You are loved and lovable

3rd Sunday of the Year (B) 2021

There is a word that I suspect is very off putting for many Catholics, and that word is “repent”. Is it an over-reaction to evangelical preachers. You know the kind that tells us to “repent because the end of the world is nigh”?  It may be. Or maybe we just don’t like the idea of repentance. Yet Jesus uses this word in the gospel today, “repent, he says, and believe the good news”.  I think his words create a different reaction; maybe less threatening. 

Words are important. It’s how we normally communicate. We open our mouths and the words come out. But there are different kinds of words. There are words that build up and words that destroy.  And they can destroy. There is an old saying that children use when they don’t like what someone says about them: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  If only it were true. In my experience words can do more harm than sticks and stones. However, the opposite is true: words can build you up and make you feel good about yourself. And that is what the Word of God does.  Today the Church wants us to reflect on the Word of God; it has set aside this day as ‘The Sunday of the Word of God’.  How important it is to listen to what God is saying to us. 

Thank God we Catholics do this more now. When I was a child we didn’t read scripture, and we weren’t really encouraged to. But this is how God makes Himself known to us: through His words. We should echo the words of the psalmist who says in today’s psalm: “Lord, make me know your ways. Lord, teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me.”  By reading scripture we do get to know the Lord and we learn what he wants us to do. The word of God can be and should be our guide in our journey through life. What God wants to tell us isn’t so much to repent; though that will always apply to some extent, but what He wants to tell us is that we are loved and we are lovable.  Isn’t this what we want to hear: who wouldn’t want to hear that they are loved and that they are lovable?  Such words build us up, make us stronger, boosts our confidence, so that we believe that with God at our side we can do anything.  

Such is the Word of God. It is so positive and so life-giving. Reading the word of God and taking it to heart changes us; it definitely makes us better people, better Catholics, better Christians. So why wouldn’t we spend more time reading scripture when it will make us feel so much better about ourselves and about life; even during this pandemic. 

Do I have to listen to God?!

2nd Sunday of the Year

When I wake up in the morning these Covid days, I have to overcome inertia; a reluctance to start the day. This isn’t like me but it’s what happens now most mornings. In spite of this lack of enthusiasm to face the day I turn to a crucifix opposite my bed and say: “Speak Lord your servant is listening”.  I do this in imitation of Samuel who was told to do this by his teacher Eli. Unlike Samuel I have never heard the Lord speaking to me. And yet I continue to say this prayer because I know the Lord can and does speak to me in all sorts of ways that are non-verbal: he speaks to me through other people, through events and the circumstances of my day. 

As a baptised Christian I, like all Christians,  am called to listen to God and to do his will. He calls us to listen each day. He first called on the day of our baptism. but most of us won’t remember that, as we were babies. However, we grow up and as we do so we grow in faith.   When Christ called the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, he did not just call them once. Every day He called them to follow Him.  And after His resurrection, when he had disappeared from their sight, he continued to call them. “Speak Lord your servant is listening”, is a prayer all Christians should say. 

Today is World Day of Prayer for Peace. The Lord is calling all of us to be peacemakers. He wants us to strive to overcome injustice and violence in our society and in our world. This is not easy and many avoid doing it. It can be so much easier to avoid getting involved. And so we busy ourselves with other things rather than face up to the injustice in our society. The trouble is that violence and war are what happens when good people do nothing. 

“Speak Lord your servant is listening.” He calls us not just to pray, to go to Church, but above all to listen to His gospel message; a message of peace and justice. But this can be disturbing sometimes. Being a peacemaker means getting involved.  It means getting upset when you hear of injustice and violence and warfare. It means trying to do something about this. It is not right to say: “Who am I? what can I do?” To bring about change all that needs to happen is everyone does a little, God will do the rest. Peace doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it. We Christians being followers of Christ, are called to bring peace and justice to our world; I cannot really be a true follower of Christ, if I avoid the suffering of my brothers and sisters

I may be a wimp but God’s power is in me

Baptism of the Lord 2021 (B)

I had the great privilege of living in Jerusalem for almost five years. And one of the highlights of my time there was baptizing someone in the river Jordan. It was the same place and the same river where Jesus was baptized 2,000 years earlier.  What a privilege. I did not see a dove nor hear a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.”  But the person I’d baptized had received the holy spirit, and was now a child of God and co-heir with Christ. He was no longer the same person. 

One might wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised, since he was without sin. We don’t really know except that it marked the beginning of his public ministry.  From now on his life would never be the same again; now he was called by the Father, ‘to serve the cause of right’… ‘to open the eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.’ He was still the same person but he was different. His baptism had changed him. So much so that when he began preaching his relatives thought he had gone mad.  But he hadn’t of course. He was as sane and anyone. But the effect of his baptism was to change his life.  He began to preach and to heal, because the power of God was working in him. 

We too were baptised. I presume most of us were baptised as babies. Probably not in the river Jordan but in a parish font.  Once the baptism was over we were never the same again; the spirit and power of God was in us.  That power is made manifest in ways that are not always obvious.  Most of the time we don’t see it. Indeed, if you are like me, you tend to see more your weaknesses.  And so, for example, during this pandemic I thought I should be above it all; that I should be strong and unaffected by the doom and gloom. “I am an ordained priest,” I said to myself; “surely I should be an example;  someone who was not like others, but I am just like everyone else,  like most people I feel down at times, bored, trapped and fed up.  

Christ’s baptism was a turning point in his life. And so it is in ours. We don’t suddenly become superhuman, above all pain and those things that afflict our world, especially now. No, God’s power given to us in baptism works in us in spite of our weaknesses and failings. The good we do in life is because of God’s grace working in us. We too are called to ‘serve the cause of right… and to open the eyes of the blind.’ God is working in you as He did in Christ. With His power you can do great things; this is what you were called to do; this is why you were baptised. 

Christmas isn’t a once in the year event

2nd Sunday of Christmas (2021)

We are at the beginning of a new year. We shall never forget the year just gone, with all its difficulties. Not that they are over year but at the beginning of this new year we hope and pray that it will be so much better. We pray that life will return to normal, only it will be a new normal. What we have experienced has changed us whether we are aware of it or not. For one thing most of us have found ourselves with more time on our hands, time to think and reflect about life.  It is my prayer that we will have reflected more on our faith, by thinking about what we are here for: how are we to use our time as a Christians.  

At the beginning of the year we are still very much in the period of Christmas. The gospel today speaks of John the Baptist who is a witness, a witness ‘so that everyone might believe through him.’  He was a witness for the light. As you know light is the opposite of darkness; and as you are also aware the days are now slowly getting brighter, as the light conquers the darkness. Yesterday we enjoyed the most glorious sunshine. I went for a walk in the park. People were out on their own or in their bubbles, happy to be in the sunshine, enjoying the light of the sun. The sunshine puts a smile on our faces and gives us a lift. 

Christ is our light, said St John the Baptist. He has come to lift us. His light can penetrate the darkest recesses of our hearts. The light of Christ reveals something of God as well as something of ourselves. The gospel tells us that ‘no one has ever seen God; it is the only son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’  Jesus was born in Bethlehem to make God known. John the Baptist was born in his turn to tell us about Jesus. And now we, in our turn, are to witness to Jesus to the people of our generation. Otherwise, what’s the point? Christmas would simply remain a sentimental event that we celebrate once a year, it comes, we enjoy the carols, the lights and the Christmas pudding, but then its over, till  next year. It is our duty as Christians to make him known, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. How we do that is something we can pray about now that we have more time on our hands. May the light of Christ change us, lift us up and make us better witnesses. This is why we are here, it was why we were baptized, and it is essentially what will make us happy. 

This is Christmas like no other

Christmas 2020

The message of this Christmas is to be found in the opening sentence of the prophet Isaiah; ‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.’ This is a Christmas like no other. No one has ever been through the darkness that we have this year. But that light, which Isaiah speaks about, is the same light that the Shepherds saw, when the angels appeared to them, and told them, ‘I bring you news of great joy… Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you.’  It was the same light the Magi saw and led them to Bethlehem. That light which lightens up the darkness is in fact a child lying in a manger; but a child that is unique: that child is God in human form. 

Back in 1997 the Queen used her Christmas message to speak about an ‘annus horribilis’; a horrible year. I think she may well do the same this year, but for different reasons. We have all gone through a most difficult time: a time of loss for many people who have lost loved ones; at time of loneliness for many, and of anxiety for most of us; people are fearful for the future. This pandemic has made us aware of how fragile we are, as well as our world; one microscopic virus has almost brought the world to its knees. I am sure that many a person has just wanted to get away from it all; but the trouble is there is no where to go. 

But out of this darkness a light has shone. That light shines in our hearts. Earlier on tonight I experienced a reflection of that light, when our neighbours asked us to join them outside in singing a few carols; we were just a few but then other in the street joined in, people came to their windows. And all because we were rejoicing that our saviour has been born to us. I was almost moved to tears because this kind of coming together doesn’t usually happen in well off neighbourhoods, where everyone tends to be independent. It reminded me of how we came together earlier in the year to applaud the NHS. 

That light that shines in our hearts can never go out, because that light is Christ. Tonight we give thanks to God our Father, that He has sent His son into our dark world that we might have light and not only light but peace and joy.  No wonder we sing. No wonder we come together to give thanks. Yes, a light has shone in our darkness, and it is a light that the dark could not and can never over come. The same message the shepherds heard is repeated tonight: “I bring you news of great joy; today a saviour has been born for us, Christ the Lord.’

Christmas is greater than the creation of the universe

4th Sunday of Advent (B) 2020

            Mary was deeply disturbed by the words of the Angel Gabriel. We are so familiar with this scene that we can wonder why was she disturbed; she was even afraid we are told a line later. I want you to imagine you are having your breakfast: tea, toast and marmalade. It is something you do every morning; it’s so routine you don’t think about it. But now imagine, one morning, an angel suddenly appears. At first you wouldn’t know it was an angel; you’d probably think it was a ghost. Would you be frightened? I bet you would be. So Mary’s reaction was normal; anyone would have been frightened. But the angel says to her: “Mary, do not be afraid.”

            This was the beginning of the greatest event in human history.  No wonder it was extraordinary; an angel, and not just any angel, but the Archangel Gabriel, appeared to Mary and spoke to her. At that moment she was in another world; and extraordinary world; the world of God and angels.  She must have pinched herself to see if she was dreaming.  It seems Mary quickly lost her fear and listened to what the Angel said to her. His words were strange; everything about this experience was strange.  “You are to conceive and bear a son.” This bit wasn’t so strange,  Mary had just got engaged to Joseph and was looking forward to having children. But the angel went on to say, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”  This was extraordinary. Young as she was she understood what the Angel Gabriel was saying. But God had prepared her for this moment. Her faith was so deep that she was ready to say yes to the Angel, which she did in those unforgettable words, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me.” 

Luke then says quite simply, starkly even, “And the angel left her”. Mary was left alone. Can you even begin to imagine how she felt. I bet she didn’t touch the rest of her breakfast. She had just agreed to participate in the most extraordinary event in human history; an event greater even that the creation of the universe. The world and her world in particular would never be the same again. Her yes, her fiat, meant that God’s plan for the salvation of humanity could go ahead. It would be a huge understatement to say, we owe so much to Mary. Our gratitude should know no bounds. 

What are you so happy about?

3rd Sunday of Advent (B) 2020

            Today is known by the latin title as ‘Gaudete Sunday’; and Gaudete means joy. The reason today is called Gaudete Sunday is obvious when you read the readings, especially the first two: they tell us to be joyful;  from Isaiah and from St Paul, even the refrain of the psalm speaks of joy. 

I don’t need to tell you that joy is in short supply these days. If it were only Covid 19 it would be bad enough, but many people are experiencing other difficulties; illness, unemployment, lack of money, shortage of food; more people are ending up homeless. Young and not so young are being challenged mentally; some can’t cope. No one is finding this easy. No wonder joy is in such short supply. And yet this is the message from today’s readings. Isaiah says, ‘the spirit of the Lord has been given to me… he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken.’ Well, there are plenty of poor today and many hearts have been broken. So these words are very timely and welcome. Isaiah goes on to say, ‘I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God.’ It is not a superficial joy, one that soon passes. My soul, he says, rejoices in my God; that is the deepest part of our being. 

St Paul writing to the Christians in Thessalonika tells them to be ‘happy at all times.’ Not just when there are reasons to be happy but to be happy when there aren’t. Like now. Easier said than done. But Paul isn’t making this up. He means it; he gives his own example. How he suffered in life, especially once he became a follower of Christ. But in the midst of his sufferings he gave thanks to God. Some would say he was crazy. But Paul wasn’t crazy, his heart was full of the love of God, and that made him rejoice even in times of suffering. 

In the gospel we have John the Baptist. I suppose one wouldn’t immediately equate John with joy; more austerity and penance. But John was overjoyed that he was heralding the messiah. He was a witness to the birth of Christ; the last of the prophets to do so. The church asks us to be witnesses to the birth of Christ today; to be, in a sense, other John the Baptists. To tell people the good news of Jesus Christ. And it is good news: sinners will be forgiven,  we are all loved by God and we are lovable. Who doesn’t want to hear this? Not pop-song love, but real love; love that changes you, makes you feel better, that gives you a reason to live. A love that is so powerful that you want to share it with others. This is what John the Baptist did and the other prophets. So, if we really believe we are loved then, in spite of the pandemic and other difficulties, we smile and we are happy. We are kind to people and helpful, especially to those who are worse off than ourselves, we give and don’t count the cost. And we do all this gladly and with a cheerful face. 

Yes Gaudete Sunday is a special day. A day to give thanks. A day to look forward to the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ,  the cause of our joy. It is a joy that won’t go away because it is based on the truth: that Christ is coming to save us, to make us whole, to free us from our sins, and to show us that we are loved. Isn’t this reason to be joyful? 

Christmas is more than eating, drinking and making merry

2nd Sunday of Advent (B) 2020

“Prepare a way for the Lord” cries the prophet Isaiah. This is such a familiar advent phrase. Hundreds of years later the same phrase is repeated by Mark the evangelist, “A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Clearly the idea is that the Lord should get here as soon as possible; nothing on the road should delay him. 

I remember years ago, in fact 1983, I was on pilgrimage to Fatima by coach from England. It was a long way. Eventually we found ourselves in Spain. The roads were long and straight and so it didn’t take us long till we got to the Portuguese border. But once we got into Portugal, our progress slowed right down. The coach had to cross several valleys. It took ages to cross each one, because we had to drive down into the side of the valley around hairpin bends till we got to the bottom. Then we crossed a river before ascending up the other side, around more hairpin bends till eventually we got to the top. This then was repeated at every valley. It took us ages to get to Fatima. Today, of course, the roads are much better in Portugal. There are flyovers over valleys, so that you can get to your destination quickly.  

Now imagine the human heart as a road way. And Christ wants to come into our hearts anew. We are told that John the Baptist came to prepare a way. He did this by proclaiming a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’  Sins are the one thing that will delay Christ coming into our hearts. They are like obstacles along the road, like so many road works. If Christ is to make progress along the way then we need to prepare our hearts. The Church knows this which is why it offers us a way to prepare. It offers us the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession. It is the God-given means the church uses. By confessing our sins we make straight the way for the Lord; we remove the obstacles that block him. 

The most important preparation we can make this Christmas, isn’t so much putting up the Christmas tree, or the decorations, making the Christmas pudding or writing cards, but  something else entirely; it is the preparation of our hearts and minds. Someone who prepares in this way, who gets rid of the obstacles in his or her heart, will surely enjoy Christmas much more than someone for whom Christmas is just about eating, drinking and making merry.  Christ is coming to set us free from our sinful ways. From the things that make us unhappy. He is coming to fill us with his love and to give us a peace this world can never give.  These are truly great gifts. They are not wrapped up in fancy paper and you cannot see them, but they will last forever and give us a joy that no earthly present could ever give. 

Please write to these political prisoners

I am a Religious Priest based in London. Over the years I have been interested in Nicaragua, a small and beautiful central American country. The situation in Nicaragua is bad. There is an unjust and cruel government that has suppressed its people for years. Anyone who stands up for basic human rights becomes an enemy of the State and is in danger of being assassinated or put in prison for years, with trumped up charges. The Church has not been spared. A friend of mine, Mons Silvio Baez, auxiliary Bishop of Managua, the capital, was attacked in his cathedral, in the presence of the Cardinal and the Papal Nuncio. They beat him, slashed his arm with a knife and took off his ring. But that did not stop him preaching the gospel message of peace and justice. He continues to denounce the government.

The following is an account by the Cardinal of Nicaragua, for the Christian organization Aid to the Church in Need: https://acnuk.org/news/nicaragua-cardinal-condemns-government-attacks/

I am asking you to write to the following political prisoners. Maybe send them a Christmas card. In this way the government will know that the outside world is watching them. But more importantly, these good people will know that they are not forgotten. It will give them that precious gift of hope. Chose one or more. A friend of mine will ensure that your letters get to the various prisons where they are being held. So please write to:

Carla Castelon, Residencial Los Guayacanes, # 48, Managua 12048, Nicaragua.

  1. Richard Saavedra (Managua)
  2. Oliver Montenegro (Jinotega)
  3. Jaime Navarrete, (Managua)
  4. Justo Rodríguez,
    (Ometepe Island)
  5. Dany García,
    (Masaya)

On their behalf I thank you.

Fr John McGowan O.C.D.

Church of Our Lady & St Simon Stock, Kensington, London.

Does it go in one ear and out the other?

1st Sunday of Advent ( B ) 2020

“Stay awake!” In the gospels it has an exclamation mark after it; to suggest it is an order.  That order reverberates down through the centuries; we can hear it today, loud and clear: “stay awake.”  You might think it is an odd thing to say when it’s perfectly clear you are awake; you wouldn’t be able to hear this if you were asleep. Yes, you are not asleep but are you really awake; at least in the sense that Christ’s means. 

What Christ means is: do you hear him?  Do you really hear him? Or do his words go in one ear and out the other.  Christ is asking us to stay awake, in other words, to keep focussed on what he says in the gospel. When some one is self-absorbed that they don’t really notice what Christ is saying to them; nor do they don’t notice other people; not even family. They are too self-centered, too self-absorbed to notice anyone’s concerns but their own.  And sometimes these people are going to church,  they pray, say the rosary, even go to confession. They are not concentrating on what Christ says to them week in and week out at mass; they are day dreaming. 

By really listening to the Word of God we are being formed, shaped into something very special. God is like that potter mentioned in the first reading; the prophet Isaiah says, “Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.“ What a lovely expression: ‘the work of God’s hand.’    God is moulding us, forming us, as a potter moulds a vase or a bowl. It takes time. Sometimes there are mistakes and the potter has to start again. But the good potter doesn’t give up until the vase takes shape and is beautiful.

In an analogous way God moulds us throughout our lives. It’s a slow process and we make mistakes, lots of them, but God doesn’t give up. He wants to create something beautiful. To do this He uses other people to inspire us. We have all been helped through life by the good example of others; our parents, grandparents, a teacher, friend, a priest or a nun. Sometimes we follow their good example sometimes we don’t. But God allows us to mess up; to collapse like the clay.  But if we don’t learn from our mistakes, if all we think about is ourselves, our own cares and concerns it’s the equivalent of  sleep-walking through life.  

God is calling us this Advent to stay awake. To listen to Him. To let ourselves be formed as a potter forms a vase. Listen to people around you, especially those in need; beginning with your own families. Stay awake by praying and asking God to help you to become the person He intends you to be. Not a beautiful vase, but something far more precious; a person whose heart is filled with love for God and for others.