Year A – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On a Journey: Siena to Vienna

(Ex.22:20-26; 1Thess.1:5c-10; Mt.22:34-40)

I’m ashamed to say it, but some years ago in Siena, Italy, I was walking down a quiet street one evening when a homeless man approached me. ‘Sir, can you help me? I’m hungry and have nowhere to stay.’

I looked at him reluctantly. He was a refugee. ‘Even 5 Euros would help,’ he said.

To my eternal regret, I turned and walked away. At the time I thought it was wrong to encourage begging. But he was desperate. ‘Please don’t walk away!’ he cried. ‘Please help me!’ But I kept on walking.

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ Jesus says.

There are 613 commandments in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah). [i] In ancient times, rabbis spent considerable time debating these laws and their relative importance.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, they ask Jesus: ‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?’

In his famous reply, Jesus says that the greatest and first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Deut.6:5). Then he says that the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev.19:18). And then he adds: ‘On these two commandments hang the whole law and the prophets also’.

What Jesus is saying is that the meaning of all these 613 laws, and all the teachings of the prophets, can be summarized by these two verses.

Essentially, our Christian faith is all about loving God to the very best of our ability. But this requires us to love both God and our neighbour, with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds.

Why? It’s because Jesus is both human and divine. It’s not possible to love Jesus who is God, without also loving our neighbour who he created and even died for (Mt.25:40).

We fulfil our love for God by loving our neighbour, and this requires us to embrace the world around us with an open and loving heart.

There was once an old man who was sitting on a bench at the edge of town when a stranger approached. ‘What are the people in this town like?’ the stranger asked.

‘What were they like in the last town?’ the old man replied.

‘They were kind and generous. They would do anything to help you if you were in trouble,’ came the reply.

‘Well, I think you’ll find them much the same in this town,’ said the old man.

Sometime later, a second stranger approached the old man and asked the same question: ‘What are the people like in this town?’

The old man replied, ‘What were they like in the town you’ve just come from?’

‘It was a terrible place,’ he answered, ‘To tell you the truth, I was glad to leave. The people there were cruel and mean. They wouldn’t lift a finger to help you if you were in trouble.’

‘I’m afraid,’ said the old man, ‘you’ll find them much the same in this town,’ [ii]

The love we are called to extend to others is much more than just being nice, friendly and affectionate. These things are good, but we can do them without love.

Real love is willing the good of the other. It’s wanting what’s best for them and then doing something about it. It’s not about saying the right words; rather, it’s about taking concrete action to make meaningful things happen (1Jn.3:16-18).

Loving God and loving our neighbour, then, aren’t parallel commandments. They are two sides of the same coin. We cannot say we love God while ignoring our suffering neighbour (1Jn.4:20), and it’s clearly not sufficient to love our neighbour while turning our backs on God.

As an old Persian proverb puts it:

  • I sought my God, my God I could not see.
  • I sought my soul, my soul eluded me.
  • I sought my neighbour, and I found all three. [iii]

One day during a more recent visit to Vienna, I noticed a homeless man begging on the footpath outside our accommodation. It was evening, and I’d decided to take a stroll, searching for a nice dinner for my wife and me to eat. The beggar said nothing as I passed, but I knew he was hungry.

I bought three good meals and carried them back to the apartment. With a genuinely humbled heart, I gave one to the hungry man. He looked at me in surprise.

You shall love your neighbour as yourself.


[ii] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies Year A, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2019:349.

[iii] William Bausch, Once Upon a Gospel. Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT. 2011:305.

Year A – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On a Hidden Life

[Isa.45:1,4-6; 1Thess.1:1-5b; Mt.22:15-21]

Have you heard the story of Franz Jägerstätter? He’s the simple Austrian farmer, born in 1907, who features in Terrence Malick’s film A Hidden Life (2019). [i]

In his youth, Franz was considered a ruffian, wild in his ways and always ready for a fight. But by 1936 he changed. That’s when he married his beloved Franziska and they travelled to Rome for a papal blessing.

Together, they had three daughters, and Malick’s movie depicts them living a blissful life on his farm high up in the Austrian Alps. Franz once said, ‘I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful’.

He worked hard and often gave food to the poor. He also became very prayerful, often saying the Rosary while ploughing, or singing hymns while tending the cows. He spent hours learning about his faith and he served as sexton at his local church.

But when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Franz feared the worst. He was aware of Nazi cruelty and he began reflecting on what it really means to be a Christian in an unchristian world.

He refused to support Nazi fundraisers and he avoided the local alehouses because he didn’t like arguing with his neighbours about fascism.

In 1940 and in 1941, he reported for military training but each time was allowed to return home because he was needed on the farm. In 1943 he was conscripted again, but this time he refused to swear loyalty to Hitler. He also refused to serve with a weapon because of God’s commandment ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’. He thought that fighting and killing so that Hitler could rule the world was a sin.

He was willing to serve as a paramedic, but he was imprisoned instead. Everyone thought he was mad, and only his wife Franziska remained supportive. ‘If I hadn’t stood by him,’ she said, ‘he’d have had no-one at all.’ [ii] 

But Franz was unshakable. He wrote to his pastor: ‘If so many terrible things are permitted by this terrible gang, I believe it’s better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to risk the danger of committing sin and then dying.’ [iii]

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus says his famous line: ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’. What he’s basically saying is that as Christians, we have dual citizenship. We belong to our country and to the Kingdom of God. We receive benefits from both, and we have responsibilities towards both.

In saying that we must give to Caesar what belongs to him, Jesus is assuming that what Caesar wants of us is reasonable. He’s not giving Caesar a blank cheque. But as we know, secular governments do sometimes expect us to support laws and policies that are morally incompatible with our faith. Some examples include euthanasia, assisted suicide and abortion, but there are many others as well, depending on where we live.

Here we have a duty to put God first, because our most important loyalty is to him.

Franz Jägerstätter once wrote, ‘It’s true that Christ commanded that we obey our secular rulers. But I don’t believe he ever said we must obey such rulers when they command something that is actually wicked.’

He also wrote, ‘I cannot believe that we Catholics must make ourselves tools of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed.’

In 1943, on the night before he was executed in Berlin, Franz was invited to sign a document that would have saved his life. But Franz pushed it aside and said, ‘I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that’s fighting an unjust war.’ [iv]

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in the presence of Franziska.

At the screening of this film in the Vatican last year, Terrence Malick described Blessed Franz Jägerstätter as a martyr of freedom. He’s a martyr, he said, because he chose to be faithful to his conscience. As his father-in-law says in the film, ‘it’s better to be a victim of injustice that to perpetrate an injustice’.

Malick also noted the incredible faith, strength, sacrifice and witness of Franz’s wife Franziska. He said she’s a martyr just as he was, supporting him to the last breath, despite the pain.

Today our secular institutions no longer conduct themselves according to the Word of God. Whether something is right or wrong now so often depends on individual whim, or simple voting. As Christians, this presents us with significant moral challenges.

May we learn from the remarkable courage of Franz Jägerstätter and be guided by our own good Christian consciences.

As St Thomas More said just before his own execution: ‘I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’ [v]

[i] This film takes its name from the last paragraph of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch: For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.




[v] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2019:342-343.

Year A – 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Clothes We Wear

(Isa.25:6-10a; Phil.4:12-14; Mt.22:1-14)

Many years ago, I was invited to a big Christmas event in Chinatown. I arrived wearing T-shirt and shorts, while everyone else was dressed up. I was mortified. I foolishly didn’t think to change and spent all evening hiding my legs under a table. 

Clearly, it’s not enough just to show up. We need to prepare ourselves.

At the end of WWII, the Russian leader Josef Stalin organised a big banquet for Winston Churchill. The Russians wore their best military dress uniforms, but Churchill arrived in the overalls he often wore during the German air raids on London. He thought the Russians would like it, but they felt insulted. [i] 

Again, it’s not enough just to show up. We need to prepare ourselves.

The clothes we wear say a lot about who we are and how we think. In one episode of Seinfeld, George enters Jerry’s apartment wearing track pants.  Seeing him, Jerry says, ‘You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, “I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable”.’ [ii]

There’s a direct link between the clothes we wear and the way we think. In her book, Mind what you Wear: The Psychology of Fashion, Karen Pine says that when we put on a piece of clothing, we cannot help but adopt some of the characteristics associated with it, even if we’re unaware of it.  

Research indicates that students wearing Superman T-shirts feel significantly stronger than those not wearing them. And when people put on white lab-coats they tend to become more mentally agile, regardless of their technical background.

As well, when we signal to others through our appearance that we care about ourselves, they’re more likely to see us as someone worth caring about. And when we dress like everyone else, we tend to feel less responsible for our actions.

So, what you wear not only reflects your inner state; it also has the power to change the way you think.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus gives us his Parable of the Wedding Banquet. The king’s son is getting married and he sends out special invitations. 

This parable is similar to our Gospel readings over the last two Sundays.  Today’s is about a wedding feast, while the last two were about vineyards.

But the message is the same: God is inviting us to join him in heaven. 

In today’s parable, many people attend the King’s wedding banquet, but one person isn’t properly dressed. In those days, wedding guests were expected to wear a long white garment called a kittel. If a guest couldn’t afford it, a rich host would provide one. 

The King asks this guest how he managed to get in without his kittel, but the guest doesn’t answer. So, the King expels him. Why does he do that?

Well, firstly it would have been an insult not to wear the garment the host gave him. But the main point is that what you wear reflects who you are; it reflects how you think. If this guest had truly valued the King’s invitation, he would have done more than show up.  He’d have prepared himself by dressing properly.

Jesus often uses the image of the wedding feast to teach us about Heaven (e.g. Lk.14:7-11; Jn.2:1-11). And Scripture often uses clothing as a metaphor for spiritual change. In Colossians, Paul says, ‘…As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, goodness and patience’ (Col.3:12). And Peter says, ‘All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”’ (1Pet.5:5).

In other words, before we can enter the Kingdom of heaven, we need to change the way we live. As Paul says, we need to ‘Clothe (ourselves) with the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom.13:14). This process of ‘putting on Christ’ or ‘wearing the habit of love’ [iii] begins at our baptism, but it doesn’t stop there. We need to grow into Christ: living like him, becoming like him.

Jesus is the model to follow.

Many people today think that when their turn comes, all they have to do is show up and they’ll go straight into heaven. But today Jesus warns us that that’s simply not true. Not all who are called will be chosen for eternal life (Mt.22.14).

If we want to go to heaven, we must first demonstrate that we’re worthy of it.  We need to be clothed in ‘the fine linen… of the saints’ (Rev.19:8).

It’s not enough just to show up.

If we want to go to heaven, we must prepare ourselves, both inside and out.

[i] Brett Hickey, Let the Bible Speak. Sermon #766 (82) 

[ii] Karen Pine, Mind what you Wear: The Psychology of Fashion. 2014

[iii] Pope Francis, Homily, 15/10/17 

Year A – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Parable of the Wicked Tenants

(Isa.5:1-7; Phil.4:6-9; Mt.21:33-43)

Today’s readings once again use the metaphor of the vineyard to explore the way we live our lives. The question this time is about how we are using the extraordinary gifts God has given us.

Our first reading from Isaiah is often called the Song of the Vineyard.  It tells the story of a beautiful vineyard that its owner carefully cultivates and gives to tenants to look after. But instead of a bountiful harvest, all these tenants produce is sour grapes.

Jesus builds on this story in Matthew’s Gospel, in his Parable of the Wicked Tenants. A landowner asks some tenants to look after his vineyard while he’s away.

Now, leasing vineyards wasn’t unusual in biblical times. Wealthy landowners often had tenants look after their vines, and the tenants paid rent by sharing the crop with the owner at harvest time. But in Jesus’ parable, the tenants refuse to pay anything. When the rent collectors arrive, they respond by beating, stoning and even killing them.

The landowner then sends his son, expecting a better response. But he’s killed, too. The tenants want that vineyard all for themselves, without any payment and without any conditions. 

In this parable, the landowner represents God, and the vineyard is the people of Israel. The tenants are the religious and political leaders who God expected would look after his people. And the harvest is the good and wholesome lives that God wanted them to cultivate.

The landowner’s son is Jesus, and the servants he sends to collect the produce are the prophets. 

We know from Scripture that the prophet Jeremiah was beaten (Jer.26:7-11; 38:1-28), Zechariah was stoned (2Chron.24:21) and John the Baptist was killed (Mt.14:1-12). So, by telling this story, Jesus is reminding the Jewish leaders of how they have failed to look after his people, and how they have consistently mistreated God’s messengers.

This parable gives us a good summary of Jesus’ life. He was sent by his Father to the people of Israel, to show them how to produce good fruit.  But as we know, the leaders of the time considered him a threat to their privilege and power, so they had him killed. These leaders were living the good life in God’s vineyard, and they refused to be held accountable for it.

This parable also reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve. God created the Garden of Eden and invited Adam and Eve to look after it for him, on one condition. But after being tempted by the serpent, they decided that it wasn’t enough to be caretakers. They wanted that garden all for themselves, without any limits. So, they turned their backs on God and thereafter suffered the consequences.

Now, isn’t all this really the story of our own world today?  God created our beautiful world; he designed it to produce lots of wonderful fruits for the benefit of all mankind.

None of us owns this world, however. It still belongs to God, although each of us has been given a piece of it to look after. But it’s not enough to simply keep our little patch tidy and weed-free. We actually need to produce something – something worthwhile and nourishing that benefits others and also pleases God.

Have we been doing that?

Collectively, we are the caretakers of his planet and God expects a harvest of good fruit from us all. But so many of us have let him down. Too many of us have plundered the earth’s resources and used God’s gifts for selfish purposes, giving nothing in return.  Too many of us produce little or no fruit.

Worse still, some people are actually producing bad fruit.  Consider all the cruelty, corruption, violence and pollution in our world today.    

In today’s parable, Jesus asks, ‘When the owner returns, what will he do to those tenants?’ Well, here’s the answer: ‘He’ll bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he’ll give the vineyard to someone who will produce good fruit.’

And what is that good fruit?  St Paul tells us.  It’s the fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal.5:22-23a).  These are the fruits God expects from his people.

Ironically, these are precisely the things we want for ourselves. But we can never get them by rejecting God, for these things only come from God. We need the Holy Spirit to help us achieve them.

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that he’s the keystone, the solution we’re looking for.  In John 15:5, Jesus says, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you’ll bear much fruit’. 

Jesus was planted in us at our baptism, and today God is calling us to cultivate this vine in our lives. We are meant to produce a rich harvest of good fruit. If you haven’t already, it’s time to start.

And if you need help, just ask Jesus.

Year A – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Five Sons

[Ezek.18:25-28; Phil.2:1-11; Mt.21:28-32]

It can be hard to motivate children, can’t it? We ask them to do something. We remind them, we bribe them, we kid and cajole them. Sometimes we succeed, but sometimes we don’t.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Two Sons, a father asks his two sons to go out and work in his vineyard. The first son says no, but later he has a change of heart and he starts working. The second son says yes, but in fact he does nothing. Does that sound familiar?

In this story, the father represents God, and the vineyard represents the people of Israel, our community of faith.

The first son represents sinners, like the tax collectors and prostitutes, who initially reject God but later change their minds and start doing his will. And the second son represents those who at first seem saintly, like the chief priests and the elders. They outwardly say yes to God, but really do nothing at all. They have other priorities.

In this parable, Jesus is warning us. He’s saying that those who reject our loving Father, but later repent and obey, will go to heaven. But those who give a meaningless yes to God will miss out, unless they change their ways. Our words mean nothing if our promises aren’t followed by action.

As Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “It’s not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my father in heaven” (Mt.7:21).

Neither of these two sons is given to us as the model to follow, because the ideal person is the one who immediately says yes to the Father and carries out his wishes. That’s what Jesus did. As Paul says in our second reading, Jesus emptied himself and became obedient, even to the point of death on a Cross. And God was so pleased that he gave him a name above all other names. So, Jesus is the model for us all to follow.

The first son was late in doing his Father’s will, but he wasn’t too late. Over the years, that’s what many sinners have come to learn, and many even became saints. St Augustine is a good example, but there have been others.

St Paul literally terrorised Christians before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. St Matthew was a hated tax-collector before becoming a disciple.

And in England, St Philip Howard was a notorious womaniser and gambler. But when he heard St Edmund Campion eloquently defend the faith in the Tower of London, he was so impressed that he reconciled with his wife and he returned to the Church. [i]

Today, however, many people are much too distracted to ever hear our loving God calling them.

Consider Leo Tolstoy’s story of three women who went to the well for some water. Nearby, a wise old man watched and listened as the women talked about their sons. ‘My son,’ said the first woman, ‘is so skillful; he always does things better than the other children.’

‘My son,’ said the second woman, ‘sings so well, so beautifully, like a nightingale! No-one has such a beautiful voice as him.’

‘And you,’ they asked the third woman who was quiet. ‘Why don’t you say something about your son?’

‘Oh, he has nothing which I could praise, or tell about him,’ she replied. ‘My son is only a common boy, there’s nothing so special about him.’

The women filled their buckets with water and they headed home. The old man followed slowly behind. But the buckets were heavy, so the women stopped for a rest. Suddenly the three boys came towards them.

The first one turned cartwheels, and the women shouted: ‘What a skilled boy! Good job!’ The second one sang beautifully, like a nightingale, and the women listened with tears in their eyes.

The third boy went to his mother, took the buckets and went home. Then the women asked the old man: ‘What do you think about our sons?’

‘Where are your sons?’ asked the surprised old man. ‘I can see only one son!’

In this story, the wise old man is God himself. Unlike the others, he’s not distracted by the song and dance. The only boy he sees is the third one who carries his mother’s buckets. He’s the only person who accepts his call to humble service.

Right now, we’re all being asked the same question: are we doing the will of the Father? Is it Yes or No?

Deep in our hearts we know the answer. Fortunately, it’s not too late to change. But remember this:

Our ‘Yes’ is worthless if it’s not reflected in the way we live.


Year A – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Labouring in the Vineyard

(Is.55:6-9; Phil.1:20-24, 27; Mt.20:1-16)

On a hill in Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, there’s a college called Tantur. Every morning, outside the gate, dozens of Palestinians stand there waiting, not for a bus, but for work. They are day labourers, waiting for someone to give them a job.

Something similar occurred during the Great Depression in Sydney, when men used to walk the ‘Hungry Mile’ from wharf to wharf in the docklands area, looking for work. The lucky ones got a full day’s work, others only a few hours.  But many waited all day for nothing.

This hard life is reflected in Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. A landowner needs labourers to harvest his grapes. At 6.00 am he approaches a group of men waiting at the marketplace. He offers some of them work, at the standard rate of one denarius a day, and off they go. 

The owner returns at 9.00 am, at noon, at 3.00 pm and even at 5.00 pm.  Each time he collects more workers, offering them a fair wage for their labour.

At sunset, he pays them. The last to arrive are paid first, the first are paid last. They all receive one denarius. But some start grumbling. They think that’s unfair: ‘We’ve worked all day in the hot sun and they’ve done very little.  Why are they treated equally?’ 

In explaining this story, it may help to recognise that the late starters aren’t idlers. They want to work; indeed, they’ve waited since dawn for someone to hire them. 

It may also help to understand this parable’s scriptural background. The Bible often refers to the people of Israel as God’s vineyard (e.g. Jn.15:5).  It tells us that God brought this vine out of Egypt, and that he cared for it by clearing a new land, and planting and watering that vine so that it would produce good fruit (Ps.80:8-9; Is.5:2; Is.27:2-3).

But on returning, God only found poor fruit (Is.5:7).  He was disappointed, and let conquerors invade his land (Ps.80:9-19).  However, he did promise that he’d return one day to replant that vine (Am.9:15), and make sure it flourished (Hos.14:5-10).

That’s the background to this parable. The landowner is God. The vineyard is his kingdom. The first labourers are the people of Israel, the Jews, to whom God first revealed his kingdom. And the later workers are the Gentiles who discovered Jesus at different times in history (Eph.2:11-13). [i]

Today, we are the labourers in the vineyard. (Or at least, we’re meant to be.) And where is that vineyard? It’s the day-to-day circumstances in which we find ourselves. The vines we’re asked to lovingly tend are the people who surround us.

In our society, we tend to take a transactional view of things: if I do this, then I expect to get that. We have so many rules about this, and quite often we even expect God to comply.

But as Isaiah says in our first reading, God’s ways aren’t our ways. He doesn’t think like we do. He doesn’t pay his labourers by the hour or according to their skills.

God knows that each of us has a unique combination of talents, challenges and opportunities in life. As Pope St John Paul II once wrote, ‘Each of us has a story of our life that is our own; and each of us has a story of our soul that is our own’. [ii] God respects this, and mercifully, he chooses to love us all totally and equally.

We see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:29-30), where the wayward son who returns home is loved just as much as the older brother who never left.

And while nailed to the Cross, Jesus says to the good thief Dismas, ‘Today you’ll be with me in paradise’ (Lk.23:39-43). Dismas is a repentant criminal and a late convert, yet he still receives the same reward as Jesus’ disciples.

In her book Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Karen Edmisten tells the stories of 13 famous people who joined the Church at the end of their lives. This includes Oscar Wilde, the actors John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Buffalo Bill, the gangster Dutch Schultz, and King Charles II of England.

The journey to God for each of them was very different, but the result is always the same: eternal life. God loves us all completely, even when we don’t deserve it. [iii]

Right now, God is inviting us all to share in the same reward of eternal life. All we must do is to agree to help Jesus in his vineyard, spreading his love as best we can.

Accepting this invitation is a bit like catching a train. Some people buy their tickets early, while others rush to the station at the last minute.

The important thing is getting on board before it’s too late.

[i] Scott Hahn: Sunday Bible Reflections, First and Last.

[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire – Year A, St Pauls Publications, New York, 2005:127.

[iii] Karen Edmiston, Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington IN, 2013.

Year A – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Executioner’s Soul

(Ecc.27:30-28.7; Rom.14:7-9; Mt.18:21-35)

Could you ever forgive someone who tortured you?

In 1940, when the Nazis captured Paris, the gifted Swiss-born pianist Maïti Girtanner was 18 years old. ‘I knew from a young age I was meant to be a pianist,’ she said. ‘Music was my life.’

A year later, Maïti was helping the French Resistance, smuggling people and messages out of occupied France. She saved the lives of dozens of Allied soldiers and Jewish families. When she sensed their fear, she asked them: ‘Do you believe in God? So, pray to him and keep going.’

Being bilingual, she found it easy to charm the Nazi soldiers, visiting them and giving piano recitals – all the while collecting intelligence for the Resistance. 

In October 1943, the Gestapo arrested her and several others. During her lengthy interrogation, a young Nazi doctor named Leo methodically tortured her by clubbing her spine. The pain was excruciating. This was her time of passion, she thought.

However, her deep Christian faith sustained her. She encouraged her fellow prisoners to have hope, and she urged them to talk to each other. ‘They tried to make animals of us,’ she said, ‘but speech allowed us to remain human.’

In 1944 she was rescued by the Swiss Red Cross, but her spine was so badly damaged she could barely walk. She couldn’t have children, nor could she play the piano again. [i] For years, hearing a piano made her cry with rage and regret. ‘But…I don’t hold it against anyone,’ she later said. ‘That would be useless and it wouldn’t give me back my fingers.’

She also once wrote to a friend: ‘I shan’t make a tragedy of my life.’

She suffered chronic pain for the rest of her life, but refused to turn her grief into hatred or resentment. Instead, she prayed for the grace to forgive.

She became a philosophy tutor, got her driving licence and deepened her Christian faith by becoming a Dominican Tertiary. She found that giving herself to others gave new meaning to life.

Then one day in 1984, Leo the executioner unexpectedly contacted Maïti in Paris. He was elderly and scared, because he had a terminal illness.

At first, he wrote asking Maïti if she still believed in God and heaven. Then he visited her, begging forgiveness. Through her pain, she reached out to him, held his head in her hands and kissed it. In that moment she knew she had forgiven him.[ii]

Just as Jesus forgave his enemies, so Maïti forgave Leo. ‘I embraced him to drop him into the heart of God,’ she said.

Leo received a fine gift that day, but Maïti received an even greater one.  She had prayed for 40 years for the grace to forgive, because she knew it would set her free. And that’s just what happened. ‘Forgiving him liberated me,’ she said.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should always forgive others, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. In other words, always. The number seven signals perfection in the Bible.

With these words, Jesus is telling us that we are obliged to forgive anyone who has offended us. And we must seek forgiveness from anyone we might have offended. 

He says something similar after his Sermon on the Mount. When you’re at worship, Jesus says, and you remember that you have yet to forgive someone (or be forgiven by someone), go and put things right, and then come back to God (Mt.5:23-24).

Why? It’s because God is love, and we too must be loving if we want his divine life and power flowing through us.

Here’s the point: when we fail to forgive, our relationship with God is interrupted.

Of course, it’s not easy to forgive others, and it can be hard to say sorry, but remember what Jesus said to St Faustina, ‘The cause of your falls is that you rely too much on yourself and too little on me.’ [iii]

Jesus is always there for us. If you find forgiving difficult, just ask him for help, just as Maïti Girtanner did.  

Maïti died in Paris in 2014, aged 92. Her biography, published in 2006, is called Even the Executioners Have a Soul. [iv]

She had a choice, either to live a life of bitterness and hatred, or to forgive the man who had caused her disability.

‘Looking at my existence,’ she said, ‘I understood that a life is not measured by the projects we set for ourselves or the ideas we have of ourselves, but by the way we live it, faced with the circumstances imposed on us.’ [v]

She chose the way of forgiveness; the way of love.

It transformed her life, and it saved the soul of an executioner.

[i] K.V. Turley. ‘What Happened When This Woman Met Her Nazi Torturer’. National Catholic Register (December 6, 2018).


[iii] St Maria Faustina Kowlska, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2007:529 (n.1488).

[iv] Maiti Girtanner & Guillaume Tabard, Même les Bourreaux ont une âme.

[v] Maïti Gitanner, The Force of Forgiveness,

Year A – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Rocks and Islands

(Ezek.33:7-9; Rom.13:8-10; Mt.18:15-20)

If someone hurts you, what do you do?  Do you nurse your anger and pain? Do you retaliate or complain? Or do you seek reconciliation and healing?

In his song ‘I am a Rock’, Paul Simon tells the story of someone who has been hurt and has withdrawn from the world.  ‘I am a rock,’ he sings, ‘I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.’ [i]

From time to time we all feel like withdrawing into our shell.  We’d all like the world to go away. But today’s pandemic is a good reminder that we’re not meant to live in isolation; we’re all much too interconnected. We need each other, and when we’re separated, we become unhappy.

When God created mankind, he said ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ (Gen.2:18).  So, he gave Adam a wife, they had a family and we’ve been living in community ever since. Or at least, we’re meant to be living in community.

The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon once visited a man who had isolated himself from his church community. Spurgeon walked into the man’s home without saying a word, and sat with him by his fireplace. The man felt uncomfortable. With some tongs, Spurgeon took a lump of coal from the fire and set it on a brick. Both men stared at that solitary coal as it dimmed and cooled. Spurgeon then stood up, and as he opened the door to leave, the man said, ‘I understand pastor; I’ll see you next Sunday’.

Living with others isn’t always easy. Tension and conflict so easily arise, especially when someone does something wrong. But as Christians, we have a duty to look out for others, even when they disappoint us. That’s the message from today’s readings, which give us three ways to respond when we find ourselves in conflict with someone.

These three ways are speaking, respecting and healing. [ii]

In our first reading, God asks the prophet Ezekiel to watch over his people in Jerusalem.  His job is to protect the people by speaking up if they do anything wrong or if they put themselves in danger.

That’s what we are asked to do.  As Christians, we all have a duty to speak up if someone’s doing something wrong. It’s not essential to change their behaviour, but we must speak the truth to those we care about.  Otherwise our silence can be taken as tacit approval and we become partly responsible for their mistake.

But speaking up can be hard, so St Paul in our second reading reminds us to always respect others. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he says it’s important to respect the other person’s life, marriage, property and integrity.

Indeed, seven of the Ten Commandments are about our connection with others, and they can all be summed up in one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. If we really love and respect our neighbour, we wouldn’t harm them at all and they’d be much more likely to stay in contact with us.

And finally, in our gospel, Jesus says that before talking make sure you have a humble, compassionate and forgiving heart. These are important factors in healing relationships.

Then go and talk openly and honestly with the person who has hurt you, he says, but do it privately, to avoid any embarrassment. If that doesn’t work, invite one or two others into the conversation, not to gang up on them, but to help them reconnect. And if necessary, invite someone else, perhaps a mediator, to resolve the situation.

But whatever happens, Jesus says, always pray for reconciliation and keep the doors of communication open, because we all need healing. 

In his book, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes hell as a huge, dark place, where there’s no contact between people.  Hell started out small, he says, but people quarreled with one another and split apart. Then there were other squabbles and people moved even further away, until no-one could even see anyone else.  And there they lived, alone in the darkness.  Jesus wants us to avoid this hell. [iii]

When we realise just how flawed and broken we all are, it becomes much easier to understand that we all have the same basic need for healing and wholeness.

We are not solitary rocks or islands. As the poet John Donne wrote: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. [iv] We’re all meant to live and grow and thrive together, in our families and communities.

Christian love isn’t an emotion or a feeling; it’s a responsibility and a decision.

If ever you’re in conflict, remember the value of speaking, respecting and healing.


[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire, Cycle A.  St Paul’s, New York. 2018:121-123.

[iii] CS Lewis, The Great Divorce.


Year A – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Carrying our Cross

[Jer.20:7-9; Rom.12:1-2; Mt.16:21-27]

What does it mean to ‘carry our Cross’?

The Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives us the example of Ivan, a political prisoner in Stalin’s Russia, incarcerated near Moscow.  Ivan was an expert in physics and optics. One day, the prison governor summoned him. ‘Would you like a remission?’ he asked. 

‘What would I have to do?’ Ivan replied.

‘We’d like you to transfer to another prison to manage an important project.  If you agree, you’ll be free in six months.’

‘What is the project?’

‘We want you to perfect a miniature camera that can be fitted to a door jamb, and that works when the door is opened.  We know you can do this.’

Ivan was perhaps the only person in Russia who could design this device. After seventeen years in prison, the idea of going home was appealing.  It was the answer to his wife Natasha’s prayer.  All he had to do was invent a device that would put a few unsuspecting fools behind bars in his place, and he’d be free.

‘Can’t I continue working on television sets?’ he asked.

‘You mean you refuse?’ said the governor.

Ivan thought: who would ever thank him? Were those people out there worth saving? Natasha had waited for him for seventeen years. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said.

‘But you’re just the man for the job,’ said the governor. ‘We’ll give you time to think about it.’

‘I won’t do it. Putting people in prison because of the way they think is not my line. That’s my final answer.’

They sent him to work in a Siberian copper mine, where starvation rations, and likely death, awaited him. No fate could be worse, yet he was at peace with himself. [i]

Ivan had already suffered so much that he was not prepared to cause someone else pain. He understood his own heart, and chose to carry his Cross, just as Jesus asks us to do in today’s Gospel.

Whenever we suffer for someone else, we carry our Cross. Whenever we rearrange our priorities for the sake of others, we carry our Cross.

Whenever we bear with good grace the struggles of our own existence, we carry our Cross. And where does this good grace come from? It comes from following Jesus.

So, what is that Cross?  Ron Rolheiser says that theologians over the years have tried to explain it by dividing the meaning of the Cross (and Jesus’ death) into two parts.  Firstly, the Cross gives us our deepest understanding of God’s loving nature.  And secondly, the Cross is redemptive. [ii]

By redemptive, he means that the Way of the Cross gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and it leads us to life eternal.

In the nineteenth century, the Korean mystic Ch’oe Che-u (known as Su-un or ‘Water-cloud’), taught that it is the duty of all people to ‘serve heaven’. If everyone believed, he said, we’d all live in harmony with the ‘one heaven’, and we’d all be equal before it.

One day, Su-un heard the revelation from the Lord of Heaven: ‘My heart is your heart’. Like other mystics, he learnt that God’s heart is in all of God’s creation, and that God’s heart unites all creation.  We live together in the heart of God, and indeed, we are invited to be the heart of God here on earth. [iii]

Today, so much poverty, injustice, strife and ignorance surround us. Jesus is calling us to search our hearts and make our own compassionate response.  We really can’t live without love, and we know that there’s no genuine love without sacrifice.

So, the Cross we carry is our own loving response to the world’s pain, guided and informed by the divine heart of Jesus.

What ultimately unites us to God and everyone else is this personal movement into our hearts. As we delve ever more deeply into our own hearts, we discover the paradox that we are unique, and yet we’re all one and the same.  God’s heart embraces us all, and it certainly embraced Valerie Place.

Valerie was a 23-year-old nurse from Dublin who worked in Somalia.  She wanted to help people who had nothing; to offer them a better life. Her safety concerned her, but nothing would keep her from this work. She ran a feeding centre in Mogadishu, nourishing starving children and saving many lives.  She even established a school to give the children some hope for the future. 

She was fortunate in seeing some of the fruits of her labours.  But, sadly, she was killed by armed bandits outside her school.  She had willingly risked her life to help others.

Today, outside a building in Mogadishu, there’s a mural of Valerie nursing little Somali babies. She had devoted her life to caring for others. [iv] This was the Cross she carried.

And yet, as Jesus tells us, it’s in losing our life that we find it (Mt.16:25)

What Cross are you carrying? 

[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies Year A, Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2019:300-301.


[iii] Brian Gallagher, Taking God to Heart. St Paul’s, Strathfield. 2008:21.


Year A – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the First Commandment

[Isa.22:19-23; Rom.11:33-36; Mt.16:13-19]

Of all the Ten Commandments, the one we’re most likely to break is the first.  This is the one that says, ‘You shall not have any false gods before me’.

In ancient times, people made idols of imaginary gods, such as the Aztec Tlaloc and the Egyptian Ra, and worshipped them.  But today, false gods tend to be different. Money, power, pleasure and possessions are far more likely to steal our hearts and hopes these days. 

Some of us also tend to make false gods of ourselves, by becoming obsessed with our own thoughts, desires, feelings and appearance. 

And sometimes we substitute false images for the real God, Yahweh, the Father of Jesus Christ.  This is a more subtle form of idolatry, and Ron Rolheiser names ten of these false gods.  Here are four of them:

• The arbitrary god of fear.
• The insecure, defensive, threatened god.
• The dumb, non-understanding god.
• The overly intense god of our own neuroses. [i]

Whenever we invest all our energy and attention into something other than the real, loving God who created us, we’re worshipping a false god. Whenever we make something else more important than him, we commit idolatry. 

The American pastor Rick Warren says that trusting in things other than God can have devastating effects on our lives.  If we think that who we’re with, or what we do, will make us totally fulfilled, we’re setting ourselves up for deep disappointment (Jer.10:14).

But we do this all the time, he says. We do it with our careers, relationships and bank accounts.  We act as if those created things give us meaning in life, and when we do that, we’re setting ourselves up for failure (Is.44:20).

These idols are lies, he says, and sadly, they don’t just stop after they’ve disappointed us. Eventually, they enslave us, too. [ii]

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Hermon.  They are near a large cave which was considered the gateway to the dark underworld of Hades.  It had a shrine where the Greeks used nasty ritual sacrifices and fertility rites to worship Pan, the half-goat, half-man god of nature, wine and pleasure.  And nearby was a temple where the Romans worshipped Augustus Caesar, who claimed he was a god.

Now, Jesus has been with his disciples for perhaps two years, but he wonders if they really know him.  In the shadow of these false gods, he looks at his disciples and asks: ‘Who do the people say I am?’ They reply, ‘You are John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other great prophets.’

‘But who do you say I am?’ he asks.  Peter replies, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’.  Jesus is pleased: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!’

But Jesus knows that Peter’s faith hasn’t come from his own human reasoning or effort.  So, he tells him it’s a gift from God: ‘for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’

What Jesus is saying is that faith starts with God, not with us. It begins with God opening himself up to us and inviting us to share in his divine life. 

But an invitation by itself goes nowhere. We must either accept or reject it. Faith requires us to make a decision, and if we choose a life of faith, that means opening up our hearts to God.  It means entering into a personal relationship with him.

When Jesus asked his disciples those questions, they were surrounded by the false gods of ancient times.  Today, surrounded by the false gods of our own time, Jesus is asking us the very same thing: ‘Who do you say that I am?’

How we answer that question will shape the way we live our lives, both today and tomorrow. It will determine how we spend our eternity. 

I’ll end with a story.  Tom was a farmer who relished being irreligious.  He wrote a letter to his newspaper saying, ‘Sir, I have been trying an experiment with a field of mine. I ploughed it on Sunday, I planted it on Sunday. I harvested it on Sunday. I carted the crop home to the barn on Sunday. And now, Mr Editor, what is the result?  This October I have more bushels to the acre from the field than any of my neighbours have.’

He expected applause from the editor, who wasn’t known to be religious, either.  But when he opened the paper the next week, there was his letter, printed in full.  Underneath it was the short but significant sentence:

‘God does not always settle accounts in October.’ [iii]

[i] Ron Rolheiser, You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me: The 1st Commandment, 13 April 2016,


[iii] Gerard Fuller, Stories for All Seasons, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT. 1997:37.