We don’t like to hear bad news about ourselves. We say we don’t like to learn bad news of others either. Yet, the content of our daily newspapers would seem to cast some doubt on this. Nobody likes to get a warning, yet there is a time and place for warnings in life. This is what today’s Gospel is about. Jesus is told that Pilate had killed two men in Jerusalem. Apparently they had come to the temple to offer their sacrifices. They were caught in the crossfire of a riot, between the rioters and Pilate’s forces. Somewhere else a tower had collapsed, in a place called Siloam and eighteen people had died. And as the people tell Jesus these stories they wonder if they are worse sinners than the rest of us that such suffering and disaster should happen to them?

I was listening to a programme this morning about blame. There is always the tendency to blame someone else, to find a scapegoat when some evil happens – it was the barman’s fault, he shouldn’t have served us that last drink or “It’s all your fault”. What is it about us, that we feel the need to blame the victims of some tragedy for the fact that the tragedy took place? Maybe we feel under threat ourselves so we want to distance ourselves from those people and to say, “we are not like them”. So what happened to them could never happen to us because we are separated from them. We will not be contaminated. We won’t catch whatever it is they have got. But to those who come to him with the bad news of these two disasters, Jesus does not give an explanation. Instead he shifts the focus from them, from those unfortunate people, to us. He says: “If you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the others because they suffered in this way, then I am telling you here and now, you are wrong. They were certainly no worse than any other Galileans”.

Yes, Jesus shifts the focus to each one of us. He says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way. Twice Jesus repeats that warning. For Jesus, all of us, as long as we continue to sin, are equally threatened. We are all threatened by the sword of Pilate. An accident could happen to anyone of us at any given time – tragedy could strike at any time. Unless we prepare ourselves and recognise that we need to repent of our sins, then we will die in our sins. Jesus does not allow any of us to think of ourselves as superior to others. He regrets the idea that accidents happen to people – as a kind of payment for their sins. The point is, not that those people who died in those two disasters were more sinful, not at all. The point is that all are sinners and all will perish if they do not repent. Yes, all of us need to repent of our sins.
Yesterday we celebrated the feast of St. Patrick. Remember the first words of his writings: “I am Patrick, a sinner”. What a breath of fresh air to find someone mature enough to admit that yes, at sixteen years of age, he had already turned away from God and closed his ears to those who talked to him of his sins.

We got ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Those ashes remind us that each one carries within, a weakness, a weakness to sin. Ashes tell us that we are all liable to suffer and to have to endure pain. Above all, the ashes remind us that we are going to die one day.

And so, the message that Jesus has for each one of us today is: in all of your worries for those unfortunate people who met such tragic deaths, don’t think that you are standing safe and sound, that you are all firm and secure. For we could easily fall into the false security of thinking that we are in some way better than they are. False security can be a notion that others somehow deserve what happens to them.

When all is said and done, Jesus Christ is our only security. I think that is the message which the group of 70 and upward Emmanuel missionaries have been giving in this parish over the last three weeks. I welcome them most warmly and I congratulate them most sincerely on their wonderful work. Stephen and Sister came to tell me about some of it on Friday evening last. I must say I was delighted and pleased. We thank God today for the grace of this wonderful mission. I congratulate Mgr. McEntegart and the priests of the parish on the courageous and imaginative decision to invite the Emmanuel Mission. I congratulate and thank the people of Dungannon who opened their hearts and their doors to these scores of mainly lay missionaries. These missionaries have taken time off to come and invite you, and all of us, to open the door to Christ. They have come to offer the healing and the hope, the pardon and the peace, which can only come from the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. The number 70 reminds us of the disciples, which Jesus sent out, in pairs, to prepare for his coming in the various towns and villages. I see these 70 missionaries and more, coming to prepare the way for Christ as he wants to come into your hearts, into your minds, and into your lives, this Easter, with his love and with his mercy, with his forgiveness and with his pardon.

As these missionaries preach the message of Christ’s love and mercy, gradually the coin drops and we get the message. The important question is not where does tragedy and suffering come from, but to where does it lead?

· Does it lead to faith or to despair?
· Does it lead to conversion or just merely to more indifference and apathy, a change of heart?

There is a lovely prayer in the breviary today it goes like this:

God our Father you have shown us that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are remedies for sin. Accept the humble admission of our guilt and when our conscience weighs us down, let your unfailing mercy raise us up.

Yes, what we want is to admit our guilt, to take responsibility for our own lives, not to be always looking around for scapegoats, for somebody to blame. It is a mark of maturity, in the person who can take responsibility for what they have done, right or wrong. Taking responsibility on ourselves can lead to despair, it can lead to self-loathing and that is where Jesus has foreseen all of that and provided a remedy. But it can also lead to freedom and forgiveness.

I know that the missionaries have talked to you about sin. I know that through your prayer, fasting and almsgiving, many of you have already experienced the grace of God’s unfailing mercy in the wonderful penance service of last week. Tonight as we close this mission, we thank God for all of that.

I am sure there are still other people in this parish, and in other parishes, with a weight on their conscience, waiting to be lifted up by God’s unfailing mercy. It will take a bit more prayer to soften the hardness of their hearts. And so, I ask you, you who have experienced the grace and the happiness of this mission, to pray for those other people. There is still time, but there is not an endless amount of time. You know how the devil loves to lure us into a false sense of security. He doesn’t say “there is no danger”, no, he is far to clever for that. He is far too clever to think that we would fall for that ploy. What he does say is, ‘listen, there is no hurry’.

We have been greatly privileged to have had the Emmanuel community in our diocese for the last three weeks; a community dedicated to bringing the mercy of God to all people, in every sort of situation in life. The Lenten call to repent is echoed in Jesus’ words today and it says, ‘yes, there is still time but we don’t know how much. We know that it is limited’. The parable of the fig tree says, ‘the story is not over yet’. The vinedresser says, ‘wait. Give me more time’. Time to repent, time to receive forgiveness, time to experience the pardon and peace, which that forgiveness brings.

And so, let’s continue to pray for those who don’t see that they have any need to look for God’s mercy. Let’s ask courage for those who haven’t got the courage to approach a priest to ask for absolution.

This evening we thank God with all our hearts for this mission. It began with the love of the heart of Mary for the brothers and sisters of her son, Jesus Christ. It ends with the love of the heart of Christ, a heart pierced with a lance, for the love of each one of us. These generous missionaries came to tell us of a God who is determined to remove our guilt from us, if only we will allow it and He wants never more to recall that guilt. To bring home that good news the Emmanuel community went, to the homes and to the schools, to the pubs and to the halls, so as to reach the hearts of all. They prayed and they consoled, they sang and they spoke. They even got an icon from Pope John Paul II, to bring special grace and blessing on their work.

As they leave us, in response to this mission, they once again invite all of us to open the door to Christ. They ask us to open the door of our hearts to the love of Christ and to the pardon he alone can give. If we do so then we will find our own faith strengthened, especially if we keep sharing it with others. I imagine St. Patrick is very pleased to see these missionaries retrace his footsteps, coming from across the seas, imitating once more his example of sharing the knowledge and love of God with the Irish.