Monday, August 21, 2017

The Lord does not abandon His Church

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One of the weirdest movies I’ve ever watched is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglas Adam’s trilogy of books. The setting of the story is simple, the planet Earth is faced with destruction by an alien race as it wants to make way for an inter-galactic super-highway. At the beginning of the movie, we are treated to a strange commentary of dolphins being the most intelligent beings on Earth. Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending demolition of Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger.  The funny thing was that most of their communications were misinterpreted, and as a result, you see amusing attempts to punch footballs, or whistle for titbits, so they eventually gave up and left Earth by their own means - shortly before the aliens arrived. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double backwards somersault through a hoop, whilst whistling the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.  The simple message was, in fact, “So long and thanks for all the fish”.  In short, “It’s farewell and goodbye!”

Many Catholics who seem to have an apocalyptic bent in reading the signs of the times may feel like the dolphins. There is no doubt that we live in troubled times: times that can challenge our faith. It is wearisome to be constantly reminded of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, terrorism, uprisings, wars and rumours of wars and so on. In recent years even the spectre of schism and new apostasy has been added to this litany of woes. The faithful are abandoning the Church in droves! The number of priestly and religious vocations are plummeting! Let us not forget the two shafts of lightning that had struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica just hours after the previous Pope announced his resignation. These doom-sayers have been trying to communicate their concerns about the imminent destruction of the Church to their fellow Catholics, but their feeble attempts have come across as hysterical rantings and over-exaggerations about the actual state of affairs. Thus, many are on the verge of bailing out, if they have not already done so, before the barque of St Peter, the Catholic Church capsizes.

Recently, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI paid tribute to his friend, the late Cardinal Meisner, one of the four dubia Cardinals, in a message read out at the latter’s funeral mass. “He learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” Many had latched on to the last part of the quotation, about the Church capsizing, whilst conveniently ignoring the rest of the message. Some take it as a subtle slap-down of the present administration of the current Pope, whilst others see it as an admission that the Church is indeed in trouble, and we are all threatened with a sinking ship. What most Catholics fail to recognise is that throughout its 2000 years history, the Catholic Church has always been threatened with the risk of capsizing. And yet, with all the odds stacked against it, she has somehow miraculously remained afloat!  In paying so much attention to this last part of the message and in giving it an ominous interpretation, these commentators failed to give due attention to what I believe to be the most important statement in this message, “The Lord does not abandon His Church.”

This resonates with the promise given by our Lord to St Peter in today’s gospel, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” Saint Ambrose said: “The Church is like the moon; it may wane, but never be destroyed; it may be darkened, but it can never disappear.” Another great saint, Saint Anselm said that the barque of the Church may be swept by the waves, but it can never sink, because Christ is there. When the Church is in greatest need, Christ comes to its help by miracles, or by raising up saintly men to strengthen and purify it. It is the barque of Peter; when the storm threatens to sink it, the Lord awakens from His sleep, and commands the winds and waters into calm: “Peace; be still!” Yes, the Lord does not, and will not abandon His Church because the Lord always keeps His promises.

This is the meaning of the doctrine “indefectibility”, a term which does not speak of the Church’s lack of defects but confesses that, despite all its many weaknesses and failures, Christ is faithful to His promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The First Vatican Council declared that the Church possesses “an unconquered stability” and that, “built on a rock, she will continue to stand until the end of time”. The Church's indefectibility, therefore, means that she now is and will always remain the institution of salvation, founded by Christ. This affirms that the Church is essentially unchangeable in her teaching, her constitution, and her liturgy. It does not exclude modifications that do not affect her substance, nor does it exclude the decay of individual local churches or even whole dioceses.

Historically, when the Church was just beginning, the Roman emperors vowed to destroy it. Nero, Domitian, Diocletian and others tried to exterminate the Church. It could have died. In the early Christian centuries and throughout history, there have been so many heresies and schisms that had threatened to destroy the unity and integrity of the Church, but they failed.  Many of these heresies and schisms still continue in different forms today. In the 16th century, the Protestant reformation seemed to have succeeded in diminishing the Church’s numbers and even sucking life out of it.  In the same century, it spread to America and Asia.  In the 18th century, the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution was aimed at destroying the Church in France. The Church survived and the French Revolution is now history, though Enlightenment ideas are still here with us. In the 20th century, fascist, communist, socialist, secular regimes have tried to ban and destroy the Church, but in many of these countries, the Catholic faith continues to thrive in spite of the persecution and widespread restrictions.

So please, my fellow Catholics, the proper response when reading headlines about the corruption or destruction of the Church due to the mismanagement by her leaders is not panic or rage or despair, and definitely not to join the chorus of dolphins in singing, “Farewell, so long and thanks for all the fish.”  Rather, it’s a yawn, an eye-roll, and a resigned sigh and to be reminded once again of the greatness of Our Lord’s promise to St Peter. Catholics should not allow distress over the present situation, to shake their faith in Our Lord’s promise to preserve the Church from damnable error and to provide a trustworthy barque for the salvation of souls. They mustn’t succumb to the temptation to turn their frustrations, with fellow Catholics and even Church’s leaders, against the Church of Christ herself. Every Catholic should resolve to live as a saint, growing in charity of words and behaviour, keeping faith in the midst of a godless society and never letting go of the hope that looks to the return of Our Lord in all His glory to judge the living and the dead. Finally, they should never cease or slack in praying for our Holy Father, the successor of St Peter, and for the unity of the episcopate, the successors of the Apostles.

Perhaps, it’s good to remember the words of the late Cardinal Meisner in his Last Will and Testament. The words are beautiful, powerful and timely:
"Christ gave the Petrine office to the Church in order to give an orientation and support to the many people in the different times. That is my last request to you all for your salvation. Stay with our Holy Father. He is the Peter of today. Follow his guidance. Listen to his word. Peter wants nothing for himself, but everything for the Lord and for his brothers and sisters… I do not desire the grace which the Apostle John received, nor the forgiveness with which You pardoned Peter. I only desire the words which You said to the robber on the Cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”"

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You are of my tribe

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we often fall into the act of setting up barriers between ourselves and others. I think,  if we’re honest, we have to admit that we are basically ‘tribal’– we belong to ethnic and linguistic groups, families and classes; and each ‘tribe’ to which we belong has its own boundaries and limits, rules and expectations–and quite honestly, "we like that"! There are many alluring benefits of our ‘tribalism.’ We find strength and safety in our ‘tribe:’ we know exactly where we stand. It’s good to know there are people who think and believe as we do. However, there are some problems: We get pretty defensive about our ‘tribes’. We believe we’ve got it right, we’ve got it all figured out, we’re convinced that God is on our side and we can’t imagine anyone not thinking or seeing things the same way we and our ‘tribe' do! So, we refuse to open our ‘tribe’ to include anyone outside. You are welcome to be part of us – but, only on our terms!.

When God was setting up a people for Himself that would transmute to the universal community of God’s people, He began with the twelve tribes of Israel. This universal dimension was part of the promise made to Abraham: “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3); “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Genesis 22:18). Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations. However, history shows that they failed in this. Because of their special undeniable election as God’s chosen, Israel as a people had developed an aura of uniqueness and distinction. They began to think that they were the only favoured ones and that God does not care about other people.

Today, the readings serve as an important reminder that we should not confine and limit God to our myopic vision of things. He cannot be placed into a pigeonhole of our making. Though, man often draw boundaries, put up barriers, and group themselves into ‘tribes,’ God refuses to be limited in like manner. He crosses the line. In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah attempted to explode and expand the insular and parochial mentality of the Israelites by reminding them that God extended salvation and deliverance to foreigners and indeed to all who would come to Him in worship on His holy mountain, in His house of prayer. In the Second Reading, St. Paul takes the discussion further by assuring the Gentiles of God’s mercy which is open to everyone. He does this by reminding both Jews and Gentiles that all have sinned, all have been guilty of turning against God, and therefore, all are in need of salvation. God’s divine activities, His justice and mercy, His gift of salvation are not exclusively reserved for a privileged few, but for everyone irrespective of race or religious background. You are part of His tribe as long as you acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of His saving.

In the gospel, we find our Lord Jesus Christ crossing such man-made boundaries and divides. He moved away from the Jewish region to the region of Tyre and Sidon; the ancient Phoenicia (present day Lebanon), an area outside Jewish boundaries. The questions asked could be, why and what did He go there to do? Well the answer can be found in the Gospel story. The story reinforces the point that though Our Lord’s mission had come first for the people of Israel, it was not confined to them. He came as a Saviour for the entire world. The Lord who is not limited by barriers and boundaries encounters another – a woman who also looked beyond the boundaries. She saw beyond the limits. There is crossing of a great divide taking place here: from the chosen people of Israel who have a sense of entitlement to God's favour, to this woman of no standing, now showing faith in the Lord by paying Him homage.

Altering St Mark’s story of the Syro-Phoenican woman, Matthew depicts the story of a Canaanite woman, Israel’s ancient archenemies. It is an understatement to say that Canaanites were despised by Jews.  The Canaanites actually returned the favour and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation, this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her! She is able to see beyond her tribal prejudices and hate. But she does more than that. She behaves as someone who has radical faith in the Lord. She called upon the Lord by His messianic title, “Son of David,” the very man and king who had fought with her ancestors, deprived them of their ancestral land and reduced them to landless refugees.

The gospel about the Canaanite woman sounds unusually harsh. At first, the Lord appears not to want to acknowledge that He hears her imploring request; then He says that His mission has to do only with Israel. His third statement underlies the second: the bread He offers belongs to the children, not to the dogs. Now comes the marvellous phrase from the woman: “Ah, yes” or to paraphrase it, “Yes, you are right.” She sees the point of the Lord’s argument and even concedes to it, but she adds, “but even the house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” This, the Lord cannot resist, any more than He can resist the Gentile centurion of Capernaum: this humble, trusting faith in the Lord conquers His heart and her request is granted. In Capernaum, it was “Lord, don’t trouble yourself; I am not worthy”. Here, it is a willingness to occupy the lowest position, under the table. In each case there was faith, and so Jesus pronounces His judgment: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.”

In speaking about God’s universal plan of salvation, it is easy to overlook the fact that the earthly mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ really has to do with Israel: He is the Messiah of the chosen people, Israel, around which the Gentile nations are to flock, after it has been made whole and come to true faith. The first reading says this clearly. The Lord cannot make an end run around His messianic mission; He can act only by fulfilling it. This mission is accomplished on the Cross, where rejected by Israel, He suffers not only for Israel but for all sinners. Yes, the Lord came to save everybody. He is the Jewish Messiah as foretold, but He had come to offer salvation to everybody. The Messiah was to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6). He died on the cross as payment for all our sins, and He rose from death in resurrection, and He was the Good Shepherd and He predicted that His flock would be greatly expanded: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). He is the Messiah of the Jews, but He is our Saviour too.

We are living in times when there is an even greater fear of those who are different. There is a great impatience with those who do not speak our language; with those who have fled their country and sought refuge here without going through the proper channels. There is no denying that we live in a world marked by boundaries, and we cannot pretend that it is otherwise. And yet, we recognise that we worship a God who lives across boundaries, a God that does not belong to any tribe, and with no barrier, save except man’s wilful rejection of His offer of love that can keep Him from His goal of saving us.  The good news that Jesus brings to us again in this Eucharist, does not erase all of the distinctions that we find in our world. But it introduces a new principle—faith in the God who desires “to have mercy on all”, who desires to save us — that unites us across all our human divisions. It is now faith in God’s goodness and mercy, not any ethnic or national identity, that makes one an “insider” in His kingdom. It is our common faith in His abundant providence, that when we gather around the altar of the Lord, we can honestly look each other in the eye and say, “You are my brother. You are my sister. You are of my tribe.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Domus Dei et Porta Caeli

Solemnity of the Assumption 2017

During the formative years as Seminarians, one of our regular pastoral assignments was to engage in corporal works of mercy at the Holy Family Home for the Aged at Batu Lanchang, Penang, which is administered by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Many of us looked forward to this particular assignment, not because of the ignoble work of having to bathe, feed and attend to the daily needs of the elderly, but for a less altruistic reason. The Sisters served one hell of a breakfast and lunch! Apart from this culinary feast as motivation, the highlight of the day’s work was to assist at the Sunday mass celebrated in the quaint Art-Deco inspired chapel. Prominently placed above the arch of the main western door of the chapel is this Latin inscription: “Domus Dei et Porta Caeli”, House of God and Gate of Heaven. To anyone unfamiliar with the titles accorded to Our Lady, these words seem to be obvious titles for a Church, offering consolation to both the elderly residents and nuns who cross the threshold as they enter into this house of prayer.  However, these titles are not just meant for the Church, but titles most suitably assigned to Our Lady.

So why and how is Mary the “Gate of Heaven”? First, Our Lady is the Gate of Heaven because Our Lord Jesus chose to come to us through her. Blessed John Henry Newman tells us that “it was through her that our Lord passed from heaven to earth.” Blessed Newman saw our Lady as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel, “the gate shall be closed it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it—and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.” Christ, is the long awaited Prince and the closed gates must now yield to Him. Eve’s decision in the Garden of Eden closed the door to an earthly paradise. That gate is forever barred. But now the barrier between heaven and earth has been breached when Christ Himself chose to come into the world through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and His death and resurrection renewed the promise of salvation. It was Mary’s fiat, her total, complete willingness to act as the handmaid of the Lord, which provided the means through which the gates to a Heavenly Paradise would be reopened.

But Mary is not just the gate that Our Lord chose to pass through to get to us, she is also the gate by which we must enter to go to Him. Therefore, it is no exaggeration for St. Bonaventure to say that, “Mary is called gate of heaven because no one can enter that blessed kingdom without passing through her.” Furthermore, St. Bernardine of Siena says the following, “As every mandate of grace that is sent by a king passes through the palace gates, so does every grace that comes from heaven to the world passes through the hands of Mary the Gate of Heaven.”

It can be difficult to understand just how Mary acts as a means to our redemption.  She is not God, nor did she die in reparation for our sins.  But here’s the thing; Mary’s fiat, her unconditional ‘Yes,’ it is absolute perfection, the embodiment of God’s plan for the human race, had necessarily provided the occasion for God to breach the gap, overcome the barrier, and heal the wound of sin separating us from Him. It is the surrender to God’s will by this woman that brought forth the Saviour of mankind.

Since Our Lady’s holy submission to God’s will had reopened the gates of heaven, it is only logical and reasonable that she should be the first of our race to directly imitate the mystery of Christ’s resurrection and Ascension into heaven in her Assumption, and enter through that very same gate. Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold her body or soul. And so, the Church declared in the dogma of the Assumption that at the end of her earthly pilgrimage, Our Lady was assumed body and soul to heaven without knowing corruption.

Though the Bible provides no explicit account of Our Lady’s Assumption, we do, however, have tradition. According to Catholic tradition, Our Lady lived at Ephesus after the death of her Son, although her tomb was thought to be in Jerusalem. It is said that the Angel Gabriel, just like at the Annunciation, was sent to warn the Blessed Lady that in three days she would die and be reunited with her Son in heaven. The archangel gave her a palm, symbol of her victory over sin and death, and instructed her to carry it with her into her coffin. Upon learning of her approaching death, Mary prayed that the Apostles would come so that she might see them one last time. According to the ancient apocryphal text Transitus Mariae, the Apostles were miraculously transported from their various mission lands to Mary’s bedside on clouds. Then on the day of her death the Lord Jesus appeared and bore away His mother’s soul, and He returned three days later, when the angels took her body up into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Later, when her tomb was opened, it was found empty.

To the skeptics who are doubtful of tradition John Henry Newman pointedly asks, “If her body was not taken into heaven, where is it? Why are not pilgrimages made to it? Why are not relics producible of her, as of the saints in general? Plainly because that sacred body is in heaven, not on earth.” Further, it stands to reason that the Blessed Virgin Mary would follow her Son in His victory over death by Resurrection and be brought body and soul “to the highest glory of heaven, to shine as Queen at the right hand of that same Son, the immortal King of Ages.”

At the prospect of death many often recoil in horror. We fear that when we finally appear before the Gates of Heaven, our passage beyond the threshold would be barred. But today, we are reassured by the Church once again, that death does not mean the end, but merely a transition to another life, and that there is one who has passed through those gates. And she now stands beside her Divine Son to intercede on our behalf. Our certainty in her intercession is to be found in the beautiful words of that ancient and scripturally inspired prayer to Our Lady, the Hail Mary. The Church teaches us to call upon Mary – now, the present moment, which is in our power, and “at the hour of our death,” which is beyond our power, so that with the help of Our Lady, we may be given the chance to enter Heaven.

Mary is the archetype of the Church and our Mother. The Preface captures well this intimate connexion: Our Lady’s Assumption marks “the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.” In the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Council in a very beautiful way described Mary’s assumption into glory: “Just as the mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth until the day of the Lord shall come as a sure sign of hope and solace to the people of God during their journey on Earth.” Our Lady now lives where each one of her children will live one day in our own resurrected body. When Christ returns in glory, He will command our mortal bodies to rise from the dead. Then our body and soul will be reunited, never more to suffer or die. Mary’s assumption is given to us to contemplate because it speaks to us of our glorious future if we remain faithful to God. Let us ask Our Blessed Mother, the Porta Caeli, who opens her arms, to her often wayward children, to intercede for us as we continue our journey towards heaven.