Wednesday, October 7, 2015

To God the Best and the Greatest

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

I have a pious lay Buddhist friend who lives an exemplary life and observes more than the 5 basic precepts of Buddhism, the suggested code of ethics for laity, commitments to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. In fact, he voluntarily observes many of the precepts and disciplines of Buddhist monks. A neighbour of his, a fellow Buddhist, once accused him of being overly scrupulous and “over the top” and “fanatical” in his observance of the law, whilst using himself as a point of reference, “I don’t kill, I don’t steal, I don’t commit adultery, I don’t lie nor do I drink and smoke, and I think I’m a pretty good Buddhist.” My friend’s retort was immediate and sharp, “Neither does my dog. He doesn’t kill, he doesn’t steal, he doesn’t commit adultery, he doesn’t lie nor does he drink nor smoke. But that still doesn’t make him a good Buddhist.”

Of course, the neighbour’s response is a common response that we could hear from many. It is summed up in Yogi Bear’s famous life philosophy, “Why do more when you can do less.” This was the mistake of the rich young man in today’s gospel, a man who sincerely desired salvation and who meticulously observed the Law, but was prepared only to settle for less when he could have achieved so much more. As a faithful follower of Moses and the Law, the man would have been steeped in the tradition that the law gave life to those who kept its precepts. Jesus did not abrogate or revoke the Law as demonstrated in his answer to the young man. But Christian faith does not start and end with the Law. It would make an even greater demand. Beyond the normative and the ordinary requisites of natural law, beyond the most compelling legislated responsibility to one’s neighbour, the Christian disciple was called to renunciation as a means of generosity toward others and to a life of faithful adherence to the person of Jesus. Love does not merely suggests it. Love demands it.

In other words, the man was called by Jesus to surrender his traditional manner of serving God, through mere observance of the law, and to launch out into new, uncharted and perhaps insecure waters. It is the challenge that Christ throws to everyone who would follow him, that is to reach the unreachable; to leap beyond the practical, the ordinary and the routine; to fulfil the basic and minimum requirements and then to look eagerly for more ways to give, care, and love. Heaven, eternal life was within the young man’s reach, but the story ends on a sad note. In the face of Jesus’ radical invitation, the man’s enthusiasm had at first virtually bubbled over in extravagant praise, then evaporated in disappointment and perhaps frustration. Like so many of us, he settled for mediocrity, thinking that the bare minimum would be sufficient, without having to trouble oneself to do more. But you see, mediocrity will never do. We have been created and called to greatness.

Mediocrity is often thought of as a virtue, in that it is confused with contentment with what we possess and trust in the Providence of God. If there is indeed contentment, it has to do with sin. “This is who I am. You can’t change me.”  As Lady Gaga would insist, we are “Born this way.” The truth of the matter is that mediocrity is a lie, it is a frame of mind that convinces us, who we are, is the best we can be; what we have is the most we can have, and we are not deserving of anything better, and or enjoying life more than we do. It sells us the lie that we are not good enough for God’s best; settle for what you have, because you will not get anything better. Mediocrity is the greatest inertia to change, transformation and conversion. And finally it allows us to settle for less than the Truth. Half a truth remains a lie. 

That too may be the frequent problem with many Catholics. Many of us suffer from legalistic minimalism. The oft repeated question posed to the clergy by laity is ‘must’ we do this? In other words, it is obligatory? Take for example, the often posed question when days of obligation precede or follow a Sunday. “If I attend mass on Sunday evening which happens to be the eve of Christmas, am I fulfilling both the Sunday obligation as well as my Christmas obligation?” Or here’s another popular one, “Which part of the mass must I at least attend before I’m entitled to receive communion?” Many believe that as long as they fulfilled the minimum requirements of the law, it would be deemed sufficient. When religion and ethical principles settle for the lowest standards to accommodate personal convenience, it will finally and quickly bottom out. Settling for less does not only take away the edge from our faith, it also condemns us to mediocrity. Even a non-Catholic or Christian can recognise the debased character of mediocrity. Martha Graham, the doyen of modern dance and choreography, hits the nail of its head when she declared that “the only sin is mediocrity.”

Today, we see the rise of mediocrity in every sphere. In fact, many celebrate their mediocrity by announcing, “this is who I am, take it or leave!” When mediocrity has become the norm, when our imperfections and limitations are applauded or even hung up like trophies, when the status quo is accepted without question, there is no longer any impetus to improve ourselves, to grow and advance in sanctity. Mediocrity today poses as democratisation, inclusiveness, populism, condescension, tolerance, broad-mindedness, optimism and even charity. Mediocrity provides the anaesthetia our society needs to shield it from the sting of suffering.

In other words, mediocrity presents the promise of salvation without a cross, charity without needing to sacrifice. We try to make religion easier and more accessible in order to stem the steady decline in followers. But mediocrity is settling for cheap; it is selling a lie. The call to holiness, ultimately, is a call to perfection. Being average or just good when it comes to holiness just doesn’t make it! But as Christians, we hear Christ’s rallying cry to walk the extra mile, to go out into the deep end, to make the greater sacrifice for faith. We are all called to be saints! You will hear Jesus constantly prodding you, “Why do less when you can do more?” The law may simply set the minimum base line. But even here the sky is not the limit, only Heaven’s the limit, and there is no limit to Heaven.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis in a phone call to a group of young Italians who were on pilgrimage, encouraged them to embrace hope in God and reject mediocrity. “Please, do not fall into mediocrity, into that mediocrity that lowers and makes us grey, for life is not grey, life is for betting on grand ideas and for great things.”

Our Catholic faith must therefore constantly spur us on to greater heights. The Benedictine monks who created the medicinal liquor that bore their name, understood the need for achieving such perfection and excellence in something as mundane as a drink. In that meticulous and painstaking process of producing this brew, no effort or cost was spared. Mediocrity was never something tolerated. I’m partial to believe that they must have been the first to invent quality control. The abbreviation which appears on each bottle of this liquor, D.O.M., points precisely to this spirit. The abbreviation refers to a Latin phrase, Deo optimo maximo, which means “to God, the best and the greatest.” If Benedictines can understand what it means to give to God what is best and greatest in a simple drink, we can certainly recognise the need to give to Him, not just our leftovers and scraps, our mediocre efforts, our meagre offerings but all that is best and certainly that which is greatest. For God deserves no less!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Marriage and Truth

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of the most heart-rending statistics of our day is that there is a divorce taking place every 10 minutes in Malaysia. Regrettably, it is not much different among Catholics. What could be the cause of this spike in divorces? The answer lies in the manner in which so many view marriage. The permanency of marriage is today viewed merely as an ideal at best, or a silly na├»ve myth. Marriage is often entered into as a tentative enterprise, an agreement “until further notice.” But the Church upholds and defends marriage in a manner which is radically different. For us Christians, marriage is a unique contract. Unlike other contracts, marriage has no break clause. The permanency of the marriage bond is what sets it apart from any other contracts. As I’m fond of telling couples, it consists of burning the bridges behind you, removing all the reset buttons, throwing away the life boats. You swim or you sink together!

Perhaps, the world finds such an arrangement harsh and untenable. It does so because it seems that everything in this world is marked by a certain tentativeness, that’s why the inclusion of a break clause in most contracts to allow the parties to mutually exit the partnership when things turn sour. But the Catholic Church sees it differently. She takes a Catholic at his word when he makes his vows, freely and knowingly, at his wedding. The Church must likewise call him to lifelong faithfulness to that vow, for the marriage vows bring into existence a permanent union that is joined together by God. It is “God” who joins man and woman together,” and therefore only God who can put them asunder. The reason why the Church objects to divorce and would not allow a “second” marriage, is because the Church does not presume that it has the authority to erase the tape on someone’s marital history and then pretend to take him as his word when he makes his wedding vows a second time. Marriage either is what Christ taught us it is, or it means whatever you want it to mean.

The church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the ban against remarriage is not an invention of a harsh and demanding Church, a Church removed from reality. No, the Church’s teaching is none other than that of Christ himself. Jesus, in response to the question of the Pharisees about divorce, teaches that “from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body. They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide.” Later, upon being questioned further by his disciples, Jesus lays down the law,” The man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too.” There is nothing tentative about the words of Christ. They are explicitly clear and there is nothing ambiguous about his teaching. So anyone who wishes to take a spin on the teachings of Christ and questions the Church’s fidelity to it, would have to either ignore this passage or come out honestly and admit, “I reject Christ’s teaching!” 

In the debate leading up to the October Synod on Marriage and Family, one of the proponents arguing in favour of the traditional position of the Church, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop of Bologna, spoke to an Italian periodical, Il Foglio, and explained the premise of the Church’s position on the indissolubility of marriage. “When I speak of the truth of marriage I do not mean some sort of normative ideal. I mean, rather, the truth that God in his creative act has inscribed upon the person of every man and woman… Here we are not talking simply about a norm that may or may not admit of exceptions, nor of an ideal after which we strive. We are talking about the very essence of marriage and the family …The indissolubility of marriage is a gift that is given by Christ ... Above all it is a gift, not a norm that is imposed. It is not an ideal after which they have to strive. It is a gift from God who never reneges on his gifts... It is God who unites, otherwise the definitively binding nature of the act would rest upon a desire that is yes, natural, but also impossible to achieve. God himself gives the completion of the act.”

Marriage is indeed a sacrament, a sign of the eternal love of the three Persons of the Trinity, a sign of Christ’s self-effacing and sacrificial love for his Bride, the Church. Marriage should remind us of that inseparable bond.

How about those who are already divorced and “remarried”? Is there no place for them within the Church? Pope Francis recently gave a general audience in which he discussed the situation of those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment. He stressed that “these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated!” The mainstream media had another field day suggesting that our Latin American Pontiff had once again departed from the norms of the Church, a decision to be lauded. What the media and many failed to recognise was that the Pope was merely restating the position of the Church. Excommunication is a canonical penalty and it is true that divorcing and remarrying without an annulment does not incur excommunication. The Pope is absolutely correct. But then, the media forgot to mention the teaching of Christ. Such a situation, though not warranting excommunication, is a serious sin, the sin of adultery according to the words of Christ himself, which separates them from communion with God and the Church. Pope Francis himself acknowledges that such a situation “contradicts the Christian Sacrament.”

Pope Francis then echoed the message of his predecessors in calling upon the members of the Church to provide maternal and pastoral care to people who are in these situations. As Pope St John Paul II once wrote, “Indeed the problem of divorced and remarried persons is one of the great sufferings of today’s Church. And we do not have simple solutions. Their suffering is great and yet we can only help parishes and individuals to assist these people to bear the pain of divorce.” He went on to say: “As regards these people … the Church loves them, but it is important they should see and feel this love. I see here a great task for a parish, a Catholic community, to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not “excluded” even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church.”

And that would be our challenge. That we should never lower the bar when it comes to defending the indissolubility and unity of the marital union, for if we failed to do so, we would not only be turning our backs on the teachings of Christ but falsifying the truth about God, a God who never reneges on his promises. At the same time the Church must never close its doors on those who have suffered separation and divorce. The Church remains a mother to both – those who struggle with much courage, patience and perseverance to remain faithful to their marital bond, and those whose lives have been torn asunder by dereliction of their vows and now attempt to pick up the pieces. She remains a loving Mother as she continues to guide, to lead, to comfort, to heal and even to admonish when necessary, in order that all her children may find peace, a peace that can only be found when the truth of one’s lives conforms to the truth of one’s communion with God.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Beyond the Pale but never beyond Truth

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Times Year B

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the expression “beyond the pale.” The term “Pale” is derived from the Latin “Palus,” which means pole or stake. It has come to refer to a space that is fenced in by poles. The term eventually came to be associated with the part of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English government in the late Middle Ages, an area marked out by a picketed fence – thus the Pale. As far as the English were concerned civilisation extended only to the end of the Pale and never beyond. Anyone or anything beyond the Pale was considered savage and dangerous. Today the expression “beyond the Pale” refers to anything unacceptable or beyond the limits of accepted morality or conduct.

Today’s readings seem to have shattered the security of the Pale. Both the action of God in generously pouring out his Spirit in the first reading and that of Christ in the gospel accepting the complimentary ministry of one not found among his inner circle, imply a God whose actions are not confined within the Pale. By sidestepping the orthodox and accepted human means both stories illustrate the utter unconventionality and freedom of God’s spirit. In commenting on a fellow miracle worker who was performing exorcisms in his name, Jesus says, “You must not stop him; no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.”

The readings here invite us to rethink the parameters within which God works. God is indeed a God of Surprises. He often works outside our familiar categories and beyond the parameters of expected normalcy. But we must avoid making the simplistic conclusion that this means that there are no basic differences between one ideology and the other, one religion and another, one denomination and the other. Notice that Christ’s words does not admit all and sundry but contain a caveat, only those who are “not against us is for us.” In other words, the recognition of the parallel ministry is posited on the fact that there is no contradiction between the teachings of Christ and the Church and that of the other. Immediately after challenging the “pale” mentality of his disciples, Jesus begins to draw clear parameters and impose heavy penalties, including excommunication, for any infringement of the limits which he had set. The God of Surprises is not the God of confusion or chaos or “anything goes.”  

A popular myth among many non-Catholics and even Catholics, is that the Church since Vatican II no longer teaches that she is necessary for salvation, in other words, that the Church is just one of many equal paths of salvation. These statements have become unofficial dogmas, “You have your beliefs and I have mine.” “Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion and religious beliefs and these should be respected.” “Everyone can get to heaven as long as one is true to oneself and tries to be a good person.” The notion that there are other equal paths of salvation apart from Christ and his Church is called religious indifferentism. This ideology teaches that the divisions between Christians and others are simply man-made constructs, irrelevant in the pursuit of larger, mutual goals. That faith is from God, and religion is made by man. Differences, if any, are mostly trivial. The Pale just doesn’t exist!

Although religious indifferentism has always been condemned by the Catholic Church, the argument seems quite tenable and acceptable in today’s religiously diverse world. In fact, many Catholics do feel overly embarrassed to assert the uniqueness of the Catholic faith. But is it arrogance to state the Truth about Christ or His Church? Or is it arrogant on our part to presume that we can alter and change the teachings of Christ so that our faith may fit in more “nicely” within the larger society and its expectations?

The Christian faith, the Catholic faith remains undeniably unique because Jesus remains undeniably unique – He is the Only Begotten Son of God. The best human teachers of wisdom are nothing like Him because He is both true man and true God. Because of His singularly unique nature, Christ is the unique and universal Saviour of the world, He cannot be one among many. The uniqueness of Jesus Christ in God’s plan of salvation must certainly extend to the Church which He founded. Thus the Church is unique because Jesus is, in fact, unique. It is precisely because of this intimate association between Christ and His Body that the Catholic Church continues to affirm the Latin maxim, “extra ecclesia nullam salus,” “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Our Holy Father, Pope Francis affirms this ancient maxim by saying, “It’s an absurd dichotomy to think one can live with Jesus, but without the Church, to follow Jesus outside the Church, to love Jesus and not the Church”. If Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, then the Church must too be necessary for salvation.

This unique identity of Christ and the Church, is reflected in the way the Catholic faith relates to all the other religions and philosophies in the world. Such a relationship is necessarily based on God’s Truth, it can never be the product of human opinions. It follows that any truth and any goodness to be found anywhere in creation owes its existence to God. However, with Truth comes its flipside, error. Error is always beyond the Pale because God is not and cannot be the author of error. Despite the commonality we find in other religious traditions, and despite the Church’s sincere respect for “all that is true and good” found in these traditions, anything which offends the Truth of Christ and His Church cannot be considered to be on the same page especially when this not only rejects the uniqueness of Christ and His mission but also negates the essence of the Truth which He came to reveal.

So how do we reconcile the seemingly contradictory notions that the Church is necessary for salvation and yet recognise that there are others who may be recipients of God’s grace and salvation who stand outside the visible Church? By recognising that these claims are complementary, not contradictory. The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church though affirming the necessity of Christ and His Church for salvation also teaches that “those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience… Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel... Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature," the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.”

So all that lies beyond the visible Pale of our comprehension and perception need not be necessarily dangerous, neither those found there condemned to perdition. It may be humbling and more accurate to state that one does not know where the Pale begins or ends because, Christ, the Pole of our Lives on whom we stake everything, is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and End of all. In this way, the Pale is essentially “Catholic,” “Universal,” and one of the strengths of true Catholicity is that it affirms all that is beautiful, true and good, wherever it appears, but never merely contented with lesser versions, it always strives for the fullness and perfection of that which is beautiful, true and good. This too must be at heart of authentic ecumenism, authentic interfaith dialogue and genuine conversations with the world. It is a conversation that cannot and should not ignore the differences nor blur the lines between Truth and Error, but rather a dialogue that ultimately leads us to the fullness of the Truth in all its splendorous glory, a dialogue that leads us to God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"Extra Ecclesiam nullam salus"

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
“Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.
“Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”