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.

Year A – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Persistence

(Isa.56:1, 6-7; Rom.11:13-15, 29-32; Mt.15:21-28)

Persistence can be such a good thing.  At university years ago, I fell in love with a girl and asked her to marry me. She said no, but I didn’t give up. Deep in my heart I knew she was the one for me.  Eventually, she did say yes, though, and now we’ve been together for 42 years. 

The Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, was also persistent.  Early in his reign he was defeated by the English and driven into exile. For three months he hid in a cave, where he watched a spider slowly build a web. It kept falling down, but it always got up again. 

Robert the Bruce was so inspired by that spider that he told his men, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. He went on to defeat the English at Bannockburn in 1314. [i]

In today’s fast-paced world, many people simply give up when they don’t quickly get what they want.  But it’s often wiser to persevere, isn’t it? Especially with things that are good and worthwhile, and that you really believe in.

The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is also persistent.  She desperately needs help for her sick daughter.  When Jesus comes to town, she pleads to him, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me! My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ 

At first, Jesus appears to ignore her. Now, why does he do that?  Everywhere else, he’s always compassionate towards those who suffer.

Jesus ignores her because he wants to teach his disciples a lesson.  This woman isn’t Jewish; she’s a Canaanite outsider living in present-day Lebanon.  Jews traditionally hated the Canaanites, and that’s why Jesus’ disciples want her to go away.  (They also wanted the crowds to go away before Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. But Jesus taught them about compassion by getting them to feed the 5,000.)

This time, Jesus wants his disciples to witness this woman’s deep faith.  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,’ he says to her.  This is what they are thinking – that his ministry is only to the Jews.  But she won’t give up.  She kneels at his feet, saying ‘Lord, have mercy’.

Jesus then refers to her as a house-dog, a term that was quite commonly used back then. But she strongly rebuffs that, too. 

In the end, Jesus is so impressed by her persistence that he says, ‘Woman, you have great faith, your wish is granted,’ and her daughter is healed. 

Through this encounter, Jesus helps this woman, but he also teaches his disciples. He helps them understand that you don’t have to be Jewish to have faith, and that his mission is not just to Palestine, but to the whole world.

Now, did you notice when that woman cried ‘Lord, have mercy’?  We say exactly the same thing at every Mass in the Kyrie, when we say: ‘Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy’. These words come from the Canaanite woman. We say it three times, just like her.

But is our faith as deep as hers?  Are we as persistent in our prayer as she is? 

I hope you can see from today’s Gospel that there can be many reasons why our prayers aren’t always anwered instantly. God might be doing something else, as he did in today’s encounter. 

Or we might be praying for something that God doesn’t approve of, and he says ‘no’. Or our timing might be wrong, and he says ‘go slow’.  Or if we are somehow wrong, he might say we must ‘grow’ before giving us his grace. [ii]

In her book Monastery of the Heart, Joan Chittister says that life can often be confusing because God’s will doesn’t always come in straight lines or clear signs.  But one thing is inescapable, she says. The way we deal with whatever happens to us on the outside depends entirely on what we’ve become on the inside.  Wherever we have fixed our hearts, she says, will determine the way we experience all that happens to us. [iii] 

In other words, like the Canaanite woman, we need to develop strong and stable hearts that reflect our deep faith in our loving God.  He knows what he’s doing.  We must trust him, and we must be persistent in pursuing him.

In China there’s a type of bamboo tree that you must water every day. When you plant that seed, nothing comes out of the ground.  There’s no growth for the whole first year.

Now what would you do if you plant and water a bamboo tree for 365 days and there’s not even the slightest movement? In the second year there’s no movement. The third year, nothing. The fourth year, nothing.

Why waste any more water on that lazy tree?

But the people have faith. They keep watering that tree and in the fifth year, within six weeks the tree grows some ninety feet. [iv]

Trust Jesus. Be persistent in your prayer.


[ii] Fr John McTeigue, Why Won’t My Prayers Work? Aleteia, 8 March 2017

[iii] Joan Chittister, Monastery of the Heart, Bluebridge Books, 2011:159-162.

[iv] Swami Radhanath, Evolve: Two Minute Wisdom. (Ninety feet is about 27.5 metres).

Year A – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Troubled Waters

(1Kgs.19:9a,11-13a; Rom.9:1-5; Mt.14:22-33)

Some people love the sea. It reminds them of sunshine, surf and swimming.  For others, the sea is the great unknown, filled with shipwrecks and sharks. 

In 1823 the English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, ‘I hate to be near the sea … to hear it roaring and raging like a wild beast in its den …’

The people of ancient Israel disliked the sea, too.  They thought it was full of danger and nasty surprises – calm one moment, but fierce the next.  They were sure that monstrous ghosts and whales lurked below.  

Scripture had taught them that on the second day of Creation, God established dry land by separating the seas (Gen.1:9).  They also knew that God had helped the Israelites escape Egypt by parting the Red Sea (Ex.14:21-31).  So they were convinced that only God can control the sea’s frightening power.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, after feeding the 5,000, Jesus tells his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee while he goes into the hills to pray.

Now, the Sea of Galilee is a large inland lake surrounded by steep hills.  It’s usually calm, but violent storms do suddenly occur, especially when the cool mountain air meets the hot air above the lake.  One storm in 1992 produced waves 3m high.

It’s night-time when the disciples’ boat crosses that sea, and a wild windstorm whips up the waves.  They become terrified, especially when they notice someone walking towards them on the water.  ‘It must be a ghost!’ they cry.  But Jesus says, ‘It is I. Don’t be afraid’.

They’re astounded.  How can Jesus do that?  Only God can control the sea.

Jesus then invites Peter to join him.  Peter is mesmerised, and steps out of the boat, walking towards Jesus.  He’s not afraid; his faith sustains him.  But suddenly the wind distracts Peter and he looks away from Jesus. He panics and starts to sink.  ‘Lord, save me!’ he cries, and Jesus reaches out to grab him.  ‘Oh man of little faith,’ Jesus says, ‘why did you doubt?’ 

As Jesus steps into the boat, the storm disappears.

This story is a wonderful metaphor for our lives.  We do like peace and calm, don’t we? But we’re so often battered by unwelcome storms.

In one sense, that little boat represents the Church, the Barque of Peter, which has certainly been buffeted by turbulent headwinds in recent times. 

Jesus is inviting us all to stay calm, to remain with the Church and to keep our eyes firmly fixed on him.  He will guide us through this passing storm.

But that little boat also represents our own selves, as we try to cross the troubled seas of our individual lives.  Like the disciples, we often worry about the dangers around us and whether we can cope on our own. 

But we don’t have to cope on our own! Jesus is in control. He wants to help us.

Just as God’s spirit hovered over the waters at the time of Creation, so Jesus is hovering over our troubled world right now.  He’s inviting us to rise above the chaos and to walk with him.  He doesn’t promise that there’ll be no more storms, but he is offering to hold our hand to guide us through.

When times are tough, this is our choice:  Do we look inwardly in fear?  Or do we focus on Jesus and draw strength from him?

Peter, the disciple, could walk on water because his eyes were squarely fixed on Jesus.  But as soon as he looked away, he started to sink. It’s the same with us.

It’s not enough for us to say we have faith.  We actually need to live by our faith. 

The French Jesuit writer, Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), explains what this means in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence. To live by faith, he says, is to live joyfully, to live with assurance, untroubled by doubts and with complete confidence in all we have to do and suffer at each moment by the will of God.

So, we must trust Jesus.  But why must we suffer all these storms?

We must realize, de Caussade says, that in order to stimulate and sustain this faith, God allows the soul to be buffeted and swept away by the raging torrent of so much distress, so many troubles, so much embarrassment and weakness, and so many setbacks … [i]

In other words, if we never suffered stormy seas, we’d have no reason to find God.  We would simply rely on ourselves.

So, today, are you in calm seas or troubled waters?

Whatever your answer, always keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.

We surely need him.

[i] Jean-Pierre de Caussade Abandonment to Divine Providence, Cosimo Classics, New York, 2007:281-285.

Year A – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Two Drops of Oil

(Isa.55:1-3; Rom.8:35, 37-39; Mt.14:13-21)

In his bestselling book, The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho tells the story of a boy sent by his father to learn the secret of happiness.  He travels to a castle, high atop a mountain, to see the wisest man in the world.

The wise man is busy, however.  He says he doesn’t have the time to share the secret of happiness, but he encourages the boy to explore the palace and return in two hours. He then hands the boy a teaspoon holding two drops of oil, saying, ‘As you walk around, carry this spoon with you without spilling any oil.’

The boy wanders all around the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returns to the wise man.

‘Well,’ asks the wise man, ‘did you see the Persian tapestries or the garden? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?’

The boy is embarrassed; he saw nothing. He was too busy minding the oil.

‘Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,’ says the wise man. ‘You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.’

The boy takes the spoon and again explores the palace, this time observing all the fine artworks and the beautiful gardens, mountains and flowers. Returning to the wise man, he explains all he has seen.

‘But where are the drops of oil?’ the wise man asks.

The boy looks down at the empty spoon.

‘Well, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you,’ says the wisest of wise men. ‘The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.’ [i]

It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who famously said that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  Coelho’s story reminds us that we often lose sight of our spiritual selves in the busyness of our daily lives.  We get so caught up in our worldly pursuits that we forget what really matters in life. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes with his disciples to a quiet place to pray and to mourn the death of his cousin John the Baptist, however a huge crowd appears.  The disciples are annoyed, but Jesus responds with compassion.

Now, many people today are quick to dismiss the Feeding of the 5,000 as yet another nice thing Jesus did.  But it’s so much more than that.  

This is a miracle so filled with mystery and symbol that it appears six times in Scripture and it’s in all four Gospels.  It’s full of allusions to the Old Testament, and it points to the fulfilment of ancient prophecy (Is.25:6-8; 40:10-11).

This event presents Jesus as the new Moses (Ex.16:1-36) and as the Son of David who leads his flock to green pastures (Ps.23).  And like the prophet Elisha, he feeds his flock with only a few loaves, but has plenty left over (2Kgs.4:42-44).  

Now, it’s significant that Jesus begins with 7 items of food (5 loaves and 2 fish), because in Scripture the number 7 symbolises completion or perfection.  It also points to the 7 days of Creation and the fact that everything begins with God.

And it’s significant that the gestures and words Jesus uses are the same he uses at the Last Supper when he institutes the Eucharist: He ‘takes the bread… he blesses it… he breaks it and he gives it to them’ (Mt.26:26). 

Jesus instructs his 12 Apostles to distribute this food, and the 12 baskets left over indicate that there’s still plenty of his Eucharistic bread available for all 12 tribes of Israel. Indeed, through the Apostles and their successors, Jesus has been nourishing the world with the Bread of Life – his divine self – ever since.

Too many of us today live only on the surface of things. We rarely plumb the depths of who we are and we ignore the movement of God in our lives.  Not surprisingly, we struggle to recognise the fundamental truth, beauty and meaning of life.

The secret of happiness, the wisest of wise men says, is to see all the marvels of the world, without forgetting the two drops of oil on the spoon.

In other words, we need to start seeing beyond the superficial (1Sam.16:7), by maintaining a constant balance between our spiritual and human selves. We need to develop spiritual insight.

Spirituality is wisdom of the spirit; it provides a kind of sixth sense which helps us to intuitively see and appreciate the movement of God in our ordinary human lives. [ii]

How might we achieve that? 

By cultivating a life of prayer and meditation. 

[i] Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist. HarperOne, NY. 1998:30-32 (adapted). 

[ii] Dom Hubert van Zeller, And So to God, published on Universalis, 28 July 2020.