Sunday, 30 October 2011

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

It feels like a priest-bashing Sunday. But, we deserve it. The first reading issues an ominous warning against priests. Christ in the Gospel criticised the external focus on rituals and outward appearances of the scribes and Pharisees. He even prohibited calling anyone master, father and teacher. Catholics, according to Protestants, are certainly guilty of the unbiblical practice of calling priests “fathers”. Perhaps it is good to explore the Catholic priesthood, what it means that priests are called “fathers” and maybe learn a little more about the meaning of vocation.

I begin with a phenomenon. Have you noticed these days at traffic lights that motorcyclists will disregard the red light and proceed to cross it when they see no oncoming traffic? At that moment, we might just shake our heads and lament the breakdown in law and order. [1] But, apart from lawlessness, why would a motorcyclist jump the red light? Take note that in general, laws are enacted for order in society. So, we might just “jump the red light” when it is erected in the middle of nowhere, for example, in a paddy field. As we say, laws are meant for Man, that is, Sabbath is made for Man and not Man for Sabbath. But, take note that jumping the red light along Jalan Gasing into the Federal Highway is not an instance that Sabbath is made for Man.

Then, what reason could we adduce for the blatant disregard for laws? It arises from a mistaken notion of what authority is. A breakdown in society’s structures will take place when we confuse power with authority. Authority is a moral force. It is even captivating as we read in Lk 4:32, “His teaching made a deep impression on them because He spoke with authority”. Thus, the proper exercise of power will ultimately uplift and enhance people’s lives.

Power, unlike authority, could be an expression of naked aggression. Libya, under Gaddafi, was a good example. His power was basically authoritarian and it burdens people with fear. This was the criticism of Christ against the Pharisees and the scribes. They loaded unto others the burdens which they themselves did not want to carry.

Whenever an authority is morally bankrupt, it often has to resort to aggressive power to rule. When that happens, the exercise of power, the discharge of duty is achieved through fear. For example, whenever the religious police knock on our door, we cower in fear and sadly, our country is governed mostly through the exercise of power. Many of us are compliant not because we consent to be governed but because we are afraid of the state’s aggression.

In general, the extent of our descent into lawlessness is the measure of how we have mistaken power as authority. What has brought about this confusion?

In a particular liturgical celebration elsewhere, the 9-day novena crowd was big and the Holy Communion was brought out in a Tiffin carrier. [2] The merit of using a Tiffin carrier is not my concern here. Why? It was an issue of practicality because there were simply not enough ciboria for use to distribute Holy Communion. But, practicality has implications. Today, we seem to engage the world from a purely practical point of view; deemed necessary for survival. But, we forget that it does not take much to slide from being practical to being functional. When decisions are based on the criterion of practicality alone, we become functional. It is efficient and you might ask what is wrong with that.

Now, imagine a priest who is functional. It is good because he can accomplish a lot. But, if he is only functional, then, he will need space for his personal life. Space does not denote the rest that a priest needs. Christ needed rest and He was said to have escaped into the hills to pray and presumably to rest. What I mean by space is the separation or dichotomy between who a priest is and what he does. He has to create a division between his public and private life. This division between who a priest is and what he does has implication for the exercise of authority and power. [3]

We often use the words authority and power interchangeable. They are connected but they have different meanings. Authority speaks of the right to exercise power and it is the source of one’s power, whereas, power refers to actualisation of authority. In other words, authority is ontological because it refers to whom a person is. Power, on the other hand, is functional because refers to what a person does.

Authority flows from who we are. And who are we? We are made in the image and likeness of God. The more we resemble that image, [4] the more authoritative we will be. Chfrist acted the way He did because He was perfectly the Son of God. Furthermore, authority is not only ontological. It is also derived, as Christ derived His by virtue of being Son; the Pharisees and scribes theirs by virtue of being spokesmen of God. Likewise, Christian authority is God-given as pointed out in both the 1st and 2nd readings. St Paul referred to his authority of acting and speaking in the name of God and the priests of Israel were criticised for their failure to listen to source of their authority who is God Himself.

From this perspective, Catholic priests are called “fathers” because they exercise their authority in the name of God the Father and not because they have power. With regard to authority, we instinctively give our consent to people who behave in an authoritative way and not in an authoritarian manner. As mentioned earlier, authority is captivating because it is persuasive whereas power is intoxicating because it can corrupt the person who has it as it oppresses those who have to bear with it. Look at the Pope. He is powerless but he is authoritative as young Catholics have noted at the recent World Youth Day.

Christ was not against the exercise of authority. In fact, He Himself said, “Do what they tell you and listen to what they say”. He was not against calling anyone father, master or teacher. He stood for credibility and against the abuse of power. Perhaps, we can better grasp that the crisis the Church faces today is a crisis of authority. It is a crisis of authority not only because priests have exerted undue power. Primarily, it is a crisis of authority because priests have become mere functionaries. When we function, we naturally turn to techniques (like the technique of how to be a better priest or a better father or mother or manager). We focus on how-how and capabilities. We are performers or we are personalities forgetting who we really are: in persona Christi.

The issue is not calling priests fathers. It is more fundamental. In our success-oriented and achievement obsessed society, we have come to define ourselves by what we can do rather than allow our identity to determine our behaviour. An analogy is a husband. He may function as husband by being protective and supportive financially. Just because he does the things necessary does not mean he a husband. Instead, he is husband and that is why he does all these things. Identity determines behaviour.

The crisis of authority reveals a deeper crisis of identity and not of function. A devastating effect of this crisis for the Church has been the decimation of religious brothers and sisters. As we define ourselves narrowly by what we do, brothers are defined by what they cannot do. They are not priests. Sisters are no better. Many sister congregations are named after Mary because she is the model of attentiveness to Christ. Therefore, sisters are primary called to this vocation before all else they are capable of undertaking. Forgetting who they are, they have removed their habits to try to blend in with lay people.

The Gospel today challenges all priests and most of all, bishops to rediscover the ontological foundation of their authority and prophetically exercise it through their magisterium, their governance and their worship. Their authority is best manifested through the triple ministry to teach, to shepherd and to sanctify. What is required is not a rehabilitation of authority as it is a rehabilitation of the exercise of it. And it requires that priests begin to live who they are and not just function according to what they are called to do.

[1] In general, there is a pervasive sense that the breakdown of law and order may also accounts for how scammers confidently swindle unsuspecting victims or how burglars brazenly break into homes to rob and steal.
[2] Originated from India, they are lunch boxes that come in 2 or 3 tiers and widely used in Malaysia in the 50s and 60s. In Bombay they are called “dabbawalas”. In today’s green world, tiffin carriers make environmental sense.
[3] The critique of Christ against the scribes and the Pharisees refers to this divide. They are public figures with private lives.
[4] We resemble the image by contemplating and imitating who God is. It may explain why Mother Theresa and her sisters usually spend enough time before the Blessed Sacrament so that they can learn to recognise God in others.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Just as we enter into the final phase of the Ordinary Time, we are reminded of what is important. It is the commandment to love. The scriptural context for this remains that of “testing” as the enemies of Christ were looking for any excuse to get Him into trouble. From the corpus of 613 commandments found in the Torah [the Pentateuch] Christ drew two commandments—from Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18). He did not discard all the others but made these two the foundation for the rest. In this, Christ remained orthodox and yet He universally widened the definition of a neighbour from embracing only an Israelite to all Gentiles also.

What does it mean to love God and neighbour? A question to elaborate the commandment will usually set us thinking in terms of “how”, meaning, concretely, how I may love God and neighbour. The first reading is a good example as it lists the “do’s” and “don’ts” of loving our neighbour. But, put aside the “how”, you would find that the commandment actually describes our fundamental orientation to both God and our neighbour. Now, the question is: “Why do we immediately resort to thinking of the “how””?

For us, the answer lies in a characteristic of the modern mindset which may be termed as a “show-proof” mindset arising as it were from a “scientific” mentality. A premise of science is to show forth proof for any statement that one makes. With regard to God, in the last 400 years or so, we have actually reasoned Him out of our universe since we cannot scientifically prove the existence of God. With God out of the picture, our focus shifts to humanity expressed through a commendable concern for the world. Without God, humanism seems to be at its best, doing what is necessary for the world to be a better place. However, one of the consequences of a secular humanism is a disdain for religiosity; which is an expression of the show-proof mentality. How? Take a look at the phenomenon of the dying churches, especially of Europe, filled with old women praying the rosary. They pray so much but what do they amount to? Nothing. In fact, people who pray so much are usually those who have no “connection” with the world outside. And worse, the criticism against those who pray or those who frequent church is that they do not practise what they preach. In short, the commandment to love God and neighbour has been reduced by a “show-proof scientific” mentality into a secular humanist project. If you love God, prove it by what you do (justice) and not only that, justice has become the only way to prove that God exists.

But any secular humanist project, any ethics without God is bound to fail. According to Pope Benedict, he says that “Man can build a world without God, but this world will end by turning against him”. We have seen ample examples of this project in the last 150 years. Nazism was a good example as Hitler tried to “construct” a perfect race. But, the most glaring one was the socialist project called Communism. Today, the EU may be described as another humanist attempt at building a world which is both just and equitable.

In order for the humanist project to succeed, it needs to return God to the centre of its vision. In fact, true humanism begins by acknowledging that Man is made in the image and likeness of God. Thus, humanism at its best is when Man discovers himself loved by God in such way that he responds joyfully by loving God and embracing God’s love for humanity.

Perhaps, you can see how the commandment given by Christ is more a definition of who we are than what we do meaning how we behave flows from an understanding and acceptance of who we are as loved by God. It is as Pope Benedict would say, “It is the reality of God that reveals and illustrates the mystery of Man”. Therefore, our love for humanity is a logical consequence of our fundamental attitude towards God. If you cannot love someone, it is not a proof that you do not love God. Maybe it is better explained by the fact that you have not arrived at loving God enough. And this is where many of us are at. We struggle to love God in our lives. It may be the greatest struggle of our lives.

The current crisis we have with regard to abject poverty and social deprivation is an indication of the crisis of orientation. If we want to live the commandment that Christ has enjoined upon us, we must return to what is fundamental. We begin by returning to God and not focusing on the “how” of action, no matter how pressing the situation may be.

Do not be surprised by what I have said because we are too quick to embrace activism. What do I mean? There is a flood in Bangkok, what shall we do? Do we pray first [ie, focus on God] before we think of what we need to do? Must we do one first before the other? No, by all means, reach out to support any flood relief work the Thais might embark upon. The point I am trying to make is reaching out to support the Thais in their flood relief action and much of what we do with regard to loving our neighbour (advocacy or activism) may just be natural expressions of our sincerity and not necessarily the articulation of our love for God.

Why is sincerity not enough? Firstly, ethics without God is incomplete. Secondly and more importantly, it does not take much to demoralise an activist especially when he or she faces the gap between ideal and reality. A good example is just before Mass. Some of us, a few of us, actually, park our cars in such a way that the residents of Section 10 have great difficulty removing their cars. They have routinely complained to us. A few of us give all of us a bad name. We need to anchor our love for neighbour on our love for God. It explains why saints are never surprised whereas a cynic is a failed idealist. Christians will consistently and constantly fall short of the mark and the saints are never surprised because they have the right compass. For them, the key word is “re-turning” to God—signifying a life-long struggle of orienting one’s compass towards God. In summary, love for our neighbour, no matter how hard it may be, will supernaturally follow when we have a right attitude with God and then the first reading’s “do’s” and “don’ts” become the logical expression of that love for God. Mother Theresa’s sisters spend long hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Their charity is founded very much upon their love for Jesus Christ.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

It is said that the outcome of the Gospel encounter between Christ and the Pharisee-Herodian cohort formed the basis for the modern concept of the separation between Church and State.

The context of the encounter was clearly entrapment. The historical setting was the tax revolt but the undercurrent was deeply theological because the episode took place after Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was either God and His divine laws were supreme or the Roman Emperor and his pagan laws were supreme. For Christ, it was a Catch-22 situation. On one side of the divide, to condone paying taxes would tantamount to collaboration with a foreign occupying power and would certainly alienate Himself from crowd for it had just acclaimed Him “King”. On the other of the divide, to censure or condemn taxes was synonymous with advocating revolt and thus incur the wrath of Rome.

The coin exposed the hypocrisy of those who perhaps harboured a secret desire to incite an uprising. Why? Their ease at producing a denarius betrayed their compliance with the system imposed by the foreign occupying power. Those who were intent on entrapping Christ were themselves trapped by own inconsistency. In other words, if you hate your enemy that much, why would you use the thing of your enemy, in this case, give consent to the very instrument of your oppression?

At one level, the lesson to learn is centred on the consistency or the coherence between what you stand for and what you do. The Pharisees and the Herodians were humiliated by the imposition of the tribute tax and to top off their hypocrisy, they not only possessed the very coinage of their humiliation, they also brought the profane denarius into the sacred Temple.

The reality of this inconsistency is not something revolutionary. If there is anything predictable about human behaviour, it is our inconsistency. We should never be surprised. This is important because our political scene is sullied by greedy and dishonest politicians. And nothing is more damaging to national life than a deep cynicism born of despair. But, inconsistency is not restricted to the political sphere. It is the existential condition of being human. Our economic, social and religious spheres suffer the same.

At another level, we may speak of the separation of powers. Here we apply the principle of equity—an expression of justice. “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” briefly summarises in particular, the just relationship between Christianity and secular power or, in general, between any religion and State.1 This division is useful because it helps to limit religious interference in secular matters and vice versa. In this country, where the line is not properly drawn, we constantly run into the same trouble again and again especially, when it involves the alleged conversion of a deceased.

Is there anything that points beyond the challenges of consistency and the separation of powers? In the first reading, we are directed beyond what belongs to Caesar. The theme “The Lord of History” suggests a larger picture that ultimately everything belongs to God. Put it in another way, temporal or secular powers are believed to be a reflexion of God’s governance of the world. At one time, especially during the Middle Ages, it was the basis for thinking of the divine rights of kings whose legitimacy to rule was derived from God Himself. The king was God’s regent on earth. Whatever the merit of such a doctrine, as we no longer accept it, the people assented to earthly authorities because they were meant to represent a vision of God for humanity. We render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar only because Caesar’s authority is supposed to be a reflexion of God’s sovereignty. Can you imagine how much God’s will be glorified if all secular powers [read = secular powers] know their place in society. They are not only our humble servants but they are also God’s regent and they are answerable also to God.

Hence, the discussion between Christ and His opponents should not be narrowly confined to the question of the separation between Church and State. Instead, the roles of Church and State are oriented to God in such a way that religion, in particular the Church, is to guide and inform consciences [now you understand where Fr OC was coming from] and thereby serve as check and balance to the power of the State. The State’s role is to protect the freedom of religious practices. You know how far we are from this ideal.

Finally, I am not advocating the formation of a “Christian” state. I am merely pointing out that the separation between Church and State is relative and not absolute. Both religion and State are necessary and at their best must allow Man to live his fullest potential in this world, which according to St Augustine, is called the City of Man so as to prepare him for the next world, which St Augustine also named as the City of God. It means that everything, even Caesar’s rule, must be brought under the rule of God for He is the Lord of history. We have a long painful and winding road ahead of us.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The vineyard is the leitmotif that runs through both the 1st reading and the Gospel. But, there is a twist in the ending. In the 1st reading, God finally rejects the vineyard. Instead of justice and integrity, it produces the sour grapes of iniquity and oppression. The Gospel ends not in the rejection of the vineyard. It ends with a rejection of those who first rejected the keystone who is none other than Christ Himself. The early Christians read the parable in reference to themselves as the new tenants who have replaced the rejected ones.

However, the Gospel is not merely a historical account of the past for if read historically, we may just arrive at the altar of smug satisfaction. We are the new Israel so it seems. Actually, the drama surrounding the vineyard is a form of typology in which the acceptance or rejection is not determined in the historical past because those who became the new tenants through time could also pick up the bad habits of the previous tenants. The Old Israel may not be the only rejected tenants. Christians, who consider themselves the New Israel, too can be rejected.

So, what lesson can we learn today? It is all about rejection: God’s and ours.

Firstly, the basis of God’s rejection is quite simple. It is centred on the keystone upon “Whom”, not upon which, we have to build our lives. The old tenants were displaced for their failure to accept Christ as the new keystone in the vineyard of the Lord. By the way, the plan since the beginning of creation has always been centred on Christ. Even the Jews accept this. The only difficulty is they rejected Christ as the Christ they had been waiting for. Whilst Christians may like to consider themselves as the new tenants because they have accepted Christ, the truth is, many Christians who bear the name of Christ may very well be Christians in name only. Therefore, it is possible to reject Christ in our lives even if we called ourselves Christians. In truth, it is never God who first reject us but it is we who reject God first.

Secondly, there is a subtle form of rejection that many Christians do not sufficiently think through. Christians may not reject Christ but they have rejected the institutional Church. Consider the circumstances surrounding particular Churches [meaning a diocese or a parish] especially one which is racked by scandals of every kind. Poor moral leadership has been cited as a cause of people rejecting the Church. The very criticism of hypocrisy is often hurled against the Church’s hierarchy. Sometimes the Church is considered not only to be out of touch with reality but worse, she is an expression of everything which Christ stood against—a Church concerned with material wealth against the so-called Church of Christ who was born poor; a Church corrupted by honour and privilege rather than a Church steeped in humble service.

The result is a rejection of the institution of the Church seemingly in favour of personal faith in Christ. I do not need to be encumbered by the institutional Church. In fact, I do not need to go to Church to believe in Christ. After all, I can pray on my own.

It is true that leaders of the Church may be guilty of scandals, meaning, a person’s behaviour causes another person to sin. But, scandals may not be the reason for people rejecting the institutional Church. Usually, it takes less. Like the less-than-cordial reception by a parish. Like making the announcement that Holy Communion is reserved for baptised and practising Catholics. Or the priest is too harsh in the Confessional, like chastising a penitent. A little slight is enough to reject the Church. Do you know how many people have left the Church because their queries on marital difficulties have not been handled properly?

This is not to say that we do not need to be welcoming, gentle or tactful. The point is, no matter how valid an argument may be, the rejection of the institutional Church is a form of abdication of one’s responsibility. It sends a message that one’s faith in Christ is dependent on the action of another. One is literally saying that I reject Christ because of the bad behaviour of some Christians. There is a jump here and so let me rephrase what I have just said. Can my faith in Christ be expressed without the institutional Church? The answer is no. It is not possible because Christ the keystone is never without His Church—the Bridegroom is never without his Bride, the Head is never without His Body. Rejection of the institutional Church is the rejection of Christ Himself. There is an organic unity between Christ and His Church that many Catholics do not fully appreciate—a unity which is sacramentally manifested through the institutional Church—concretely made up of the hierarchy and the laity. You cannot love Christ without loving His Church.

If there is one thing we need to accept with regard to the institutional Church, it is that her sons and daughters will always be consistent in failing. Sin is our addiction and we should never be surprised that members of the Church succumb to their weakness. Accepting this reality will not only help us keep faith in Christ and His Church—His Bride and our beloved Mother. It also prevents us from placing our responsibility to be good, to be true and to be noble, on others, on whether or not they are living up to what we perceive to be the acceptable Christian moral standard. The failure, weakness or sin of others is not a valid reason to reject the institutional Church and ultimately Christ Himself. In that way, we can progress from sin to grace. Otherwise, by rejecting the Church, what we do is to blame others for our rejection of God and in that way prevent us from embracing what is necessary for change, for conversion and for our salvation.