26 April 2018

'Abide in me as I abide in you.' Sunday Reflections, 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B

The Red Vineyard, Van Gogh [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel John 15:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)

Jesus said to his disciples:

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.'

Responsorial Psalm (NAB Lectionary: Philippines, USA)

Today’s gospel was the one used by Pope Benedict when he celebrated Mass in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin on 22 September 2011. In his homily the Pope used these striking words: In the parable of the vine, Jesus does not say: 'You are the vine', but: 'I am the vine, you are the branches' (John 15:5). In other words: 'As the branches are joined to the vine, so you belong to me! But inasmuch as you belong to me, you also belong to one another'. This belonging to each other and to him is not some ideal, imaginary, symbolic relationship, but – I would almost want to say – a biological, life-transmitting state of belonging to Jesus Christ. Such is the Church, this communion of life with Jesus Christ and for one another, a communion that is rooted in baptism and is deepened and given more and more vitality in the Eucharist. 'I am the true vine' actually means: 'I am you and you are I' – an unprecedented identification of the Lord with us, with his Church.

So many are caught in a ‘Jesus and me’ mentality, which ignores the reality of the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation, words from the Second Vatican Council that Pope Benedict quotes.

The Virgin of the Grapes, Pierre Mignard [Web Gallery of Art]

As I was reading the Pope’s homily I was thinking that he could have been speaking directly to the people of my native Ireland where there is a deep crisis in the Church. He says to the congregation in Berlin, Many people see only the outward form of the Church. This makes the Church appear as merely one of the many organizations within a democratic society, whose criteria and laws are then applied to the task of evaluating and dealing with such a complex entity as the ‘Church’. If to this is added the sad experience that the Church contains both good and bad fish, wheat and darnel, and if only these negative aspects are taken into account, then the great and beautiful mystery of the Church is no longer seen.

It follows that belonging to this vine, the ‘Church’, is no longer a source of joy. Dissatisfaction and discontent begin to spread, when people’s superficial and mistaken notions of ‘Church’, their ‘dream Church’, fail to materialize! Then we no longer hear the glad song ‘Thanks be to God who in his grace has called me into his Church’ that generations of Catholics have sung with conviction.

I sometimes feel discouraged at happenings in Ireland. I sometimes feel discouraged at happenings in the Philippines, where I spent most of my life as a priest, especially within the Church.

But Jesus tells us clearly that separated from him we can do nothing. Each of us has to decide whether or not we wish to remain united to the life-giving vine who is Jesus himself. Pope Benedict says, Every one of us is faced with this choice. The Lord reminds us how much is at stake as he continues his parable: ‘If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned’ (John 15:6).There is nothing of the ‘meek and mild’ in these stark words of Jesus.

Yet the Gospel, the Good News’ is by definition a message of joyful hope, as the Pope reminded the people in Berlin:

The decision that is required of us here makes us keenly aware of the fundamental significance of our life choices. But at the same time, the image of the vine is a sign of hope and confidence. Christ himself came into this world through his incarnation, to be our root. Whatever hardship or drought befall us, he is the source that offers us the water of life, that feeds and strengthens us. He takes upon himself all our sins, anxieties and sufferings and he purifies and transforms us, in a way that is ultimately mysterious, into good branches that produce good wine. In such times of hardship we can sometimes feel as if we ourselves were in the wine-press, like grapes being utterly crushed. But we know that if we are joined to Christ we become mature wine. God can transform into love even the burdensome and oppressive aspects of our lives. It is important that we ‘abide’ in Christ, in the vine. The evangelist uses the word ‘abide’ [‘remain’] a dozen times in this brief passage. This ‘abiding in Christ’ characterizes the whole of the parable. In our era of restlessness and lack of commitment, when so many people lose their way and their grounding, when loving fidelity in marriage and friendship has become so fragile and short-lived, when in our need we cry out like the disciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘Lord, stay with us, for it is almost evening and darkness is all around us!’ (cf. Luke 24:29), in this present era, the risen Lord gives us a place of refuge, a place of light, hope and confidence, a place of rest and security. When drought and death loom over the branches, then in Christ we find future, life and joy. In him we always find forgiveness and the opportunity to begin again, to be transformed as we are drawn into his love.

To abide in Christ means, as we saw earlier, to abide in the Church as well. The whole communion of the faithful has been firmly incorporated into the vine, into Christ. In Christ we belong together. Within this communion he supports us, and at the same time all the members support one another. We stand firm together against the storm and offer one another protection. Those who believe are not alone. We do not believe alone, we believe with the whole Church of all times and places, with the Church in heaven and the Church on earth.

Pope Benedict finished his homily in Berlin with these beautiful words: Dear Sisters and Brothers! My wish for all of you, for all of us, is this: to discover ever more deeply the joy of being united with Christ in the Church, with all her trials and times of darkness, to find comfort and redemption amid whatever trials may arise, and that all of us may increasingly become the precious wine of Christ’s joy and love for this world. Amen.

May I ask your prayers for a renewal of the Church in Ireland and that the World Meeting of Families
, in which Pope Francis will participate, to be held in Dublin in August will be a life-giving ‘pruning’ for each and every individual Catholic and for the Church as a whole in Ireland so that once again it can truly be a sign of God’s love for all, the universal sacrament of salvation.

May I also ask for your prayers that the people of the Republic of Ireland will affirm their support for the life of every mother and her unborn child when they vote in a referendum on 25 May. The people will decide whether to retain or reject the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. The first part of the Amendment reads: The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

Communion Antiphon (Cf Jn 15:1,5)  
Antiphona ad communionem

I am the true vine and you are the branches, says the Lord.
Ego sum vitis vera et vos palmites, dicit Dominus.
Whoever remains in me, and I in him, bears fruit in plenty, alleluia.
qui manet in me et ego in eo, hic fert fructum multum, alleluia.

18 April 2018

'I lay down my life for the sheep.' Sunday Reflections, Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Christ the Good Shepherd, Murillo [WikiArt]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel John 10:11-18 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)

Jesus said:

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

Janusz Korczak
(22 July 1878 or 1879 – 7 August 1942)

When St John Paul II canonised St Maximilian Kolbe OFMConv on 10 October 1982 he cited Janusz Korczak, a Jewish writer and teacher, who went to his death with a group of orphans in his charge although he had been offered the chance to be spared. He was also a pediatrician.

There were similarities between the sacrifice of of Fr Kolbe and Dr Korczak, both Polish. Fr Kolbe offered his life in exchange for that of Franciszek Gajowniczek,  a young Polish soldier interned in Auschwitz who was to be executed with nine others chosen at random because three of their companions had escaped. The Franciscan friar heard the young soldier cry 'My wife and my children'. His offer was accepted and he and the other nine were put in a cell and left without food or water. After two weeks the Franciscan priest was the only one still alive and was given a lethal injection on 14 August 1941.

Almost a year later Janusz Korczak was to die in Treblinka extermination camp along with nearly 200 Jewish orphans who had been living in the orphanage that he had set up in Warsaw in 1911-12. However, when the Nazis took over Warsaw they forced the orphanage to move to the Ghetto that they created in a district of the Polish capital in late 1940.

German soldiers came on 5 or 6 August 1942 to collect the orphans and about 12 staff members to take them to Treblinka. Dr Korczak had already turned down offers of sanctuary for himself before this and turned down an offer at this point.

A witness described the scene: Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.

At the point of departure for Treblinka an SS officer recognised Dr Korczak as the author of a book that was a favourite of his children and offered him a means of escape. Once again this remarkable man turned down this offer and went with the children to the camp where their lives were soon to end in the gas chambers.

Janusz Korczak could not save the lives of the children under his care but he made sure that they left the orphanage with dignity, wearing their best clothes and each bringing an item that was special to him or her. He chose not to leave them but to die with them.

St Maximilan Kolbe chose to give his life for someone he did not know because that man had a family and he hadn't.

Cell where St Maximilan Kolbe died [Wikipedia]

The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:13-15).

Monument to Janusz Korczak, Warsaw [Wikipedia]

Antiphona ad communionem
Communion Antiphon

Surrexit Pastor Bonus,
The Good Shepherd has risen,
qui animam suam posuit pro ovibus suis,
who laid down his life for his sheep
et pro grege suo mori dignatus est, alleluia.
And willingly died for his flock, alleluia.

11 April 2018

‘Have you anything here to eat?’ Sunday Reflections, Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Supper at Emmaus (detail), Caravaggio [Web Gallery of Art]

The two disciples told what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35).

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Luke 24:35-48 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)

The two disciples told what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

St John Paul II skiing in 1984

Both St John Paul II and I skied, though never together. He skied most of his life, managing to 'escape' even when pope to do so. My career was limited to one glorious day early in January 1969 in Toggenburg, near Syracuse in Upstate New York. If I could re-live one day in my life that is the one I would choose. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, the air was crisp and clean and I remember devouring mandarin oranges and laughing for about ten minutes when I fell off the 'T-bar' - an inverted 'T' that carried two passengers, one on each side of the bar - while going back up to the top of the beginners' slope.

I had been ordained less than 13 months before and was studying music in Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York, north of New York City, run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart. One of the students, Regina McGann, invited me to spend some days with her family in Jamesville, near Syracuse. She came from a large family and her parents, Harold and Mary, made me feel most welcome. 

If I could re-live that wonderful day of skiing it would have to include the family meal that evening in the McGann household - or any of the evenings I was there. We sat around a big round table and there was no rush. The emphasis wasn't on eating but on enjoying a family meal together. The McGann Family was for me a great example of the truth of Fr Patrick Peyton's slogan, The family that prays together stays together. Father Peyton used a copy of Murillo's painting below in his Family Rosary Crusade.

Virgin and Child with a Rosary, Murillo [Web Gallery of Art]

The McGann Family prayed the Rosary every night except Sunday, when the prayed Compline, the Night Prayer of the Church. This practice went back long before Vatican II, which encouraged lay people to pray parts of the Breviary, The Prayer of the Church.

But what I learned from this wonderful family is that The Family that eats together stays together. As an adult I came to see that it was through our family meals while growing up that I had experienced most of all being part of a family. The only time we were all together was in the evening. And Sunday dinner, in the early afternoon, was always something special, as it was for every family that I knew.

Today's gospel opens with the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus recount how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. They had invited Jesus to dine with them and that is how they discovered who their companion on the road - whom they had invited to join them - really was.

And to show the disbelieving apostles and disciples that he is not a ghost Jesus asks, Have you anything here to eat? 

During the Easter Season we also hear at Mass gospel readings from John 21 the chapter that includes the scene of the extraordinary catch of fish, some of which Jesus, the Risen Lord, cooked when he said,Come and have breakfast (John 21:12). After that meal he asks Peter three times, Simon son of John, do you love me?

This is a moment of great intimacy when Peter discovers that it is as his beloved friend that Jesus give him his mission - Feed my lambs . . . tend my sheep . . . feed my sheep.

It is clear from these gospel readings, and from many others, most especially the accounts of the Last Supper, that God reveals himself to us in the intimacy of a meal. If the family meal or meals with close friends are not part of our lives, how can we understand the meal aspect of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? In the Mass, in which we unite ourselves with the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, he gives himself, the Risen Lord, body, blood, soul and divinity, as so many of us learned when we were young, as the Bread of Life. It is not a symbol of himself that he gives in Holy Communion, but his very self, carrying the scars of Calvary and giving us the strength to do the same.

But he also reveals himself to us in our ordinary meals, sometimes even over a cup of tea or coffee. I remember one person who was close to me who for many years had carried a resentment towards someone now dead, a resentment that was the result of a painful incident. She recalled what her father, long since dead, had said to her many years before: Never carry a grudge against anyone. Over that cup of tea she finally let go of her self-inflicted pain, forgave, and moved on with a new lightness in her heart. I have no doubt whatever that it was Jesus the Risen Lord who spoke to her that day through the words of her father. It was a kind of Resurrection experience, over a cup of tea.

Even when we're not talking about profound things at a meal, when we see them as occasions when we most experience our humanity, when we see the link between the family or community meal, or a meal to which we invite someone living alone, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we can more readily understand the implications of the closing words of today's gospel, You are witnesses of these things.

The simple Grace Before and After Meals can remind us gently of the presence of the Risen Lord at our table, as truly present as he was at the table in Emmaus, as truly present as he was when he asked the apostles, Have you anything here to eat?

Prayer Before the MealAdriaen Jansz van Ostade [Web Gallery of Art]

 Responsorial Psalm [NAB Lectionary, Philippines, USA]

04 April 2018

The wounds of the Body of Christ. Sunday Reflections, Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

From The Gospel of John (2003) directed by Philip Saville

John 20:19-31

Today is now known also as 'Sunday of Divine Mercy' and in some English-speaking countries as 'Low Sunday'.

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel John 20:19 - 31 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Christ and Doubting Thomas, Andrea del Verrocchio [Web Gallery of Art]

I carry a scar on one of my hips from surgery when I was 17. I can't even remember which hip. But the scar is there, along with a couple of smaller scars from accidents when I was young. I hardly ever think about them. But they are there.

St Thomas's instinct was right: Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. He knew that if the Lord was truly risen he would carry the scars of his suffering. And he carries them for all eternity.

Scars are reminders of wounds that were. The Risen Body of Christ carries the scars of his Passion and Crucifixion but they are no longer wounds.

But the Body of Christ that is the Church is being wounded daily. The world that God created is being wounded daily. In the first reading during the Easter Vigil (Genesis 1: 1 - 2:2) we heard these words: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;male and female he created them . . . God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good

But today we see much that he had made and that was very good destroyed or being destroyed. We see countless persons created in his image, in the image of God, being killed in endless conflicts.

In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 we read: Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

On Easter Monday this year four members of a Catholic family were shot dead in Quetta, Pakistan, by members of the so-called Islamic State. The victims were Pervaiz Masih, Tariq Masih, Imran Masih and Firdous Bibi. They were killed because each was a temple of the Holy Spirit, a follower of Jesus, a Christian.

After leading the recitation of the Regina Caeli on Easter Monday 2015 (Regina Caeli replaces the Angelus during the Easter Season) Pope Francis spoke especially about the persecution of Christians today. He went so far as to sayThey are our martyrs of today, and there are many; we can say that there are more than in the first century.

Today is the last day of the Easter Octave, which Pope Francis spoke about before reciting the Regina Caeli on that Easter Monday: We are in the days of the Octave of Easter, during which we accompany the joyful climate of the Resurrection. It is curious: the Liturgy considers the entire Octave as one single day, to help us to enter into the mystery, so that His grace is imprinted into our hearts and into our lives. Easter is the event that brought the radical novelty for every human being, for history and for the world: the triumph of life over death; it is the feast of reawakening and regeneration. Let us allow our existence to be conquered and transformed by the Resurrection!

As St Thomas believed when he saw the scars that Jesus carried after his Resurrection, may we see the wounds of the Body of Christ, the wounds of God's creation, the wounds of those made in the image of God, the wounds of so many persecuted Christians, each a temple of the Holy Spirit, so that we too may believe and say, My Lord and my God!

And may that faith be lived in tending the wounds of others - and allowing others to tend to our own wounds.

Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia, Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia, Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia!
for he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia!
has risen as he said, alleluia!
Pray for us to God, alleluia!

The Coronation of the Virgin, Blessed Fra Angelico [Web Gallery of Art]