Saturday, 16 July 2016

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

One day someone should compile a collection of photos of people at prayer; not the fake ones we see in some religious books but real ones of real people really praying.

Something happens to a person when they are at prayer – their whole demeanour changes – something magical, which can’t be counterfeited. The mere sight of someone at prayer touches the deepest part of us and we can’t help but be drawn.

I sat once in a church behind an elderly American monk. He came in and knelt, his hands folded on the pew in front of him, he bowed his head slightly, closed his eyes and didn’t stir a muscle for the next twenty minutes. Around him there seemed to be an atmospheric change. It was as though we were kneeling in a church in Indiana and he was kneeling before the throne of God. I, for one, could not take my eyes off him.

What would it have been like to see Jesus at prayer? It was not unusual for him to pray alone in the presence of his disciples. Today we are told: Once Jesus was in a certain place, praying, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray …'

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the disciples sitting all around on the grass, on a rock, on a fallen tree – just watching the Lord at prayer. It must have been a profoundly moving experience.

For us, prayer is a graced moment when we stop what we’re doing, we put aside the things that preoccupy us and, from deep within ourselves, we reach out for God. It is a moment of communion with God in which our faith embraces him, and we surrender ourselves to him.

What prayer was for Jesus we cannot really know. His relationship with the Father was profoundly different from ours. That’s why Jesus never at any time spoke of ‘our’ Father. He always spoke of his Father or your Father. That is also why he said, in answer to the disciple’s request: Say this when you pray … . Jesus could say ‘my Father’ in a way that we never could.

At any rate the disciples were so deeply moved that when he finished they asked him: Teach us to pray. They wanted not only to pray, they wanted to learn to pray well. The first lesson here for you and me is clear – the first requirement for real prayer is to want to pray – desire.

The second lesson is equally apparent – our prayer must be within the prayer of Jesus, within the unfolding plan of God.

We constantly have to ask ourselves, ‘What does my prayer have to do with the concerns of God and the coming of his kingdom?’ To put it more simply: What does my prayer have to do with God?

You may find this notion a little surprising, even puzzling, but it is possible for us to pray in such a way that our prayer has little or nothing to do with God. Without realising it we can become so self-absorbed that our horizons shrink and we become entirely focussed on our own anxieties and concerns. Then God becomes merely a supermarket, a hospital, or a welfare agency, the handy repository of those things we think we need.

Our prayer, even when we do make legitimate petitions, should express our worship and love of God and a desire that, above all, his kingdom should come because, sadly, it is possible for our prayer to overlook the prerogatives of God and actually lead us away from his kingdom. That is why Jesus says – Say this when you pray: Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come.

This is the proper starting point for all prayer because this was always the starting point for Jesus. This is the spiritual light which must cast its radiance on all our petitions.

This revealing radiance will tell us if our prayer has to do with the kingdom of God, our journey to holiness, our becoming like Jesus, or if it is just a collection of impertinent requests for impossible exemptions from the human condition? This kind of prayer is not ‘within the prayer of Jesus’. Rather it is a rebuke to God which suggests that God has somehow made a mistake and we have to ask him to fix it.

So now we can see the importance of the 'Our Father'. The kingdom of God is coming; it is close at hand. Our most urgent task, more important than our house, our work, our health, is to seek the kingdom in our lives and to be ready for its final arrival.

Let’s pray to the Father for our daily bread. He knows what we need before we ask him. Let’s forgive the sins of those we need to forgive and ask God’s pardon for our own. Let’s ask God’s grace to overcome the many temptations which seek to turn us aside from the right road. Let's ask God to deliver us from every evil.

Constant readiness requires constant prayer but always the kind of prayer that harmonises with the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Genesis 18:20-21.23-32; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

Last week, when Jesus came to visit, Martha made a choice; she went to the kitchen. Mary, too, made a choice: She sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Jesus pointed out to Martha that Mary had made the ‘better choice’.

Martha set about preparing food and drink. She became distracted, very distracted and upset. First she accused the Lord of not caring: Lord, do you not care...? Then she accused her sister of neglecting to help her: my sister is leaving me to do all the serving by myself. And then she started ordering the Lord around: Please tell her to help me.

But Mary’s choice was not ‘to be taken from her’.

Imagine how it must have been for them. There is a knock on the door – and there is the Lord. He has come to visit them. Imagine it was your house. There is a knock, you open the door, it is Jesus.

Martha rushes to the kitchen – Mary sits at his feet. What would you do? It’s all about choices, isn’t it? Martha has chosen, Mary has chosen, you have chosen.

Today the scripture readings presents us with another area of choice - prayer.  In fact, our personal prayer, after Sunday Mass and regular Confession, is one of the most critical choices we face with respect to the presence of God in our lives.

Do you pray? Why? How? When? Where? How do you choose to pray? When do you choose to pray? Where do you choose to pray? Do you choose to pray well or do you choose to pray badly? Let’s watch and learn from the Master.

First, the obvious – Jesus prays. Once Jesus was in a certain place praying... . Even though at the core of his being Jesus is always in profound communion with God his Father, he still desires and chooses to pray. This is natural. Loving means communicating. Perhaps we would more appropriately say that Jesus needs to pray and so we have a context for the question: Why do I pray?

Jesus made a prayer which had a beginning and an end and so, clearly, Jesus spent time in prayer; time when he ceased entirely doing other things and gave himself wholly to communion with his Father. We often convince ourselves that there is no time in our busy lives for this kind of prayer and we are tempted to excuse ourselves with ‘let-offs’ like – ‘everything I do is a prayer’ or ‘I pray while driving the car or doing the garden.’

... and when he had finished... implies a total giving over of time completely dedicated to nothing but focussing on the loving God. Nothing can substitute for this kind of prayer, no matter how busy we are.

Lord, teach us to pray. Every Christian who prays wants to pray better. They can’t help but want this. If prayer is desire for God they want to desire more. If prayer is a reaching out they want to reach further. If prayer is opening to God they want to open wider. If prayer is union with God they want closer union. Lord, teach us to pray: this is the plea of every disciple.

The Lord’s best answer to this question is: Say this when you pray: ‘Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come... .’

We can well imagine that these opening lines of the Our Father formed part of Jesus’ personal prayer as well. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more sublime form of words than these with which to begin our prayer. We imagine them on the lips of Jesus, wondering how he spoke them, and then ask that we may learn to say them as he did.

Two wonderful things are going on here. Firstly we praying in the words Jesus himself has given us to pray and secondly, we discover that we are praying with him.

We are praying together, side by side – prayer partners – if you like. But more than that, Jesus allows us, through the prayer he has given us, to join him in his prayer, and we discover that we are praying through him, with him, in him. Our prayer becomes his prayer.

To summarise the rest of the Gospel reading today we might say that Jesus teaches us to pray also with persistence and with hope. Our prayers will be answered. That is his promise.

And what should we pray for? That is up to us. Jesus specifies only one gift the Father will never, ever refuse to grant us. The more experienced and mature we become in the Christian life of prayer the more we will come to appreciate that this gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of love which exists between the Father and the Son, is the ultimate Gift of gifts – the deepest desire and fulfilment of every heart, the goal of all prayer.

Monday, 11 July 2016

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

What a delightful story from the book of Genesis today; so simple and yet so profound! Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent; it’s hot, the hottest part of the day. In Australia he would be sitting in a chair on a shady verandah.

He looks up and sees three men standing nearby.

So far nothing too remarkable – a man sitting by his tent on a hot day looks up and sees three men. In Australia we would expect him to give a casual greeting to the visitors, ‘G’day’, but check out Abraham's reaction: As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed to the ground.

As soon as he saw them he got up from his comfortable seat in the shade in the hottest part of the day when no one feels much like moving and ran from the entrance to the tent to meet them and bowed to the ground.

With great warmth and irresistible delicacy Abraham welcomes his visitors and begs them to stay. He minimises the trouble they will cause him and offers a little water and a little bread but then goes off to prepare loaves, meat, milk and cream – he has the bread freshly baked and chooses a calf which is fine and tender.

Abraham’s excitement as well as his eagerness to serve his guests is clearly evident. He hastened to find Sarah and told her to hurry and make loaves. Then running to the cattle he chose a calf and the servant hurried to prepare it.

Food in hand he now goes to the three men and spreads all before them. While they eat Abraham remains standing, a sign of respect as well as of readiness to spring into action should they need something more.

For all the hurrying and running there is never a sense of ‘breathlessness’ in this account. Abraham remains peaceful and in control, whether he is doing the serving or standing by as his guests dine. It is clear that Abraham considers all that he does as a welcoming of the three visitors, as an expression of his hospitality.

Perhaps this would be a good moment to move to the Gospel. Now it is Martha and Mary who receive a visit from the Lord, this time in the person of Jesus. Martha welcomes him and gets busy with the serving; Mary sits down by his feet and just listens to him speaking. It’s not long before Martha comes to the Lord, distracted and annoyed.

Perhaps you will share with me my long held conviction that one of the things disastrously wrong with us is our activism; it’s everywhere in the world and everywhere in the Church. Martha was obviously an activist and she shares the fate of all activists, she became distracted and angry.

How many of us, thinking that being a Catholic is a series of things to do rather than a person to become, follow down the same path and soon stop attending Mass? At any rate, Martha approaches, or perhaps more exactly, reproaches Jesus.

First there is a recrimination aimed at the Lord: Do you not care …? Then an attack against her sister who was leaving her to do the serving all by myself. Next there is an order, thinly disguised as a request, that the Lord should set Mary straight.

Somehow the Apostles in the sinking boat come to mind. They, too, accuse Jesus: Do you not care …? The waves were threatening to sink the little boat and they were afraid, and they wanted Jesus to be just as afraid as they were. ‘What’s wrong with you Jesus? We are going down and you don’t seem to care. What’s wrong with you?’

It’s all too often the case with people who are angry or afraid or hurt – they want the rest of us to justify their feelings by sharing them. Martha wanted the Lord to get upset and couldn’t understand why he wasn't. She wanted the Lord to correct Mary but instead she receives a correction herself.

The apostles in the boat were afraid; Martha just liked to worry and fret. Mary had learned that only one thing is necessary – the Lord – and it would not be taken from her.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

I asked a friend of mine what this Gospel was about. He said: Choices. It’s all about choices. And recognising which choices best lead to salvation.

Immediately my mind began racing. I thought first of Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking while Martha was distracted with all the serving. Each of these women made a choice when Jesus arrived and Mary chose ‘the better part’.

Then I thought of last week’s gospel and the choice the priest and Levite made to cross to the other side of the road when they saw the man lying half dead. It’s not like they ‘accidentally’ crossed to the other side, a kind of coincidence. No, they saw the man in his distress and made a choice, a bad choice, both for the poor victim and for themselves.

The Samaritan, on the other hand, made a choice to go to the aid of his fellow human being, his neighbour and in so doing made a choice also in favour of his own salvation.

As the Catechism instructs us: §1 God infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. And then, further on: §1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. Tragically, Adam and Eve chose disobedience – they chose to love themselves – and like all wrong choices the consequences were disastrous all round.

Perhaps the most devastating of these consequences was the impairment of our ability to see things clearly enough to choose wisely. It was as though our hearts and minds were covered with a thick fog, causing a kind of blindness which easily mistakes evil for good and good for evil.

Very few people make a wrong or a poor choice deliberately. If only we could see and evaluate with clear eyes and wise hearts, but we can’t. We judge wrongly and then choose badly.

For this sad situation there is only one remedy. Can you guess what it might be? Let me tell you. The answer to our inner blindness which causes us to make faulty decisions is: God’s commandments.

God is not blind. God sees all things clearly, in their essence. God sees into the depths of everything, not just the appearances. He understands his creation and the laws by which it prospers and flourishes. He sees into the future and comprehends the smallest and the largest effects of each action. Nothing at all is hidden from him.

This is why God’s commandments are so crucial to our happiness. In the wisdom of his laws God offers poor blind, confused humanity a safe route by which to achieve happiness on earth and to reach its heavenly homeland. In his commandments we discover the wisdom to choose as God chooses. No wonder he is always telling us that his word is life (c.f. Mtt 4:4; Jn 6:47).

And yet, isn’t it amazing how we resist the commandments of God? God commands us not to kill and so we murder the infant in the womb and dispatch the elderly with a hypodermic needle. God defines marriage as between a man and woman and we redefine it to include same sex couples. God declares sodomy to be an abhorrent sin and we declare it to be a matter of gender equality, a right. Is it any wonder the world is heading for ruin?

We say the Church is in a mess, and so it is, but the world is in a much larger mess. The Church is at least trying to reform, to purge itself of its failures, but the world is stumbling headlong towards its own destruction because it will not recognise and admit its errors.

By way of conclusion let me point out a critical area in which young Catholics – in a messy world – would do well to let God inform their choices – the area of vocations.

I punched the word choice into my Bible concordance programme and discovered that the first eleven times the word is used in the Bible is in regard to the choosing of a marriage partner. Now, I find that exceedingly interesting.

Who among us would maintain that young people today give this matter sufficient thought and prayer? I certainly don’t. And yet it is an area in which God clearly offers his help if only we would turn to him. In Genesis 24:48 Abraham’s servant is led by God to the woman he has chosen to be a wife for Isaac and the servant prays: I bowed down and worshipped God...who had so graciously led me to choose... Young people, God led that servant to choose and he will do the same for you.

Finally there is the area of religious and priestly vocation. God knows we need young men and women from among our number to give themselves entirely to the service of God ... but only if God himself calls them. John 15:16 recalls this truth: You did not choose me, no, I chose you. God chooses and we respond. Let us all, as well as the young men and women themselves, pray for the grace to discern and to respond to God’s call.

God’s choices are always made with an eye to our eternal happiness. His choices are expressed in his commandments. We do well to keep them.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

My kind of parishioner ..

Sometimes I wish I had a parish full of parishioners who didn’t want to get involved.

I would want the man who mowed the lawns so faithfully to prefer to be doing something else; the lector who was happy it was not her turn to read; the lady who helped out with communion wondering what she was doing there since she felt unworthy; parishioners puzzled about having been asked to join a liturgy committee because they felt they didn’t know much about liturgy; and the chair of the parish council getting edgy when the meeting was going overtime because he had other things to do.

I like reluctant parishioners because I know that when they agree to take on a job they are truly serving – and not self-serving. I know that they have not made the Church into a project of their social life or a forum through which to acquaint everyone with their ‘giftedness’. Nor are they engaging in what Pope Benedict called ‘ecclesiastical occupational therapy’.
And what’s more, when the humble lector or reader or parish council members find themselves replaced by new faces they graciously step aside because it was never about them, it was always about service – a far cry from those who cause a fuss and leave the parish to find another place in which they can exercise their ‘ministry’.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

1Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-19; Luke 7:11-17
Without apology St Paul drops his bombshell: The Good News I preached is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learnt only through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine Ian Henderson introducing the evening ABC News with: Tonight’s news is not a human message given by a reporter, it comes straight from God; a revelation of Jesus Christ?

Paul is claiming to have received the Gospel directly from God, through a revelation! How can he expect anyone to take that sort of claim seriously? Perhaps a hundred years ago people might have believed that but not today. Today we are more enlightened; we don’t believe in visions and supernatural experiences and things like that. Do we?

Well, actually, we do. The vast majority of humans do believe in the supernatural. Taken together, the human race stands very much open to the beyond, much to the chagrin of those who think themselves liberated from such 'foolishness'.

John Henry Newman would say such people had a ‘proud, self-sufficient spirit.’ Psalm 14 verse 1 has a much harsher word for them. In any case, it is enough for us to recognise that the gift of faith is precious and undeserved, and that those of us who call themselves believers had best remain silent and grateful in case the gift be somehow lost.

St Paul gained his extraordinary faith through an extraordinary 'touch' of God. Actually, it would probably be closer to the truth to say that God ‘struck’ him. Paul, in fact, fell to the ground, blinded by the light he was given: a wonderful exchange – darkness for light!

And isn’t faith always like that? It is a kind of darkness through which we reach out, grope, for the God we cannot not see, who in exchange gives us that mysterious light by which alone the true meaning of things can be seen. We who believe see much more than those who do not.

St Paul fell to the ground. That must have been humiliating for him. Caravaggio has an entrancing painting of this episode. Paul, in his armour, full of youthful vigour, lies helpless on his back with arms reaching out to the unseen mystery enveloping him. A line from the famous poet John Donne (Sonnet 14) comes to mind: That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me ... .

Blindness which gives light; humiliation which gives dignity; a casting down which enables standing! Our faith is certainly beyond everyday reasoning – and yet it makes such wonderful sense. It is a wisdom from above, a part of that ‘light’ which comes with faith.

Jesus comes to Paul unexpectedly; it was never part of Paul’s plan. If Jesus overpowers Paul it is to let him see Jesus' own vulnerability – You are persecuting me.

God doesn’t mind roughing us up a little when it’s in our interest. A proud, self-sufficient spirit can be difficult to deal with. Sometimes he needs to pull that rug from under our feet. After all: the Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb 12:6). John Donne well understood how very deeply resistant a heart can be to the gentle overtures of God and he complains: you as yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend. He begs God to stop being Mr Nice Guy; to take off his kids gloves and use some real force to beat his stubborn soul into shape. Batter my heart... he cries. Don't knock on the door, break it down; don't breathe on me, blow me over; don't shine, burn; and don't seek to mend, make me new.

Paul certainly got a beating that day on the road to Damascus. God 'overturned' Paul, so that he might stand right way up. He blinded him so that he might see. He made him helpless so that he might become powerful. And most astonishing of all, he showed Paul that the one whose memory he was trying to erase and whose followers he was trying to destroy, was in fact the Lord of life, who dwelt within him.

When Paul stood up from his experience he was the repository of an ineffable treasure - the Good News - which he would spend the rest of his life preaching. It is the Good News which you and I have received and in which we have put our faith - not a human message given by men but a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Monday, 25 April 2016

6th Sunday of Easter - Year C

Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Apocalypse 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29
'My husband and I have never had an argument in forty years.'
Call me judgmental, call me anything you want, but I find this impossible to believe. Leaving aside the question of the definition of the word argument I find this statement as incredible as the man (his name was not Joseph) who told me his wife 'had never committed a sin in her life.'
Arguments and conflicts are all around us; the devil loves them. Whether it is between couples, children, members of a parish or between nations, they're always there. And, incidentally, they're not really such a big deal. What is far more important is the way we deal with them.
If the couple I quoted above meant that they had never dealt with controversy in their life, never actually confronted difficult issues, then I can well imagine they never had an argument. However, it might then be more honest to say, 'Our marriage is full of unresolved issues which we've never faced because we prefer not to have conflict.'
Controversy has dogged the Christian faith from its very beginning. When Jesus preached he was accused of disturbing the community. When he rose from the dead the disciples were accused of stealing the body, and when the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles with his power they were accused of 'drinking too much new wine.' This kind of controversy may sometimes best be dealt with by ignoring it. So what if there are voices from the sidelines criticising or laughing at the Church? As time moves on these voices often fade away and new ones take their place but the Church moves peacefully on, completing her mission.
We remember the first reading from Acts a while ago. The Apostles were having so much success that huge crowds sought them out. The Jews, prompted by jealousy 'used blasphemies and contradicted everything Paul said.' When this didn't work they incited others to turn against Paul and Barnabas and had them expelled from the city. And we noted how well they handled this controversy: ..they shook the dust from their feet .. and went off .. filled with joy, and the Holy Spirit.
When controversy arises within the Church there is greater cause for alarm. Dissension within must be faced or it can poison the life of the community. Even more important are those controversies which threaten the very identity of the Church, her charge to bring her members into communion with Christ.
Today we hear: Some men came down from Judaea and taught the brothers, 'Unless you have yourselves circumcised in the tradition of Moses you cannot be saved.' This is serious stuff! Unless this is properly dealt with there could be very serious consequences, even a schism.
Paul and Barnabas strongly challenge the visitors and their unsettling teaching, indeed, they have 'a long argument with these men.' It would have been a far from pleasant episode. From the use of such phrases as 'long argument' and 'disturbed you with their demands' we can imagine these men from Jerusalem were not about to take no for an answer.
The fact that there was a dispute within the Church was not the real problem, such things will always take place till the end of time. The essential thing was that after the 'long argument' during which the issues were clarified, the Church leaders delegated Paul and Barnabas and others to go up to Jerusalem to present this problem to the leaders there. Only they, the Magisterium of the Church, had authority to resolve the matter.
The apostles and elders, with the help of the Holy Spirit, decided the visitors were wrong; neither circumcision, nor the lack of it, was a determinant in the attainment of salvation. As far as the Church was concerned: here endeth the dispute - the apostles had spoken. From this moment on no one who wanted to remain within the Church could legitimately insist on circumcision.
For us here today an enormously important and helpful principle emerges from this unpleasant dispute in the early community. It is indicated by the observation of the Apostles: They (these men) acted without any authority ...
Whenever someone troubles you with a new teaching challenge them, and ask them on whose authority they speak.
·       Oh, we don’t call God him anymore.
·       You don’t have to go to Mass on Sunday anymore if you don’t feel like it.
·       You can use contraception if your conscience is comfortable with it.
·       It’s ok to live a homosexual lifestyle.
Never ask these people for their reasons - always and immediately ask them for their authority: What is the authority for this teaching of yours? Can you show me a Church document, or a passage in the Catechism, or a statement from the Pope?

It's a seriously bad thing to teach falsehood, no matter how plausible or modern or attractive it may seem.
Let me end with a quote from Pope Paul VI: If anyone pretends to call himself Catholic, a son of the Roman Church, he must accept all its dogmas and essential structures, and first of all, the authority of Peter, which is both the symbol of unity and the cement of Holy Church.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

5th Sunday of Lent - Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

There is something about the awful predicament of the woman in today's Gospel which reminds me of my death. St John uses his words carefully. At first he says she was caught committing adultery and if this were not enough to give us a picture he later has her accusers say she was caught in the very act of committing adultery.
If she had her wits about her while she was being dragged away the woman might just have managed to snatch at a bed covering or an article of clothing to protect her dignity otherwise she would have found herself standing before the crowd, and before the Lord, stark naked. This is the part that reminds me of my death.
One day we will die - you and I - and according to the teaching of our Faith our body will remain here on earth till the last day while our soul will suddenly find itself standing before Jesus.
Of course, our soul is spirit and wears no clothes. It can't put on a smart suit or a pretty dress as do criminals brought before a magistrate. It cannot sprinkle a little deodorant or perfume or put on a bit of makeup.
There will be no room for bravado, no opportunity for lies, no postponement till we have prepared a defence. No. The soul will stand before the just judge in total transparency, clothed in the simple, unadorned apparel of its own truth at the moment of death.
Since nothing will be hidden there will be no need for a prosecutor or defence attorney, and no need for witnesses to put in a good word for us. Even the Judge will have no reason to speak; what, indeed could he say?
At that moment, as we stand before the Master, we will see him face to face in all his terrible beauty, goodness and truth. For some this will be a moment of ecstatic joy; for others a moment of intense regret as they find themselves turning away from him into the purging suffering of Purgatory; for still others it will be a moment of indescribable terror.
What I am speaking of here are what the Church calls the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell.
As I have said, I don't think it will be necessary for Jesus to speak. It will be in seeing him as he is that each soul will see itself as it really is. There will be no need for discussion. The soul will know where it must go.
The soul which enters heaven will find the place reserved for it - the place in which it finds its greatest fulfilment, happiness and peace. Like a fish in the ocean which finds its own depth, or a bird in the air which flies at its own height, the soul will find for itself the degree of joy, of closeness to the Lord, which it can bear. So too with the unfortunate soul in Purgatory and ruined soul in hell. Each will assign itself the place in which it belongs.
The woman caught in adultery, standing naked and transparent before her Lord, is a powerful image of our own destiny but with this difference - however painful and humiliating this moment may be - it is not yet too late, the judgment is not yet final.
For the self-righteous Pharisees, too, it is an opportunity, a warning. These men are no less sinners than the woman but their sins have not yet been exposed. Unlike the woman who, strange to say, has the advantage here - they do not see their own sinfulness laid out before them. Jesus obligingly helps them out.
If the Scripture scholars are right, if what Jesus writes on the ground with his finger is the name of the sin of each one of them, we should marvel at the kindness and respect and mercy he shows each one by not shaming them publicly. Jesus truly shows himself to be  merciful beyond words to each one of the sinners before him.
And he shows us the same mercy. There is no sin he will not forgive. If we were Hindus we would wash in the Ganges. If we were Moslems we would make a pilgrimage to Mecca. If we were Protestants we would privately admit our sin to God. But as Catholics we must confess (at least our grave sins), to the priest. Even those of you who have not been in a confessional for many years know in your heart of hearts that this is true, that this is the teaching of your Catholic Church.
Before the Lord, at the end of our life, we will see ourselves clearly. As the hymn says we will see:
'... the chances we have missed,
the graces we resist ... '
I sincerely recommend that you avail yourself of the sacrament of Reconciliation before Easter so that you may hear the Judge say: Neither do I condemn you.

Monday, 18 January 2016

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
‘Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.’
(From Mending Wall by Robert Frost)
When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruin he was devastated: On hearing this I sank down and wept; for several days I mourned, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (1:4)

Why would he do this? Why would he react so strongly?

Nehemiah was a just man, faithful to the Law and deeply conscious of himself as a member of God’s Chosen People. In the desecration and destruction of the walls he saw the sins of his people and was deeply ashamed. He fell down before the Lord and on behalf of the People he prayed: I confess the sins of the sons of Israel which we have committed against you: I and my father's House have sinned. We have acted very wickedly towards you: we have not kept the commandments, laws and customs you laid down for Moses your servant. (1:6-7)

For Nehemiah the integrity of the city of Jerusalem, and particularly the integrity of the walls and gates, was an image of the integrity of the People and, clearly, this was in tatters. Moreover, without the integrity that comes from obedience to the Law of Moses the people were no longer the People; they were without identity.

We could pause here and ask ourselves how we respond to the images of death, destruction and despair we see on our television screens so often today? What would a Tutsi or a Hutu make of the piles of corpses littering the Rwandan countryside? What would an Iraqi or Pakistani see in the mangled bodies strewn around the crater made by a suicide bomber? What do we see in the overflowing garbage bins of abortionists, if not men and women who have forsaken their God and put themselves in his place? This was the cruel sword which pierced Nehemiah’s heart two and a half thousand years ago and the desolation experienced today by every serious Catholic on seeing the offences, great and small, committed against the merciful God.

Nehemiah, and his compatriot Ezra, set about restoring Israel’s integrity and thus their identity. Nehemiah’s mission was that of rebuilding the city walls and gates, while Ezra’s mission was to move the People to recommit themselves to live the Law of Moses and to worship God according to the prescriptions of the Torah. In other words, they set about purifying lifestyles and restoring the liturgy. Ring any bells?

It should not surprise us that from the first moments of the decision to rebuild the walls there was opposition: When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the walls he flew into a rage, beside himself with anger. What a startlingly different reaction to that of Nehemiah on hearing of the plight of Holy City!

He ridiculed the Jews and in front of his kinsmen and the wealthy men of Samaria he exclaimed, 'What are these pathetic Jews trying to do?... Do they expect to finish in one day? Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?' (3:33-34)

Nehemiah’s opponents, some of whom were Jews themselves(!), tried to stop him by every means at their disposal. Any bishop, priest or layperson who has resolved to restore some sense of the sacred to our noisy, horizontal liturgies will recognise the tactics. Sanballat begins with anger. This is often enough to frighten off the weak. Next comes public ridicule, which no one likes, and which often deters from standing up for what they know to be right those who love their popularity.

Ridicule is followed by personal insults (these pathetic Jews) and a questioning, not only of their ability to finish the task (Do they expect to finish in one day?) but of their very grasp on reality (Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?)

We understand that Nehemiah saw, not charred stones and heaps of rubble, but bruised, demoralised and despairing men and women especially chosen by God to form a Chosen People. With the Lord there are no heaps of rubble; there are only souls waiting to be redeemed.

As the work neared completion opposition grew. Physical violence was planned but Nehemiah avoided falling into the traps set for him and finally the work was completed. God is always on the side of restoration.

Let us turn again to today’s First Reading: … all the people gathered as one man on the square before the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses which Yahweh had prescribed for Israel. Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, consisting of men, women, and children old enough to understand. This was the first day of the seventh month. On the square before the Water Gate, in the presence of the men and women, and children old enough to understand, he read from the book from early morning till noon; all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. …the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law.

We have come back to our beginning - the weeping Nehemiah. But now it is not Nehemiah who weeps, it is the People. They have been restored and renewed and they cry - but their restorer bids them be joyful, as would one day the true Restorer cause us to cry out Alleluia!

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Baptism of the Lord - Year C

Isaiah 40:1-5.9-11; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Most people don’t think about Baptism very deeply. This is manifested clearly at parish Baptism preparation sessions. When asked why they have brought the child for Baptism parents are caught unawares; this is already very telling. They become suddenly uncomfortable. Mum looks at dad, dad looks at his feet.
  • Well, my parents had me baptised and I went to a catholic school and I really enjoyed it and I want my child to have the same opportunity.
  • My grandmother is coming from Europe to visit us in August and she wants to be at the Baptism.
  • Every child should have some religion.
  • Well, doesn’t the child go to Hell if it’s not baptised?
It would be so interesting if one day I asked a group of parents why they brought their child for Baptism and they said:
  • Well, we find such joy in the Faith that we want the same for our child.
  • We are all born in Original Sin and we want God to restore our child to his friendship.
  • We want our child to be born again and made into a new person in Christ.
  • We want our child’s heart to be open to God’s grace. We want God’s Holy Spirit to live in our child.
I can tell you honestly, folks, if that were ever to happen you would see one astonished priest, probably weeping tears of joy.

Most young parents don’t think about Baptism very deeply because they don’t live their Catholic life very deeply. This is not an attack – this is a diagnosis!

A priest friend of mine in a large parish recently told me of a preparation session with fifteen couples: nine of them were either not married, or not married in the Church. This was for a variety of reasons. Three of the nine were Catholic but had simply decided not to get married; six couples were married in the Church and of these six, two were attending Sunday Mass faithfully.

This collapse in the connection between the Sacrament of Baptism and a lived Catholic life is almost universal in Australian society. It’s a horrible phenomenon! And we go on, year after year, baptising the children of parents who have already told us they have no intention at all of practising the Faith. It seems Baptism is now a kind of no-community-attached sacrament, and, therefore, parents have come to see it as a no-responsibility-attached sacrament. This is not as it should be.

The Church herself has something to say about all this, and don’t forget, the sacraments belong to the Church and they belong in the Church, like a fish belongs in water. This is why the Church will not normally allow Baptisms to be performed outside the church building.

The 1980 'Instruction on Infant Baptism' recognised the need for a renewal of our pastoral practices in regard to this sacrament and spoke of two principles.
  • Firstly, considered in itself the gift of Baptism to infants must not be delayed.
  • Secondly, the parents or a close relative must give assurances that the gift of Baptism can grow by an authentic education in the faith and Christian life, in order to fulfil the true meaning of the sacrament.

    But if these assurances are not really serious there can be grounds for delaying the sacrament; and if they are certainly non-existent the sacrament should even be refused.
Priests should be slow to delay or refuse a Baptism but they should not be unthinking in their pastoral practice. Too many of our parents are not really serious in their assurances that the gifts and blessings of Baptism can grow in their children. I often ask them: Are you ready to become the parents of a Catholic child? The fact is that most don't understand what this means and are in need of a thorough catechesis.

By baptising the child of any parent who asks, without making a serious discernment about the assurances given, we are denying those parents an important opportunity of making a renewed commitment to their own faith.

‘But aren’t you denying an innocent child?’ No. The child is not your or my responsibility. The child is the responsibility of the parents. If neither the parents nor a family member is willing to accept the duties of bringing the child up in the practice of the Faith then they are denying their child.

When couples are challenged about all this in the right way its remarkable how often they are ready to acknowledge they are not yet for real. They will accept further instruction and even invite the priest to their house to explain things more deeply and answer some questions.

Some couples become angry because they don’t want a Church that has ‘terms or conditions’, and they simply walk away. That is their choice. It may be that they will give the matter further thought and, one day, come back. All too often, unfortunately, they will shop around for a priest somewhere who offers less resistance.

We mustn’t underestimate parents; they are not stupid. Given the right explanations and sufficient time to digest the ‘unpleasant news’ they will often nod their heads and agree that the true meaning of the sacrament is not fulfilled if they bring their child into a Catholic Faith which they themselves refuse to practise. There are few joys compared to the joy of seeing such a couple come back to the practise of the Faith.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2:1-11

The wedding celebration at Cana was for Jesus a turning point in his life. It started off seeming ordinary enough but suddenly a much deeper reality made itself clear to him in the voice of his Mother and his life was never the same again.

For me it was an ordinary holiday I took with a priest friend, and suddenly I was heading for the seminary, my whole life turned upside down. Has it happened to you? Where did you meet your wife? Your husband? Was it ordinary? And yet look how it affected your future.

It’s one of the uncanny aspects of existence that our future is often dependent on what seems mere chance; the direction of our lives is changed by a pebble or a cigarette butt; the path to our destiny begins in the most unexpectedly mundane places. What starts off as a chat in the kitchen can become the road to our destiny.

The marriage feast of Cana was for Jesus just such a commonplace event. A time to leave behind the busyness of everyday life and just relax for a bit; to enjoy the company of friends, to drink a glass of wine and join in one of the many conversations. Then the wine ran out.

Mary, always on the alert to the needs of others, notices the problem and says to her son: They have no wine.

Jesus picks up the double meaning. Do I hear you ask ‘What double meaning?’

Notice what has happened! The little wedding feast without wine suddenly becomes an image for something else, something much more. It’s as if Mary flung her arms out to the whole world and said - Son, they have no wine! Mary is now speaking not only about the wedding feast, she is speaking about poor drought-stricken humanity, the whole world: Son, they have no wine!

[We who have had the benefit of 2000 years of meditating on this episode may add our own complaint to Mary’s: And if we have no wine, Lord, how can we make Eucharist?]

In the Scriptures there are other examples of how an innocent statement suddenly punches through to another, broader, deeper level of meaning. Take little Isaac walking beside his father Abraham, carrying on his head the wood for the fire on which he will be sacrificed. He doesn’t yet know that God has asked his father to sacrifice his only son. And he asks: Father, where is the Lamb? Without realising it Isaac had asked the very question the whole cosmos was asking as it waited to be redeemed: Where is the Lamb? Where is the sacrifice that will take away the sins of the world?

We may well wonder if Jesus marvelled, as we do, at the wisdom of his Mother’s Spirit-filled words. Their profound simplicity completely disarmed him. Suddenly he was no longer the guest, he was the Bridegroom – and his beautiful Bride, the Church, stood before him, longing for the nuptial banquet with her Beloved to begin. For Jesus this could mean only one thing, the Passion.

Did the humanity of Jesus falter, as it did in the Garden of Gethsemane? My Father, he said, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. (Mt 26:39)

He answers his Mother: Woman why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.

Mary does not reply to her Son. She has not actually asked him for anything but left him free to respond as he wishes. There is a mystery here, a profoundly mystical moment, and deep within us we imagine we can hear Jesus speak the words: Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.

The first great sign has come, the first epiphany of his public life in the Gospel according to John; there is now no turning back.

Mary tells the servants, that’s us, of course: Do whatever he tells you. A moment later there are six stone jars full of wine, each jar holding twenty or thirty gallons! It’s almost like Jesus exclaims ‘You want wine? I’ll give you wine!’

Three years later the wine would turn into blood, as it still does today on our altars, sufficient for all mankind.