Dearly beloved readers, as we approach Christmas, I wish you all a very joyful and peaceful Christmas; God bless you and be with you in every way. I enclose two presents, a little homily on the year of mercy, and a little poem about Christmas that I hope might inspire your faith in this great season of peace on earth, good will among men; peace has to start with peace and mercy in each human heart, if that happens there will be peace on earth. God bless you.
Homily for the Year of Mercy
Today we begin the year of mercy. What is mercy? The story of Fr.O’Flaherty, the Kerry priest who smuggled Jews and prisoners of war out of Rome during the second world war, gives us one answer. The Nazi commander of Rome knew of his work, but couldn’t catch him. In the film of Flaherty’s life, The Scarlet and the Black, as allies approach Rome, the commander contacts the priest in secret, to ask him to smuggle out his family. O’Flaherty replies: “you’ve ruled Rome without mercy, tortured and killed my friends, now you want mercy for yourself”. “Ah”, the commander says, “you’re all the same, you preach mercy but don’t real mean it; we are the future in a new secular Superman Europe, ruled by power and money, not God or mercy”. But, after the fall of Rome, as the commander is interrogated by the resistance, they ask, “ tell us of the route you used to get your family out of Rome”. O’Flaherty’s mercy had been non-discriminatory, had extended even to his enemy. And when the commander was in prison for war crimes, only the Kerry priest visited him regularly. The hardened Nazi was so impressed, he became a Catholic.
In effect, God’s mercy, which O’Flaherty reflected, is boundless and humanely transformative. That’s what the year is about, living God’s infinite all-inclusive mercy as mediated by the church. Especially through the great sacrament of reconciliation with God and others, confession. All our inner guilt and hurt is healed there. You may say, why the priest? Can’t we confess to God? The answer of course is that we need to confess to another human being in order to receive full healing. Psychiatrist say that offenders, like child abusers, won’t be healed until they show real remorse, and admit their crimes to themselves, and their accusers. St.James says the same in his epistle: “confess your sins to one another, that you may be healed”. The “others” here, as references to “sending for the elders of the church” show, were church ministers. They anointed the sick with oil for physical healing, and cured their inner sickness with a related confessional ministry. Both make sense. Why do people flock to psychiatrists today? If the problem is guilt, they can be better healed in confession. For its heals our souls also, and so enables us to regain full dignity and inner freedom. And as well as the relief of having our sins absolved; the sacrament is valuable as a chat with the priest as anam cara, a soul friend. To him we can reveal, and be advised how to resolve, what’s marring our life, weighing us down in body and soul.
This year of mercy, that complete healing is offered to all. The Pope recently announced that even those who’ve had abortions can now we forgiven by local priests, and he says the church must extend its healing ministry to all, notably divorced and remarried Catholics. The door being opened in Rome, and in Killarney cathedral, symbolises this opening up of God’s merciful healing, and full participation in the church, to all. So come along if anything is troubling you, holding you back, or weighing you down; remember God loves you deeply, warts and all.
But there is another dimension to the year of mercy, that of extending the same love, mercy and forgiveness to others. Again that shouldn’t be limited. Once, after I’d given a homily saying we should even forgive those who may have abused us, a lady accosted me angrily. She shouted: “you shouldn’t have said that, I cannot, and never will forgive the person who abused me”. I can understand how difficult such forgiveness can be, and that it takes time for it to become possible, but eventually that person, for her own good, must forgive her oppresser. Psychologists agree that people will be victims, be abused forever, unless at some stage they let go their hatred, for their own inner freedom, health, and unburdened living. For we cling to old resentments and go before God with hating hearts, we may fall into the same trap as the one who hurt us.
Another story of the war illustrates this. A Rabbi in Auscwitz was particularly targetted and tortured by one of the guards. After the liberation the inmates gathered around the guard to hang him. But the Rabbi stood in front of them and said: “if you want to kill him, you must kill me first; we must forgive or we’re as bad as he is”. Though not a Christian, he perfectly reflected the Our Father prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.
But there’s still another dimension to the mercy year: compassion towards all in need of our healing intervention, physical or spiritual. The old corporal and spiritual works of mercy guide us in this: we’re to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. We’re to admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead. Do we ignore many of these in today’s world?
A case in point is western countries ignoring refugees fleeing Syrian wars they helped stir up. No wonder the pope calls for “an offensive of mercy” to help defeat terrorism. For in Islam also God is seen as “Allah the all merciful and all compassionate”. But we westeners err in real mercy also, by closing our borders and hearts to desperate people fleeing bombs raining down from all sides. We thus lack the warm open-hearted compassion that should characterise Christians, or anyone who calls himself humane. Our great Christian heritage is a kindly welcoming spirit.
Even here mercy is badly needed now. In an era when a two-tier secular society is re-emerging in many areas of the modern worold, the physical and spiritual needy of the most vulnerable, left behind by modern economics, cry out for mercy. This Christmas, or new year, lets not ignore their pleas. When young, we chanted: “Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s hat”. Christians must work, even against IMF economists, to ensure its not just the rich who get fat, but also the man with the hat. And as many drift from the faith, a related intervention, the spiritual works of mercy, are even more relevant, bringing all back to God’s saving arms; for all else is dust and ashes in the long run, no removal van accompanies the coffin. Christ says, “blessed are the merciful, they shall have mercy shown them”. Our very salvation hinges on our being people of mercy in every way to fill our world with the light of Christ come into the world. Even in homes there may be some in need of physical or spiritual help, or a warm kiss; the Dali Lama says true faith always entails inclusive “warmheartedness”.
To sum up: the year of mercy gives us every opportunity to receive God’s boundless mercy, love and forgiveness. It also asks us to extend those blessings to all on life’s margins, physically, socially, or spiritually. The writer, John B.Keane, tells a story of a mean hard man whose estranged daughter wrote from abroad, where she had fled from his bondage, seeking reconciliation. He wrote back and invited her home. Keane says he was a changed man after she came; his heart had opened to love again. So take Christmas by the horns, Keane adds, for the milk of human kindness doesn’t come from cows or goats, but the human heart. One might add a heart softened by our experience of God’s all-inclusive love, mercy and peace; for the experience of his mercy, enpowers us to pass it on to others. This year invites us all home. For aping the hard ways of a self-centred, merciless, and unforgiving world of which Satan is lord, leaves us empty inside here, and lost and alone forever on eternity’s shore. But Christ is lord of all-inclusive love, mercy, repentance, compassion, grace, charity, truth, beauty and salvation both for our deeper happiness, inner freedom and riches, in this world, and forever and ever amen.
A Palestinian Christmas
“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world, small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere” – J.R.R.Tolkien
At night in the candle light
Glowing in gold
Among magi and shepherds,
And the whole span of humankind,
Gathering here for Christmas,
I remind myself of the mystery
That unfolded here long ago.
Of a peasant couple
Slipping in, amid the den and pomp
Of seemingly great figures and events,
To refound the world in truth and love.
And I reflect
That God is not in the whirlwind,
Then or now.
Below the surface
Gentle forces are working,
Despised by the world,
To reshape and renew
Our broken society and souls,
Back to a purer divine mould.
“Peace on earth, good will to men”,
Good, now as then –
In the atmosphere
of a savage occupation,
Of fear and factionalism –
Slips in like Mary,
By the cruel world unseen.
Denied even shelter
By the powers that be,
In faith and simplicity
Waiting on God’s will, unfolding
His infinity still, with frail hands,
Before unheeding throngs,
Under dark inhospitable skies.
Yet unfailingly fulfilling
His deep and loving plan,
Being timeless, not having as their main aim,
The pomp of useless wealth, or ephemeral fame.