Friday, 4 March 2011

Novena of Grace of St. Francis Xavier (Day 1) Friday 4th March 2011 8th Week in Ordinary Time Year I

I just got back from Hong Kong not many hours from now. In fact, Bro Gerard, Frs Lawrence and Albert are enroute even as I speak. The last couple of days have been excruciating in the sense that there I was visiting the Jesuit communities and works in both Hong Kong and Macau and yet, every part of me felt the urgency of this Novena of Grace. I brought things there to do but it was, like what last Sunday’s Gospel says--impossible to serve two masters: it was either be in Hong Kong and do what we had intended to or be at home and attend to the necessary. In the end, I surrendered and placed myself in God’s hands. [Fr Michael says I am pre-empting an excuse for a homily that will "bomb"].

On the second day, Tuesday, we ferried ourselves to an island of significance for Fr Lawrence Andrew. It was the island Cheung Chau—really an island for those who are accustomed to walking a lot. The Jesuit noviciate is located on this island—some of our older Jesuits were trained there—you may know them—like Bishop Paul Tan and Fr Peter Kim among others. How was this visit relevant to us this evening?

A visit to a Jesuit noviciate, the Novena of Grace and a Jubilee Year—I thought that they were connected by the call to holiness—an appropriate start to the Novena of Grace in this Jubilee Year is to echo the Church’s universal call to holiness. Actually, there is a redundancy somewhere in this statement I have just made considering that “Catholic Church” already means “universal” and “holy”.

Perhaps, the word “universal” in the context of the call could be read in relationship to a “restricted” religious call to holiness. For a period of time, a common understanding was that “holiness” was the preserve of those special people called to be priests or religious. We hear it from time to time “that’s only for holy people”. At Vatican II, in a timely manner, Lumen gentium reissued the Church’s long-standing teaching that holiness was never intended to be restricted to men of cloth, men and women of habit.

What does it mean that universally we are called to be holy? The Church understands this call as coming from the mystery of the Church herself and from the mystery of Christ Himself; these two mysteries are linked and an understanding of it is important.

First, the mystery of the Church. She is holy and she is made holy by none other than Christ who gave His life for her. Not only is the Church the Bride of Christ but she is also described as His Body and He perfects her by the gift of the Holy Spirit. As she is holy, we, her children, everyone and none excluded, are called to the same holiness which according to the same Lumen gentium is to be shown forth through the practice of love in some cases or the evangelical counsels in others. In short, whatever state of life we are called to, there we find holiness to be lived.

Second, the mystery of Christ is fundamental to why we speak of the Church as holy. For Christ Himself preached holiness. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. He provided the means of holiness through His Spirit. By means of Baptism, we put on Christ. We become sons and daughters of God the Father and we have a share in His divine life. This second mystery resonates with us and we understand this.

Now, what is problematic is the link between the two mysteries.

In fact, it was fashionable at one time to speak of "the Church in need of renewal and purification”—the phrase used was “ecclesia semper reformanda”. Faddish or fashion aside, that was true and has been proven true because of her children. At times we get lost in this mess which is rather an inevitable result of sharing in what is otherwise known as the human condition. Notwithstanding the human condition, these two mysteries give us a clearer picture of who the Church is. She is the faithful Bride of Christ, whose faithfulness is not called into question by the infidelities of her children.

Failure to recognise the link between these two mysteries has led to the phenomenon which we see time and again: rejection of the Church and what is more, a reduction of religion to spirituality. “I believe in Jesus and my faith is personal”. If we do not recognise this distinction that Christ’s Bride, the Church is always faithful and we, her children, are the ones who sin and are in need of conversion, then, it is possible that the sin of the individual becomes the sin of the Church. Without recognising how inextricably linked the mystery of the Church’s holiness is to Christ her beloved, “holiness” becomes a captive of the community.

What do I mean? I am holy only because the group is holy. In fact, the individual becomes a captive to the rise and fall of the group, the community etc. Does this not explain why parishioners become discouraged and fall into despair? We look at a group of people and we are instantly turned off. It does explain many cases of Catholics leaving the Church for the “Pentecostal” sects.

But, Christ is holy, the Church is always holy and we are called to holiness despite the presence, the ubiquitous presence of failure within us and amongst us. Not forgetting this allows us to approach the sacraments with the certainty that despite all failure, Christ and His Church will never fail.

With such a certainty, we can now speak of individual holiness. It makes sense that my holiness is not hinged on the failure of others as often has been the case. Look at Anne Rice, the famous writer of the Vampire Chronicles. Early in life, she rejected Catholicism only to find it and then reject it again, stating that she rejected it on the basis that the “Church” has monumentally failed—without making distinctions between the Church and her members.

The failures of individuals or communities are not excuses for the lack of personal conversion. Instead, holiness is allowing what is not Christ’s in us to disappear so that what is truly Christ’s can appear. This is the real meaning of "ecclesia semper reformanda". The saints recognise this by reforming themselves and not by “dreaming” of new structures or new management.

After Vatican II, what we saw of the world, we also began to see of the Church. We viewed the Church through a structural and a sociological lens. And to a large extent we began to focus on structural changes to reflect sociological realities. Change structures and voila! You are on the way to a changed and a better world. But, we are nowhere near a better world. In fact, we are brought back to what is fundamental, to a world in need of change: the self. This "ecclesia semper reformanda", "the Church in need of purification and renewal" has seen us falling over ourselves in trying to change structures, sometimes forgetting that persons make structures.

Brother and sisters, to complete the phrase "ecclesia semper reformanda", we need another phrase "ecclesia semper aeternum"—"the Church is eternal" because she is eternally the faithful Bride of Christ and so the path to holiness means never turning away from His Bride the Church, no matter how pressing it feels. It means the hard and difficult road of looking at ourselves with the eyes of Christ (justice) and changing ourselves with the heart of Christ (mercy). It calls for the constant battle in daily life and not just ecclesial life and this battle takes us to our family, our work and our community. It takes us out into the world and for that we need our Holy Mother the Church for within her bosom we draw the very life that makes her holy—Christ, whom she makes available to us in the sacraments.