Monday, August 19, 2019

Catholicism Lite isn't Catholic

 Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The most common complaint against Catholicism is that it makes life too difficult, that it over-complicates Christianity and that it has too many rules and restrictions. “If Jesus was here,” so the argument goes, “He would just simplify things and dispense with all these small minded rules. Jesus would never make it so hard for people to enter!” What I find ironical is that these complaints generally do not come from non-Catholics, but they are the constant gripe of many well-meaning Catholics who sincerely believe that more people would flock to Church and less would choose to leave, if we just keep things to the basics, to the bare minimum - soften our approach, lessen the demands, relax the rules, grant greater accessibility to the sacraments. Yes, this argument is so appealing because it proposes a lighter, easier Christianity – “Catholicism Lite.”

But the reality of life often proves the reverse. For example, if you wish to do anything well, it takes effort, time and lots of sacrifice. Shoddy and lazy work results in poor performance or substandard products. If you wish to achieve better results, you have to make costly investments of time, money and effort. So an easier Christianity does not guarantee better Christians. It just means that we may be churning out substandard Christians – Christians who are more self-serving than selfless, Christians who feel more entitled than duty-bound to follow Christ, Christians who are more ready to give up than persevere. Lighter, easier Christianity does not guarantee better Christianity. Churches that have chosen to go “lite” have not stemmed the exodus. In fact, going easy seems to have quicken the pace of dying – easy come, easy go! 

So, as much as we would like to look for shortcuts, and time and effort saving hacks in our spiritual lives, they may actually lead to failure and destruction. Scripture warns against spiritual shortcuts. St. Paul, in 2 Timothy 4:1-7, warns against this human tendency to look for an echo-chamber, an opinion or a teaching that agrees with us rather than one which challenges us, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” Today, our Lord warns us: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.”

Authentic Catholicism involves accepting suffering, it calls for urgency, for patience, for conviction, for endurance. Catholicism-lite, on the other hand, is nice and easy: no need to “endure sound teaching,” just seek out teachers of your own liking. You get to pick and choose what you like and discard the rest of the messy, difficult and demanding stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable. That sounds a lot nicer than martyrdom. But the real litmus test of a good religion is not whether it makes things easier but whether it gets you to heaven or not.

If you want to know whether salvation is easy or difficult, just look at the Cross. This is what our Lord meant by the “narrow door.” The cross is never easy. That’s the price our Lord Jesus Christ paid to get us to heaven. If salvation were meant to be easy, somebody should have presumably given that memo to Jesus so that He didn’t have to suffer the pain, the humiliation, the rejection and finally, death on the cross. If Catholicism is hard, it is because the Cross is hard. Other things may be easier, they may be more comfortable, more convenient, less painful and demanding, but nothing can lead to salvation apart from the Cross.

Now, some smart-alec may argue, “Didn’t Jesus just tell us to “try”?” Most people console themselves by saying that they’ve tried their best and then resign themselves to failure. But when our Lord tells us to “try your best to enter by the narrow door,” He is not just making a tentative suggestion. The Greek word for “try is agonizomai, implying an agonising, intense, purposeful striving or struggle. It is the same word used by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:25 when describing an athlete battling to win a victory; in 1 Timothy 6:12, when speaking of a Christian who “fights the good fight of faith.” It is a battle because entering the kingdom is like going into warfare. It is a reminder that salvation is not easy, “because many will try to enter and will not succeed.” The gospel is not made to accommodate any kind of cheap grace for people with low-pain-threshold or an enormous sense of entitlement. The kingdom is not for people who want salvation without making any radical changes or sacrifices. It is only for those who seek it with all their hearts, those who agonise, who strive to enter. Many would lose the opportunity of salvation because upon approaching the gate, they turn away upon finding out the cost.

Nevertheless, the “hard” here doesn’t mean only few succeed. If you notice, our Lord did not actually give a direct answer to the question posed by the anonymous person in the crowd, “Sir, will there be only a few saved?” The answer He gives is in a way saying, “Your salvation depends on whether you choose to enter by the “narrow door” by paying the cost or choose an easier, a more convenient short cut, which circumvents and avoids the cross.” The former leads to salvation, the latter leads to perdition – “where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” So, when the Church makes demands of us and sets the bar high, it is not because she wishes to see us fail but because she knows that this is the only path that will guarantee “places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

So, Christians should avoid falling into despair thinking that salvation is only reserved for the elite, the strong, and the best among us. Neither, should we fall into the temptation of presuming that salvation is easy, and it is guaranteed with the least effort or sacrifice on our part. Both are sins against hope and falsification of the message of Christ.

If the Christian path is difficult, does it mean that God is some sadistic being who wishes for us to suffer? The author of the letter to the Hebrews assures us that “when the Lord corrects you, do not treat it lightly; but do not get discouraged when he reprimands you. For the Lord trains the ones that He loves and He punishes all those that He acknowledges as His sons. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as His sons?” What a beautiful image to speak of God as a loving parent. Loving parents practice tough love and choose to discipline their children; self-serving parents do not because they wish to pass themselves off as “cool”, which is more self-serving than loving. Therefore, the suffering we experience in life must be understood not as punishment but as a necessary instrument of formation, a means to stretch our spiritual muscles and compel us to grow beyond our comfort levels to reach for the stars.

Following Christ is hard. It’s brutal at times. It’s painful. And it’s made even harder when well-meaning people seek to undermine the importance of doing just that by telling us, one way or another, to settle for the middle ground or even, to do the bare minimum. The bare minimum may be sufficient for survival in this world but salvation is not just about survival. When it comes down to protecting the feelings of people and defending the Truth, we must choose the latter for the good of the person. Yes, soothing wounded hearts is important. Understanding is important. Gentleness is important. But nothing – nothing at all – is more important than the eternal salvation of souls meant to be with God in Paradise for eternity. So don’t be afraid to challenge the limits of potential disciples. The solution is not found in lowering the threshold but raising it by helping people to “try” or “strive” to enter by the “narrow door.” May our work of evangelisation, of reaching out to others, ever be guided by this ultimate Truth.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Truth draws the line

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

I’ve been described as a “pigeon” for good reason. I think it is fair assessment because I often wish to avoid conflict and keep the peace. Confrontation drains and sends me tumbling down a rabbit hole of depression. But, rather than seeing this as a virtue, I have come to recognise that it is a fault to the hilt. A fault, and perhaps even a vice that I have to constantly struggle against. Because in wanting to merely “keep the peace”, I end up sometimes sacrificing the Truth or violating my conscience. This is especially challenging when my true motivation is not really about finding true peace, but something less altruistic – in fact, quite self-serving: I just do not want to lose my friends or my popularity.

Although we acclaim Christ as the Prince of Peace, it must be stated clearly that peace at any price is not the goal of Christianity. Where two sides embrace two conflicting “truths,” compromise to attain some form of uneasy “peace” or to avoid conflict at all cost will descend into an evil. Peace is not just the absence of conflict. In fact, peace is not the result of the absence of something or anything, but true peace always entails the presence of God. It is a Godless society that descends into a violent society, even when such violence is perpetrated in the name of God and religion. Peace loving leaders and their proponents may win the accolades of men for their avoidance of conflict, but if such avoidance of conflict entrenches evil and deceit, and allows it to continue under the blessing of a compromised peace, we are in a sense supporting the continuation of evil.

What is required is not reconciliation that allows and overstates the benefits of a false peace but appropriate confrontation that ensures, what is God’s remains God’s, and what is man’s or what is usurped by man, is restored to God. Truth that liberates, that sets us free and that saves can only come from God. Truth can never be the result of human compromise to merely “keep the peace” so as to offend no one. The fact of the matter is that modern man is willing to risk offending God rather than offending man. It should be the reverse. Give no offence to God, even if it means offending someone who cannot accept the Truth that comes from God. That which is of God is the only Truth. No one can add to it or subtract from it, they cannot improve on it with new human wisdom, nor can they refute it by denial. Anyone who thinks that they can is arrogant. The best we can do is to have a better understanding.

Far from the peace-loving, conflict avoiding Messiah that is depicted by moderns, our Lord in today’s gospel tells us, without mincing words, that He has come to ‘bring fire to the earth’ and ‘bring division’. It is important to note that the Lord is not making some broad statement about His ultimate purpose. Rather, He is pointing to a very real result of His message and mission. The gospel will effect divisions because the Lord confronts us with the truth. He is “the Truth” (John 14:6) and all have to make a response. Our response will ultimately be the point of division. We can either accept the Truth or reject ‘him’. If we try to ignore, that too is a form of rejection. As the Lord announced the kingdom of God, calling for primary allegiance, this will inevitably cause splits and create rifts between different camps, those who will stand with Him in the Kingdom, and those who refuse to abide with Him or even choose to stand against the Kingdom. The family, the traditional central institution that provides protection and social identity, must also give way to this new relationship with Christ. So, even though the kingdom of God ultimately establishes God’s peace on earth, the advance of the kingdom brings division.

The fiery message of this passage is equally crucial to our times. The challenge thrown by the Lord is contrary to many of the prevalent values of our age, the two principal ones being inclusiveness and moral relativity. As a result of this obsession with “inclusiveness,” we are told that we should accept “alternative lifestyles”, redefinitions of life, marriage and sex, normalise the abnormal. The catchword is “tolerance”. Some have almost made a god of tolerance. Yet we find these same people can be quite intolerant of any other viewpoint that disagrees with theirs. Closely related to this teaching of tolerance is the concept of moral relativity, which illogically argues that there are no moral absolutes, except its own claim to be absolute. We must, however, note that Truth is indeed intolerant but its intolerance is directed to lies and sin which seek to hide under the cover of euphemisms. We must remember that Jesus was never tolerant of evil. In the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11), He reached out to the sinner in love, but He hated sin. Compassion and acceptance of the sinner have never meant tolerance of their behaviour. It meant exhorting them to cease that sort of behaviour. Our Lord drew very sharp lines between what was good and what was evil, what was moral and what was immoral. When we blur the line between good and evil, we call destruction upon ourselves.

This unhappy truth does not, of course, imply that followers of Jesus are to seek conflict or to try to split up families or bring division. In fact, our Lord makes it clear that we are to be peacemakers and “to live in peace with each other” (Matt. 5:9; Mark 9:50). St Paul adds: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). That is why Christians are called to be bridge builders and to enter into dialogue with others. But making peace is not the same as making nice. Being nice just means, not trying to offend anyone, which often means lying, compromising our values and giving in to the demands of others and societal pressure to conform. Sometimes, our efforts to bring genuine peace to a situation or a relationship will, in fact, lead to conflict. Neither does making peace mean compromising the Truth. Truth is not the antithesis of love. In fact, love demands truth.

Yes, division is inevitable. As long as the world continues to resist the life-changing gospel of Christ, as long as the world continues to attempt to subvert and win us over to its self-serving values, where man is God and God is not, there will be division and conflict. St Augustine speaks of this division in terms of, “the City of God”, where love rules, and the “City of the World” where human greed and lust for power rule. Our Lord reveals that this division will sever even the closest family ties, while St Paul depicts this division as splitting apart even the individual human heart, where the flesh fights against the spirit (Gal 5:17).

There is a battle between good and evil going on in the world and in our hearts. It is important that we are aware of this. Our Lord has drawn the lines and calls us to make a stand. All disciples have to choose where we are going to stand—with Jesus or with the world. Many of us, well-intentioned Catholics, may honestly believe that we are standing with Christ but unknowingly, are actually aligning ourselves with the world’s standard. Our collusion with the world may sometimes be benign and subtle. When we are afraid to witness to the values of the Kingdom with the excuse that we wish to be peaceful and respectful, or that we do not wish to offend anyone, we are actually standing out of line, within the firing range of enemy territory. When we try to be friendly with the world, we may make the fatal mistake of being an unwitting Trojan horse within our own ranks. In the heat of battle, where there is much confusion and the temptation to sound a retreat is great, let us never forget the advice of the author of Hebrews, “let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.”  He is our victor and we who stand with Him will be victorious. And He assures us that we can “conquer evil through good.” (Rom 12:21)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Love unites with the Beloved

Homily for the Assumption of Our Lady

Recently I had the opportunity and privilege to read the soon to be canonised (fingers crossed and praying hard) Venerable Fulton Sheen’s beautiful book on the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Woman the World Loved. I would strongly recommend that you get your own personal copy as it ought to be an indispensable addition to your Catholic library collection. In fact, for Archbishop Sheen, it is said that this was his favourite book -“he cherished it more than the rest”, as noted in the foreword.

In the chapter which he dedicated to the theme of the Assumption, he postulated that the Church appropriately timed its promulgation of the two modern dogmas of our Lady, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, to address two diagonally opposing cultural moods prevalent in those respective eras; the optimism, at the dawn of the modern age in the latter half of the nineteenth century (where man believed that he could accomplish anything and everything), and the subsequent pessimistic mood, that followed the two devastating World Wars.

If he is correct, and I believe he is, then the dogma of the Assumption is the Church’s response and challenge to a world that sees no hope beyond the grave. If this life is all there is to it, it is no wonder that this has fuelled a hedonistic mentality that attempts to satiate every sensual and sexual need and want, whilst we are still alive and kicking. In fact, we see how the sexual revolution which began in the 1960s and 1970s had evolved into a culture obsessed with sexual libertinism, redefinitions of sexual and gender roles, normalisations of sexual encounters between consenting partners, rapid rise in divorces and disintegration of families, multiplication of categories that continue to be added on to the ever lengthening abbreviation LGBTQ and advancements in the pornography driven internet. Even the Church and her hierarchy sworn to celibacy have not been spared by this prurient malaise.

According to Archbishop Sheen, the Church through the dogma of the Assumption, had “to give hope to the creature of despair. Modern despair is the effect of a disappointed hedonism and centres principally on sex and death.” Therefore, the Church meets this two-fold problem head-on, “by lifting humanity from the darkness of sex and death, to the light of Love and Life.”

First, the Assumption addresses the world’s obsession with sex by proposing love as the answer. The sexual revolution’s rallying cry, “make love not war” was a lie. There was no love in the orgiastic no-holds-barred sexualised culture of that era. It was not “love” but selfish self-gratifying “free sex” that was being promoted. On the other hand, “the Assumption affirms not sex but love,” writes Sheen. “Love, like fire, burns upward, since it is basically desire. It seeks to become more and more united with the object that is loved.” Love gravitates to the other whereas lust often gravitates to self.

Sheen then makes this wonderful and insightful analogy: “If the distant moon moves all the surging tides of earth, then the love of Mary for Jesus and the love of Jesus for Mary should result in such an ecstasy as “to lift her out of this world”. Love in its nature is an ascension in Christ and an assumption in Mary.” Love, therefore, according to Sheen is the secret of the Assumption, for “love craves unity with the Beloved.” And there is no human soul who can claim to love our Lord more than His own mother. And there is no human soul which our Lord loves more than His own mother, the one who perfectly “does the will of the Father.”

Secondly, Sheen proposes that life is the second philosophical pillar on which the Assumption rests. “Life is unitive; death is divisive. Goodness is the food of life, as evil is the food of death.” If original sin separated man from God, “death is the last stroke of that division.” Since death is the division and separation of a soul from its body and springs from sin, it follows then that the only creature who is preserved from Original Sin is immune from that division which sin begets.

But under this second point, Sheen also makes this startling comparison between the Tabernacle and Mary, rightly called the First Tabernacle, because she enclosed in her womb the true Bread from Heaven. Mary is, therefore, assumed body and soul into heaven because she is united in flesh with her son, our Lord, the Living Bread from heaven. “In this doctrine of the Assumption, the Church meets the despair of the world in a second way. She affirms the beauty of life as against death. When wars, sex, and sin multiply the discords of men, and death threatens on every side, the Church bids us lift up our hearts to the life that has the immortality of the Life that nourished it. Feuerbach said that a man is what he eats. He was more right than he knew. Eat the food of earth, and one dies; eat the Eucharist, and one lives eternally. She, who is the mother of the Eucharist, escapes the decomposition of death.”

More than ever, the message conveyed by the dogma of the Assumption of Mary needs to be heard by a world, trapped and enamoured, even obsessed by sex and death. Today, we live in a sexualised world where persons are single-dimensionally defined by their sexual orientation. It is as if nothing else matters in shaping one’s identity. Sex itself has changed from an intensely private – even secretive – aspect of life, to an object of public display and celebration. Driven by consumer demands, sex has also become a commodity – big businesses push it, use it to sell products, knowing that the demand for it is insatiable. Chastity and purity in an intensively sexualised world have become anomalies. Promiscuity, on the other hand, has become the norm. This obsession with sex and sexual rights have led to the separation of the sexual act from procreation, from life itself. The sexual act of reproduction is intended to ensure that life continues. But when sex is taken out of this larger context of life, then it can only lead to death. No wonder, St John Paul II terms contraception and abortion the “culture of death.”

If we are to address the crisis posed by sex and death, then the dogma of the Assumption must be proclaimed once again, reiterating that sex divorced from love can never lead to life. Only self-giving and life-giving love can guarantee life, and not just any life as necessary for survival but eternal life. Only through the self-gift of love can we recover that integral body-soul identity of ours, not just as sexual beings but creatures made in the “image and likeness of God.” Because God created us in His image with a body, we can express and receive love through that body. It gives us the means by which to show our love and by which others receive our love. And because the body and the spirit both go together, God’s plan is for the salvation not just for the soul but also our flesh, through the flesh of the crucified and risen Lord.

The Venerable Fulton Sheen gives us one last parting advice, “The greatest task of the spiritual leaders today is to save mankind from despair, into which sex and fear of death have cast it. The world that used to say, “Why worry about the next world, when we live in this one?” has finally learned the hard way that, by not thinking about the next life, one cannot even enjoy this life. When optimism completely breaks down and becomes pessimism, the Church holds forth the promise of hope. Threatened as we are by war on all sides, with death about to be rained from the sky by Promethean fires, the Church defines a truth that has Life at its centre. Like a kindly mother whose sons are going off to war, (the Church) strokes our heads and says: “You will come back alive, as Mary came back again after walking down the valley of Death.”