiers with him and probably two standing guard at the main gate of the prison.

It was night (the time for the triumph of evil) and Peter was sleeping between two soldiers. The fact that he was sleeping was not just an image of Peter’s helplessness but also of his deep, childlike trust in God. The fact that he was sleeping between two soldiers is also significant because soldiers, or police, is the one thing the Church does not have. She is always, in every age, at the mercy of worldly power, and seeks to triumph solely through the truth of her message and her abiding trust in the help of her Lord.
Peter was fastened with double chains, probably to a ring in the ground and then to each of the soldiers. At the main gate of the prison stood more guards. As I’ve said, Herod is very good at what he does and things could not look any worse for Peter (and the Church).
But I’ve failed to mention something; something of decisive importance; something that is going to make all the difference. Can you guess what it is?

It is the Church’s secret weapon which she has been activating all this time, more powerful than Herod, more powerful than anything possessed by the rulers of this world: All the time Peter was under guard the Church prayed to God for him unremittingly.

Our prayer and the Lord’s power make an unbeatable combination.

Suddenly, the dark cell in which Peter lay chained became filled with light. The jingling and clanking of chains falling to the ground and the screech of iron doors opening by themselves became the music of freedom as the angel told Peter to get up, get dressed – ‘Hurry’ – and ‘follow me’. What a moment!

Peter followed but had no idea what was happening. This was not some superhero making a bold escape from an impossible situation; this was the fisherman Peter, called by Christ to feed his flock the Church, being led by God into freedom, light, and life. It was the realisation of God’s promise to be with his Church always so that the gates of hell might not prevail against it.

For us, for you and for me, the lesson is absolutely clear. No matter the strength of the chains which bind us, no matter how dark the cell in which we find ourselves imprisoned, no matter how loud and certain the voices predicting our doom – our call is simply, to call on the Lord for help and, like children, to go on trusting that ultimately God will restore us to eternal freedom, light and life.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

5th Sunday of Easter - Year A

Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

The gospel of Mark tells us (2:2) that on a certain occasion: so many people collected that there was no room left, even in front of the door. So what was the attraction? What was Jesus doing that drove the crowds to seek him out like that? Was he working great wonders and miracles? Why had they gathered in such large numbers? Mark answers: He was preaching the word to them.

Another time, when Jesus was explaining to his disciples the parable of the sower which he had just told (4:14), he says: What the sower is sowing is the word.

And yet another time, when Jesus offered to come to the house of the centurion to heal his servant the centurion replied: Just give the word... (Mt 8:8).

The word, of course, is the word of God. Luke makes this clear when he tells us (5:1) Now he was standing one day by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the crowd pressing round him listening to the word of God... .

Everywhere he went Jesus, like the sower in the gospel, was casting the word of God among the people. And each, depending on his readiness to receive it, responded in his own way.

It became the hallmark of those who were to be his disciples that they were able to listen to his word, accept it, believe it and above all, obey it. Jesus himself tells us in the gospel of John (8:47): A child of God listens to the words of God; and then just to make sure we have understood he adds: if you refuse to listen, it is because you are not God's children.

And speaking of hallmarks, it is a hallmark of every Catholic that he believes that the word of God is today to be found in his Church; that the Magisterium speaks with the living, authoritative voice of Jesus. Note, for example, what Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out in his name: Anyone who listens to you listens to me; anyone who rejects you rejects me, and those who reject me reject the one who sent me (Lk 10:16).

Pope Benedict said once that there are some today who say Church – NO; Jesus – YES. He said that in practice this resulted in Church – NO; Jesus – NO.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word enriches our reflection a little more. The first reading tells us that because of this preaching of the word: the number of disciples was increasing. This has always been the case. Those who receive the word with humility and faith become disciples.

The apostles plainly state that: it would not be right ... to neglect the word of God so as to give out food. The importance of the truth which is spoken here cannot, and should never be minimised, in the first place for the ordained but also for the laity.

The role of the apostle, and the priests who serve with them, is to preach the word of God, in season and out of season. Nothing must come between them and this God-given mission and so the apostles ordained seven deacons. This would allow them to continue to devote themselves to prayer: and to the service of the word.

The preaching of the word is a service of the word. Jesus himself acknowledges as much when he says: My word is not my own: it is the word of the one who sent me (Jn 14:24).  And Jesus stood ready to sacrifice his life preaching the word of the one who sent him.

A servant is never greater than his master and the word is always greater than the one who preaches it. Indeed, the history of our present times shows that the service of the world can require even the surrender of our lives. Countless are those who have willingly accepted death in the service of the word. Not only have these martyrs refused to reject the word, they have refused even to change any part of it. What a powerful example, what a powerful rebuke, to those who graft their opinions onto the vine of truth and pass them off as Church teaching!

Whether spoken by Christ or by those he has commissioned in his Church to speak in his name with his authority, the word preached is ultimately the word of the Father. Each man or woman who hears the word is judged by it according to how they respond. For this reason Jesus can say: He who rejects me and refuses my words has his judge already: the word itself that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day (Jn 12:48).

In not many days time we will hear proclaimed the words: As they prayed, the house where they were assembled rocked; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31).

And so we hear a little later: The word of the Lord spread through the whole countryside (Acts 13:49). Thanks to the preaching of modern day apostles and disciples it has even found us, and we rejoice as we listen to James who exhorts us (Jms 1:21): Accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you and can save your souls.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

4th Sunday of Easter - Year A

Acts 2:14.36-41; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10

Today, at my first Mass in the parish, I would like to pick up some ideas from the rich feast of thoughts the Church offers us in the liturgy.

You may have been struck by the Collect which, in a few simple words, clearly points out to us the reason we are all here: Almighty ever-living God, lead us to a share in the joys of heaven....

A young man took me to task several months ago. He told me we priests, and I definitely think he was including me, had let him down. He rattled off a whole list of accusations about not keeping up with the reality of the modern world; living in the past; not adapting teachings to suit the present day and so on and so on. His coup de grĂ¢ce was that we were no longer relevant.

My answer to him was that a priest exists for only one reason – and that is – to help his people get to heaven. All his other expectations were unreal and unreasonable.

Almighty ever-living God, lead us to a share in the joys of heaven....

The next question presents itself quite naturally – How does a priest lead his people to heaven? The answer is simple – by leading them to Jesus – in his Church.

And how does he do that? Firstly by his preaching.

Look at the reading from the book of Acts which we have just heard proclaimed: On the day of Pentecost Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd in a loud voice... 

Peter preached to the crowds the gospel he had been given by Jesus. And he preached so that he might win the crowd for Christ, to turn it into a congregation, into a communion of men and women destined to be saved. To put it another way, he was building up the body of Christ, the Church, so that these people would become the People of God.

So what did he preach? How did he preach? What were his tactics?

He began by speaking the name of Jesus to them. He announced to them that Jesus was Lord and Christ, and then, astonishingly, he reminded them that they had crucified him.

It never ceases to amaze me that the first public command both John the Baptist and Jesus spoke was: Repent – and since only sinners need to repent it was tantamount to beginning with the words: You are all sinners! No wonder the Pharisees got so upset; their basic refusal was precisely to see themselves as sinners.

Peter’s listeners were ‘cut to the heart’. In the gospel last Sunday the two disciples experienced their hearts ‘burning’ within them. Actually, this is really the only appropriate response to the preaching of the gospel.

Some, it seems, will always close their hearts. This is a perplexing mystery. But, fortunately, many of those who initially reject the gospel later come to accept it – and in some cases, even more fully and more passionately than those who accept it at once. Another mystery!

A further obvious question presents itself: Why must we repent? The answer brings us back to our beginning – so that we may be saved; so that we might get to heaven.

Save yourselves from this perverse generation ... 

Having preached the word a priest now employs the second ‘weapon’ in his arsenal – the Sacraments. Many were touched by Peter’s words: they accepted what he said; and asked: What must we do...?

Peter answered: every one of you must be baptised... 

Do you see? He offers them a sacrament! The Church has seven of them. They are the ordinary means by which grace is given to us; the grace which leads us to eternal life: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick.

Finally, to give the tripod its third leg we must add community. The Church's life, and yours, stands on these three legs – word, sacrament and community.

Peter preaches the word; then he confers the sacrament and then they join the communityabout three thousand were added to their number.

So, my dear friends, now you know what I am doing here. I am doing the same thing every priest since St Peter is called to do – to help you get to heaven by preaching to you the Word, offering you the Sacraments, so that you can be a member of the community of the Church - so that you can be saved.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Passion Sunday - Year A

Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

What we have just heard is a sad tale; the saddest story ever told. It is the story of what happens when sheep turn on their shepherd.

They decide to ‘take him down’ and they do so in the usual way the innocent are taken down, they ‘set him up’.

One of them, the one of whom the shepherd once said it would have been better ‘if he had never been born’, seeks out the wolves in their den. He offers to betray the shepherd to them. They pay him a measly thirty pieces of silver – and the stage is set for the awful saga to begin.

The shepherd himself is a ‘pushover’; a ‘kiss’ and a few clubs will do the trick. He makes no fuss, no defence. He is like a lamb led to the slaughter – he doesn’t make a sound – he offers no resistance.

Though he knows exactly what is going to happen, how it is going to happen, when it is going to happen and who it is that will make it happen; though he could foil their plans with a single sigh; though he has legions of angels at his disposal who could annihilate his enemies with a single blow, he does nothing. He knows that his time has come, that the hour is at hand.

But why so passive? Why do nothing? Why let it all happen? The answer is simple – it is his Father’s will.

My Father ... let it be as you, not I, would have it ... your will be done!

Jesus knew that Judas would betray him because he knew Judas. He knew that Peter would deny him because he knew Peter. He knew that his disciples would all desert him because he knew his disciples. We who know Jesus, who have watched him and have grown to know him, understand that he would never, could never, disobey his Father. Even as a young boy of twelve he told his mother and father: Did you not know I must be busy with my Father’s affairs (Lk 2:49)?

Throughout the whole course of his life it was his Father he sought to please, to love, to obey. His relationship with the Father who had sent him among us was everything for Jesus: My food is to do the will of the one who sent me (Jn 4:34).

It was the Father’s will that Jesus should offer himself as a sacrifice of love in reparation for the sins of mankind and Jesus, the loving Son of the Father, had no intention of allowing anything to interfere with those plans. Remember his terse reply to Peter who thought he knew better than the Father: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s (Mt 16:23).

And so Jesus did nothing. He let himself be taken and whipped and crowned and crucified while we stand by, helpless, dumbfounded, awed, bewildered. The disciples fall asleep during his agony, Judas betrays him with a kiss, Peter denies him three times, the council looks for false testimony, two come forward and give it, the crowd says, ‘He deserves death.’

Jesus is brought before Pilate, Judas hangs himself, Barabbas is released. The whole cohort make sport with Jesus, spitting on him, crowning him with thorns, stripping him naked, striking him with a reed. Jesus says nothing. He just lets it happen.

At the sixth hour the light hides itself and there is darkness. At the ninth hour Jesus dies. The veil of the Temple is split from top to bottom, the dead rise from their tombs, and even nature protests the crime with an earthquake which splits the rocks.

It is accomplished. The Father’s will has been done. Jesus has repaired the disobedience of Adam and brought salvation.

Let us pray the Collect of today’s Mass again:
Almighty ever-living God, who as an example of humility for the human race to follow caused our Saviour to take flesh and submit to the Cross, graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering and so merit a share in his Resurrection.

Monday, 31 March 2014

5th Sunday of Lent - Year A

Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

One thing we could never say is that St Paul beats around the bush. What could be plainer, more direct and more confronting than: People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God.

There you have it! Unspiritual people cannot please God. They run the circuit of their busy days – at work, at home, on the golf course or in the garden; it doesn’t matter where they are or what they are doing – they rarely or never think seriously of God. They are materialistic people. They are pretty well totally absorbed by the material circumstances of their lives.

After a while their whole life takes on an atmosphere of materialistic concern for the here-and-now and this ‘atmosphere’, like a thick fog, wraps itself around everything in their life.

Eventually good is what is good now; bad is what is bad now. I can’t spend time praying because I am too busy, I have to make the cake for the fete or get the lawn cut; I can’t go to church because I have to drive Johnny to footy practice; I can’t have this baby because it will wreck my career. Every question is decided according to what is good for me now – and tomorrow I will decide all over again.

In the life of an unspiritual person the practical, the material, the ‘facts’ always win out. Take for example the girl who laid out the facts for me about why the baby had to be terminated. It had such and such a disease, it would not live long after birth and if it did it would not have much quality of life, etc, etc, etc. The facts, the facts, the facts.

Spiritual people are interested in facts but they rate the truth more highly. They say, ‘The life within your womb is an innocent, human life. It is not your life, nor is it the life of your husband. It is a third life, an innocent life, and innocent human life must never be taken.’

That is the truth! And thank God there are so many women who recognise this truth and who despite every difficulty refuse to abort their child.

The unspiritual person knows and lives by the facts; the spiritual person knows the facts but lives by the truth. That is the basic difference between them. And what a huge difference that is!

Consider for a moment how the life of one who lives in a totally unspiritual way simply has no direction – it is not going anywhere – it has no future. And because it has no ultimate future it has no ultimate meaning. No matter how healthy and wealthy these people may be, no matter how materially successful they may be, they are heading over the cliff into the abyss of eternal nothingness along with all material things. They have no hope because the material things which possess them have no hope. No wonder they can never be pleasing to God.

The life of the spiritual person, on the other hand is immeasurably different. His life has a centre, a direction, a goal and a meaning. The spiritual person knows that he comes from God and that God has given him a path to walk which securely leads back to him. The spiritual person uses material things but knows better than to put his trust in them.

If you would like to know, to clarify for yourself to what extent you personally are spiritual, and to what extent you are unspiritual (because not many of us are entirely one or the other), then there is a rule of thumb you might find useful.

Since unspiritual people do not really believe in spiritual things, though they might find it useful or even necessary from time to time, to pretend they do, they find that doing spiritual things is a big waste of time.

So the first rule of thumb is: unspiritual people don’t pray. For them prayer is one of the biggest wastes of time ever invented, especially private prayer. Private prayer drives them mad. It is one thing to go to church on Sunday where they can catch up with friends, be seen as church-goers, and find out the latest gossip, but private prayer, at home, by themselves, is out of the question.

[On the subject of church: I was staying in a presbytery in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago and there was a funeral in the church next door. I found it interesting to watch those who exited from the church during the service to make phone calls to friends. These were not urgent calls, they were social calls – I could hear them from my room. You see, it seemed that sitting in a church was for them a big waste of phone time.]

So each one of us can almost infallibly judge how spiritual we are by the quality of our private prayer. When all is said and done we give time to the things we consider important. Talking the talk is common; walking the walk not so.

If St Paul in his letter to the Romans is forthright when he says: People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God; his words to the Galatians are even more so: Don’t delude yourself into thinking God can be cheated: where a man sows, there he reaps: if he sows in the field of self-indulgence he will get a harvest of corruption out of it; if he sows in the field of the Spirit he will get from it a harvest of eternal life.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

4th Sunday of Lent - Year A

1 Samuel 16;1.6-7.10-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

They say miracles always happen to someone you don’t know – and you always get to hear about them from someone who wasn’t there. Of course, this saying is usually quoted by those who don’t believe in miracles but those of us who have faith are not fooled by such shallow cleverness. We know that miracles happen every day and many of us have experienced what we often refer to as our ‘personal’ miracles.

There are, of course, shrines and holy places where miracles are attested to and verified by the most highly qualified doctors and scientists on the globe. Exhaustive tests and enquiries are made before a particular healing or event can be declared a miracle. To be declared a saint it normally requires more than one such miracle to be confidently attributed to a candidate for canonisation.

If the man in today’s gospel, the man who was blind from birth, had been alive today he would have needed x-rays and CT scans and certainly an ophthalmologist report or two. But two thousand years ago things were a little different and all the real evidence for his cure boiled down to a very emphatic: I only know that I was blind and now I can see.

As to how the miracle came about the man born blind was equally clear: The man called Jesus ... made a paste, daubed my eyes with it and said to me, “Go and wash at Siloam”; so I went, and when I washed I could see.

I washed ... I could see.

The miracle causes immediate bedlam. It is almost as though a blinding flash of light had gone off right in the eyes of those who stood by and who are now themselves apparently (and ironically) blinded.
  • Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?
  • Yes, it is the same one.
  • No, he only looks like him.
The man himself said, ‘I am the man.
  • How do your eyes come to be open?
It is obvious from their questions that there is much at stake, indeed, an entirely new reality has invaded their lives and they are not going to leave the old reality without making sure of the challenger. In the end it all boils down to the next question: Where is he? Everything leads to this question; it always does. Where is Jesus?

So now they bring the man who had been blind to the Pharisees. It’s a natural instinct for ordinary people to bring their problems to the ‘panel of experts’, the leaders. These men, too, had felt the shockwave of the explosion of new light which burst unexpectedly into the status quo.

Instantly it is clear that the Pharisees are especially challenged by these events. However, for them it is not about the miracle, it is about Jesus.

Jesus had said: I am the Light of the world; and had dared to shine this piercing light into the peculiar darkness of false religion. Each time the Pharisees had found themselves caught in the beam.

When an atheist, who has an entire worldview to defend, is confronted by a miracle which calls that worldview into question, he can only deny it. Some do so gently, others mockingly, and other with violence. In a strange way the Pharisees were no different. Their grasp on religion, to put it very plainly, was wrong. They had misunderstood. They had ‘got it wrong.

Confronted by the light, they now faced a choice: either repent of their misunderstanding or extinguish the light. Sadly, they chose the latter option: This man cannot be from God...

The blind man had no such problem: 'He is a prophet,' he saysAnd then mischievously he goes on to ask the question which the gospel also directs at us here today: Do you want to become his disciples too?

It’s a peculiar characteristic of error that it cannot abide those who do not subscribe to it. Not only does error reject the truth, it rejects all who dare to follow it. And so: they hurled abuse at him; and called him: a sinner through and through; and: they drove him away.

It would be rather sad if this were the end of the story but, fortunately, it isn’t. Let’s conclude with the wonderful grand finale of the drama:

Jesus heard they had driven him away, and when he found him he said to him, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied ‘tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said, ‘You are looking at him; he is speaking to you.’ The man said, ‘Lord, I believe’, and worshipped him.

Monday, 17 March 2014

3rd Sunday of Lent - Year A

Exodus 17:3-8; Romans 5:1-2.5-8; John 4:5-42

Mass in the prison is always interesting. The men are very attentive to what is going on and quick to understand my meaning. I spoke recently about how it seems there are no longer any bad people who die. Everyone who dies was one of the best people who ever lived. They were happy, fun-loving, sociable, popular and, invariably, would give you ‘the shirt off their back’ and what’s more, they would now be ‘up there’ – ‘at peace’ – drinking beer with their dead relatives or catching huge fish in their new fishing boat.

The prisoners were smiling and nodding in agreement. I joked that sometimes I wondered what would happen if I mischievously said, ‘I think so and so was such a bad person they must have gone straight to hell.’ What would the reaction be?

The truth is that I am no more entitled to say someone has gone to hell than they are to say someone has gone to heaven. It simply isn’t up to any of us to make that judgment, one way or the other. As St Paul says: There must be no passing of premature judgement. Leave that until the Lord comes; he will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men's hearts. Then will be the time for each one to have whatever praise he deserves, from God (1 Cor 4:5).

He will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men's hearts; not us.

So next time someone dies, either a famous personality or someone close to us, let us not say they have gone to heaven or to hell; let us simply say they have gone to stand before the throne of judgment from which the Lord will pass just and final sentence on each one. Indeed, that throne would be aptly named the Throne of Justice.

However, let us never forget that the Lord has another throne of judgment. This throne stands on earth in every confessional throughout the world and only a validly ordained priest may sit on it. This throne is called the Throne of Mercy.

We come to this throne to humbly confess our grave sins, our mortal sins – and sometimes we have only venial sins to confess. We examine our conscience and confess our sins – their name and their number. And we do not receive a sentence of hell at this throne; we receive only and always a sentence of mercy and forgiveness.

Let me read to you Joey Lomangino’s account of his confession to the famous priest St Padre Pio. He was not ready for what happened when he went in.
I went into Fr Pio, into the confessional, and I knelt down on the kneeling bench and Fr Pio was sitting right in front of me. And he took me by the hand like that and I was shocked because I thought of the American confessional, you know, with the panel. So when I knelt down and Fr Pio had me by the hand he told me in Italian, ‘Joey, confess yourself.’
And to be very honest with you I was embarrassed because I wasn’t leading the right life and I was just so flabbergasted I didn’t know just what to say. And so Fr Pio took me by the hand, like that, and he tells me in Italian, confess yourself and again, I just found it very difficult to speak to him.
And then in perfect English he says to me, ‘Joey,’ he says, ‘do you remember when you were in a bar with a woman named Barbara? Do you remember the sins you committed?’ And in perfect English he went right down the line and telling me the people I was with, the places I was at, and the sins I committed. And, of course, I was perspiring,  but I had the grace by God to realise that if I had to endure all of that to get back to being happy, it was worth it. And I really believed that Fr Pio could help me.
So, of course, when he came to the bottom of all my sins when it felt to me like a thousand years he said to me in Italian, he says, ‘Are you sorry?’ And I says, ‘Yes, I am Fr Pio’ and he gave me absolution for my sins and my eyes started to roll in my head and I started to rub my eyes like this.. and then all of a sudden my mind became very, very clear and he put up his stigmata hand to my lips, I kissed the stigmata then he gave me a little smack in the face and he tells me in Italian, “Joey, a little patience and a little courage and you’re going to be alright.’

I was thirty-three years old and I felt like I was sixteen. I had a firm purpose of amendment; I was sorry for all the sins I committed in my life and I felt so good and so clean that I just didn’t want to get involved with anybody because I was afraid that just by talking I was going to lose the grace that I received.
Perhaps Joey’s account of his privileged moment with St Pio will help us to understand the Samaritan woman’s account of her privileged moment with Jesus. Like all good confessors Jesus ‘sat straight down’ and the woman makes her entrance.

‘Go and call your husband’ said Jesus to her ‘and come back here.’ The woman answered, ‘I have no husband.’ He said to her, ‘You are right to say, “I have no husband”; for although you have had five, the one you have now is not your husband. You spoke the truth there.’

A moment later: The woman put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people. ‘Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did...'

After Mass I was kept busy for half an hour hearing the confessions of a number of the prisoners. If you come to Reconciliation this Lent I promise you, you will not receive justice; you will receive only mercy. Your sins will be completely forgiven, once and for all, and you will be entirely restored to friendship with God. And then, and then, you will have nothing to fear from the Throne of Justice.

Monday, 10 March 2014

2nd Sunday of Lent - Year A

Genesis 12:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:8-10; Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. Actually it became quite crowded. Not only did Moses and Elijah appear, not only did the bright cloud appear, not only did the heavenly Father make his presence felt by speaking from the cloud – but, thanks to the gospel, you and I were there.

And so, now that we are back down from the mountain, what part of that whole incident spoke to you? What word, or gesture, or insight struck you? Most of us will have heard this gospel read many, many times over the course of our lives. I have just read it for you again. What grabbed you?

The first thing that struck me was the phrase ‘took with him’. Jesus took with him Peter, James and John. Immediately I was jealous. How wonderful it must have been to be taken somewhere special by the Lord. Walking behind him up that high mountain I would have wondered: ‘Where are we going? What’s going to happen? What is he going to show us?’

Of course, these are the exact same questions I have whenever I open my bible or take my rosary beads but on this particular occasion I anticipate something really special.

Then there is that little word ‘high’. It seems like an unnecessary repetition, a tautology. Isn’t a mountain high by its very nature? Otherwise it would be a hill. Perhaps Matthew wanted to stress that this journey, the journey to meet God, which Jesus was taking them on was rather long and difficult. Would they have been wondering, ‘Gosh, couldn’t he have picked a smaller mountain? This is taking forever.’

So what are you thinking right now about all this? Are you thinking, ‘Ah yes, Father John, but mountains are always the place in scripture where we meet God. Moses went up the mountain to meet God and so does Jesus, the new Moses.

Or perhaps you will say, ‘But isn’t the whole spiritual life a long and painful journey to God – a vale of tears?

Or maybe you will tell me that prayer is just like that journey up a high mountain – difficult but worth the effort.

Another thing that struck me was how tricky it eventually becomes, after meditating on this experience for some time, to decide which is the most striking or important element of the whole account? Was it the transfiguration moment – in which Jesus’ face begins to shine like the sun? ‘Like the sun!’ Can you imagine that? Do you see it in your mind’s eye? His face shone like the sun.

[At this point I distract myself by thinking of a young girl who goes into the beauty salon on her wedding day and comes out, after hours of work, transformed. She has been made into something she is not, with a beauty which is exterior and passing. Jesus, on the other hand, merely allowed the beauty within, the beauty that was already his, to momentarily shine through and be seen by his disciples.]

Perhaps you were amazed at the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the long dead giver of the Law and the great prophet. Perhaps you not only wondered why they should appear but why they would be talking to Jesus.

Or was it the ‘bright’ cloud, the scriptural sign of the presence of God, overshading the three apostles which astonished you? Did it cause you to think of the Holy Spirit which overshadowed the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation? Or maybe those words of Peter making baffling suggestions about constructing three tents, and then being silenced by the voice of the Father speaking from the cloud and claiming Jesus as his own Son?

My own reflection lead me to suspect that all these various elements of the mountaintop experience, as well as the ones I haven’t mentioned, were parts of a teaching on the central place of Jesus as Saviour of the world and of all history.

We must remember that salvation has a history, a history which has not yet ended. That’s why Moses and Elijah were there talking to Jesus who is always in dialogue with the Old Testament which he came not to destroy but to fulfil. And that is why Peter James and John were there with Jesus. They were the New Testament! And that is one good reason for having Peter, too, talk to Jesus.

In a way the gospel today can be usefully understood as a kind of living image or painting, or as Jesus calls it, a vision. And whichever way one imagines it – Jesus is always in the centre – the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of time and space, the only door to the heavenly Father.

I mentioned earlier that along with the three apostles, through the gift of the gospel of Matthew, you and I were on the mountaintop too. We are an essential part of the story. In Lent we are given a special reminder of this, and through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, a special help to live our part.

Are you doing yours?