Sunday, 22 May 2011

5th Sunday of Easter Year A

This Sunday our Lord seems to be rubbish talking—something we are familiar with. Amongst the Chinese, when a person begins to talk about his or her death, the usual response is “Don’t talk rubbish”. But, the context of Christ’s speech is just before the Passion and so it is more than just morbid chatter. There are always implications for being a Christian—his faith will be tested and he will be rejected by the world. In any test of faith, people do get lost especially when things go drastically wrong. Today, Christ tells His disciples not to lose hope or be discouraged but instead to know that in Him, they can be sure of salvation because He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. There is no mistaking the absolute claim in what the Lord says. He is not just any way to follow. He is not simply a truth amongst many to believe in. Instead, He is the only source of salvation and as the 2nd Reading asserts: He is the precious cornerstone.

The absolute claim of Christ also makes this Sunday almost a sin to some people for whom the only Gospel they subscribe to is called the “Gospel” of Relativism. Furthermore, there are not a few schooled in the Philosophy of Sincerity—meaning that it is enough that one lives sincerely [1]—who might consider this declaration to be really arrogant. An absolute claim is a scandal of exclusivity. In an inclusive world, how dare we impose our standard on others?

In light of an inclusive convention that upholds tolerance, the question of how we dare to impose on others seems like a fair enough question to ask but what remains to be asked is if Christ’s absolute claim were inconsistent with who we are as human being? Here, we detect a certain inconsistency in the way our inclusive world is organised. On the one hand, we have come to accept tolerance [meaning acceptance and no judgement] as the most appropriate manner of human interaction. On the other hand, we categorically exclude certain actions from the same canon of tolerance. At best, what we have is an irregular form of tolerance which actually speaks volumes of our inconsistency and which is also part of the difficulty we find ourselves in. Either we arbitrarily choose certain standards to apply which is nothing but caprice, random, anarchy or, we instinctively recognise certain limits we need to adhere too. By the very fact that we seem to exclude certain behaviours from the canon/rule of [tolerance] acceptability—sexual harassment and child abuse are two good examples—that means we implicitly accept certain standards. If we can hold to such moral standards, then there is truth to be known.

But, the reality is we are afraid or we cowed by the political correctness of tolerance to hold no more than personal opinions as the standard for engagement. If one should step beyond the boundaries of personal opinion, “selective” tolerance will consider that to be oppressive. A good example is Christ’s claim which Christians accept to be an absolute that is applicable to everyone. And that is irony of tolerance. Tolerance is not so tolerant after all.

The implication of accepting truth to be no more than mere opinion would be a descent into some form of oppressive “isms”, not just relativism or subjectivism. Pope Benedict says something to this effect that to dismiss truth as unattainable is destructive. When we are incapable of truth, it follows that we are also incapable of ethical values because there would be no standard to measure. Convenience or contingency are measures of our lack of standard as we are often reduced to the lowest common denominator. For example, when human life is no longer a measure of the sacred, then euthanasia is not far off. When we are held together by the lowest common denominator, then, it is power, meaning who holds more power rules as in the case of dictatorship or it is simply the majority who rules as in the case of so-called democracy. Marxism, Nazism and Racism, to name a few, are children of the tyranny of dictatorship or the mob of the majority.

More than ever, today, Christianity must propose the Truth as applicable to everyone because mankind is capable of truth. We are capable of knowing what truth is or better still knowing Who Truth is—Jesus Christ. In this world, scarred by the abuse of power, either by the few or the majority, the manner of our proposal is defined to be the person of Jesus Christ. As Christ stood before Pilate, when faced with the Truth, Pilate continued to pose the question: Veritas, quid est veritas? It was as if Pilate expected “truth” to be expressed through coercion or might. But, Truth who is Christ is revealed in peace and proposed through persuasion not power and conviction, not coercion. This is where we come in. Truth is the Person of Jesus Christ and the Church’s sole duty is to proclaim Him and His mission—Son of God and Saviour of the World. The power of Truth lies not in legions but in the witness of our lives to convince others of who He is: Our Lord and Saviour.

Finally, rejection is not something new to Christianity. Relativism may be tyrannical but it is no more than an expression of “rejection”. And not only that, for Christianity is also rejected by a “tolerant” world for making an absolute claim of salvation. Therefore, Christians must always expect “misunderstanding”. The Protestant pastors in Penang may have prayed in this manner: “Lord, let your reign come upon this country”, the way we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. It was not about taking over the country. The negative reaction was an expression of rejection as part and parcel of Christianity. Therefore faith has to be tested but Christians must hold on to faith in Christ because He is the only Way [2], the Truth and the Life.

[1] Good intention is not really a sufficient barometer of truth. For example, I can sincerely kill someone. Our predicament is when we are unable to approximate truth, we have to settle for “goodwill or sincerity”. Is it any wonder why in terms of religions, we are now reduced to seeking ways to collaborate in the many so-called “ethical” endeavours? It is ironical that we cannot know “truth” and yet we somehow “know” that there are “good things” to be done.

[2] We all have this instinctive GPS device that is part of who we are and yet it is a device that does not impede our freedom. How many of you use a GPS device? I have mine tuned to an Englishman who sounds nothing like an Englishman. Often enough I would not take the route proposed and when I deviate from it, “Daniel” would get into this irritating mode “recalculating”. The way put forward by Jesus is not a vacuum. He is the way. We can choose to ignore Him or choose to follow Him. That is where the analogy between Christ’s way and the GPS ends. Christ’s way is not an alternative way. Christ is not just one of the ways. He is the Way and if at all we choose to stick with the irritating voice of “Daniel”, it is this: the voice is our conscience telling us to return to the Way, return to Christ. As the 2nd Reading so right says: set yourselves close to him so that you too, the holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God, may be living stones making a spiritual house. A house and a home are two different things. Perhaps our journey in life is to come to a realisation that no matter how comfortable this world may be, it is still a house. We instinctively long for our home for that is where we belong and home is not located in this world. Home is not where the heart is either. Home is where Christ is.

Monday, 16 May 2011

4th Sunday of Easter Year A

It’s a thematic Sunday again—Vocation Sunday—time to speak about priestly or religious vocations. Coincidentally, yesterday 14th May was also the Feast St Matthias, Apostle. I would like to speak on two topics. Firstly, the manner of Matthias’ election may shed light on why the Catholic priesthood is the way it is today and secondly, the Gospel presents us with an image of the priesthood we do not fully appreciate.

Recently a bishop in Australia was removed. The issues surrounding his removal centred on the bishop’s position that the time has come for women’s ordination, ordination of married priests and on recognising the validity of Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders.

Why is the Church so insistent that women cannot be ordained, never mind married priest or recognising the validity of Protestant “orders”? Listen to a passage from the Acts of the Apostles concerning Matthias’ election and you might just catch a glimpse of where the Church is coming from.

One day Peter stood up to speak to the brothers—there were about a hundred and twenty persons in the congregation: Brothers, the passage of scripture has to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit, speaking through David, foretells the fate of Judas”.

The passage has two considerations. First consideration is the context and second is Peter’s speech. The context is important. After the Ascension, Peter and the 10 returned to Jerusalem and there, they were together with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus. When the time came for choosing a replacement for Judas, Peter, disregarding the context, spoke in this manner. “Andres, adelphoi ” which is translated as “Men, brothers”.

This is sometimes lost in politically-correct translations. “Friends”, for example, is a vast difference from “Men, brothers”. The literal translation gives us a glimpse into the mind of Christ. Peter seemed to have understood what Christ had intended and here, he faithfully echoed it. It does sound brazen to propose that Peter knew the mind of Christ, but, this is basically the Church’s position as evidenced by how Matthias was chosen. One may not agree with the Church’s position on women’s ordination but one can appreciate why the Church has been unable to move forward in this matter despite the fact that cultural, economical, political or social sentiments have made tremendous progress. Priestly vocation is not tied to any other considerations except what Christ has intended for His Church.

This is not an apologia for the Church’s position as much as offering a plausible explanation of why the Church behaves in this manner. She is being loyal to her Master’s intention for His Church. It also reflects the unity of Christology and Ecclesiology. How we understand Christ defines the Church and logically speaking, Christ the Head cannot be separated from the Church, His Body.

Poor Christology has implications for Ecclesiology. With regard to “priestly” vocations, the paucity of vocation is an infallible indicator of a Bishop’s heterodoxy meaning when a Bishop is not faithful to Church teaching, you can be sure that vocation to the priesthood in his diocese will drop. From there, it does not take long to find a correlation between the lack of priestly vocations and the abundance of the so-called “pastoral associates”. In many contexts, it usually revolves around nuns/lay people trying to play priest.

An increasing reliance on pastoral associates may help explain the lack of priestly vocation. Priestly vocation, like marital vocation, is a vocation to be and not really a vocation to do. When a priest is reduced to his function meaning that he is priest because of what he does, then we descend a slippery slope. The lack of priests can be pragmatically solved by “anyone can do the job”. It does not matter who—nuns, lay men or women, or any Protestant pastor—as long as the “job” gets done. But, a priest’s usefulness does not lie in his utility. Instead, his usefulness is very much to be alter Christus. Even if a priest does nothing, he is Christ present amongst his people. This is important.

This is a sense of priesthood that we have lost and this loss is two sides of a coin. Firstly, we have romanticised the image of the shepherd. Secondly, priests have forgotten that priesthood is about holiness.

Firstly, Catholics have romanticised the idea of the shepherd which runs counter to the two images presented in the Gospel. The shepherd is anything but “tender” and “compassionate”. If you look at the images of the Pharaohs they are presented as shepherds wielding on one hand, a shepherd’s crook and on the other, a whip. The idea of a shepherd is monarchical. In fact the king is often spoken of as a shepherd. In this context, listening becomes obedience. But, since we breathe the air of consensus and democracy, listening becomes a problem as many of us will obey only when the shepherd is reasonable. But, mostly, we listen and obey because we like the shepherd. In the end, the scenario is not the sheep who listens to the shepherd but the contrary. He is no longer the shepherd who commands but rather a hireling. Like some Protestant pastors who can be fired by their congregation. The shepherd says only what the congregation wants to hear.

A couple of weeks ago, I said, “It is easier to love the Pope”. It is not an attack of the Bishop. It merely reflects a reality. The Pope is far away but the Bishop is near and we “know” him etc. We often speak of doing God’s will but tie this desire to do God’s will with someone we “know” and we realise that “doing God’s will” means doing our own thing and expecting the shepherd to sanctify it. And this leads us to the image of the gate.

In Jerusalem, there is a gate called the Sheep-gate. It is a one-way street where the sheep are led to the slaughter. Shepherds lead their sheep to be sacrificed at the altar of holocaust. In the context of Jesus speaking in the Temple, He who became the victim now leads His people to freedom because this one-way street does not lead to a dead end but rather through the torn veil of the Holy of Holies, He leads His sheep to eternal life. Thus, all shepherds must lead because they are meant to lead. For us, it becomes a question of trusting the shepherd as we enter the gate. And I recognise the universal challenge today is that shepherds cannot be trusted. This brings us to the second side of the coin.

Secondly, priests themselves struggle with the issue of trustworthiness. Trustworthiness does not reside in capability or cleverness. Otherwise, that would mean that Christ can only work if a priest is capable or clever. Instead, trustworthiness is a state of holiness. Catholics instinctively trust a priest because they equate priests not with capability or intelligence but with holiness. A holy priest reflects Christ’s holiness. The Patron Saint for diocesan priests is St John Vianney—not someone famed for his cleverness but sought after from all over France for his holiness. This is the reason we pray so much for the Holy Father and the Bishops, for the fullness of priesthood resides in them and also their helpers, the priests. In an age of untrustworthiness, we ask God to give us more holy bishops and priests who will allow Christ to be more real through them. And we pray that they have the courage to lead because they are shepherds placed by Christ over His sheep.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

3rd Sunday of Easter Year A

This Sunday I would like to speak on three interconnected topics. The first topic is pride but not of the sinful kind. By pride, I mean a sense of self-confidence and not, colloquially speaking, of the ‘action’ sort. Second topic revolves around the promise of Christ to be present to us and final topic centres on the Eucharist as the fulfilment of a promise.

Firstly, the gospel today is one which should give Catholics a sense of pride. Sadly, the contrary may be true. Many of us acknowledge our ignorance, meaning, we accept what we have often been told by others and sometimes, this charge of ignorance is echoed by some enlightened Catholics themselves that many Catholics do not know the bible. They may be a spectre of truth in such a statement but let us go beyond merely “knowing” the Bible. For example, let us venture beyond just an ability to quote biblical verses.

Catholics should humbly say, “We may not know the Bible the ‘restrictive and narrow’ way we are expected to but we certainly live and celebrate the Bible”. The Catholic Church is even more faithful to sacred scripture than accepted prejudice would allow. For Catholics, the Bible is not just a “book” but it is a part of what we know and accept to be a sacred and living tradition. Only a living tradition can guarantee and safeguard the handing over [paradosis] of God’s word in its entirety [1] which explains why the Eucharistic Prayer I is worded this way: “We offer them [“them” refers to the gifts of bread and wine] for Benedict, our Pope, for Murphy, our Bishop and for all who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles”.

We live and celebrate sacred scripture and the description of the two disciples’ experience on the way to Emmaus is a perfect expression of how we do it. Their journey is a panorama of what we are doing right now. Simply put, their journey was the narrative (story) form of what we are ritualising. The narrative is a snapshot of the Eucharist. The part where Christ was elucidating the scripture passages about Himself corresponds to our Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy of the Word, which includes the homily, is Christ speaking to you.

The four verbs where Christ took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and handed it to the disciples correspond to our offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer with the Institution Narrative, the Fractio Panis when the Agnus Dei is sung and finally the giving and receiving of Holy Communion. Now you know why the Mass is also called the “breaking of bread”—the disciples recognised Him at the breaking of bread. It is plausible to say that before the Gospels were written, and even before the 1st Letter of St Paul to the Thessalonians was written, the ritualised celebration of the Eucharist was already taking place and that this story of the two disciples on to Emmaus was a stylised story to convey the message that the Eucharist [breaking of bread] is really Christ’s presence which brings me to the 2nd topic.

Do you remember the last scene at the Mount of Olive in Matthew’s Gospel, before Christ ascended? The Lord gave a command but He also made a promise. The command was to go and baptise all the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And the promise was that He would be with them till the end of time. He has kept His promise through Apostolic Succession. It is perhaps stating the obvious but Apostolic Succession is not apostolic ancestry or nostalgia in the sense that we are trying to trace back the lineage of succession. It is not a static act of looking backward. Rather, it is forward looking because Apostolic Succession provides the possibility for the Eucharist to be celebrated. Apostolic Succession is dynamically alive and in practice at this very moment even as I am speaking to you.

Imagine if all the priests were killed, nobody here would dare walk up to say to the congregation, “Let me celebrate Mass for you”. We instinctively know that a priest’s power to confect the Eucharist is derived from a power which is transmitted by Apostolic Succession through the laying on of hands. Through Apostolic Succession, each time we celebrate the Eucharist, the bread and wine is transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. Transubstantiation is a technical word but it describes the result that when we receive Holy Communion we eat of the same substance Who walked 2000 years ago. It is the same Body but only in different modes. That is why we call the Blessed Sacrament the True Presence and this brings me to my final point.

There is a connexion here between the Two Disciples and the Eucharist which we might miss in this post-Easter celebration. What is it? The Eucharist is a source of strength when we most want to give up. In life, there are always reasons to give up. At a time when we feel most abandoned, Christ is there. Look at the two disciples. In Luke’s theological perspective, Christ was always heading towards Jerusalem—the city symbolised God’s plan of salvation. We are told that He resolutely set his face for Jerusalem. The two disciples were so blinded by their despair that they abandoned the place where salvation was to be found. Christ entered their desolation to draw them out through the Liturgy of the Word and He sustained and strengthened them with the breaking of bread. Often we give up because we cannot see, feel, hear and sense God but Christ walking with the two disciples has shown us that He is never far from our despair. He has never given up on us even when we have give up on Him.

So, at the moment of our greatest sorrows, the Eucharist should be the first place to go to, not the last. Here, at the breaking of bread, He keeps His promise to be with us till the end of time.

In summary, the Road to Emmaus may feel like any other post-Resurrection appearances but its impact is far-reaching. It shows how sacred scripture is steeped into the very life and practice of the Church [2]. So, if you are proud to be a Catholic, may this deepened awareness now inspire you to live even more faithfully your vocation. It would be the best expression of your pride and your gratitude for Christ’s continued presence in your life.

[1] The Petrine ministry is an important cornerstone in this process of handing over. It stands as guarantor for continuity.

[2] Let me give illustrate how “present” Christ is to us and how unaware we may be of it. There was a time when Catholics upon meeting the Bishop would ask to kiss the ring of the Bishop. Nowadays, when a Catholic asks the Bishop for permission to kiss his ring, apparently, some Bishops would reply: “The ring is in my back pocket”. It illustrates the confusion many priests and some bishops have of their priesthood. They have confused their “priesthood” with the Priesthood of Christ. Catholics venerate the person of the bishop or the priest not because they are “holy” but because they represent the Priesthood of Christ. Last week I mentioned the principle of “ex opere operato”. It is a principle which shows the extent and power of Christ’s presence. His presence can never be constrained by human frailty. When a priest is ordained, his palms are anointed and if he fell sick and required the Sacrament of Anointing, he would never be anointed on the palms. Instead, the anointing is at the back of the hands. According to Bishop Fulton Sheen, this is on account of his anointing for Holy Orders. See
]. This custom reveals how powerful the anointing at ordination is… that no matter how sinful a priest or a bishop may be, it can never take away the power of Christ to confect the Eucharist. Christ’s promise to be present to us can never be thwarted by human weakness. Furthermore, do you know a priest who is laicised, meaning that he has returned to lay state, can still grant absolution of sins in danger of death? The confusion especially amongst priests to shy away from the Priesthood of Christ, citing always that they are unworthy is perhaps a reason why we have lost the sense of Christ’s True Presence. By citing their “unworthiness” they are saying that Christ’s power is tagged onto their holiness. That would be “ex opere operantis”.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

2nd Sunday of Easter Year A

This Sunday is special for the Parish but not because it is Mercy Sunday. In the first reading you hear the echo of what we have been trying to flesh out in the last two years. About two years ago, at the soft launch of the Jubilee Year, we chose Acts 2:42 for our theme: The whole community remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. This Sunday could have been the culmination of our Jubilee celebration.

Today is also dedicated to St. Thomas who is forever stigmatised as the Doubter. What is Thomas’ connexion to the first reading? In particular, how is he relevant to our Jubilee celebration?

Or, is he merely the once-a-year lecture we deserve to get for our lack of faith?

Calling him “Doubting Thomas” has been the tradition since the beginning of the Church. The Gospel seemed to be a convenient record of his lack of faith. But, ask where Thomas was when Christ appeared? A good question, no? Why was he not present? Someone speculated that he went out to buy bread because the others were too chickened out to do anything. But, could his absence be a commentary of the state of the brotherhood/community and the relationships found therein?

Note the contrast between the first reading and the Gospel.

The first reading describes the epitome or the quintessence of how Christians are supposed to be. It paints a picture of the perfect community. In our post-Easter celebration, this image is presented to us as an ideal to emulate or imitate.

Unfortunately, we breathe the less rarefied air of the Gospel. It is closer to our reality—our experience of community is often less than perfect. In a sense, Thomas’ doubt was not with Christ’s Resurrection. Thomas did not doubt the Resurrection as much as he doubted Christ’s ability to work through imperfection. How could he believe the testimony of this group of weaklings; men cowering behind closed doors and chief amongst them, a man who denied Christ three times? Could Christ be present through such a leadership and would Christ want to be present in such a community?

So, Thomas could have abandoned the brotherhood out of despair. His experience may mirror some of ours. In fact, towards our brothers and sisters we often express a lack of faith. We find it harder to believe people we know “too” well—precisely the phenomenon that Christ Himself faced: “A prophet is not accepted in his own country” or as Nathaniel under the fig tree said: “What good can come from Nazareth”?

In the post-Resurrection narrative, Thomas is pivotal to balancing the tension between an ideal to achieve and the reality we struggle with. Thus, his return one week later is decisive in our desire to live out an essential aspect of our Jubilee theme, namely, of brotherhood.

The Gospel tells us that there were two apparitions and a week separated the two events. Could Christ not have shown Himself to Thomas personally within the week? He could have but He did not. Instead, He waited for Thomas to find a way home to the brotherhood.

What can we learn from this “returning” within the context of our Jubilee celebration?

Firstly, the brotherhood, in other words, the BEC/community, the parish and the Church, is the locus where the Risen Christ is to be encountered. The brotherhood was central to Christ’s Resurrection apparition and it still is. In the context of the brotherhood, the disparity between what we accept to be the ideal with what we experience to be the reality results in a bewilderment exemplified in this question: “How can he behave like that?” This leads us to the second point.

We often labour under the mistaken notion that knowledge is virtue. How many relationships have been broken because we expect knowledge to be translated into action? I have witnessed this especially in marriages. Couples sink into despair from this failure of expectation. The truth remains that knowing is frequently not translated into appropriate behaviour. A good example took place right last week after the announcement about the uncharitable driver. A car still attempted to run David down as he was trying to direct traffic. Translate this knowledge-virtue divide into the political arena and you understand why this country is choking in cynicism. The point is: Conversion from knowledge to virtue is a lifelong process. For us Catholics, as long as there is conversion, there is always Confession.

Thirdly, ex opera operato is an important principle to remember when we deal with the painful reality of sinfulness in the brotherhood. Christ’s power works independently of the “sanctity” of the minister. That is the basis for saying that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist or how sins are truly forgiven at Confession and Anointing even when the minister celebrating these sacraments is unworthy. This power of the Risen Christ cannot be constrained or restrained by human frailty and He is infinitely more powerful than we dare trust Him to be.

But, like the recently concluded wedding of the decade, we want things to be “perfect”, which in itself, is not a bad thing because the desire for perfection is a subset of the quest for excellence. Couples want their marriage to be perfect. We desire that [perfection] of our family, our friends, our community, our parish, our priests and our Bishops too, do we not? In the context of Thomas’ doubt, this desire for perfection is not a reflexion of the drive for excellence but rather it is symptomatic of a lack of belief. Why? Our drive for perfection is fuelled by this assumption: If perfection is not accomplished here and now, it may never be. That is a subtle denial of the Resurrection.

Perhaps, you appreciate how Thomas’ return to the brotherhood is essential to the encounter with the Risen Christ because Christ the Head, is never far from His Body, the Church; Christ the Bridegroom, is never separated from His Bride, the Church. In fact, the words spoken by the Risen Christ on the first day and one week later point in the direction of the brotherhood because the brotherhood is a sacramental witness of Christ’s presence in the world. He greeted them twice with the Jewish greeting of peace and ultimately that peace is linked to the Beatitudes. We always think of the Beatitudes in terms of the Sermon on the Mount or the Plains depending on which Gospel you read but here Christ proclaims: Blessed are those who do not see but believe.

In our run-up to the Jubilee celebration on 3rd Dec, St Thomas’ return to the brotherhood is relevant because it was to him in the brotherhood that Christ proclaimed the Beatitudes. May our blessedness be the grace to see, to accept and to love the Risen Lord in the brokenness and the sinfulness and imperfection of our brotherhood, family, BEC and the Church.