Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Iliteracy of Faith

Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

You don’t have to be blind or deaf to be cut off from the world. Illiteracy is quite capable of bringing on the same results. In general terms, illiteracy is an inability to use language -- an inability to read, write, listen and speak. But taken in its wider sense, illiteracy can refer to any area or aspect of our lives where we experience ignorance.

Today, many members of the Catholic Church suffer from ‘religious illiteracy’, or the scandal of religious ignorance. The deafness and blindness referred to in today’s reading speak less of a physical defect than of a spiritual one. The spiritually blind were prevented from seeing and recognising God’s works whereas the deaf were unable to hear and respond to His Word. When asked questions about the basic tenets of faith, many Catholics would not be able to provide the correct answers. Few Catholics really know or understand their faith. Today, Catholics are unable to sieve through the massive amount of information available on the internet, a great deal of which is good and much of it quite rubbishy. With the abysmal faith knowledge of Catholics, they are unable to discern between truth and lie, correct teaching and heresy, doctrine or mere opinions.

The truth of the matter is that many adult Catholics have not grown beyond their first catechism. They still remain perpetually stunted in the faith of their childhood.  If the condition of deafness and blindness is the result of a flaw or defect in one or more of our sensory organs, then religious illiteracy is being cut off from the sensus fidelium. What is ‘sensus fidelium’? The term literally means “sense of the faithful.” It refers to unerring truth sensed or recognized by the entire body of the faithful-“from the Magisterium to the last of the laity”, according to St. Augustine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this as “the supernatural appreciation of faith (senses fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” Unfortunately, this is a doctrine that is frequently misinterpreted.

For critics of the Magisterium, the Teaching Authority of Church, who has been assigned by Christ Himself to preserve and protect the integrity of His revelation and continue to communicate the same one faith to all generations and to all places, the term sensus fidelium has come to mean the felt sense of the popular masses, a kind of popular vote. Those who criticise and wish to change the Church’s teachings view the sensus fidelium as some form of consensus-taking through the lived experiences of the common people. In other words, if the majority of people are in favour of same-sex marriages and gay partnerships, then the Church’s laws must be amended. Popular practice becomes the litmus test for doctrines. This thinking is seriously flawed because the doctrines of the Church are based upon divinely revealed truths, not opinions or subjective feelings. The sense of faith cannot be determined statistically or sociologically. It is not 'public opinion', current tendencies, the latest fashion in theology. The opinion and vote of the majority is not infallible. See how the popular vote in pre-World War II Germany raised a monster like Hitler as their Fuhrer.

What they fail to recognise that when we speak of the sensus fidelium, there can never be some, like the lay faithful, expressing one sense and the hierarchy another. If one does not share the same sensus fidei as that propounded by the Magisterium, then he is not part of the sensus fidelium. The individual believer participates in the Church's sensus fidei only insofar as he is guided by and faithfully obedient to the Magisterium. It is an oxymoron to describe the ‘unfaithful’ as ‘faithful’. The Pope and the College of Bishops cannot be separated from the ‘symphony’ of the whole People of God.

How do we then correct ‘religious illiteracy’? Since, religious illiteracy is the result of a lack of knowledge in what the Church actually teaches and why, the solution is obvious. We must recover this knowledge of our faith through renewed catecheses. Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us that what the Church needs most urgently in our present times is catecheses. This eminent theologian tells us that these catecheses should not be presented merely as “a package of dogmas and commandments, but as a unique reality that reveals itself through its depth and beauty." He is convinced that "we will renew the church only if we renew people's knowledge of the faith".

Is mere knowledge of our catechism sufficient? When the Holy Scriptures talk about knowledge - especially knowledge between people - it means something much deeper than how we use the verb in everyday language. This biblical ‘knowledge’ isn't limited to the external or superficial information that we can know about another person.  Instead, it refers to an intimate communion. To really ‘know’ someone would mean uniting ourselves with that person. Knowing Christ cannot be reduced to a simple acquaintance with what is found in the Gospels, or to some creedal formula or even to what the Church teaches.  Although these things are necessarily urgent especially in our age that is so marked by religious illiteracy, knowledge of our faith should ultimately lead us into an intimate communion with Christ and his Church. It is a communion which transforms us and lifts us up to the reality of being the children of God, a dignity we received at baptism.

We are the deaf and the blind of whom Isaiah speaks. If sin has blinded us and caused us to turn a deaf ear to God, faith and obedience now opens the way for humanity’s emancipation from the powers of the tomb. Today, more than ever, all Catholics need to recover, heal and restore our place in the sensus fidelium. We need to hear the liberating and illuminating words of Jesus, ‘Ephphatha! Be opened!’ As Pope Emeritus Benedict had exhorted us, “we must do everything possible for catechetical renewal (and evangelisation) in order for the faith to be known, God to be known, Christ to be known, the truth to be known, and for unity in the truth to grow.” In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis said that “the primary reason for evangelisation is the love of Jesus.” The Holy Father has also declared next year as a Jubilee of Mercy. One must understand that that this jubilee year is part of the Holy Father’s effort to promote a new wave of evangelisation. It is certainly not merciful to remain silent about Christ and the Catholic faith. In fact it a spiritual work of mercy “to instruct the ignorant.”

Without an authentic sensus fidei, we will remain deaf to the voice of Christ speaking through his Beloved Bride, the Church. Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The Truth of Christ will bridge the broadening gap between faith and the culture of unbelief, between the Gospel and everyday life. In this way, faith will heal our spiritual blindness and deafness, the cause of the rift that cuts us off from the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, that supernatural instinct and intuition that binds us to orthodoxy. By faith, God gives us the ears to hear His Word, the heart to believe it, the eyes to see what is unseen, and the hope to grasp His promises. He gives it in Word, and in bread and wine, and in water. So that we may once again with confidence and firm conviction exclaim now and forever, “"He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Church is Political

Merdeka Day 2015

Today we celebrate our 58th Hari Merdeka, at least for the Peninsular side of Malaysia. We often tend to forget that Sabah and Sarawak achieved independence on different days and that the founding of our nation as a Federation only took place in the year 1963, and on a different date, 16th of September, to be exact. Let us never forget. For if we do, then we have fallen victim to those who wish to rewrite our history and re-define the meaning of our nationhood.

In the last week, the Catholic Church had been accused of being overly political when it was announced that three of the churches in downtown Kuala Lumpur would be open to participants of the weekend Bersih Rally. When did we begin to construe an act of charity and hospitality as political posturing? This, however, is not a new accusation. It is one that has come from politicians themselves, from governments, and even from Catholics in the pews. The premise of such accusation is simply this – one should not mix politics with religion.  The Archbishop’s assertion that the Church is not affiliated to any political party and has only opened its doors on humanitarian grounds, did not sufficiently satisfy the detractors. So the question we must ask ourselves today is, “Should the Catholic Church, or can the Catholic Church be political?”

The word “political” comes from the Greek word “polis” which means “people.” In this sense, the Church, which is certainly about God, is also very much about the people, namely the People of God, and in fact the Church serves to be a universal sacrament of salvation for the whole world. Therefore, the Church is and always will be political, because the beneficiaries of her mission, is inevitably the people. This is why the Church can speak out about anything and everything – whether it be the environment, or the economy, or about politics, in so much as these areas ultimately impact the people. The Church, the Body of Christ continues to be a prophetic voice that seeks to defend the truth of the gospel and its values, which includes the dignity of the human person, life and the freedom of religion. The Church not only has the authority to speak, it has to duty to do so.

Some may then proceed to admit that yes, the Church is political, but the Church is not partisan, it is not bias. There is some truth to this if we were to say that being partisan means aligning ourselves to a particular political party and its ideology. But then again, it is not true to say that the Church is never partisan, that the Church does not take sides. Today’s gospel reading places things in perspective. The Church is partisan, the Church is biased, the Church must take sides – she does so with the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the persecuted, the incarcerated and the marginalised. She must speak on their behalf, she must defend their rights, she must even be ready to lay down her life for them if necessary. This was the mission of Jesus and so it must also be the mission of the Church. She can do no less than her Master.

Why does the Church side with these categories of persons? Well, it is simple. These categories are often regarded by the larger society as invisible, thus not deserving its attention or time. The rich and the powerful have our ears, but not the poor. Thus, the cries of the poor are a great corrective to our self-importance, selfishness and pride. If man has turned a deaf ear to their appeals, God does not suffer from the same apathy. He draws close, nay, He “bends down to the broken hearted.” (Ps 34:18) If our heart’s desires are gifts from God, then listening to the cries of the poor reveals the demands these gifts make on us. Any Christian life which does not listen to the voice of the poor, to victims of injustice, persecution, corruption and abuse, effectively shuts out the voice of God. Today, the Church hears their cry. It would seem that the words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.”

So, once again, the question, “Is the Church political?” begs a firm and unambiguous answer. Yes! The Church is in fact deeply, inherently, and inescapably political. Jesus’ ministry began with the proclamation of the good news of a coming kingdom, and ended with his execution at the hands of an empire threatened by his own quietly confident claim to kingship. Jesus’ life was about inaugurating a new kingdom, an alternative political order, to be embodied in the world by his church. Of course, Jesus was a different sort of king, and his kingdom was a different sort of kingdom. Likewise, it entailed a different form of politics—but it is unmistakably political. It has been, it is now, and it will always be a vying between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. And we Christians would be wise to choose the winning side.

In his recent message for the local church in conjunction with Merdeka Day, our Archbishop reminds us that the “Church prompts her members to respond to the gospel mandate to be “the salt of the earth and light of the world” (Mt 5:13-14). Deeds rendered out of charity and mercy as well as championing the cause of truth and justice, can have a strong impact on the rejuvenation of our society.”

Christ’s powerful words spoken to us at Mass are meant to change things, to change us, to change the hearts and the lives of all who hear them. He not only speaks the Truth, He is the the Way, the Truth and the Life. And we who consume his body at communion become him, we must be so consumed by the Truth, we become Truth. More than ever, our nation needs to hear this reassuring voice. The Church becomes the medium for this voice.  In the midst of an unprecedented crisis of integrity and truth, where the Malaysian public are treated daily to massive doses of rumours, spurious speculations, half-truths, detractions and distractions, and outright lies, the Church must speak once again in a clear voice. When the Church does not speak out, evil can fill that void. Silence in the face of evil can signal assent. Evil’s voice would then have the floor. And so, we are called to speak out; to speak the Truth, defend it at all cost and be prepared to pay the heavy price for it. Let us boldly go forth to speak that truth in love, “for we cannot do anything against the truth but only for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8), for it is that same “truth that will set you free” (Jn 8:32). God bless all of you. God bless Malaysia.

Friday, August 28, 2015