Saturday, January 8, 2011

Feast of Dedication of St John's Cathedral

An erudite Jesuit friend of mine preached this homily this morning on the occasion of the Feast of the Dedication of St John's Cathedral, Kuala Lumpur


If I had my way, I would not even be bothered to mark the anniversary of the “dedication” of St John’s Cathedral. But, I was reminded of this by the Marian Devotion Group. At St John’s, the liturgy takes the rank of a solemnity and for the rest of the Archdiocese, it is to be celebrated as a feast day—still a rank higher than a memorial. This reluctance to celebrate the dedication of a building stems from a fact which we rarely dare to admit. There are just too many “Protestants” in the Catholic Church so much so that the commemoration of the anniversary does not really make sense.

We celebrate the dedication of a cathedral not because it is a building but because the building symbolises the seat of authority. The word “cathedra” and the word “see” are synonymous. A “cathedra” is a chair and the word “see” is derived from the Latin for seat, “sedes”. In short, it is a day to take pride in the authority of the Bishop. But, the truth is, we are unable to because there are just too many “Protestants”.

Let me clarify my use of the word “Protestant”. Otherwise, I might come across as politically incorrect. The source of authority for the “Protestants” is “I believe”. I believe this to be so and therefore this is so. In a sense, what to be believed is reduced into merely an expression of personal judgement. I submit because I judge it to be right. Ultimately, it is an authority that is vested in oneself.

But, the source of Catholic authority comes from somewhere else. In the first place, it comes from Christ and very importantly, to secure the source, that is, that it comes from Christ, authority comes from the Apostles. The Roman Canon of the Eucharistic Prayer says as much: “We offer them for N. our Pope and for N. our bishop and for all who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles”. But, some of us are schizophrenic at best or bi-polar at worse. Why? Because, we exhibit some kind of split assent in our lives. I know of a man who comes to receive Holy Communion very religiously. He believes that Holy Communion is truly the Body of Christ. He approaches the Blessed Sacrament with great reverence, so much so, that he would not receive Holy Communion with his hands. However, this same man could be quite virulent in his attack of the hierarchy. In this particular case, the Bishop.

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with his two “responses” until one realises that the authority, that is, the power to confect the Eucharist, and the authority of the Bishop to teach and to shepherd comes from the same source: Apostolic Succession. This is what I meant by “Protestants” in the Catholic Church. In other words, the two “responses” are a form of reductionism. I believe that this, the bread, is the Body of Christ and therefore it is. But, I do not believe that the bishop has the charism of authority to teach or to shepherd.

A priest when ordained requires a “celebret”, a Latin word for a document attesting to his faculty for exercising his priestly ministry, in order to celebrate the Eucharist in another diocese. When a priest leaves his diocese, he loses his faculty to exercise his ministry. He may have his power but he does not have the faculty to exercise it, signifying that his ministry is really a shared one, a participative and a collaborative ministry that is exercised in union with his bishop. On the other hand, a Bishop once ordained can exercise his ministry anywhere in the Church. The asking for permission is only a matter of courtesy. Why? He is ordained for the universal Church because he is a successor to Peter and the Apostles.

In the 16th Century, at the beginning of what we term as “national consciousness”, the period where the countries we know of were becoming countries, the Sun-King, Louis XIV of France used to say, “L’etat, c’est moi” translated as “I am the state”. In an analogous way, the Bishop can say, “I am the Church” and that should not be construed as arrogance. He is merely stating a fact.

Here, I take a pause. It seems that I am making a defence, an apologia for the bishopric. No. Instead, I am arguing for a coherence of faith. The heart of our struggle is not really with authority but rather the exercise of authority. The Christmas debacle is clearly a struggle in this regard. In other words, our struggle is to rehabilitate the exercise of authority. And this often brings us into the realm of the “affective”. Our likes or dislikes of the exercise of authority speak of preference. It is a protestant characteristic which upholds the primacy of the self.

At the heart of our Protestant mentality is not power but really a struggle in the service of faith. This service is not in the sense of the service of the poor but in the sense of faith in Christ who has come to save the world. That is why a Bishop’s voice must be authoritative but never authoritarian. In the service of faith, both his voice and his action must be loud and clear. In the exercise of his power, it should never be authoritarian.

Unfortunately, a by-product of this primacy of the self is an obsession with the “cult of personality”. Our assessment of the Bishop, his office and authority is often dependent on this “cult of personality”, on how we view and come to accept his personal traits and characteristics. The “cult of personality” measures a bishop’s worth, and by extension his credibility, based on his strength or weakness. Personally, his feet may be made of clay but officially, more importantly, sacramentally and ontologically, He is Christ. And we are his body. This is why the Bishop’s pectoral cross is devoid of a corpus—because scandalous as it may sound, his flesh is the flesh of Christ. And, according to the Ceremonial of Bishops, in a particular case, when there is a tabernacle on the altar at which the Bishop is to celebrate Mass, the Blessed Sacrament should be transferred to another fitting place. Think about it. How to understand the “seeming” denigration of Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament if not because the person of the Bishop is really Christ Himself present. That is the true meaning of the sacrament of Holy Orders and of Apostolic Succession. The Bishop is in persona capitatis Christi.

Perhaps, it is time for the Bishops and in an analogous way for the priests to reclaim what is rightfully theirs not as a right but rather as a service. The authority of Christ is always for service and that may explain why we have railed against the so-called pre-Vatican experience of authority—the experience manifested in this saying: the laity is to pay, pray and obey. The rehabilitation of authority in the service of faith is to convert the experience of heavy-handed authoritarianism into the authority that speaks with experience, with clarity, with humility and with courage even in the face of persecution. And to do that, there is a grave need for the Bishops and priests to return to authentic exercise of authority that is free from arbitrariness. Secondly, they must teach authoritatively. Thirdly, move away from merely portraying a public persona to living ontologically—to living because one is set aside by the authority of Christ Himself. Otherwise, there is a confusion between one’s priesthood which is really worthless and the priesthood of Christ for which ordination make sense.

In these last two week, we have learn at least one thing. The depth of our Catholic intuition. Firstly, the sense of outrage amongst Catholics reveal an intuitive desire for Bishops to speak authoritatively and secondly, the priests who stood up were not defending not Bishop personally but rather his inherent authority to provide a strong Catholic leadership.

Finally, the dedication of a cathedral can often past us by in a blink of an eye. But, its significance is far reaching and certainly further than what the eyes can perceive. It touches very much the foundation of what Catholics really believe.

1 comment:

  1. The following lines really jumped out.
    "I believe this to be so and therefore this is so. In a sense, what to be believed is reduced into merely an expression of personal judgement. I submit because I judge it to be right. Ultimately, it is an authority that is vested in oneself."
    A good reminder of the conflict between feelings and faith. 'what I feel' vs 'what I believe and trust'


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