Monday, 29 March 2010

Palm Sunday Year C

The liturgy helps us to fix our eyes upon Christ. Even though His suffering is brought to the fore, the point is not its graphic details but rather His love. Love led Him to this oblation. The root of the word “oblation” is offering—His entire life was directed to this oblation/offering of love.

How is Christ’s offering relevant to us? Remember our Lenten practices? They are on praying, almsgiving and fasting. These three devout practices pertain to three relationships: God, others/neighbours and self. Our relationship with God is enhanced through fervent prayers. Our relationship with others/our neighbours is improved through our works of charity. Our relationship with ourselves is purified through our fasting. In other words, we become more of who we are called to be through purification.

These three practices with their attendant relationships are linked to Christ’s oblation. Firstly, Jesus confirms His availability to God through the offering of Himself—by being obedient unto death. Prayer strengthens His availability, His obedience. Secondly, He seals His friendship with us by offering us His very own body and blood so that we might have eternal life. Thirdly, He lives the truth of who He really is—God and Man—by the purity or singleness of His self-offering to His Father and for us , thus, confirming what St Paul tells the Philippians: His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave.

This relevance of Christ’s oblation therefore is found in what St Paul says in his letter to the Romans: When we were baptised into Christ Jesus, we were baptised into his death. By our baptism into his death, we were buried with him so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glorious power, we too should begin living a new life. (Rom 6:5ff).In other words, Christ’s Passion is ours. As Christ offered His life, so are we to do—the Passion simply outlines for us the pattern for Christian oblation. Thus, if Christ is truly our pattern, if we want to emulate our model, we would do well to keep holy these days as we fix our eyes on Christ our Lord; on Him and nobody else. The silence, the pokey palms, the excruciatingly long Gospel, the solemnity allows Him and His loving oblation to become present to us beckoning to follow Him.

Therefore, to those not incapacitated by old age, lack of mobility, pregnancy or suckling babies, the ritual of the gathering, the palms, the procession is important. Some of us come here early to book our usual place… our habitual place. We act our survival instinct and that is natural. But, when Christ was born, He did not gun for the Cross. It was not as if he was born and immediately He chose the Cross. Rather, it was His choices, His opening, His availability and His love that finally led Him to the Cross. So, when you come in, after the gathering, the blessing of the palm and the procession, to find your place taken, it’s akin to Christ’s life and that gives you the chance to say to God: “Here I am, Lord. Life has led me to this place not of my choice but I am open to Your will”. Our desire to do God’s will can never be from an arm-chair; it is never at our convenience. Hence, this routine is practice for us. It becomes a symbol of our desire to make our offering to God, like Christ did.

In the days to come, the readings will be long, the weather will be uncomfortably warm and people will probably be inconsiderate in their parking. Do not think of these as inconveniences but rather as a kind of training for the days to come, when God will take up our offering. If you offer yourself to God, He will accept you and it will be on His terms.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

4th Sunday of Lent Year C [2nd Scrutiny Readings from Year A]

Today we have the 2nd Scrutiny. The Gospel presents us with Christ the Light. Thus, the Scrutiny may be considered an exercise in clarification. How to appreciate the true light and how not to be distracted by lights?

In 1992, I visited this hamlet up in the highland interior of Bukidnon—a province in Mindanao, Philippines. The tiny church was an unfinished building and the rectory, the priest’s house, also an uncompleted building. Water was piped from the source just beyond the houses. It was without filtration but was potable. The only electric supply came from a generator used to run the rice mill. Even though the rectory was an unfinished job, the owner of the rice mill saw to it that it was “electrified”. Electricity stopped at about 8 pm. After 8pm, complete darkness except the flickering glow of kerosene lamps. What was arresting was the music wafting through because there was nothing else to do except sing and make music. It is in darkness that one appreciates the light.

When we live in an environment of perpetual light, it becomes harder to appreciate darkness. In pitch darkness one cannot see and so darkness is a symbol of blindness. However, a person in the light may also be blind. Those who can see can also be blind. The First Reading is a good example. Nobody saw anything in the youngest child, David; not even the great prophet Samuel. In the Gospel, everyone who had sight was blind except the blind man. The Gospel illustrates that "sin causes more spiritual blindness" than "physical blindness is the result of sin".

When we choose not to follow God we are in effect declaring that our vision is better than God’s vision. St Paul reminds us that God’s vision is infinitely better than ours. We were once in darkness. Therefore, life’s mistakes are nothing but mistaken attempts to look for enlightenment in the wrong places—ourselves, others, peoples, places. We think that all these can satisfy the heart’s deepest longings. Is that not what St Paul would characterise as the futile works of darkness?

The Gospel is beautiful because it leads us slowly into the light. In so many ways, Christ could have healed the man as simply as: “Say the word, and I shall be healed” reminiscence of the Centurion’s request. He asked Christ to issue the decree of fait accompli. Just by saying so the man could have been healed. But, instead, the Lord’s use of clay brings us back to the Book of Genesis recalling the creation of Man. Christ was not just re-enacting the creation of Man but inviting Man to allow God to re-create him because Christ asked the man to wash himself in the Pool of Siloam. This is how God will re-create us all—through the waters of baptism.

Through baptism, whom do we become but children of God with the stain of sin that blinds us washed away? Baptism allows us to live as children of light.

Exorcism has been hijacked by Hollywood. Sadly so and our idea of exorcism consists of images of turning heads and self-inflicted wounds. Today, exorcism is associated with the occult and expressed through the superlatives—more blood and gore to make it more real. When we believe that exorcism consists of such, we become blind to the reality of what exorcism really is.

For the Second Scrutiny is but a minor exorcism. The Elect are reminded of the reality that Evil is more insidious and subtle. It is real. Thus, in this minor exorcism, the Elect asked to be freed from the grip of evil and darkness so that they can cleave closer to Christ Jesus—to stand bathed in His light.

This light of Christ is so needed by the world. And you begin to appreciate this better if you read further into the story. After his sight had been restored, our blind man still did not know who Jesus was for he had not seen him before. Thus, in answer to the questions "who" and "where", he could only give a “factual” answer that it was Jesus who healed him but as to Jesus’ whereabouts, he could not answer since he did not know how Jesus looked like. And, for witnessing to Jesus whom He has not seen, he was thrown out. Only then did he see Jesus. The subsequent conversation tells us more. Jesus heard that they had driven him away and when He found him He said to him: "Do you believe in the Son of Man"? "Sir, tell me who He is so that I may believe in Him". Jesus said: “You are looking at Him, He is speaking to you”. The blind man with his sight restored said, “Lord, I believe” and worshipped Him. It was a rare occasion where Jesus allowed Himself to be worshipped.

Brothers and sisters, the world needs Jesus Christ and His light. According to St Clement Alexandria “In our sickness we need a Saviour, in our wanderings a guide, in our blindness someone to show us the light, in our thirst the fountain of living water which quenches forever the thirst of those who drink from it. We dead people need life, we sheep need a shepherd, we children need a teacher, the whole world needs Jesus!

Together with the Elect, we are invited by the Second Scrutiny to “Come into His light”.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 9th Day, 12th March 2010

On March 12th, 5 saints were canonised in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. St Isidore the Farmer or St Isidro Labrador, a Spaniard. St Teresa Avila: the great reformer of the Carmelites. She has two great daughters: St Thérèse d’Enfant Jesus whom we got to know a little yesterday and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, otherwise known as Edith Stein, whose name in religion also honours St John of the Cross; she was a Jewess who died at Auschwitz. St Philip Neri, otherwise known as the Apostle of Rome. One of his more famous followers is John Cardinal Newman, the English convert from Anglicanism, who might be beatified when Benedict XVI visits the UK this year. Of him, it was alleged that when the canonisation took place, a shout was heard in the streets of Rome, “The pope has canonised 4 Spaniards and a Saint”. According to the Italians, no Spaniard was good enough to be a saint. The fourth was St Ignatius, without whom we would not have the Society of Jesus. And finally, St Francis Xavier, whose Novena we have been celebrating. But none of them is our saint.

It is a tradition of the Society of Jesus for a Jesuit to take his vows on a feast of Our Lady. For example, 2nd February used to be a Marian feast but it has since been changed to a feast of Our Lord—from The Purification of Mary to the Presentation of the Lord. 49 years ago, on the evening of the dedication of this Church, Fr Paul Jenkins made his solemn profession in the morning because at that time 2nd February was still a Marian feast. Other Marian feasts of Jesuit importance are like 1st Jan, Mary Mother of God, 22nd April, Queen of the Society of Jesus, Assumption without a doubt is an important Jesuit-vow day, the birthday of Our Lady which falls on 8th Sept and 8th Dec, the Immaculate Conception. When a Marian feast is not available, then a feast of a Jesuit saint is used. Theoretically, one enters a day before the Feast to take his vows two canonical years exactly after—therefore, an entrance into the Society of Jesus on 14th August means vow-taking will be on 15th August two years later.

I entered on 15th February—the feast of Blessed Claude la Colombière. But, I took vows on 2nd March, two weeks after two canonical years because one of my co-novices could not join us until 1st March. We waited for him to complete his two canonical years. Today, the life we consider is St Claude, not Blessed, because he was canonised in 1992 by John Paul II. The last miracle needed for the canonisation of Blessed Claude took place in 1989: the cure of a Jesuit suffering from a fatal lung disease--pulmonary fibrosis. A first class relic of Blessed Claude la Colombière, a small sliver of bone was placed on the dying priest's forehead and a miracle was prayed for. Three days later, the Jesuit, Father Houle's condition was greatly improved and, to the amazement of his doctors, X-rays showed that the pulmonary fibrosis had completely disappeared. There was no scientific explanation for the sudden turnabout of the condition. According to his doctor, the Jesuit was too far gone for any reversal of his condition. [1]

St Claude la Colombière cannot be separated from another Saint: Margaret Mary Alacoque who is associated with the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But his life has its own drama. He was born near Lyons in 1641 and entered the Society of Jesus at Avignon. After his novitiate, he taught grammar and the humanities. Even before his ordination to the priesthood, he gained a reputation as a preacher. After completing his studies in Paris, he became tutor to the sons of Colbert, the finance minister of Louis XIV, but was dismissed from his post and returned to Avignon. In 1675, after his solemn profession as a Jesuit, he was appointed superior at Paray-le-Monial, in which the convent of St. Margaret Mary was located. Here he became her spiritual director and encouraged her in the spread of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Because of his remarkable gifts and judgment, he was sent to England, to be court preacher to the duchess of York, Mary Beatrice D’Este, wife of the future James II, and took up residence in London. His radiant personality and splendid gifts were noted by everyone. When the alleged "Popish Plot" to assassinate King Charles II shook the country, St Claude was accused of complicity in the plot and imprisoned. Through the intervention of Louis XIV of France, he was released, then banished from the country. He spent his last years at Paray-le-Monial, his health broken by tuberculosis caught whilst imprisoned. He died on February 15, 1682, an apostle of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Why did I choose him? First, the readings both make mention of the heart—conversion and how one ought to love with one’s heart, soul and mind—one’s entirety. Friday is also traditionally dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So, who more appropriate than the Apostle of the Sacred Heart?

In St Claude, we have a priest of great sensitivity—a sensitivity of spirit needed to recognise the truth of the revelation that St. Margaret Mary received. She was thought to be delusional by her sceptical sisters in the community and she suffered as a result their disbelief. She received assurance from the Lord, however, that he was sending her his "faithful servant and perfect friend".

What is of interest to us is that “sensitivity” can also border on scrupulosity. In fact, during his tertianship, he felt moved to take a special private vow to obey all the rules of the Society in the strictest manner possible. In this, there is some kind of affinity between him and St Thérèse because the focus on minutiae can lead to scrupulosity. In other words, meticulous or conscientious is good but overly leads to anxiety. This is where his life cuts into ours. Scrupulosity is an obsessive tendency to see as grave sin what is venial sin or even no sin. A person suffering from scrupulosity often keeps remembering and confessing past sins that have been absolved through sacramental confession.

At the other end of the spectrum of scrupulosity is the tendency to rationalise away or minimise what is truly a serious sin. So, you can see that the other side of the scrupulous coin is “rationalisation”—the tendency to “explain” everything away—a form of the deadening of the conscience. I think many of us belong to this category. We have lost the sensitivity to sin and its consequences. Saints such as Claude challenge our world of deadened conscience personally as well as collectively, to take care not to rationalise our behaviour in the name of personal development, or progress. Have you ever wondered why right after the greeting “The Lord be with you” we enter into the penitential rite? Have you felt disjointed that after the “riotous” entrance hymn, we immediately go into this breast-beating rite, that it does not make sense? It may stem from the fact that we have lost the sense of sin. If a few of us err on the side of “scrupulosity”, then many of us err on the side of an eclipsed conscience.

Thus, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the recently approved devotion to the Divine Mercy do not make sense unless we recognise that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. His prayer in times of despair helps us appreciate this fact. “Lord, I am in this world to show Your mercy to others. Other people will glorify You by making visible the power of Your grace by their fidelity and constancy to You. For my part I will glorify You by making known how good You are to sinners, that Your mercy is boundless and that no sinner no matter how great his offences should have reason to despair of pardon. If I have grievously offended You, my Redeemer, let me not offend You even more by thinking that You are not kind enough to pardon me. Amen”.

Second, I choose St Claude because he is a good model of what a priest can be. He was an unspectacular man. Much of his fame cannot be divorced from that of St Margaret Mary. It was only subsequently that he came into his own. He knows what it really means to play second fiddle as in the words of our Allah-priest himself: Always the bridesmaid but never the bride. Saints are those who live exactly what St John the Baptist has taught us: “He must increase and I must decrease”. But, he is a good model because Christ called him “a faithful servant and a perfect friend”. In effect, Christ was saying: “Here is a man after My own Heart”. And, what has St John Baptist Mary Vianney to say about the priesthood? “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Christ”.

Finally, the novena has come to its conclusion. Why are we celebrating this? When everything around us is changing, and changing too fast, we need anchors or foundations. Tradition, to name one, is a kind of foundation. Do you know why Hitler’s National Socialism was appealing? From our vantage point of view, we can see how wrong Nazism was but yet many bought into it lock, stock and barrel.

With the Industrial Revolution, individuals were reduced to faceless individuals. There is some truth that God has carved us into the palm of His hand… we are not nameless. He knows every one of us by name and every hair on our head is counted. There is something inherently transcendental in our looking for recognition; to be known as God knows us.

When people find that on one day they have a job and the next day, they don’t and they are basically a number in a statistic, you find that they will look for something to fill the vacuum of namelessness. So, it seemed that Hitler came at the “right time” to fill an unfortunate vacuum.

With our novena we are in a process of re-forming our tradition—consolidating the anchor which allows a Catholic, through the changes of life, to point to something which says, "It is a rock I can stand on"; the anchor I can rely on. And this is proven for so many of you; when you look back, you find markers in your life which for you are constants in a sea of change. Those of you who have the experience of the Latin Mass or those whose educational background was a missionary school, you remember the constants, that after many years, these constants remain foundational and they give you a sense of continuity. Now, if you put this into a bigger picture, you begin to see why “divorce” is prohibited by the Church. Children need the constancy of the father and mother’s relationship in order to navigate the turbulence of life. We are not engaged in the creation of nostalgia. Instead, it is a conscious effort to anchor the parish in the big picture. Without this anchor, the whole work of justice is at best our knee-jerk reaction. The anchor of tradition and constancy provide us with a stability to engage in the sanctification of the world. Tradition frees us from the task of re-inventing the wheel so that our energy can be spent unfolding the gifts of Baptism. What we are doing put us within the frame of a bigger picture that is meaningful in the sense that it has an intention—that intention is God’s vision for the world. Baptism and all the sacraments and sacramentals which a novena is, are directed to the unfolding of that vision.
[1] Relics! We have one here from St Francis Xavier. The important point is that relics are not unscriptural. On the contrary, Christian veneration of relics has biblical foundation. Miracles were worked through both the cloak of Elijah and the bones of Elisha. In the Acts of the Apostles we see people healed by coming into contact with handkerchiefs touched by St. Paul. Of course, from Christ Himself, the woman with haemorrhage was healed by touching the hem of His cloak. St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate version of the Bible, gives us the proper attitude towards relics: "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than the creator but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order to better adore Him, whose martyrs they are". At Cologne in 2005 Pope Benedict summed up the part relics play in the life of the Church: "By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of the martyrs and saints, the Church does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones, but they are bones that belonged to individuals touched by the transcendent power of God”.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 8th Day, 11th March 2010

From the Cliffs of Dover we cross the English Channel to a town west-northwest of Paris. Remember on the 2nd day of the novena I mentioned a Jesuit psychologist who had made the assertion that St John Baptist Mary Vianney was an idiot. Today we shall get acquainted with a person whom the same Jesuit psychologist called a neurotic: St Thérèse d’Enfant Jesus otherwise known as St Thérèse de Lisieux.
Who was she and in the line-up of saints who were priests, why she? The answer is after the “no need to re-invent the wheel” section, that is, after I have given a synopsis of her life—easily accessible through the internet.

Thérèse was born in France in 1873. Both her parents were holy and their idea of marriage was celibacy until told otherwise by a priest. They went on to have 9 children. Only 5 survived. Thérèse was the youngest. Her mother died when she was young and her eldest sister Pauline played “mother” to her for a few years. When Pauline joined the Carmelite it affected Thérèse greatly. She took ill but recovered because in her prayer she saw Mary smiled at her. When she refused to divulge more information of the alleged apparition, they thought her lying. Two other sisters, Marie and Leonie, also entered religious life, a Carmelite and a Poor Clare respectively. She was left with her last sister Celine and her father. She was spoilt to the point that she thought making her bed was a great favour to her father.

She was a sensitive child and she cried at the slightest criticism. She wanted to join the Carmelites but the superior refused to take her because she was considered too young. She went to the Bishop but he too refused her request. To take her mind off the idea, both Celine and her father brought her on a pilgrimage to Rome.

There at a general audience with the Pope, even though forbidden to speak, she took the chance to ask the Pope. She had to be carried out by two guards. At 15, she was allowed to join Pauline and Marie. In the convent, all romantic ideas of religious life evaporated.

There began a time of suffering when she experienced such dryness in prayer and yet there was this reaching out in her that yearned to perform great deeds for God. But, she knew the restrictions imposed by a cloistered life. This may explain why she was considered to be neurotic. How to love despite the constraints of the cloister? “Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love." These little sacrifices cost her more than bigger ones, for these went unrecognised by others. When Pauline was elected prioress, she asked Thérèse for the ultimate sacrifice. Three sisters in a convent gave rise to fear of domination by the Martin family. So, Thérèse remained a novice, in order to allay the fears of the others that the three sisters would push everyone else around. She would never become a fully professed nun and that meant she would always have to ask permission for everything she did. [Later Celine also joined and four sisters in a convent constituted a fifth of the population.]

e always wanted to be a saint but she found herself short when compared to the saints. She was not discouraged: “God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new”.

At times she expressed her desire to be a priest, a martyr, a crusader etc. But, in the end, she saw charity as the key to her vocation. “I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood that Love comprised all vocations, that Love was everything, that it embraced all times and a word, that it was eternal! Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my vocation, at last I have found it...My vocation is Love!"

In 1896, she coughed up blood but kept working without telling anyone until she became so sick a year later that everyone knew it. Her pain was so great that she said that if she had not had faith she would have taken her own life without hesitation. But she tried to remain smiling and cheerful—and succeeded so well that some thought she was only pretending to be ill. She was famous for this quote which the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites in teaching on the Communion of Saints and on why we can ask the Saints to intercede for us. "I will return," she said. "My heaven will be spent doing good on earth". She died at the age of 24 years old. After she died, her writings were put together and sent to other convents. Thérèse's "little way" of trusting in Jesus to make her holy and relying on small daily sacrifices instead of great deeds appealed to the thousands of Catholics and others who were trying to find holiness in ordinary lives. By 1925 she was canonised barely 28 years after her death.

Why St Thérèse? I have included her here for two reasons. First, it was briefly mentioned earlier that she wanted to be a priest. This is not the reason why she has been included in the novena simply because she had expressed also her desire, apart from a crusader and a martyr, to be an apostle, a doctor and a fighter. Her desire for priesthood was an expression of her devotion to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament. “I want to be a priest. How lovingly I would carry You in my hands when You came down from heaven at my call. How lovingly I would bestow You on men's souls. And yet, with all this desire to be a priest, I've nothing but admiration and envy for the humility of St. Francis. I would willingly imitate him in refusing the honour of the priesthood”.

Secondly, her inclusion is relevant because she is representative of what life truly is for so many of us. Today, the definition of meaning—as in a meaningful life—is so skewed that meaning is perhaps closer to excitement when in reality meaning is to be found in the mundane—the cooking of a meal unappreciated by husband and children and whose comments, if at all, are usually negative; the changing of diapers so soon after the last one; the daily grind of attending to annoyed clients or customers. She has shown us that nothing is too insignificant for the life of grace. This life of grace is necessary to support the mission of the Church.

She is the Patroness of the Missions not because she gallivanted throughout the world but because of her special love for the missions, and the prayers and letters she gave in support of priest-missionaries. All sacrifices embraced willingly become the merits to be applied for the goodness of the Body of Christ—a reminder to all of us who feel we contribute nothing; a reminder that it is the little things that keep God's kingdom growing. She prayed for priests and she invites everyone to do so: "O Jesus, eternal Priest, keep your priests within the shelter of Your Sacred Heart, where none may touch them. Keep unstained their anointed hands, which daily touch Your Sacred Body. Keep unsullied their lips, daily purpled with Your Precious Blood. Keep pure and unearthly their hearts, sealed with the sublime mark of the priesthood. Let Your holy love surround them and shield them from the world's contagion. Bless their labours with abundant fruit and may the souls to whom they minister be their joy and consolation here and in heaven their beautiful and everlasting crown. Amen".

In summary, her entire Carmelite vocation was closely linked to the priesthood as she consecrated her life to priests, to be "the apostle of the apostles." She embraced the vocation of praying for the spiritual renewal and the mission of priests even as she understood the human weakness and sinfulness of priests. Let me read to you something I got off the internet.

In the "Story of a Soul" we read how Thérèse understood the vocation of Carmel: “I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, although their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men. If holy priests, whom Jesus in His gospel calls ‘the salt of the earth’, show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers, what is to be said of those who are tepid? Didn't Jesus say too: ‘If the salt loses its savour, wherewith will it be salted?’. How beautiful is the vocation which has as its aim the preservation of the salt destined for souls! This is Carmel's vocation since the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles. We are to pray for them while they are preaching to souls, through their words and especially through their examples". (Story of a Soul, tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. p.122).

Thérèse never lost faith that the priesthood could be as Jesus envisioned it. And she prayed for priests not for their own sake, but for the sake of those God called them to serve: "Our mission as Carmelites is to form evangelical workers who will save thousands of souls whose mothers we shall be”.

In the Year for Priests, so much prayer is needed so that priests may fulfil their vocation. Thérèse wrote this to her sister Celine: "Let us convert souls. We must form many priests who love Jesus and who handle Him with the same tenderness with which Mary handled Him in His cradle". Through your sacrifices and prayers, you are united with Thérèse, the Patroness of the Missions. So, do not underestimate yourselves.

As an aside, do you know that both her parents—Louis and Marie Martin--have been beatified? This shows how important the role of parents is in the nurturing of vocations. Their beatification is a challenge to a particular schizophrenia in our thinking. Often we excuse our children when they are unruly. The usual excuse given is: "They are just children". But, whenever a child shows a whiff of prodigy-like characteristic, parents do not hesitate subjecting them to the disciplines of music, arts etc. They are never too young to be a child-prodigy. However, when it comes to Church, they are just too young to behave and they have to be fed, entertained, and etc. Schizophrenia!!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 7th Day, 10th March 2010

An Act of Parliament (1571) during the reign of Elizabeth made it high treason to question the queen’s title as the head of the Church of England. Through this Act, the practice of Roman Catholicism was rendered treasonable. The Act also authorised the confiscation of the property of Roman Catholics. Between 1577 and 1603, 183 English Catholics were put to death for their faith. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, some 600 Catholics died in the persecutions; some were executed for offences as trivial as obtaining a papal licence to marry.

It is to this unfortunate period of Christian history that we encounter our Saint for the 7th Day of the Novena of Grace: St Edmund Campion—the most famous of the English martyrs.

Campion was born of Catholic parents who later became Protestants. He attended St. John's College, Oxford, where he gained renown as a lecturer and a following of students who called themselves "Campionites." When he was 26 years old, he gave a speech of welcome in Latin to Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Oxford; he made such an impression on the queen that she and Lords Cecil and Leicester tried to recruit him for her service. He probably took the Oath of Supremacy, and was ordained a deacon for the Established Church. But, the more he studied to be a priest, the more convinced he became that the Catholic Church had the true faith. He moved to Dublin in 1569 in an effort to find a place to live as a Catholic, but the Irish capital showed an anti-Catholic feeling that drove him back to London. In June 1571 he left England for Douai, Belgium where the recently founded English College trained seminarians for England.

Campion finished his degree in 1573 and set out soon after for Rome with the intention of becoming a Jesuit. Within a month of his arrival in Rome, he was accepted into the Society. At that time there was neither an English province nor an English mission, so he was assigned to the Austrian province and went to Prague and Brno to make his novitiate. He remained in Prague after he took vows and was ordained there, expecting to spend the rest of his life teaching in that city. He wrote and directed plays for his students and won renown as an orator.

When the Jesuits decided to open a mission in England, he was one of the first to be assigned to it. English spies in Holland learnt of his impending departure and informed the English ports of entry, who awaited their arrival. He disguised himself as a Mr Edmonds, a jewellery merchant. He was questioned by port authorities but managed to slip through their surveillance.

In London he wrote a manifesto of his mission which became known as “Campion’s Brag”. The intent of the mission was religious, not political. It was so well-written that copies were made and widely distributed to confirm Catholics in their faith. He moved on to Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. He would stay at a Catholic house for one or two nights or visit households where Catholics were employed. The pattern of his visit was to arrive during the day, preach and hear confessions during the evening, and then celebrate Mass in the morning before moving on to the next location. He composed a book addressed to the academic world entitled Rationes decem ("Ten Reasons") which gave arguments to prove the truth of Catholicism and the falsity of Protestantism.

His freedom to minister to Catholics soon ended when he was betrayed by a professional priest-hunter pretending to be a Catholic. He was caught with two other priests.

The three were taken to the Tower of London on July 22, where Campion was put in a cell so small he could neither stand upright nor lie down. After three days there he was brought to Leicester house, where he met Queen Elizabeth for a second time. She offered him the opportunity to renounce his Catholic faith and become a Protestant minister, with the offer of great advancement. He refused and was returned to his cell; five days later he was tortured on the rack. The government determined that he should be executed, but they needed a stronger charge than the fact that he was a Catholic priest. They cooked up the charge that he had conspired to take the life of the queen, and had exhorted foreigners to invade the country and had entered England with the intent of fomenting rebellion to support the invaders. At his trial Campion attempted to defend all the priests by pointing out that their motives were religious, not political; but they were found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The priests joined in singing the Te Deum when they heard the verdict.

Campion remained in chains for another 11 days, and then was dragged through the muddy streets of London to Tyburn. With him were Alexander Briant, a Jesuit and Father Ralph Sherwin, a diocesan priest. There they were executed.

Edmund Campion together with Alexander Briant, Edmund Arrowsmith, David Lewis, Henry Morse, Henry Walpole, Nicholas Owen, Philip Evans, Robert Southwell and Thomas Garnet, all Jesuits, belong to the group of Martyrs collectively known as the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. These 40 Martyrs, which the Church in England celebrates every year on 25th Oct, died between 1535 and 1679.

Is St Edmund relevant? For the matter of speaking, are the forty canonised so recently, relevant? For example, the “Rationes decem gave arguments to prove the truth of Catholicism and the falsity of Protestantism”. Such language is no longer used today, certainly not in official Catholic teachings. In fact, the Church has made great strides in ecumenical dialogue with the Anglicans and Lutherans. The polemical language of the past has now given way to conciliatory language of the present. Apart from the occasional hiccoughs, like the Declaration Dominus Iesus, [1] the general tone of ecumenical relationship is markedly peaceful.

His relevance is perhaps found in this maxim: peace is not the absence of war. His brag, even though arrogant in tone, was manifestly a declaration that his stance was religious and not political. He wanted to defend his faith in the Catholic Church which he had come to recognise to be the best representation of what the Church of Christ should be. A good way to understand this is through question. For Fr Campion, the Catholic Church is the answer to this question: “Where in history can one locate the Church founded by Christ”? Thus, you can appreciate that his defence concerns the truth. Where is it to be found?

In the context of today, defence of the faith—the search for Christ’s Church—is through dialogue. This is a primary method of reaching the truth. Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are both instruments of the defence in the sense that we no longer need to use force to justify our stance but instead we must rely on the unforced force of the better argument. However, if we were to go deeper, truth is more than just a better argument. Where is the truth to be found? In our case, this is an important question because the truth is not an idea, it is not democratic, it is not an ideology, and it is not relative. Truth is a person because Christ Himself declared: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. Therefore, in Christianity, Truth is a person. Truth and Christ are synonymous because Truth does not hover behind Christ. Christ is Truth. This truth comes to us in history as Man [the Incarnation] and in the new economy [dispensation] of salvation through His Church—namely through teachings [creed], governance [code] and sacraments [cult].

No less relevant to this dialogue is apologetics. The unfortunate reality is that Catholic apologetics have been relegated to the dung heap of relativism by a false notion that every expression of faith is the same as long as we declare Christ to be Saviour. Thus, there is a great need, even in the time of peace, to know why we are Catholics. Do we stand up enough for our faith because it is true? The Society of Jesus, of whom Edmund Campion was a member of, was founded precisely for that: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith. Pope Benedict XVI in his allocution to the Society of Jesus at their General Congregation 35 says this: [t]he Church is in urgent need of people of solid and deep faith, of a serious culture and a genuine human and social sensitivity, of religious priests who devote their lives to stand on those frontiers in order to witness and help to understand that there is in fact a profound harmony between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice and action for peace. Only thus, will it be possible to make the face of the Lord known to so many for whom it remains hidden or unrecognisable.

Thirdly, and this is where we begin to realise that there is something antithetical between faith and the world as expressed by the Evangelist John: We are in the world but we are not of the world. Thus, one must be ready to die for one’s faith. The circumstances surrounding Edmund Campion’s death may be unfortunate because the question of faith became entangled with politics and it was often settled by torture and murder. But, the fact was that loyalty to Christ and his Church was incompatible with loyalty to King. Just like the first reading, when we choose God, we will find opposition from the world. Part of life’s conversion is to come to this. Only then can we speak of martyrdom.

In conclusion, these men who died for the faith must be a challenge to each and every one of us to know why we are Catholics in the first place. Sentiments aside, there must be a determined desire to go deeper into the reason for being a Catholic. Otherwise, those who defended and died for the faith would have done so in vain.
[1] Every now and then the Church comes up with official pronouncement which seems to throw a spanner into the ecumenical work. For example, when Pope Benedict was the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Declaration Dominus Iesus created a major furore when it made the distinction between true particular churches and ecclesial communities. This in effect reduced the co-called Lutheran church into an “ecclesial community”—it was considered to be some kind of condescension.

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 6th Day, 9th March 2010

From Spain we cross the Atlantic and we surf over the Andes to a country thin and long, a country quite in the limelight these days but for the wrong reason. We shall get acquainted with a man so close to us in time and yet quite far from us in spirit. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga—the Chilean saint.

He was born in 1901; he was orphaned when he was four years old by the death of his father. His mother had to sell, at a loss, their modest property in order to pay the family’s debts. As a further consequence, Alberto and his brother had to go to live with relatives and were often moved from one family to another. From an early age, therefore, he experienced what it meant to be poor, to be without a home and at the mercy of others.

He was given a scholarship at the Jesuit College in Santiago. Here he became a member of the Sodality of Our Lady and developed a lively interest in the poor, spending time with them in the most miserable neighbourhoods every Sunday afternoon. At 16, he wanted to join the Jesuits but was told to delay so that he could take care of his mother and younger brother. He studied as he worked and graduated with a law degree from the Catholic University. When he was 22, he entered the Society of Jesus in Chile. He was sent first to Cordoba, Argentina and then to Spain. But Spain entered the Civil War and the Society was suppressed and so he continued his studies in Belgium. He was ordained a priest at 32. Armed with a doctorate in pedagogy and psychology, he returned to Chile after his tertianship in 1936.

He taught religion at Colegio San Ignacio and Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Santiago. He was entrusted with the Sodality of Our Lady for the students, and he involved them in teaching catechism to the poor. He frequently directed retreats and offered spiritual direction to many young men, accompanying several of them in their response to the priestly vocation and contributing in an outstanding manner to the formation of many Christian laymen.

In 1941 Fr Hurtado published his most famous book: “Is Chile a Catholic Country?” as he alerted to his contemporaries the grave problem of the lack of priestly vocations. The same year he was asked to assume the role of Assistant for the Youth Movement of the Catholic Action, first within the Archdiocese of Santiago and then nationally. In October 1944, while giving a retreat, he felt impelled to appeal to his audience to consider the many poor people of the city, especially the numerous homeless children who were roaming the streets of Santiago. “If Christ could come down tonight, He would repeat to you as He looked at this city, ‘I take pity on it’ and turning to you, He would tell you with great tenderness ‘You are the light of the world. You must illuminate this darkness. Who wants to work with Me? Do you want to be My apostles'?” And it was for this that he became famous: a form of charitable activity which provided not only housing but a home-like milieu for the homeless: “El Hogar de Cristo”.

By means of contributions from benefactors and with the active collaboration of committed laity, Father Hurtado opened the first house for children; this was followed by a house for women and then one for men. The poor found a warm home in “El Hogar de Cristo”. The houses multiplied and took on new dimensions; in some houses there were rehabilitation centres, in others trade-schools, and so on. All were inspired and permeated by Christian values.

In 1945 Fr Hurtado visited the United States to study the “Boys Town” movement and to consider how it could be adapted to his own country. The last six years of his life were dedicated to the development of various forms in which “El Hogar” could exist and function.

In 1947 Father Hurtado founded the Chilean Trade Union Association (ASICH) to promote a union movement inspired by the social teaching of the Church. Between 1947 and 1950, Father Hurtado wrote three important works: on trade unions, on social humanism, and on the Christian social order. In 1951 he founded “Mensaje”, the well-known Jesuit periodical dedicated to explaining the doctrine of the Church. He died from pancreatic cancer in 1952.

Within a period of 15 years, Fr Hurtado lived and accomplished all the works described above. His apostolate was the expression of a personal love for Christ the Lord characterised by a great love for poor and abandoned children, an enlightened zeal for the formation of the laity, and a lively sense of Christian social justice. Fr. Hurtado was beatified by John Paul II on October 16, 1994 and canonised by Benedict XVI 23rd Oct 2005.

At the beginning I mentioned that he was a man close to us and yet quite far away. He is temporally close to us. He lived and died within the lifetime of some of us. But he is also quite far from us. Why? Well, he is famous for his social action. In our mind we conjure up images of a man fighting to right the wrong. No doubt, with electronic media beaming images of shanty towns in the megacities of the world, we all are introduced to the immediacy and the immensity of the problem of homelessness.

But how wrong can we be? This was a man whose spirit and vision are far superior to ours and thus, the closeness of his time to ours may indeed be fortuitous but deceptive. Instead of leading us into the slums, he is actually inviting us to climb or rather to ascent the hill of spiritual perfection with our heads in the clouds and our feet firmly on the ground. What does this mean? He may be temporally near but his vision or his spirituality of social action is far superior to some of us who are involved with his type of work. His social action was centred on Christ and the Church.

In a way, his temporal proximity means that hagiography about him is more sober. But, his spirituality is neither mundane nor pedestrian. In fact, temporal proximity means that we have many of his words available to us. So, I shall let him speak to your hearts.

There are people who wish to advance in holiness but without suffering. They have not understood what it is to grow. They want to develop themselves by chant, by study, by pleasure, but not by hunger, by anguish, by failure and by hard work of each day, nor by accepting the powerlessness that teaches us to rely on God’s power, nor by letting go of their own plans, which enables us to recognise those of God. Suffering is beneficial because it shows me my limits, purifies me, makes me stretch out on Christ’s cross, forces me to turn to God.

There is a strong element of the Cross in his vision of life. He was never afraid of failure. In fact, “In Christian work, there is the triumph of failures! Delayed triumphs! In the world of the invisible, that which appears useless is the most effective. A total failure accepted wholeheartedly yields more supernatural success than any triumph. Sow, with no concern for what will grow. Continue to sow despite everything. Thank the Lord for the apostolic fruits of failures. When Christ spoke to the rich young man in the Gospel, He failed, but how many others have learnt the lesson as a result! And when He announced the Eucharist, how many fled---but yet, how many come running. Your zeal will seem still-born, but how many will live, thanks to you”.

And the Cross looms largely in this social vision too especially in the context of Church. In a way, he challenges many of our social workers especially when our vision is dichotomised by having Christ on one side and the Church on the other. The failure of so many people in the Church, especially the hierarchy is a cause of scandal—not in the sense of salacious smut but in the sense that scandal causes people to lose faith. As a result, there is a disdainful scepticism of Church authority as we tend to view the Church as a prime example of what structural sin is about. For example, the Church’s hierarchy by virtue of it being a male hierarchy is already suspect. But, this you will not find in Hurtado. It may explain why people are burnt out so often simply because a large part of the energy is expended due to this divided loyalty. To Christ, one is loyal. To the Church… hmmm, doubtful.

Hurtado's social vision was firmly rooted in Christ and the Church. We know that even as he loved the Church, in the end, he suffered at the hands of the very Church he loved. In his case, the Church was represented by Christians—people, priests, bishops of good standing and good intentions. We often think that pain is the result of a clash between a good person and a bad person. But, pain comes too despite good intentions from two good persons. Two persons may be armed to the teeth with good intentions and yet both end up hurting each other. From there was born a wisdom that says,

If someone begins to live for God, in self-denial and love for others, all possible difficulties will come knocking at his door. I am often like a rock that is battered on all sides by the towering waves. There is no way but up. For an hour, for a day, I let the waves break against the rock; I do not look toward the horizon, I lift my eyes to God. O blessed active life, entirely consecrated to my God, entirely given to neighbour. Its radicalness itself forces me to turn to God to find myself. He is the only possible way out of my worries, my only refuge”.

However, what he accomplished through his social ministry paled when compared to his spirituality. As he suffered towards the end of his life, that part of his life was marked by a joyful trust in God. “How can I not be happy? I am entirely grateful to God for it. Instead of a violent death, He has given me a long illness so that I can prepare myself. Life have been given to man so that he may cooperate with God in carrying out His plans; death is only a completion of that collaboration, a return of all our powers into the Creator’s hands. Before me, eternity. I am an arrow, shot towards eternity. May I never be attached to anything here, but in all things keep my eyes on the life to come.

So, what lessons can we derive from him? In building homes for the poor, he provided a roof, a sense of security for so many who do not have it. This is where we have something in common with Fr Hurtado. Everyone here works in order to have a roof over the head—a home. And this is where we may part ways with him. For some of us, a home is part of a good life. A good life in turn is synonymous with “life is good” and "life is good" is measured by convenience and comfort. But, a good life in spirituality is nowhere close to this. Fr Hurtado’s temporal closeness challenges us to rethink that a good life should be a life that is good—a life that is marked by goodness, not measured by convenience or comfort.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 5th Day, 8th March 2010

Yesterday we were in Spain. Today we shall linger there a little longer because the person for our inspiration is none other than John of the Cross. A brief biography will make up the first part of the homily. A more comprehensive biography is easily accessible through the internet. What is of interest to us are some of the details of his life which are relevant to the sanctity which he models for us. This will be the second part of the homily.

John was born Juan Yepes in 1542 to a poor Jewish convert family near Avila. He learnt the importance of self-sacrificing love from his parents. His father gave up wealth, status, and comfort when he married a weaver's daughter and was disowned by his noble family. After his father died, his mother kept the destitute family together as they wandered homeless in search of work. When the family finally found work, John still went hungry in the middle of the wealthiest city in Spain. At fourteen, John took a job caring for hospital patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness. He came into contact with the new order of the Society of Jesus but it was into the Carmelites that he entered. He took the name John of St Matthias. He was ordained when he was only 25 years old. He was disposed towards solitary and silent contemplation and indicated his desire to join the Carthusians order. However, he met St Teresa of Avila (Santa Teresa de Jesus) and that was to change the course of his life.

Saint Teresa of Avila asked him to help her reform the Carmelite movement. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer—a return to the primitive rule. But many Carmelites felt threatened by this reform, and some members of John's own order kidnapped him. He was locked in a cell six feet by ten feet and beaten three times a week by the monks. There was only one tiny window high up near the ceiling. It was within this narrow confine that he had many mystical experiences of God’s closeness. After nine months, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only the mystical poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets. With no idea where he was, he followed a dog to civilisation. He hid from pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. From then on his life was devoted to sharing and explaining his experience of God's love.

The followers of Ss John and Teresa differentiated themselves from the unreformed by calling themselves the “discalced”, that is, the barefooted as opposed to the “calced” Carmelites. He died in 1591, was canonised in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926. He is called the Mystical Doctor.

St John of the Cross provides some points of reflexion for us today. First point is about a cynical response to life. Second, the experience of his imprisonment highlights the reality of structural sin. Third, how do we know that we are doing God’s will?

Firstly, life’s many vicissitudes have a way of reducing us into cynics. To those who are involved with the Church, this is a grave danger. Many of us have this illusion that those who preach holiness are the ones who should live holiness. But, the Pharisees are our first teachers. Christ criticised their hypocrisy because their actions did not match their words. However, our response to hypocrisy is often a heart coarsened by cynicism. Cynics are actually hurt idealists. In St John we see the contrary. His mprisonment by his Carmelite brothers did not harden his heart. Instead, it gave birth to a compassionate mystic. He asked a pointed question: "Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?" and "Where there is no love, put love -- and you will find love." This leads us to the reality of structural sin, which is the second point.

Imagine the Carmelites Order and this young upstart reforming friar. The Carmelite friars thought that they were in the right when they imprisoned him, thinking that John’s reform disturbed the status quo. Mob mentality is no respector of status or even intelligence. So, the idea that religious life should embody everything that is of God is disabused by our long Catholic history of reform as we witness the different tides of reform that took place simply because of corruption that had crept into religious life. [1]

Long before Liberation Theology popularised the term “structural sin”, the Church already had reformers who understood the need for structures to be reformed. The Benedictine family is a great testament with their reforms: the Cluniac, the Cistersian, the Camadolese and the Trappist reforms. The Franciscans too gave us the Capuchins as one of their reforms and from the Capuchins, there is a renewal in the form of the Community of the Friars of the Renewal. Both Ss John of the Cross and Teresa de Jesus took the same path of reforming the Carmelite Friars and Nuns by embracing their primitive and stricter rules. What this says to us is this: that structures need reform because it is made up of sinful people. Structures in themselves are neutral. What make structures sinful are sinful people. And we all know the stubbornness of sin. Today’s Gospel is proof of the collective resistance to conversion. The people when pointed out their faults were indignant and they hustled Jesus out of town intending to throw Him off the cliff.

Thus, personal conversion is fundamental for any structural change. Change of structure does not guarantee that people will change. The change of state governments after the last election is a good example. Sinful structures are often protected by sinful men.

Finally, that we believe that we are doing God’s work is no guarantee that we cannot err. The detritus of history is proof enough. The more we feel inspired, the more we need to be humble. If a person feels that he or she has this fool-proof plan that God has communicated to him or her about a vision of how things are to be, it helps to think that the Devil can appear as an angel of light. The more I am convinced that I have the truth, the more I ought to be wary of the Devil’s intention. Furthermore, it is useful to know this difference: when we are persecuted, it does not mean that we are doing God’s work. It is easy to fall into this temptation when our inspiration meets opposition, that we are being persecuted for doing God’s will. Often, we are also the cause of people’s resistance.

However, what is true is the contrary. When we embark upon God’s work, we will be persecuted. The difference is very subtle. Why? There are a lot of times when we are opposed or persecuted simply because we are doing our own thing, we have an agenda, etc. But, if we persist in God’s work, know that the path will be difficult. And, only time can tell if our inspiration is of God and the only way forward is humility and deep faith in God. If I am mightily convinced that what I am doing is God’s will, then let my humility be even greater because I am nothing more than a servant and secondly God’s enterprise cannot be stopped.

Finally, I leave you with an inspiration of St Ignatius, a contemporary of St John of the Cross, whose humility teaches us an important lesson. There was a Cardinal named Giovanni Carafa who was really opposed to the founding of the Society of Jesus. He had founded his own so-called society of priests, called the Theatines. He felt that the ideals of the Society of Jesus were similar to his priestly order and was of the opinion that anyone who wanted to be a Jesuit should join the Theatines instead. As fate would have it, Carafa was elected Pope Paul IV. St Ignatius was reputed to have trembled when he heard that news. He was asked what he would do if the Pope were to suppressed the Society of Jesus. Ignatius’ answer was simply this: “I would spend 15 minutes in prayer and I will think nothing of it after”.
[1] Just as an aside, the health of the Church can be measured by the health of religious life. The Preface of Virgins and Religious gives a clue to why I make this assertion. It says: Today we honour your saints who consecrated their lives to Christ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. What love you show us as you recall mankind to its first innocence, and invite us to taste on earth the gifts of the world to come. If anything, religious life is to be the embodiment of the eschatological community to come. They are to reflect, by their love, what the new earth is to be like. If you like, if you see religious life, you see heaven—as taste on earth of the gifts of the world to come. Religious life is a form of beatific vision granted not to mystics but rather to those who are caught very much in time and space. However, the truth is religious life is often hell and there is no greater scandal and a source of cynicism than brothers or sisters in religious life fighting it out. However, this is where grace comes in. Where human efforts fail, we must continually turn to God to tame the pride that separates us. The making of a religious community is truly a work of grace and not of our machination. It can only be crafted from humility and conversion.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 4th Day, 7th March 2010

Yesterday we were in Poland. Today we cross into southern Europe to the western frontier of the Mediterranean. The 4th day of the Novena of Grace allows a glimpse into the life of St Francis Borgia—the 3rd Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Who was he? On his father’s side, the great grandfather was the most notorious of all Popes, Alexander VI. On his mother’s side, his great grandfather was King Ferdinand of Aragon. In iconography, our saint is sometimes portrayed as carrying a skull. That shows us how the grace of God works mysteriously and we will come to this later. With such illustrious ancestry, one can expect Francis to be part of the Hapsburg court. In fact, he became a Duke when he was only thirty-three and he lived a happy, peaceful life with his wife Eleanor and their eight children.

When his beloved wife died, Francis did something that astonished the nobility of Spain; he gave up his Dukedom to his son Charles and became a Jesuit priest. So many people came to his first Mass that they had to set up an altar outdoors, but his Superior tested him by treating him in exactly the opposite way he had been used to all his forty-one years of life. He who had once been a Duke had to help the cook, carrying wood for the fire and sweeping the kitchen. When he served food to the priests and brothers, he had to kneel down in front of them all and beg them to forgive him for being so clumsy! Still he never once complained or grumbled. The only time he became angry was when anyone treated him with respect as if he was still a Duke. Once a doctor who had to take care of a painful wound Francis had gotten said to him: "I am afraid, my Lord, that I have to hurt your grace." The saint answered that he, the doctor, would not hurt him more than he was right then by calling him "my Lord" and "your Grace." It was not too long before the humble priest accomplished wonderful works for God's glory as he preached everywhere and advised many important people. He fostered the spread of the Society of Jesus all over Spain and in Portugal. At the time when he entered the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola was still alive and this meant that the Society of Jesus was still a very young religious order. He was elected Superior General of the Jesuits, succeeding Laynez. Under him, missionaries were sent all over the world and the Jesuits also grew to be of great help to the Church in many lands. Through all success, St. Francis Borgia remained humble. He died unspectacularly in 1572, was beatified in 1624 and canonised by Clement X in 1671. His body was venerated at the Society’s house in Madrid until the revolutionaries of the Spanish Civil War destroyed the residence in 1931. His charred remains were collected and transferred to a Jesuit church in another location in Madrid.

How can we connect the life of Francis Borgia to the 3rd Sunday of Lent? Here, I would like to draw a few things together. First, according to our liturgy, we are in Year C and the Gospel draws our attention to the fruitless fig tree. [I will return to this later]. Second, this week also marks the beginning of a process called the Three Scrutinies. The scrutinies are done so that the Elect, together with the baptised, may realise the power sin has over them and us, and through the rituals lead all to deepen their desire for salvation. The readings for the 1st Scrutiny are always taken from Year A and its Gospel is about the woman at the well. Through the experience of natural thirst, Christ was able to awaken the Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst. Spiritual thirst and sin are closely related. The Samaritan woman was trapped in a sinful relationship out from which she did not really see any escape. But, more importantly, she settled for a relationship she thought was the answer to her heart’s deepest longing—her spiritual thirst.

Like her, all of us thirst for something greater than we are—that is spiritual thirst—and sin promises us that it will fulfil that thirst of ours. As mentioned above, spiritual thirst and sin are closely related because sin pretends to be the answer to our search. And the thing about sin is that it does initially fulfil that thirst but its fulfilment is like heroin’s high, in which one is left living from one high to another. A life of sin drives us from one sin to another giving the illusion that the next sin would be the satisfaction denied the present sin. [The closest analogy I can think of is “womanising”—a man who conquers one woman after another, thinking that this last conquest will be the final conquest but it is never enough…] So, in speaking to the Samaritan woman, Christ promised that He alone would quench what her heart had been searching for from man to man. It is only when we turn from sin and turn to Christ that we will find the living water to quench our spiritual thirst. Following Christ satisfies us more than we can imagine.

We now turn to today’s Gospel which is about the fruitless fig tree. The parable of the fig tree and the thirst for the water of life both direct our attention to the need to examine our lives and they urge us to seek what leads to life. St Francis Borgia is a good example of what it means to seek life—as he found his spiritual thirst satisfied.

In 1539, Isabella the Empress of Charles V died unexpectedly. Now this was where the grace of conversion took place, not that Francis was in any way dissolute in his behaviour. He accompanied the cortege of the Empress to Granada to be buried at the Royal Chapel. Francis, together with Bishops and nobles accompanied the body to the southern city. The entourage arrived 15 days later and after Mass had been celebrated and before the placing of the body in the tomb, it had to be opened for the official recognition of the body. Francis saw not the once beautiful face of the 36-year old queen but a face beyond recognition. He exclaimed: “Never again, never again, will I serve a master who can die on me”. He understood the tragic transitoriness of human life and material possessions. This is why he is pictured carrying a skull to remind him that life is more than what we are able to make of here.

Many of us are more like Francis Borgia rather than the Samaritan woman. We are not living dissolute lives. In fact, many of us might be living what we call decent lives. We enjoy life and we like a comfortable life. All these are not bad. And if you really think about it, there is really no “choice” when it comes to good or bad. We always choose the good. But, in our case, when everything seems to be good, choosing means we choose something better.

And this is where we cross path with the Samaritan woman as the rigours of Lent provide us with the chance to look beyond. The fruitless fig tree comes as a reminder to those of us who have been baptised to reflect if our lives have been fruitful or fruitless and that there are consequences beyond this life which we must take into account of. If we are living a dissolute life, it is time to change; it is time to seriously think about the trajectory of our lives and its consequence.

But, if we are not resolute and we are living decent lives, perhaps, decent is not enough. It has to be more so that, like Francis Borgia and the Samaritan woman, we come to acknowledge the source for our completion is to be found in none other than Christ Himself.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 3rd Day, 6th March 2010

Yesterday we were in France. Today we cross into Poland. Some time into the night, the train from Prague to Krakow is bound to cross a city the Poles called Oswiencim which we otherwise know as Auschwitz. Our saint today leads us there: St. Maximilian Kolbe—a Conventual Franciscan.

His life story is not easy to tell within a space of 20 minutes so I shall delve into some salient points for our edification. First, the role that Mary played in his life. Second, I would list some of his achievements. Third, I would like to say something about his martyrdom and how it is connected to us today.

First, Maximilian was a precocious child when at 12 his life changed after a vision of Our Lady. "That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white and the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both".

To understand Maximillian’s (and also John Paul II’s) devotion to Our Lady is to understand the Polish psyche. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is more than an icon of religious reverence. Her status as an emblem of Polish nationalism dates back to the Swedish invasion of 1655. The Swedes surrounded the monastery Jasna Gora for 40 days whilst the monks prayed to Our Lady for deliverance. Finally, the Poles prevailed, driving the Swedes out of the country. King Jan Kazimierz, in gratitude, dedicated his throne and the country to "the Virgin Mary, Queen of Poland." Furthermore, if you look at a series of maps demarcating the border of Poland down the centuries, you would find the boundary of the country ebbing left or right subjected to the cruel tide of political expediency. Furthermore, we have here a country in which one day you are Polish by nationality and the next you become either a Ukrainian or a Prussian. Thus, the only thing constant for the Polish psyche was their Catholicism and their devotion to Our Lady is unparalleled. This is the reason why she featured largely in the spiritual vision of Maximillian (and also John Paul II). [To those who do not understand, it feels “idolatrous”].

Secondly, what were some of his achievements? He was famous for at least three things. A) Neipokalanow. B) For his print and broadcast media and C) For his missionary endeavour to Japan. He founded a friary which he named the City of the Immaculate or Niepokalanow. This project grew to become the large friary that was self-sustaining. In 1939, it housed 762 inhabitants: 13 priests, 18 novices, 527 brothers, 122 boys in the junior seminary and 82 candidates for the priesthood. No matter how many labourers were in the vineyard, there was always work for more. Among the inhabitants of Niepokalanow there were doctors, dentists, farmers, mechanics, tailors, builders, printers, gardeners, shoemakers, cooks. The place was entirely self-supporting.

His media output was astounding. For example, the demands for Knight of the Immaculate, a publication, at its heights reached to about 750,000. There was no doubt that Niepokalanow was going from strength to strength, a unique situation within Poland. The results of the work done there were becoming apparent. Priests in parishes all over the country reported a tremendous upsurge of faith, which they attributed to the literature emerging from Niepokalanow. In fact, years later, after the war, the Polish bishops sent an official letter to the Holy See claiming that Fr Kolbe's magazine had prepared the Polish nation to endure and survive the horrors of the war that was soon to follow.

His mission to Japan was a repeated formula of Niepokalanow, though on a smaller scale. With nothing, he went, trusting in Mary. When asked whether he had money to finance it, he replied: "Money? It will turn up somehow or other. Mary will see to it. It's her business and her Son's".

Such faith he had and that leads me to the third point which was his martyrdom.

He was arrested in 1941, February 17. As a religious he was singled out for harsh treatment. He was deported to Auschwitz in May and there he was branded with the number 16670. He was put to hard labour and despite having only one lung, he did not complain. The commandant conceived a relentless hatred against him giving him heavier tasks than the others. Sometimes his colleagues would try to come to his aid but he would not expose them to danger. Always he replied, "Mary gives me strength. All will be well". At this time he wrote to his mother, "Do not worry about me or my health, for the good Lord is everywhere and holds every one of us in His great love". In Auschwitz, where hunger and hatred reigned and faith evaporated, this man opened his heart to others and spoke of God's infinite love. He seemed never to think of himself. When food was brought in and everyone struggled to get his place in the queue so as to be sure of a share, Fr Maximilian stood aside, so that frequently there was none left for him. At other times he shared his meagre ration of soup or bread with others. He was once asked whether such self-abnegation made sense in a place where every man was engaged in a struggle or survival, and he answered: "Every man has an aim in life. For most men it is to return home to their wives and families, or to their mothers. For my part, I give my life for the good of all men".

In reprisal for an escaped prisoner, ten men were chosen to die. Fr Kolbe chose to take the place of a prisoner: Franciszek Gajowniczek. The ten condemned men were led off to the dreaded Bunker, to the airless underground cells where men died slowly without food or water. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Fr Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS (Schutzstaffel, the elite military section of the Nazi party) men. Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Fr Kolbe was left. The authorities felt it was too long as the cell was needed for new victims. So they gave Fr Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid. With that he died.

The heroism of Fr Kolbe echoed through Auschwitz. In that desert of hatred he had sown love. "The life and death of this one man alone," wrote the Polish bishops, "can be proof and witness of the fact that the love of God can overcome the greatest hatred, the greatest injustice, even in death itself". He was beatified on 17th October 1971 and canonised by John Paul II on 10th Oct 1982.

On the third day of our Novena we ask what relevance is he to us. At his canonisation, he was declared a martyr. A person is declared a martyr only if he or she died for the faith; what we call “odium fidei”. But, he did not exactly die from hatred for the faith. The correct title for him would be a “confessor” but that John Paul called him a “martyr” is relevant if you remember that he was offered both crowns: the white and the red. Very few of us are called to red martyrdom. Instead, most of us are called to white martyrdom. It means that we are called not to shed our blood in defence of the faith but to die daily for love. This is a form of protracted martyrdom which is even more painful than shedding the blood at one go.

Today, the couples involved with the CMPC [Catholic Marriage Preparatory Course] met and they discussed how they wanted to update the programme they use for preparing couples to get married. What they do fits in with what is relevant to us. In the Gospel, Jesus gave the parable of the “fruitless” fig tree. In the context of marriage fruitfulness is not restricted to just having children. Fruitfulness is better understood as a subset of holiness. Married couples are called to holiness and their holiness is fruitful and therefore life-giving. This holiness to which married couples are called is a form of martyrdom. Marriage is a form of martyrdom. Christ said, “No greater love a man has than to lay down his life for his friends”. We think of friends in a generic sense, just like how we think of Christ’s other commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you”. We seldom think that these two commandments apply to marriage. But, in truth, they both apply primarily to marriage. Marriage is martyrdom because you are in a sense, laying down your life, as you cannot do what you like and when you like. You often have to consider the feeling of the other. You lose yourself for the other. It is akin to John’s “He must increase, I must decrease” and that is really painful.

Granted that most of us will never see “red” martyrdom but instead are called to white martyrdom, how are we to walk that road? This is where we encounter a modern weakness and it has to do with the perception we have of the self. A good illustration is our idea of holiness. For many of us, the idea of holiness is not about God who is holy but rather about us because we have come to believe that holiness is our gift to God which ties in with the cult of personality, the cult of the self. That is when the question of “worthiness” comes in. We always feel we are unworthy of God and we struggle to make ourselves worthy of God so that we can finally present ourselves to God. It is a futile task. We can never be worthy. Only God can make us worthy.

Thus, St Maximilian Kolbe has shown us something concerning white martyrdom. He did not plan to die. It was at the moment when he needed it most, God supplied the grace. We must trust that at the time when we most need it, God will allow us to be His instrument. The only thing left for us is to believe that He will, and in the context of the people involved with CMPC, marriage is a good example of white martyrdom because it often involves silent suffering but where there is most pain, there is also great holiness. It is much harder to live a martyr than to die one. St Maximilian Kolbe teaches us that.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 2nd Day, 5th March 2010

Do you know where the Church of St Philomena is? It is in Tampin. Today, the Church of St Philomena is known as the Church of St Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney or John Baptist Mary Vianney—the Curé d’Ars. The saint for our edification and sanctification is him. He had a particular devotion to St Philomena. Who was Philomena? Well, in1802, bones were discovered in the catacombs of St Priscilla in Rome in a tomb shelf marked out to be the bones of a martyred girl: Filumena. After the discovery, popular devotion took off and even though this cult never achieved official Church sanction, John Vianney had devotion enough to build a chapel in his parish in her honour. In 1961, the feast was removed from the Universal Church calendar. For us, it was one of the quirks of historical coincidence that the parish of St Philomena should be re-dedicated to St John Baptist Mary Vianney.

So who is he? I remember a lecture given once by a Jesuit psychologist. This psychologist classified John Vianney as an idiot because he had the intelligence of an idiot. And there is some truth to this assertion. He was born on May 8, 1786 in the village of Dardilly in France. After serving a time in the army during the Napoleonic period he entered seminary formation to become a priest. He had a very difficult time. He struggled with all of his studies, particularly with Latin. Many, including his formation directors and instructors in the seminary and his own bishop, had very serious doubts that this man, who did not have strong intellectual gifts, would be suitable for the priesthood. However, John Vianney persevered and finally was ordained a priest in 1815. His bishop, acting on his estimation of this new priest as a man of few gifts, sent him to the remotest backwater village of his diocese, the village of Ars. This was a village of about 200 people. That he was born at the turn of the century is important to note. The French Revolution brought about freedom but also the political upheaval set France along the path secularism. Ars was no exception. There it was that Fr John was to labour. He spent the rest of his life there except for one brief period when he tried to flee the duties and pressures of parish life and to find a quiet place where he could pray in peace and solitude. That was not in God's plan for him and he soon returned to Ars.

He was a man of great dedication to his call to be a priest and to serve his people. He preached in a very simple manner, had a great love of the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Mother and as mentioned above, a special devotion to St. Philomena. Through his work as a confessor he brought about a spiritual renewal that touched not only the people of his parish but all of France. He regularly spent 14 to 18 hours a day in the confessional surviving on only a few hour of sleep and a diet of boiled potatoes. He was abstemious because he would boil his potatoes all at once, to be eaten over a few days. In order to prevent rats from attacking his potatoes, he would string them up and hang them from the ceiling. Often the potatoes would be covered with a layer of mould. But, as the word spread of his extraordinary abilities as a confessor, thousands, including bishops and aristocracy made the journey to Ars in order to receive his spiritual counsel. Thus a man who started his life as one whom very few thought would ever amount to anything became, by the time of his death in 1859, the vehicle for thousands of conversions.

What lessons can we learn from this man, this so-called idiot? He said something about the priesthood which would sound alien to many of our ears: "Since the priest is important, he will only be understood in Heaven. If we were to understand him on this earth, we would die of love”. And: “After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish without a priest for 20 years and beasts will be worshipped there". These two quotes do sound alien to us and understandably so. For one, they seem to exalt the priest.

So, a question to ask is this: What does he mean that if we understand the priest, we would die of love? To appreciate his sentiments, one has to look into his understanding of the Eucharist. He has this to say of the Eucharist: "All the good works in the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men; but the Mass is the work of God. Martyrdom is nothing in comparison for it is but the sacrifice of man to God; but the Mass is the sacrifice of God for man”. And further, he says, “If I were to meet a priest and an angel, I would greet the priest first and then the angel.... If there were no priest, the passion and death of Jesus would serve no purpose. What use is a treasure chest full of gold if there is no one who can unlock it? The priest has the key to the treasures of Heaven”.

This sounds very much like a glorification of the priest but it is not. Instead it points primarily to the place the sacrament of Holy Order has in the economy of salvation. It is certainly not about the priest. Here, at least two comments may be made about his exalted view of the priesthood.

First, it challenges us on our understanding of the Blessed Sacrament. Never mind that people come to Church dressed inappropriately, etc. To focus on dressing or to insist on behaviour is to miss the fundamental point because our dressing or behaviour, these are shaped largely by our sense of what the Eucharist is. The matter of how we behave is fundamentally couched in this question. “Do we really believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ”? Reading John 6, the discourse on the bread from heaven, we realise that Christ meant every word when He said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. And unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”.

Only a priest can give us the bread of life because he alone has been given the power to confect the Eucharist, that is, to change bread and wine into no less the Body and Blood of Christ. You realise how closely related these two sacraments are. Therefore, if faith in one suffers, the other will too. My guess is that we have yet to arrive at that level of martyrdom, that is, the willingness to defend the Eucharist simply because we have not truly appreciated its meaning. We need grace!

This leads to the second point as it speaks about the man who is priest or rather it speaks to the man who is priest. I am deeply aware that many of us, even though we believe that we have been called by God to this vocation, are actually career priest or maybe “professional” priest. Many of us may have zeal in the beginning but often graduate to some form of professionalism to the point of clinical efficiency but is that a priest? St John Vianney challenges each and every priest on his understanding of what being a priest means. There is no such thing as a moment when a priest is not a priest. Even he himself knows it because he attempted to run away but was thwarted each time by his own parishioners. Thus, he who spent more than 15 hours a day hearing confession has blazed the trail for other priests to follow. This exaltation of “priesthood” is more a challenge than an exercise in adulation. Before John Vianney, every priest feels inadequate before this giant of a man.

Finally, a lesson to be learnt from this humble servant of God is that God does not choose the worthy to do great things. He chooses the willing. As mentioned before, he had difficulties in studies, particularly with Latin. His tutor was so frustrated with him one day that he yelled out in exasperation, “John, you are a total donkey!” John paused and quietly replied, “Well, if God could have Samson use the jawbone of a donkey to kill a thousand Philistines, imagine what He could do with a full donkey like me”. Really, God chooses the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to Him. Today, perhaps in our prayer for priests, we too might think of how God can use each of us in whatever station in life for His greater Glory. All He asked of is our willingness and the rest He will supply.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 1st Day, 4th March 2010

When I was studying in Dublin, my superior asked me this question during my 1st year of theology. “What do you think of ordination? How you do feel?” My answer was simply, “Nothing. Not excited nor have I thought about it”. He was not duly concerned but this question came up again in my 2nd year and my answer was the same. “I am not really bothered whether I am ordained or not. I am just happy being a Jesuit”. He showed a little concern but left it at that. And the 3rd year, the same question came up and this time he was concerned. Here was a man preparing for priesthood but had shown no interest in ordination… it revealed questions of motivation.

The answer to why I was not interested lay in this: I am a Jesuit first. The priesthood is incidental. Last night, I was talking to some people; I mentioned that for me, coming back here was some kind of an accident. I was not doing well in theology. I was coming to terms with my strengths and weaknesses. I felt that since the path to academia was too hard for me, I asked to work in the parish, believing that it would not be as challenging as academics.

(Was I wrong?)

Anyway, the fact that I am a Jesuit first and only a priest second is important. Today we embark on this journey of 9 days… a Novena of grace. First, it is grace because we have not gone down the path of mega-marketing. There have been no posters sent to other parishes. The people who are here are people who want to be here. So, I feel as if I am speaking to friends.

So, this fact of religious first and priest second is important because I want to share something, at the beginning of this 9-day journey, of the priesthood. It is not easy to say some of the things because many of us are latent conspiracy theorists, fed as we were on the hermeneutics of suspicion. Whatever is said of the priesthood is said because I am a priest defending my turf, just like some people will think that whatever comes out from Pope Benedict is the result of him trying to protect his position. If you believe strongly in conspiracy theories, then the many tensions in the Church may be explained as the “hierarchy”, be it old men, the West, the clergy, etc. protecting their own interests.

Therefore, a religious first and a priest second gives me an advantage over a diocesan priest because I should have less reason to protect my turf than a diocesan. I don’t have to “cari makan” [make a living] because I am as happy working here as I am being assigned to the garden of a big Jesuit house. Of course, I would like the big Jesuit house to be somewhere in Europe rather than in Indonesia but the fact remains that I am a Jesuit, a religious who happens to be a priest. So, let me begin.

The priesthood is never more important than today, if the Church were to be called the Church of Christ. Many of you know that you have to contend with a diminishing pool of priests. The contention is never more apparent when you face an emergency. A loved one is taken ill most suddenly and you’re caught with the dilemma that the priests of the parish are away at a meeting in Melaka and the priests of the Assumption is celebrating a funeral. Fr OC’s health complications brought this fact to the fore. The work load is not decreasing. In fact, it is mounting. What we may do and often we do is lament. We fret and since Vatican II, the best solution that we have come up with is to make more people take over some of the ministries of the priest. But give it a further thought.

Perhaps we are living a denial. We live this denial by “laicising the clergy as we clericalise the laity”. For example, the phenomenon we call “extra-ordinary” ministers of Holy Communion is taken to be a positive development of Vatican II. We experience this as a process of democratisation in the Church. We think that this phenomenon is the working out of our common priesthood conferred by our baptism. Some of us are happy that this democratisation is taking place as the laity addresses the clergy by first name. Not that it is wrong, but, this misses the whole point of the sacrament of orders or priesthood. Many have forgotten that the sacrament of priesthood is not about the man himself but rather about the Man Himself. A priest is only a priest because he is in persona Christi. So each time a priest himself feels that he should not want to be placed on the pedestal himself, he should be careful because he has confused that the pedestal was always meant for Christ not the man himself. This “misguided” humility is a confirmation that we do live in this age of self-glory—the age of the exalted individual. Every time a priest feels that he does not want to be too “priestly”, he is already confused about his priestly character, as if he were the one who gave himself the priestly character, forgetting that his priesthood is derived from the Man Himself, Christ. Whenever a priest tries not to draw attention to himself, he is already doing so because he is confusing “his priesthood” and with the “priesthood of Christ”. Most Catholics love the priests because they represent Christ. Loving the man is incidental. Sometimes we are so big-headed believing that you love us but in actual fact, you actually love the Christ in us. Loving us is always incidental!

The question perhaps is how long are we to live our denial? The vibrancy of the laity is a celebration. We are, as a whole, the envy of many Churches as they look at our BECs and say "wow". But, the rate of priest dying is higher than the rate of men joining the seminary. The fact remains and we must face this fact squarely: without the priest, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist there is no Church.

As long as the Church is shaped by these two sacraments—priesthood and Eucharist, vocation is an area which everyone must take seriously. Here, I want to be clear that I am not entering the area concerning the shape of the clergy. Meaning, I am not interested to debate how the composition of the priesthood in the future will be like. Will the ordination of women be a solution? That is the solution taken by the Anglican communion, a solution that has torn the world-wide Anglican communion apart. Or, would a Protestant model of church be more appropriate for us? These are not issues to debate, not because they don’t deserve a debate but because this is not the place for it. For me, as long as the self-understanding of Holy Mother Church is that the Church is shaped by the priesthood and the Eucharist, we must look much deeper into our estimation of the sacrament of holy orders.

Part of our difficulty is because we do not see the priest but instead we see the man and in the light of the recent and massive failure of so many of us, the people, many of the faithful, cannot see beyond the man to the priest. Thus, in order for the Church to be who She really is, then we need to recover the sense of the sacrament and how essential it is to the health of the Church. According to the CCC, the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests and the common priesthood of the faithful participate, each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ. While being “ordered one to another”, they differ essentially. While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed to the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads His Church.

There is a difference which we need to celebrate and even affirm and not look at it as if it were a tension to be overcome. The Vatican document, Presbyterum ordinis says it this way: "In the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice…the priests exercise their principal function…because the priests alone have received from Christ Himself the formidable power to render present, sacramentally, His Body and His Blood, to perpetuate through the centuries the sacrifice of the Cross." (n. 13). That difference allows us to divinise the world meaning that the priest who celebrates the Eucharist gives the Body of Christ [the Eucharist, that is, the sacrament] to the Body of Christ [the Church] in order to strengthen it so that the Body of Christ [the Church] can make the world a place more and more conformed to the image of Christ.

Thus, if vocation promotion in the future were to mean something, part of our challenge today is to get away from a particular way of thinking. It requires a lot more humility from the laity and more so from the clergy. Firstly, we must no longer think in terms of clergy versus laity. Why? Simply because they both come from the same stock and the terms just means one is not the other. What happens with this “dichotomy between clergy and laity” is that we perceive that some priests are tyrannical and there are. In the first place, the priest came from the laity itself. He was not born a priest. Sometimes a priest is just a reflexion of the worst aspect of the laity disfigured by sin. Secondly, we must appreciate the minority (the laity) without sacrificing the majority (the priest). The words majority versus minority do not apply to numbers. In fact, in the Church, the relationship of power is rather markedly disproportionate. The clergy holds the majority of power whilst the laity has practically no power. Now you see why I belaboured the point that I am first a religious and second a priest. Otherwise, I might be accused of justifying the “power” of the priest. The fact is, the power structure of the Church is hierarchical. The word has its roots in Greek meaning holy or sacred. Therefore, power means the sacred authority entrusted by Christ for the ministration of His people. A priest who is tyrannical can be tyrannical without being a priest. So what remains is for the community to learn how authority is to be exercised. Two things can be said here. First, a priest is often a reflexion of the power structure at home; his own home. It points to an important role both parents play in the nurturance of authority and power. Second, the Pope’s signing himself as servant of the servants of God should be the way a priest should learn how to behave. He is a priest because he is the servant of God’s holy people. The solution to this seeming imbalance of power is not “make the laity more powerful” to balance the “clergy’s power”. We should not sacrifice the power of the priest in order to promote the strength of the laity. Instead, it should be the curtailment of the misuse of power. A good start is the home. Priests learn tyranny at home.

Finally, the priest is, more than anything, a man. Nevertheless, he has been tasked with no less than the divine ministry of tending to the Lord’s vineyard. He needs prayers and support. If the Church is to be destroyed, the first target will be the priests. And Benedict XVI has recognised this as he launched the Year for Priests by bringing to our attention that whilst Satan may have his array against the Church, the faithful can counter his attack by praying for their priests. You would be wondering why this litany for priests. It is like a glorification of the priest but it is not. The health of the priesthood is also the health of the Church. For, if we want to work for justice and the Gospel of “Dives and Lazarus” shows that the concern for justice is often an important criterion to measure our love for God, then we must begin with the reform of holiness amongst priests. Holy priests celebrate the Eucharist worthily as they inspire their laity to lead holy lives—all he does is to help unfold the graces of our baptism. As such, justice is largely the preserve of a holy people of God and not the preserve of the priests. Holy priests are necessary in this quest for justice.