Year B – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Four Chaplains

(Num.11:25-29; Jas.5:1-6; Mk.9:38-43, 45, 47-48)

Some people are surprised to hear that my journey to the diaconate began with the Baptist Church. I have always been a Catholic, but when I worked for the Baptists many years ago, they helped me see my faith in fresh, new ways. I also did most of my diaconal formation while working for Wesley Mission. These good-hearted people were a great influence on me.

Many years ago, my Protestant connections would have been considered scandalous, but thankfully today the sectarian divisions of the past are fading. May they disappear altogether!

Interestingly, there are stories about division in our readings today. In our first reading, Joshua is outraged because two outsiders, Eldad and Medad, have been prophesying without Moses’ authorisation. ‘Stop them!’ Joshua says, but Moses refuses. He says he’d like to see many more people filled with the Holy Spirit and serving as prophets.

And in Mark’s gospel, John complains that someone who is not a disciple has been working as an exorcist, healing people.  But Jesus replies, ‘You must not stop them… Anyone who’s not against us is for us.’

Four Chaplains Chapel & Memorial Foundation

Let me now share with you an inspirational story from the USAT Dorchester, an American cruise liner that was refitted as a US Army troopship during WWII.

Early in 1943, the Dorchester was travelling in convoy from New York to an army base in Greenland, carrying some 900 troops. On board were four army chaplains – a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers.

For two weeks they did what chaplains do: they organised religious services, provided pastoral support and they encouraged the troops, many of whom were seasick. They also became friends.

On 3rd February 1943, as they crossed the North Atlantic, it was bitterly cold, with big seas and gale-force winds. Shortly after midnight, and only 150 miles from their destination, a German U-boat torpedoed them amidships, killing 100 men and destroying the ship’s electrical system. The lights went out and the ship started taking on icy water. The soldiers panicked and scrambled from their beds.

All four chaplains survived the blast and went on deck, tending the wounded, reassuring the frightened and handing out lifejackets. But there weren’t enough lifejackets and few of the lifeboats worked.


As the ship listed, some of the men fell into the freezing water, and the chaplains urged the men to jump the rails into the lifeboats. They leapt into the dark, terrified, hoping a lifeboat would catch them.

The rabbi gave away his gloves, and when they ran out of lifejackets, each chaplain gave away his own lifejacket. They tried to help everyone off the ship.

The four chaplains then stood on deck, linked arms, prayed and sang. The bow of the ship rose up, and she slid down into the water. Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, 672 died, including the four chaplains. But they had helped 230 men survive.

One of the survivors said that what they did was the finest thing he’d ever seen or hoped to see, this side of heaven.

On that ship, the religion of the four chaplains didn’t matter. They were all good men, full of compassion and trying to help others survive. In those days such behaviour was revolutionary. In fact, in 1988 the US Congress designated 3rd February each year as ‘Four Chaplains Day’. [i] [ii]

So, what can we learn from this story? Well, it demonstrates what it truly means to have faith. It teaches us that regardless of our faith traditions, we’re all essentially equal and only our attitudes separate us.

This story also reminds us that if our faith is genuine, then our first priority cannot be ourselves. As Jesus tells us, the two greatest commandments are that we love God and our neighbour (Mk.12:30-31).

Jesus also says that there’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn.15:13).

Four Chaplains Day Commemorates Fallen Heroes - Covenant Companion :  Covenant Companion

But what inspires people to love so selflessly? It’s the Holy Spirit, which is the power of God’s love. The Spirit is the wind that blows where it wills. Jesus says that you’ll hear the sound of it, but you won’t know where it comes from or where it goes (Jn.3:7-8).

The Holy Spirit is constantly working in our lives, in our hearts and in our world, trying to draw us all towards God and each other. The question is, however, whether our hearts are open to the divine Spirit. Do we welcome his gentle call, and are we responsive to his urgings?    

When our hearts are filled with the love of God’s Holy Spirit, we too will find ourselves doing the most remarkable things.

Let’s close with this little prayer from Joyce Rupp’s book, May I Have This Dance?

Spirit of God, you are the stirrings in our hearts. You urge us to get going. You prompt us to follow. You encourage us not to give up. You call us to open our minds and our hearts to receive your energizing, transforming radiance. Make us receptive so that we will follow your loving movement within our lives. We trust in your powerful presence within us. Amen.



Year B – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Road to Greatness

(Wis.2:12, 17-20; Jas.3:16-4.3; Mk.9:30-37)

‘The world offers you comfort,’ Pope Benedict XVI once said, ‘But you weren’t born for comfort. You were born for greatness.’

What, then, is greatness? Most people today would probably use words like visionary, courageous and famous to describe it, but they’re unlikely to mention humility. Yet, so many of the world’s greatest leaders were humble. Just think of Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

Humble leaders, research tells us, make better listeners and are more authentic than those who lack humility. And in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says that humility is a common trait among the leaders of high performing companies.

But our popular culture doesn’t value humility; it equates it with weakness and low self-esteem. It much prefers things like power, position and prestige.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Galilee, on the road to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples that he’s not interested in worldly success. Rather, he is destined to be betrayed and killed, but later he will rise again.

They don’t understand, however, and start arguing about their own ambitions.

But Jesus doesn’t give up. He gathers them together and tries to explain what greatness really means. ‘If anyone wants to be first,’ he says, ‘he must make himself last of all and servant of all’. 

In other words, true greatness comes from serving others, especially the weak and the vulnerable. And herein lies the paradox: If you want to be first, then put yourself last. If you want to be great, then make yourself least. And if you want to lead, then humble yourself by serving others.

To emphasise this point, Jesus takes a little child, hugs her and says, ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’.

The disciples would have been shocked by this statement, because children weren’t so highly valued in those days; they were considered less valuable than slaves. Why? It’s because their mortality rate was very high. Many parents tried to avoid the heartache of losing their children by distancing themselves from them until they reached maturity.

But Jesus’ point is that greatness comes not from power and glory, but from truly caring for the little ones – the most vulnerable in the community.

St James reinforces this message in today’s second reading, by contrasting worldly wisdom with the wisdom of God. He says that the pursuit of worldly power and ambition leads to rivalry, disharmony and conflict. But God’s way of servanthood leads to gentleness, compassion and peace.

Henri Nouwen once wrote, ‘From the beginning of my life, two voices have been speaking to me: one saying, Henri, be sure you make it on your own. Be sure you become an independent person. Be sure I can be proud of you. And another voice saying, Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus; be sure you stay close to the love of God. [i]

We all share this struggle. It’s the struggle between our ordinary human desire to seek success, and the voice that’s always calling us to be faithful, wherever that might lead us.

Padre Pio understood this well. He once said, ‘The life of a Christian is nothing but a constant struggle against the self: there’s no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection, except at the price of pain’.

But that price is worth it. As Michael Casey says in his book Balaam’s Donkey, ‘adults who are at peace with themselves, who are not clamouring for higher status, also make peace for others, building a healthy contentment and preparing the way for the action of God. A person who is content with little is not for sale, and their integrity is difficult to subvert.

‘On the other hand,’ he says, ‘someone who is always climbing has eyes only for the future, will do whatever has to be done to achieve their goal, and may not be aware that slowly the quality of their life is being eroded. One is happy, the other is not. One grows, the other shrinks.’ [ii]

This is a message we all need to savour, deep in our hearts.

Long ago, in the 12th Century, the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux was asked to name the three most important elements of the spiritual life. He replied: ‘humility, humility, humility.’

Humility means being truly honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

Greatness is putting them at the service of others, especially the little ones.

[i] Henri Nouwen, Finding Vocation in Downward Mobility, in ‘Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders’, Vol. XI, No.3, Summer 1990:60 – 61.

[ii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2019:73.

Year B – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Messianic Secret

[Is.50:4c-9a; Jam.2:14-18; Mk.8:27-35]

Quite often in the Gospels, Jesus warns people not to tell anyone who he is. He does this after healing two blind men (Mt.9:30), after healing a leper (Mk.1:43-44), and after his Transfiguration (Mk.9:9).

He said it after healing the deaf man in last week’s Gospel (Mk.7.36).

And in today’s Gospel, near Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’

They answer, ‘John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.’ 

Then Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Peter replies, ‘You are the Messiah.’

This is the first time anyone in the Gospels gets Jesus’ identity right. But, once again, he warns them not to tell anyone.

Why is Jesus so secretive about his identity?

It’s because his followers still don’t fully understand who he is.

For centuries, the Jewish people had been expecting a great Messiah – a mighty political, military and religious leader – to come and save Israel from its enemies and to restore the glorious days of King David. This is what Peter has been expecting. He’s anticipating earthly glory, worldly triumph, and a man so strong, powerful and attractive that everyone would have to fall at his feet. [i]

But that’s all wrong. Jesus isn’t that kind of Messiah, and he doesn’t want anyone following him for the wrong reasons. And he certainly doesn’t want to be forced into political leadership, attracting the wrath of the Roman authorities. That would cut his mission short.

So, Jesus tries to stop the talk and to explain who he really is. He tells his disciples that he’s destined to endure suffering, rejection and death before rising again. But Peter objects – that can’t be right. Then Jesus gets angry with him: ‘Get behind me Satan! ’ he says, ‘the way you think isn’t God’s way, it’s man’s.’

This moment represents a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. At the outset, Mark clearly states that Jesus is the son of God (Mk.1:1). At the end, the Roman centurion stands at the Cross, saying, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (Mk.15:39). And in between, Mark records miracle after miracle, but the disciples struggle to grasp who Jesus is. It’s only after the resurrection that they really get it.

Today, countless people still don’t understand.

In his book, Once Upon a Gospel, William Bausch says that in every era, people have tended to see Jesus in their own image and likeness. Some have seen him as a fearsome deity like Zeus, waiting to hurl lightning bolts. Others have seen him as a manicured man hanging from a $22,000 gold cross from Tiffany.

Jesus has also been seen as a revolutionary Jewish Che Guevara. A capitalist. A philosopher. A social worker. A Hollywood idol. And the Lone Ranger riding in to save us from danger.

Today, many people still project themselves onto Jesus, and now see him as Jesus Lite. He’s our buddy, the friend who gives us the thumbs up and winks. He’s sweet, non-judgmental, a ‘live-and-let-live’ kind of guy. A pussycat. A heck of a nice fellow, but not one who, in the long run, inspires you and certainly not someone you’d die for – or live for, for that matter.

Quoting from recent research, Bausch notes the prevailing view of many young people today: ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter. Everyone goes to heaven when they die. Jesus forgives everything we do in the end.’

The problem with this colourless Jesus, Bausch says, is that he doesn’t exist in the Gospels. These people seem never to have heard Jesus telling stories about destroying nasty tenants (Mk.12:9), daring that unbelievers will have to endure God’s wrath (Jn.3:36) and that he has come to set son against father and daughter against mother (Mt.10:34-35). This so-called sweet Jesus calls his opponents liars (Jn.8:55), and has a sustained role as a terrible judge in the Book of Revelation (1:13-14; 1:16; 19:15; 19:17-18).

The real Jesus of the Gospels is countercultural. He’s brave, strong and determined – or he’d never have endured his excruciating passion and death.

And for us today, he’s a way of life. He’s about the decisions we make, about honesty, caring and concern. He’s about whistle-blowing and ethics. He’s about chastity and fidelity. He’s about truth and making relationships work. He’s about keeping one’s word. He’s about life, here and hereafter, for those who listen to him, and not much life for those who don’t. [ii]

Today, there’s no more need for the Messianic Secret. The truth about Jesus is available to us all.

But, like Peter, we need to drop the world’s false ideas about Jesus.

We need to recognise that he’s the humble and self-sacrificing Son of God, calling us to pick up our Cross and follow him towards eternal life.


[ii] William Bausch, Once Upon a Gospel. Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT. 2011:263-265.

Year B – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Listening with the Heart

Is.35:4-7a; Jas.2:1-5; Mk.7:31-37

Many years ago, I worked with a young woman who just wouldn’t stop talking. She was bright, and I wanted her to learn new things, but I got nowhere. She wouldn’t stop talking long enough to listen.

What they say is true: God gave us two ears and one mouth, to listen twice as much as we talk.

In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton says that if our life is poured out in useless words, we’ll never hear anything in the depths of our hearts. We’ll also never be anything, for we’ll have exhausted ourselves talking before we really had anything to say. [i]

But genuine listening is becoming more difficult these days. Life can be so busy and so many things compete for our attention. Indeed, recent research tells us that the typical human attention span has dropped to eight seconds – shrinking nearly 25% in just a few years. [ii]

When we don’t listen well, we make mistakes, people go unheard and relationships suffer. But good listening involves much more than just our ears.

In his book The Gospel of the Heart, Flor McCarthy says that it’s only with the heart that we can hear rightly. ‘The cry of a needy person may reach our ears,’ he says, ‘but unless it reaches our heart, we won’t feel that person’s pain, and it’s unlikely that we’ll respond.’

He also says that it’s only with the heart that we can speak rightly, ‘For our words to ring true, they must come from the heart. If our words come only from our lips, they’ll sound hollow and they’ll have little effect. They’ll be like a wind ruffling the surface of the water but leaving the depths untouched.’ [iii]

In today’s Gospel, a deaf man who can’t speak properly is brought to Jesus for healing. Jesus takes him aside, touches his ears and tongue, and says, ‘Be opened!’ Miraculously, the man’s ears open up and he’s given a voice.

This event marks the fulfilment of Isaiah’s grand vision in today’s first reading, where he prophesies a Messiah who will come to heal the deaf, to give voice to the silent, and to let the lame leap like a deer.

You might not remember it, but at your own baptism, the minister touched your ear and mouth, and said, ‘The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father’.

Touching your ear was your calling to become a disciple, because true disciples listen to Jesus. And the touch of your mouth was your calling to become a new apostle, because apostles generously share their faith with others.

But fundamental to all this is listening with the heart. The Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, used to tell the story of an old man who sat in church for hours on end. One day, a priest asked him if God ever said anything to him.

‘God doesn’t talk, he just listens,’ the old man replied.

‘Well then, what do you spend all this time talking about?’

‘I don’t talk, either. I just listen.’ [iv]

Too many of us, however, aren’t good at listening and we miss the important things. Consider the story of the Greek man found living in a psychiatric institution. They thought he was a hopeless schizophrenic and let him vegetate there for years. No-one knew much about him or where he came from, but everyone thought he was a hopeless case.

One day, the chaplain asked a Greek Orthodox priest to come and talk to the man, because he hadn’t spoken Greek for years. The priest returned from the visit saying, ‘What’s he doing here? He’s as healthy as we are.’

Bit by bit, the story unfolded.

The Greek had jumped ship long before in a nearby port. Speaking no English, he’d got into trouble and as mistakes sometimes happen, he was locked up in an institution. There he slowly learned English, but from the other patients.

Certain language misuse is typical of some psychiatric disorders, and the poor man had learnt totally schizophrenic English. To the hospital staff, he sounded unwell and as removed from reality as the other patients. The priest, however, spoke to him in Greek, the first time anyone had done that to him there, and he spoke perfectly. The staff were humbled by the experience.[v]

So, here’s the point: our ears and our mouths are connected to our hearts (Mt.12:34).

And listening – deep listening – is love.

[i] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island. Harvest, San Diego. 1983:260.


[iii] Flor McCarthy, The Gospel of the Heart. Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2005:167.

[iv] David Foster, Deep Calls to Deep. Continuum, London. 2007:59.

[v] Gerard Fuller, Stories for all Seasons. Columba Press, 1997:82-83.