Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cut Off from the Vine

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

The media coverage of the run-up to this year’s Synod on the Family seems to have focused on several controversial points, with the grand-daddy of all issues being the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. I guess it would not be of media interest if it was not controversial or sensational. The argument that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics (lacking annulments), however, be allowed to receive the Eucharist is not new. Proponents of this argument would often cite “mercy” as the main rationale, what more when “mercy” is a strong theme in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

In spite of the seemingly refreshing novelty of the proposal and its convincing raison d’ĂȘtre, the matter has already been settled at the end of another Synod that took place during the pontificate of St John Paul II. At the end of the Synod, Pope St John Paul II, issued a document entitled  Familiaris Consortio (1981) where he propounds the established Catholic position. Contrary to the common view, that the Church’s laws suffer from the lack of mercy, the saintly Pope exhorted the Church to “pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother.”  How is mercy to be shown? Pope St John Paul also called upon pastors and communities to help the divorced and “make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favour of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.”

But mercy can never mean the suppression of the Truth. Mercy and Truth are not mutually exclusive. What more, we cannot take upon ourselves the task of setting aside the truth of Catholic doctrine in the name of mercy, because it would not only be appropriating a privilege that belongs only to Christ but would also falsify mercy. Similarly, we cannot approach God’s mercy without first discerning the truth about ourselves, our state of soul, and our sins. Mercy is never opposed to justice. The God of Mercy is also a Just God. In the cross, we see God’s justice and mercy meeting and uniting in the sacrifice of Jesus who in his mercy took upon himself the punishment that was due to us because of our sins.

St John Paul II clarifies that mercy and pastoral care should never be an excuse to compromise the truths of faith communicated through Sacred Scripture and Tradition. He writes, “the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” In other words, our desire for communion must be reflected objectively by our lives lived in communion with God’s laws and that of the Church. One cannot contradict the other. Such contradiction would lead to confusion.

Today's Gospel offer further insight into this truth. The apostle John emphasises that mere words and honest intentions are not enough when it comes to demonstrating a right relationship with God. We must walk the talk. Thus today’s gospel reminds us that vitality and fruitfulness are contingent upon and directly proportionate to the union of all members with Christ, and by extension the Church, which is His Body. Apart from Him and Her, we cannot hope to have life or bear fruit. We cannot demand communion if we are not living in communion with Christ and his visible Body, the Church.

The parable of the vine, therefore, conveys a marvelous sense of assurance: that we are somehow rooted, firmly and enduringly in a loving and life-giving God, who not only gives us existence and sustain us, but also leads us to a meaningful existence in Him, who is both our origin and our destination.  Yet the assertion that pervades the entire Gospel is more than this assurance. It is the requirement, based on the assurance, that we persist in this communion, that we continue to be anchored and rooted in the very source of life and wholeness: “whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty.” This requirement is so direly serious and urgent that a threat lies behind it: “cut off from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is like a branch that has been thrown away – he withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire, and they are burnt.”

The union implied by the parable of the vine is the central event of our salvation history. And since such intimate union is the goal of salvation, God tolerates no compromise: the branches are either attached to the vine’s trunk or they are separated. We can’t be half-way Christians choosing to be united with Christ, yet seeking to be away from His Body, the Church. Neither can we assume that we have a right to take communion at every mass and at the same time, live in opposition to the teachings and Laws of Christ and His Church. That would be hypocrisy at its worst. We have to take this to heart, “For cut off from me you can do nothing.” Communion with Christ is not just an idea; it is realised in our relationship with the Church.

The Church is in fact the Body of Christ and to live attached to the Vine is to be in ecclesial communion, to live in the Body of Christ and to nourish oneself with the Body of Christ. For this reason, the sacrament of our union with Christ is also the sacrament of the unity of the Church. To receive communion implies that you must be in communion, that you must be ready to submit to the authority of the Church and accept her teachings as true. The two are not meant to be separated. The outward act of receiving the Eucharist is a visible, public sign of the invisible union of your mind, will, and heart with Christ and his Church and all that she proposes for our belief.  Receiving Eucharistic Communion contrary to ecclesial communion is therefore in itself a contradiction.

The story of Holy Week leaves us with an important reminder that we should not ignore. One of the apostles, did not remain in Christ; he shared in the first Eucharistic meal but his heart had already been set to betray Christ. Rather than receiving a cup of blessing, he partook of the chalice of God’s wrath by his duplicity – an outward sign of communion not matched by an internal disposition to be in communion with the Lord. The blessing became a curse; the medicine becomes poison. We, therefore, see in the person of Judas that the danger of cutting oneself off from the vine and eternal life is real. Tragically, it does happen. When we receive the Body of Christ unworthily, when our act of communion does not match our desire to live in communion with the Church, we then risk receiving it to our condemnation. It is why we have recourse to confession, which restores us to full communion with Christ and His Church. We can only receive communion because we are in communion. Anything less would be hypocrisy and a dangerous lie.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

It's not a Job

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B

This Sunday is called Good Shepherd Sunday for good reason. In each year of the three year lectionary cycle, the gospel text for the Fourth Sunday of Easter are chosen from Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel which gives us the discourse on the good shepherd. This year, we are treated to verses 11 to 18 which provides us with a description of the good shepherd, a description in which only Jesus can fit the role to perfection, and yet a description that must be the ultimate benchmark for all shepherds of souls within the Church today. It is for this reason, that the Church has also declared this day as the day of prayer for vocations to the Priestly and the Religious Life.

In the person of the Good Shepherd we find the eminent example of one who is essentially dedicated to others in a permanent attitude of self-giving. His life is a constant reaching out to others. Different from the hired man, he is ready to lay down his life, sacrificing himself, in order to safeguard the flock from dispersion and destruction. There is a reciprocal, personal knowledge between him and his own; he knows each one by name and enters into a deep profound communion with them. In fact, this knowledge - communion springs out from that same knowledge that unites the Father and the Son.

Thus Jesus is the model the ministers of the Church are asked to follow and imitate. Through his call, they participate in his being the Shepherd of the Church. United to him, they learn what it means to love, to love without self-interest, to love to the end. He is their ultimate measure, there is no other. It is in Christ, that every person finds his true vocation. The word “vocation” here comes from the Latin, “vocare,” which means “to call.” Thus a vocation speaks of a “calling,” “God’s calling” to be exact. If one seeks to broaden the definition, then we can speak of every baptised person having a vocation - a call - to love and serve God. How you choose to live out that vocation is what each person must discern. Some feel called to live as single or married laypeople; others choose consecrated life and join a secular institute or religious community; still others choose ordination as deacons or diocesan priests.

But today, is a special day when the Church invites us to think about and pray for vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. This is more than just a recruitment drive by the church – we can all acknowledge that the Church needs more clergy or religious or even lay ministers. This way of thinking, however, reduces such vocations to a mere job – a vocation is so much more than a job.

Here comes the question which seems to be on everyone’s mind - What sort of man must a priest be? Perhaps, the common answers we would most likely hear or would expect to hear is that he must be a man who is prepared to listen to his people, a good administrator, a man of moderation, a man able to juggle his time and attention between the old and young, and he must be able to solve a whole long list of problems. I guess if you are looking for the perfect candidate for the job, you will not find him. As much as we would desire our shepherds to have a variety of people skills – that they be good managers, good listeners, good planners, good communicators, good speakers  – this is not their calling.

So what sort of shepherds do we need? The Church would require that such a man must above all be a man concerned for God, for only then will he also be truly concerned about men. The priest must not be someone who merely does his job and is content with that.  No, he must be seized by God and gripped by God’s concern for men and women. He must in some way think and feel with God.  He must think and feel like the Good Shepherd in today’s gospel reading.

Today’s gospel provides that measure and I would like to especially invite all young men in the congregation to pay attention.
First, a good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep. And so when young men begin to discern, when seminarians are being formed for priestly ministry, and priests who are already in ministry subject themselves to honest self-examination, they must apply themselves to this paramount question – Do I have a capacity for self-giving, self-sacrifice or living for others?
Second, the hired man is not the shepherd. The shepherd must be able to serve with simplicity, humility and without wanting personal gain or benefit. He’s not in it for the money, the fame, the power or the fringe benefits. The priesthood is not a job. It is a calling, a vocation.
Third, the shepherd knows his own and his own knows him. Knowledge leads to communion. From the mystery of God's eternal knowledge, from the intimacy of Trinitarian love springs the priesthood and the pastoral mission of Christ. The shepherd is one who strives to understand his people, listens to them, journeys with them, struggles with them, and eventually, as Pope Francis is fond of saying, begins to “smell” like his sheep.
Fourth, the shepherd has to lead and guide other sheep who are not of his fold, as there can only be one flock, and therefore one shepherd. Christ’s pastoral mission is a universal mission not limited to the members of the visible Church, but, by virtue of his sacrifice on the Cross, embraces all men and all peoples. The shepherd must have a missionary heart that goes beyond the line of duty, crosses boundaries, and works across cliques, affiliations, personal preferences, as he seeks to bring everyone under the one fold of God.

This set of criteria may seem daunting and unattainable. No one can claim to come close to the perfect self-giving of the Good Shepherd who laid down his own life for his sheep. All of us are keenly aware of our unworthiness, imperfections and limitations. To let you in on a little secret, we priests often struggle with this throughout our ministry. As a priest, I must confess that the “job” often seems overwhelming, and the demands of ministry seem to go beyond my limited abilities. But our greatest consolation comes in the realisation that we don’t need to have it all together, that we don’t need to have all the answers, and that the troubles which plagued this Church and the world need not rest solely on our shoulders. Indeed, my greatest consolation comes in this realisation that I too am a sheep, in need of care from the Good Shepherd, and He has laid down his life for me! And if he has called me to this ministry of service, then He would surely provide sufficient grace to sustain me.

Thus, the vocation to and ministry of the priesthood is both something which is great and yet humbling. This is what our Holy Father Pope Francis said in his homily during last year’s Chrism Mass. “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that priest is very little indeed: the incomparable grandeur of the gift granted us for the ministry sets us among the least of men. The priest is the poorest of men unless Jesus enriches him by his poverty, the most useless of servants unless Jesus calls him his friend, the most ignorant of men unless Jesus patiently teaches him as he did Peter, the frailest of Christians unless the Good Shepherd strengthens him in the midst of the flock. No one is more “little” than a priest left to his own devices; and so our prayer of protection against every snare of the Evil One is the prayer of our Mother: I am a priest because he has regarded my littleness (cf. Lk 1:48). And in that littleness we find our joy.” So please don’t forget to pray for your poor priests that they might have this joy in order that they become ever more capable of bringing souls to Jesus, Our Good Shepherd.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Habeas Corpus: You Have the Body?

Third Sunday of Easter Year B

Down through the centuries Christians have always confessed with the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe…in the resurrection of the body” or in some other translations, “the resurrection of the flesh.” This affirmation of faith in the resurrection is grounded in faith in Christ’s resurrection. A major purpose of the latter resurrection was to make possible the former; thus they are both of the same nature. The two doctrines are therefore interdependent. Our belief in the resurrection in the body would collapse if it was not tied to our fundamental belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Yet the notion of the bodily resurrection of Christ has been the subject of controversies right from the very beginning. The problem in the resurrection isn't so much in agreeing that Jesus rose but in how He rose. It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?  Sounds macabre! In spite of the historic church’s unwavering belief in the resurrection of the flesh, there are those then as there are those today who refuse to accept the bodily resurrection of Christ. The Romans discredited it, the Jews denied it and the Gnostics couldn’t stomach it.  For more than two millennium the Church has been fighting off the throngs of heretics who deny much or all of the Symbol of Faith, but there are few truths that exasperate the world more than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Chief among the deniers and disbelievers was a sect generally known as Gnostics, who had a dualistic view of the universe. 

Gnosticism and Greek philosophy in general commonly distinguished between two worlds, the world of the spirit, of thought and ideas, and the world of matter, the universe around us including our physical bodies with all their senses and passions. According to this Greek view, the world of the spirit is the higher and more perfect world, the material world being inferior, less perfect, or even positively evil. Man’s present problem, according to this view, is not that he is a sinner, separated from God by his sin and rebellion, but that his spirit is at present trapped within the prison house of the body. Redemption, according to this view, consists not in the forgiveness of sins and union with God in Christ but in the release of the human spirit from its imprisonment within the physical body. It is no wonder that those holding such views therefore looked forward to death and embraced it readily (even to the extent of taking their own lives) believing that in death the spirit would be freed from all imperfections. For such, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is a patent absurdity.

This heretical thinking is not just a thing of the past. It has been passed to our modern world with the recent interest in such writings as the so-called gospels of Judas and Thomas, both Gnostic writings.  More specifically, Gnostic thinking has filtered into the conscious and sub-conscious of our society through the host of New Age spiritualities and materialist philosophies that sprouted in Europe in the post-enlightenment period.  These theories, most notably in Marxism and its various off-shoots, promote the idea that the only truth that exists is that which is empirically verifiable, or, that that which can be observed.  Therefore, any revelation, especially such dogmas of faith as the Incarnation and Resurrection, are not believable because there is no scientific evidence of them.

One may be tempted to think that this is making a mountain out of a molehill. So what if we deny the bodily resurrection of Christ, what difference would it make? What many fail to see is that the denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ does more than just deny the resurrection, it strikes at the very core of our Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus is a fundamental and essential doctrine of Christianity.  The resurrection of Jesus is so important that without it Christianity is false.  St Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:14, “and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain… and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”  To deny the resurrection of Jesus is to deny the heart of Christianity itself.

That is why today’s gospel text makes this important point, in recording Jesus’ invitation to his disciples to “touch” and “see” for themselves, so that they will be certain that he is not a ghostly apparition because “a ghost has no flesh and bones.” The body that emerged from the tomb on Easter morning was seen (Matt. 28:17), heard (John 20:15-16), and even touched (Matt. 28:9) on many occasions after the Resurrection. To stress the point further, he asked for something to eat. In fact, Jesus ate food at least four times after the Resurrection (Luke 24:30; 24:42-43; John 21:12-13; Acts 1:4). The Christian church, therefore, has from the beginning confessed that the same physical body of flesh that was laid in Jesus’ tomb was raised immortal.

Following the apostolic testimony, the church down through the centuries has confessed its belief in “the resurrection of the flesh” — both that of Jesus in particular and of humanity in general. St Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) said plainly: “The resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh which dies.” As for those who “maintain that even Jesus Himself appeared only as spiritual, and not in flesh, but presented merely the appearance of flesh: these persons seek to rob the flesh of the promise.” Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-230) declared the resurrection of the flesh to be the church’s “rule of faith,” saying it “was taught by Christ” and only denied by heretics.

But the point of the resurrection is the final defeat of sin, death, and the grave.  And, to do that, you must have a body that crosses over the threshold of death, but then returns victorious. In other words, for God to prove that He has defeated death, He has to have a body to show for it. Literally, a divine writ of habeas corpus – “do you have the body?” That’s why we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  That’s why the resurrection of the body is so important.  That’s why Jesus had to rise again. That’s why we believe in the resurrection because we know that we live now, we live beyond the door of death, we live in eternity, we will return with Christ, we will live in the presence of God on the new earth, in the new Jerusalem, beside the River of Life, shaded by the Tree of Life, where there will be no more tears, and Death will be finally and forever defeated. We believe in the resurrection of the body because we believe in the God who gives life.  So, those who have died before us will rise.  Those whose physical bodies have decayed and been corrupted will rise.
Modern man is not much different than the ancient one.  Today, we live in a world that doubts everything about religion and tradition, especially the Resurrection.  But because of the Resurrection we know for sure what the Church Fathers  knew: that man is the image of God and that we will be destined to become “gods” one day, to share in the eternal beatitude of the Trinity. But this is only possible in and through the Resurrection. We will appear before our Judge and Maker, not as disembodied spirits, but in new glorified bodies, taking after the fashion of the first fruit of the resurrection, Christ Himself. As C. S. Lewis writes, “we will all have faces and the God who called us by name here on this earth, will call us by name again.”