Year B – 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Fullness of Mercy

(Gen.3:9-15; 2Cor.4:13-5:1; Mk.3:20-35)

In 1981, as he was driven through the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, Pope St John Paul II was shot and wounded by a Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Ağca.

Bullets struck his body and left hand, and narrowly missed his heart.

Ağca was arrested, and the Pope was rushed off to hospital. But before losing consciousness, John Paul said that he forgave the shooter.

In 2005, he wrote, ‘I was suffering – there was reason to fear, but I had a sort of strange confidence [that I would survive].’ And from his hospital bed, he asked the world to ‘pray for my brother… whom I have sincerely forgiven.’

Just after Christmas in 1983, John Paul visited Ağca in prison. They spoke privately in a corner of his cell, and Ağca kissed John Paul’s hand. 

As John Paul rose to leave, he gave Ağca a silver and mother-of-pearl rosary. Many were astounded to learn that Ağca was not handcuffed and that his cell door was left ajar. The Pope had asked a photographer to capture the event to show the world that forgiveness and mercy are possible in our fallen world.

In his book, Memory and Identity, John Paul wrote ‘Ali Ağca had probably sensed that over and above his own power, over and above the power of shooting and killing, there was a higher power. He then began to look for it. I hope and pray that he found it.’

Ağca reportedly became a Catholic in 2007.

John Paul lobbied the Italian president to pardon the prisoner, and he was freed in 2000. He was then deported to Turkey, where he served another 10-year sentence and was released three years later.

Ağca has repeatedly expressed remorse for shooting the Pope.

In Psalm 129 today, the psalmist declares that ‘With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.’ That’s how St John Paul II lived his life. He tried to model Jesus in all he did.

He was inspired by Jesus’ unfailing mercy and compassion in the Scriptures: how He comforts the distressed and heals the sick, the blind and the deaf; how He brings the dead back to life and forgives the woman caught in adultery; and how He even forgives those who crucify Him.

For with the Lord there really is fullness of mercy and redemption.

In our first reading today, Adam and Eve have disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. God knows this, but He doesn’t seek revenge. Instead, He asks them, ‘Where are you?’ In other words, ‘Where are your hearts now? Where are you in relation to me, to others and to yourself?’

Adam and Eve feel ashamed and try to dodge responsibility for what they’ve done, but God doesn’t seek to punish them. Rather, He turns to the evil serpent and promises that one day it will face justice.

For with the Lord there is fullness of mercy and redemption.

In today’s second reading, Paul is talking to the Corinthians. He assures them that their troubles and struggles are only temporary, and that they can look forward to the glory that awaits them in heaven if they stay strong in their faith.

For with the Lord there is fullness of mercy and redemption.

And in Mark’s Gospel today, evil is once again causing division and confusion in the world. Jesus has just chosen his twelve disciples and returns home to Nazareth. While he’s preaching, a crowd gathers.

Among them are members of Jesus’ family, but they think He’s lost His mind. And the scribes who are present are deliberately misinterpreting what He’s been saying. But Jesus is not discouraged. He calls the people to a new community, a new family that is not defined by nation or blood. And He says that anyone who hears and does the will of God is His brother, sister or mother.

For with the Lord there really is fullness of mercy and redemption.

The message for us today is that in our turbulent world, it’s so important to remain steadfast in living the life Jesus calls us to live.

Thankfully, if we make mistakes, our God is consistently full of mercy and redemption.

But at the same time, like St John Paul II, it’s also important that we extend that mercy to others, even if they don’t deserve it.

So, when next you pray the Lord’s Prayer and say the words ‘… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ ask yourself: who am I forgiving today? 

Year B – Trinity Sunday

A Good Sign of the Cross

(Deut.4:32-34, 39-40; Rom.8:14-17; Mt.28:16-20)

Today, on Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the mystery of our Triune God, a mystery that no-one in this life has ever fully understood.

For how can one God include three Divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

And yet, Scripture often refers to God’s Trinitarian presence: the merciful Father who created us, the loving Son who sacrificed everything for us, and the Holy Spirit who fills us with so much life and hope. Our finite brains struggle to grasp this truth, yet in our hearts we accept it because it’s fundamental to our Christian faith.

Indeed, the Trinity is so fundamental to our beliefs that it’s embedded in our most ancient gesture of prayer: The Sign of the Cross. We make this sign so often, however, that we tend to forget its significance. So, today let’s reflect on this common practice of ours to reveal something of what it means.

Every time we make the Sign of the Cross, we invoke the mystery of the Holy Trinity. With our right hand, we touch our forehead, breast and left and right shoulders, and say ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, using the words Jesus himself gave us just before ascending to heaven (Mt.28:19).

The Sign of the Cross is as old as the Church itself. The earliest Christians often used to trace a Cross (meaning Redemption) with three fingers (the Trinity) on their foreheads. [i]

In 201AD, Tertullian wrote, In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever (we do) we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross’. [ii]

Later, Christians added the words ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’, and they extended this sign to other parts of the body. So now for example we also sign our forehead, lips and heart when the Gospel is read.

There are many ways to interpret the Sign of the Cross.

Every time we sign ourselves, we publicly affirm our Baptism and we ask God to renew our baptismal graces. At the same time, we also affirm our discipleship, and remember our responsibility to get to know God (pointing to our head), to love him (heart) and to serve him all through our days (shoulders).

But it also summarises the Apostles’ Creed. When we touch our forehead, breast and shoulders, we declare that we believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; we say that we believe in God’s Creation and his redemption of humanity from sin and death; and we recognise the Cross as the central event of our Christian faith.

As well, an open hand is a sign of blessing, so every time we trace the shape of the Cross on ourselves, we’re asking God to bless our minds, our hearts and our bodies – our thoughts, our passions and our actions.

And as our hand moves down from our head to our heart, we’re reminded that Christ descended from heaven to earth.  And as it travels across from left to right shoulder, we recall that Jesus Himself crossed from death to life, and we’re all invited to do the same.

By definition, the Sign of the Cross is a ‘sacramental’, a sacred sign that unites us with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In that moment it serves as a prayer, a collect, that silently gathers up all our hopes and fears and gives them to God.  It also sanctifies that particular moment in our lives, and it prepares us to receive God’s grace. [iii] 

The beauty of the Sign of the Cross is that it’s both quick and deeply meaningful.  The sad thing is that too many people don’t recognise its importance. 

In Ancient Greek, the word ‘sphragis’ means sign and mark of ownership.  Roman generals used to tattoo their initials on their soldiers’ forearms, just as shepherds brand their sheep.

In the same way, the Sign of the Cross publicly marks us as belonging to Christ, the true Shepherd. [iv]

So, whenever you feel drawn towards Jesus, make a good Sign of the Cross.  Whenever you’re anxious, struggling or in danger, make a good Sign of the Cross. And whenever you’re filled with gratitude or joy, make a good Sign of the Cross, for it’s a deeply meaningful prayer. 

And remember this: the Sign of the Cross reminds us to think beyond ourselves. As Ronald Knox once said, in the Sign of the Cross the first two gestures form the letter ‘I’. The second two cross it out. [v]

[i] Ann Ball, The How-To Book of Sacramentals. Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington IN, 2005:33-34.

[ii] Tertullian, de Corona. Ch.3:165.

[iii] Ann Ball, Op cit. pp.11-13.

[iv] Bert Ghezzi, The Sign of the Cross. Loyola Press, Chicago. 2004:60.

[v] Bishop Robert Barron, Lenten Reflection

Year B – Pentecost Sunday

The Power of the Spirit

(Acts 2:1-11; Gal.5:16-25; Jn.15:26-27; 16:12-15)

Whenever we’re anxious or distressed, we need the Spirit of Peace. Whenever we’re sad and life seems too hard, we need the Spirit of Joy.

And whenever we’re in darkness and doubt, we need the Spirit of Light.

Today we celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit, the power that Jesus poured into his disciples at Pentecost.

On that day, the disciples were hiding in fear in the Upper Room, when a great noise like a mighty wind rushed through and tongues of fire appeared above them.

They were suddenly transformed. The once-fearful disciples emerged as courageous Apostles, telling the crowds in the street the truth about Jesus. 3,000 people became Christians that day, and the Church was born.

Some people think of Pentecost as a single, standalone event, but it actually marks the end of the fifty days of Easter. As Joan Chittister writes, ‘… only here in this time, between the bursting open of the tomb and, fifty days later, the overflowing of the Holy Spirit, does the full awareness of what it is to live in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ finally dawn.’ [i]

So, who is this Holy Spirit? With God the Father and God the Son, the Holy Spirit completes the Trinity. All three are co-equal and of the same essence, and like the Father, the Holy Spirit is invisible. But He’s also a person, and not just an influence or an impersonal force.

How do we know the Spirit is a person? It’s because the Bible presents Him that way (e.g., Jn.6:63; Rom.8:11; 1Jn.5:6; Jn.16:7-8). It makes it clear that the Holy Spirit thinks, feels, has a mind, and does things only a person can do.

Now, the Spirit the Apostles receive at Pentecost is the same Spirit that created the world (Gen.1:1-2); that transformed Adam from dust into a human being (Gen.2:7); that guided Moses through the desert (Num.11:16-17); and that raised Jesus from the dead.

Importantly, it’s also the very same Spirit we receive at our Baptism and Confirmation.

The Holy Spirit is a powerful, energising force, and in Scripture He is given several names, including Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus, and the Spirit of Truth. Jesus also calls him ‘another Comforter’, a ‘Counsellor’, ‘Advocate’ or ‘Paraclete’.

But what is a Paraclete? The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says that a Paraclete ‘is often translated as comforter, but a Paraclete does more than comfort.

‘The word is Greek, and there’s no one English word for it. Comforter is not enough. A Paraclete is one who comforts, cheers, encourages, persuades, exhorts, stirs up, urges forward and who calls on… what clapping of hands is to a speaker, what a trumpet is to the soldier, that a Paraclete is to the soul… A Paraclete is one who calls us on to good.’ [ii]

William Barclay says that the Holy Spirit’s purpose is to fill a person with the power and courage they need to triumphantly cope with life.

In Greek, he says, the root word for this power is du-namis, from which we get the English word dynamite, which is an explosive force. The Holy Spirit, therefore, is not passive. He’s an active force of explosive power that encourages and empowers. [iii]

That’s the same Spirit we receive at our Baptism! And we receive a ‘top-up’ every time we receive the sacraments.

The great evangelist Dwight L. Moody was once asked, ‘If we were filled with the Holy Spirit at Baptism, why do we need to be refilled so often?’

‘Because we leak,’ Moody replied.

‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘we are leaky vessels and we have to keep right under the fountain all the time to keep full of Christ, and so have a fresh supply.’

Sadly, too many of us are not really all that open to God. We say we are, but we often let our precious Spirit leak away. We don’t take His gifts seriously, we are happy to overlook our responsibilities, we fail to grow in holiness and we even choose to sin.

And yet, when we genuinely welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts, our lives are uplifted and we find ourselves blessed with love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy (Gal.5:22-23).

Aren’t these exactly the things we all want and need?

So, together, let’s say this little prayer:

Come Holy Spirit. Fill my heart with your love, fill my mind with your light.

[i] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year, Thomas Nelson, 2009.

[ii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sermon on the Paraclete, Liverpool, 1882.

[iii] William Barclay, New Testament Words. Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1964:216-221.

Year B – Ascension of the Lord

When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

(Acts 1:1-11; Eph.4:1-13; Mk.16:15-20)

Some people hate saying goodbye. For them, changing jobs, moving house or farewelling a loved one simply means sorrow.

What many don’t realise, however, is that saying ‘goodbye’ actually invokes God. That’s because ‘goodbye’ is a 16th Century contraction of the expression ‘God be with you’. Similarly, ‘adieu’ means ‘go with God.’ [i]

Many also forget that every goodbye marks a new beginning. As the author Mitch Albom says, ‘… all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.’ [ii]

In today’s first reading, Jesus farewells his disciples; it’s time to return to His Father in heaven. His Ascension doesn’t just mark an ending, however. It’s also a beginning, for Jesus and for His disciples. 

For Jesus, it’s the end of His earthly ministry. But it’s also a new beginning, because by leaving this world Jesus is no longer confined to one place and time. From heaven, He can make Himself available to everyone, everywhere, all the time. How? By working through the Church, through the sacraments and by penetrating deeply into our hearts, minds and souls.

For the disciples, Jesus’ Ascension marks the end of their traineeship, but it’s also the beginning of a new life as they take responsibility for Jesus’ mission.

They don’t know how to start, however. Then two angels appear, saying: ‘why are you standing there, looking at the sky?’ In other words, what are you waiting for? Get going, there’s work to do.

So, they leave the mountain and head for the city.

Now, Jesus’ Ascension marks a new beginning for us, too, because we are His disciples today. Jesus is calling on us to rise above our ordinary lives, to lift up our hearts, minds and hands so that we might continue His unfinished work, just as the original disciples did.

Bishop Robert Barron says that if Caesar, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Churchill were still striding the world stage, no-one else would have the courage to enter the game. That’s why Jesus leaves, he says, so that we might act in His name and in accord with His spirit.

Barron also says that those who do the most good are those who focus on the things of heaven, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, St John Paul II. And those who are most effective are those who pray most intently.

But leaving one life for another can be a wrenching experience. I remember leaving home at 17, and weeping that very first night. I had no idea what lay ahead, or how I would make a living, but I knew I had to leave home.

Jesus understands all this. That’s why He says to his disciples: ‘It’s better for you that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy’ (Jn.16:20).

In Matthew’s Gospel, just before Jesus ascends to heaven, we’re told that some of His disciples ‘doubted’ (Mt.28:17). Why did they doubt? Were they fearful? Did they doubt their own abilities?

They needn’t have, because in our second reading St Paul says that Jesus gives each person just what they need to do His work. And in 1 Corinthians he lists some of these special graces: the gift of tongues, strong faith, healing, miracles, wisdom, knowledge and discernment (1Cor.12:8-10, 28-30).

The point is that we are never alone in doing God’s work. When we go forward in faith, He’s always there to guide and strengthen us.

So, how do we say goodbye to one life and enter into a new one?

Perhaps we can learn from Arthur Ashe (1943-96), the legendary American tennis champion. He had a heart attack at the age of 36, and in 1983, during heart surgery, he was given HIV-infected blood.

Sadly, it destroyed his tennis career, but it also opened the door to an unexpected new life as an advocate for HIV/AIDS sufferers.

Arthur Ashe once said: ‘Happiness keeps you sweet; trials keep you strong; sorrows keep you human; failure keeps you humble and success keeps you glowing, but only faith keeps you going.’

And how might we begin our new life?

He said: ‘Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.’ [iii]

God will do the rest. So, trust Him.

[i] Merrill Perlman, Of God and Goodbyes, Columbia Journalism Review, July 11, 2016,in%20shorthand%2C%20and%20partly%20by

[ii] Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Sphere, London. 2003.

[iii] Arthur Ashe, Days of Grace: A Memoir. Ballantine Books: NY, 1994.

Year B – 6th Sunday of Easter

The Elephant Man

(Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1Jn.4:7-10; Jn.15:9-17)

Have you seen the movie The Elephant Man?

It tells the true but tragic story of an Englishman named Joseph Merrick (often called John), who was born in the slums of Leicester in 1862. He began life as a happy and healthy boy who did well at school. But as he grew, his appearance changed markedly, especially his face, arms and legs, and he became severely disfigured.

It appears he had a severe genetic disorder called Proteus Syndrome. [i]

He remembered his mother as very loving, but she died of pneumonia when he was eleven. He described this as the greatest sadness in his life.

Soon afterwards, his father married a widow who had her own children, but they all rejected Joseph, and his life became a ‘perfect misery.’

At thirteen he left school to support the family, and got a factory job rolling cigars. But he was sacked because his deformed hands were too slow.

His father then got him a job as a door-to-door salesman. Poor Joseph tried hard, but again he failed. Too many people couldn’t understand him or refused to open their doors to him, or they quickly slammed them shut.

In frustration, Joseph’s father started beating him, and at 17 he was thrown out of home. A kindly uncle rescued him, but Joseph didn’t want to be a burden, so he moved into a squalid workhouse for cripples and drunks.

His life became so miserable that he then offered himself to a carnival owner as a travelling sideshow act. There he was labelled as ‘half-man, half-elephant,’ and wore a cape and veil to hide his face. He was quite a hit, but he was also often harassed by mobs.

One day in London, Joseph met Dr Frederick Treves, King Edward VII’s surgeon. Treves took great interest in him and was appalled by his mistreatment. He offered to help and gave Joseph his card, but soon lost track of him.

The police disliked these sideshows; they always caused trouble. So, Joseph moved to Belgium where he found himself robbed and abused, and a year later he returned to London. When his train arrived at Liverpool Street Station, a crowd mobbed him and the police were called. They couldn’t understand his slurred speech, but they did find Dr Treves’ card, so they sent for him.

Dr Treves rushed over and took Joseph back to London hospital, where he was well looked after. Treves organised a successful fundraising appeal and gave Joseph a home of his own in the hospital grounds.

This marked a turning point in Joseph’s life. Instead of being frightened and hiding from visitors, he gradually began to talk. Dr Treves visited him daily, and they became close friends, enjoying long conversations together.

Joseph once said that apart from his mother, no woman had ever been kind to him. So, Treves asked an attractive widow to visit Joseph, to smile at him and shake his hand. When she did that, Joseph broke into tears.

That was a breakthrough, and in the following years he met many more kind men and women, including royalty. He regularly received letters and visitors, he wore nice clothes and went to concerts and parties, and he got to have intelligent conversations about things like poetry.

With all this loving attention, Joseph changed. He began to develop self-confidence and he started spending time travelling in the country.

But because of his deformities, poor Joseph could not sleep lying down. He tried to do that one day in 1890, and sadly it killed him. He was only 27. [ii] [iii]

In today’s Gospel, it’s just after the Last Supper and Jesus says to his disciples, ‘This is my commandment: that you love one another, just as I have loved you.’

What is this love that Jesus talks about? It’s caring for someone else with mercy and compassion. It’s being totally selfless and even sacrificial in what we do for them. And it’s unconditional, in that we expect nothing in return. 

This is the love Jesus gave to the poor, the sick and the hungry, and it’s the love that Dr Frederick Treves gave to Joseph Merrick.

Poor Joseph lived a tragic life, but his tragedy wasn’t so much his deformities; it was the way people ridiculed, rejected and abused him.

Dr Treves had a loving heart. He helped Joseph to find happiness, by making him feel accepted, valued, encouraged and protected.

What can you do to change someone else’s life?

[i] [ii] Sir Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences,