The cost of discipleship (Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s always smart to plan ahead. If you’re doing an exam, and have five questions to answer in two hours, it’s essential to calculate how long to spend on each question. Otherwise, you may run out of time. If you’re going somewhere by car, make sure you have enough petrol, especially if you’re travelling in the countryside late at night.

History overflows with examples of epic miscalculation. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia without taking the hostile winter weather into account. David Cameron promised a referendum on the European Union thinking he’d never have to hold one. Theresa May called a general election certain she’d win handily. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with no plan what to do once the regimes were overthrown. Now, millions of suffering people are paying a terrible price. Last week, Boris Johnson threatened his MPs with deselection if they failed to back his Brexit plan. Now he – and we – are facing a deep dystopian crisis. Think of the ghost housing estates of a decade ago, a symbol of reckless spending and absent prudence that ended up crushing so many ordinary people.

Good planning is essential if we don’t want to miscalculate and mess up. In setting out to do something, it’s critical to weigh up the options and potential outcomes, in order to achieve success.

Good planning is what Jesus advocates in today’s Gospel. He says if we want to follow him, we need to be absolutely clear what we are getting ourselves into. We need to know exactly what it means. We need to calculate the cost because it won’t be easy. If you become a follower of mine, he says, it will involve making tough decisions, hard choices. It will mean taking up your cross every day. It may mean laying down your life.

Jesus uses an extreme example to illustrate his point. Choosing to follow him, he says, means being willing to put him before everyone else, even our own family. It means putting him first in everything, whatever the consequences. Like someone building a tower or a king going into battle, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into; we must make sure we are ready and prepared; we must approach it with eyes wide open.

Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It’s tempting to think of the German people as fully supporting Hitler. But many Germans and Austrians did not. Many opposed him because they knew that Nazism was the opposite of Christianity. People like the great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew that Nazim was sinful, grotesque, abhorrent.

One such person was a young Austrian farmer called Franz Jagerstatter. A committed Catholic, Franz was married to Franziska, and had three young daughters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Franz was enlisted to serve in Hitler’s army. He refused to serve. He knew the war was unjust, that Hitler’s campaign was evil. As a Christian, he could have no part in it.

It was a brave stand to take because the price to pay was stark: the punishment for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform was death. His neighbours and local community thought Franz was crazy, and they tried to get him to change his mind. Even the local bishop pleaded with him, telling him it was his duty to his family and to the nation to be a good soldier.

Franz was taken to the local prison and from there to Berlin to be tried before the Supreme Military Court. Even at that late stage efforts were made to find a solution, but to no avail. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison. He had been given just 20 minutes to say goodbye to Franziska. He was 36 years old.

Fast forward to October 2007, and Franz’s beatification in a cathedral in Austria. There at the Mass was his 94-year-old widow Franziska. She had lived to see her husband, who had been excoriated and ignored for so long, finally recognised by the church for his heroic virtue, just one step away from sainthood.

Franz Jagerstatter knew what was going to happen to him and his family for defying Hitler, but he did it anyway. He calculated the cost and was ready to pay the price. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. His family were willing to stand with him. If I had been in his place, could I have done that? Could you?

Next Thursday it will be exactly 40 years since I joined the Redemptorists. I was 17 years old, just finished the Leaving Cert, pimple-faced and full of zeal. The religious life was what I wanted. I thought I had it all worked out, certain I knew what I was getting into. Nine years of study, profession, ordination, then parish missions. A cloudless horizon ahead. But clouds drifted in, often obscuring the horizon. Scandals, clericalism, loneliness, celibacy, friends leaving, vocations falling, church attendance plummeting, the Vatican censoring what I said – so many crises, obstacles. Like a Sat Nav after going off-route, I had to recalculate, reimagine, recommit. Entering religious life seemed much easier in 1979 than today. Now there is a deeper awareness of the cost, of the price.

As there is for all of us gathered here. In Ireland today, to be a Christian doesn’t mean literally risking your life, but putting Jesus first is still a risk, because it means going against the grain. It means believing and acting in ways that the cool people think are foolish.

Today’s Gospel asks us to think about our response to our baptismal calling; whether we are totally committed. Do you stick your neck out for the Gospel? Are you all-in? Do you know the potential consequences? Have you calculated the cost?

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True love, which always speaks the truth, is the only antidote to the lies and fake news of today

Love is an overused word today. We find it everywhere from graffiti-laden locker room walls to the heart emojis in anonymous internet chat rooms. It sells everything from underwear to Ferraris. It is confused with every kind of feeling and state and emotion. I’ve been thinking of the casual way I misuse the word love:

I love chips

I love a nice lie-in on a Saturday morning

I love Liverpool FC

I love preaching

I love salt

I love a good game of hurling

I love a book that captures my imagination

I love relaxing on Cape Clear island in the summer

I love Munster rugby

I love history and politics

I’m sure all of us can come up with our own list of ways we misuse the word love.

But what is the true meaning of love? For those who are Christian, if we want to know what true love is, we need only look at God. God is love, St John tells us. God not only loves, God is love. And God showed us what true love is like by sharing it, by shaping us like himself, with an inbuilt capacity for loving. By sending his only Son among us to show us how to live.

The nature of true love is spelled out for us in St Paul’s famous ode to love that is read at so many weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious, boastful, rude, and arrogant. Love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, love takes joy not in wrong-doing but only in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

That is the definition of true love.

True love does not change with the times. It can be cheapened by misuse and overuse but its essence never changes. Love is not infatuation or lust or obsession. It is not servile submission or putting up with. It is not grasping or abusive or domineering. It is not a one-night stand or a casual fling with someone whose name you forget the next day. True love overcomes, forgives, endures, sacrifices, empathises. It never gives up on anyone. It sees the good in everyone. Love, true love, is our best nature because it is God at work in us.

True love is never selfish, never all about me. When you love it’s not all about you anymore, you empty yourself for the one you love. You die to yourself for the one you love. Think of the give and take in a marriage or a committed relationship. Think of the parents of a handicapped child who spend themselves for that child every single day. Or the one who cares for an elderly parent. Patience, sacrifice, devotion, willingness to be there for someone always – that’s love.

True love speaks the truth. Or, as St Paul puts it, love delights in the truth. It always speaks the truth, no matter how difficult or dangerous that might be. Love speaks uncomfortable truths, whatever the cost. We can think of politicians, presidents and others throughout history, and especially today in this era of fake news, for whom that concept is alien.

Andrei Sakharov was a brilliant scientist who helped develop the Soviet Union’s nuclear programme. The Communist authorities honoured him for his achievements. But then he began to speak out in favour of social justice and human rights and against the bomb. So he was stripped of his honours and sent into internal exile in the city of Gorky, where he could contact no one. He was punished severely for telling the truth, as so many of his country men and women were. But he did not back down and he was vindicated in the end. Love speaks the truth no matter what the cost.

Love risks everything. It pays any price; lays everything on the line. Think of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who willingly gave his life in Auschwitz for a man he did not know. 

True love risks everything.

The Bee Gees were onto something when they asked: How deep is your love?

Mrs May’s exercise in hypocrisy

There are many things I like about Theresa May. She has great stamina and determination. She has the ability to bounce back after repeated humiliation. She is a woman of faith who takes her Christian convictions seriously. She is a politician serious about politics.

But one thing I cannot understand, and never will, is how she could change her mind on a fundamental principle literally overnight and then fight will all her might for the very opposite of what she claimed to believe before. She campaigned as a Remainer, though not a vociferous one. She argued that Britain should be at the heart of Europe, that the claims made by the Brexiteers were wrong. But as soon as Cameron left Downing St for life in a hut in his back garden, she grasped the Tory leadership by repeating over and over “Brexit means Brexit.” She became a convinced Brexiteer, one of their loudest cheerleaders.

I understand the nature of politics and that one must sometimes sacrifice conviction in the interests of ambition. But I don’t know how one could do so on an issue as vital as Brexit. It is to go from advocating one point of view to then championing its very opposite. It would be like me becoming an advocate of the Tridentine Mass after long being a supporter of women’s ordination (if I was angling for a bishopric). It would be an act of hypocrisy or duplicity. If I believe something strongly enough, if I believe it with all my heart and soul, then I could never become a champion of the opposite position, even if a majority of electors agreed with opposite the position, even if it would be in my personal interests to do so.

If I am a Remainer, I could never become a Leaver overnight, unless convinced by some new overwhelming evidence (that does not exist) or out of naked ambition and the desire to reach No. 10. But how do you live with yourself in such a scenario? How can Theresa May live with herself (and trust in God that she’s doing the right thing)? I know I couldn’t.

Maybe that’s why I’m a clergyman on the bottom rung of the ladder and she is prime minister.

Three ways to be a good news person

There’s been so much bad news over the past year, indeed over the past decade, that it can feel overwhelming. It’s a situation made all the more toxic by the Trump White House and the Brexit mess.

Aware of the prevalence of bad news stories, and the impact they have on readers, The New York Times newspaper decided some time ago to introduce a feature called The Week in Good News. This weekly newsletter, it explains, is meant to send the reader into the weekend with a smile, or at least a lighter heart. It includes little items of good news that readers otherwise might have missed, little stories that act as a welcome counterpoint to the surfeit of bad news that fills the rest of the paper.

A good approach to the new year would be for us to focus more on good news and less on bad news, those stories or opinion pieces that agitate or divide. While we can’t avoid the news if we wish to be informed, we can choose how to process it.

My advice to self this January is to remember three words beginning with  the letter ‘c’ that I hope to incorporate into my daily living:

1. Be clean. English is a rich language with about one million words. We don’t need to use bad language to express ourselves, even if an image of Trump or Jacob Rees Mogg pops up on the screen.

2. Be courteous. Use only words that are respectful, that honour rather than dishonour the other. This is hard to do, especially if we get angry easily or suffer from road rage, as I do.

3. Be constructive. Use words that are positive, not negative; that build up rather than knock down, that are life-enhancing rather than life-diminishing. This means resisting the urge to gossip or to damage another’s character, which is also hard to do, especially in the highly inflamed social media world of today.

The power of language is extraordinary. We should try to use it in a positive way.