Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Purged by Love

Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

Yesterday we remembered all the saints, both named and unnamed. Today, we remember those who have passed from this life with faith, hope and trust in the promise of eternal life. It is so much easier to just simply believe that those in the second category automatically fall into the first that is, all our departed loved ones are already in heaven and enjoying beatific vision. But that is something we can only hope for and can never be certain unless the Church definitively declares them saints, what we call canonisation.

At the root of today’s commemoration is the question: What happens to us when we die? If our belief is that death is the end, then it doesn’t make any difference: there is nothing more. This, of course, is not our belief as Catholics. We believe that the life of every individual matters to God. We believe that there is life-after-death; we believe in the Resurrection; we believe that when we die, the person we are lives on; the person does not die; and we believe that this person will live for all eternity, eventually with a resurrected body – just like our Lord Jesus Christ.

Many of us here are carrying the memory of a deceased spouse, parent, child, or best friend deep in our hearts. It is our wish, it is our desire, it is our hope, and for some, it is even our belief, that our loved ones are “in peace” in Heaven, as the Book of Wisdom so comfortingly assures us. But the truth is that we do not know this for a fact. Canonisation involves a long and stringent process of determining whether someone is in heaven or not. But very often, at the time of the death of a person, we can never come to that conclusion with absolute certainty. We should avoid a widespread heresy that is so prevalent today, that hell does not exist and presumes that basically everyone and anyone who dies somehow automatically gets upgraded to heaven no matter what life they lived here on earth. If this be the case than what we’re doing today at this Mass and what we do at every funeral would be basically a big waste of time.

So, what is the proper attitude we should have toward the salvation of those we know who have died? The first thing is that we shouldn’t judge them. With our finite capacities, we cannot know what’s really in another’s heart. We see appearances but only God sees the heart. In some cases, we extend funerals even to those who commit suicide because we don’t know what was in the person, that led to the decision. The only time we do refuse funeral is when the person made it absolutely clear that he was doing it for reasons contrary to the Catholic faith. On the other hand, we’re not to judge people to be saints in heaven either. A person might seem to be a great father or a loving mother, or a generous philanthropist, but we might not know of their dark hidden secrets or ulterior motives. For that reason, we, as Catholics, leave all the judging to God. And because we don’t know, we hope for their salvation and we pray for their salvation.

That is why praying for the dead is so important. When we say that we pray for the dead, we are ultimately saying that we believe in this reality called purgatory. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misunderstanding concerning this doctrine. Some have thought that we “go” to purgatory and then, we are judged as to whether we go to heaven or hell. Others see this as a mini-hell for those who didn't quite make it all the way into heaven. If purgatory is a mini-hell, it explains why so many people choose to canonise the dead as if this was a quick “Get out of Jail” bonus card. 

So what is purgatory? To begin with, let's look at the word “purgatory” which comes from the old Latin word “purgare,” which means “to cleanse” or “to purge.” So you can think of purgatory as a time of cleansing or final purification in preparation to spend eternity in the presence of God. Citing Pope Gregory the Great, the Catholic Church teaches that “all who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC 1030)

The next question is why is purgatory necessary? Can’t we just get to heaven as we all hope to one day? Well, the Church teaches that to enter heaven, one must be completely attached to God and radically detached from all sin and everything that is not of God. “Nothing unclean shall enter heaven” (Rev. 21:27). There are many who do not live and die with that type of purity of life and hence they need to be purified to enter into the kingdom in which God is all in all. So what about people who say a fundamental “yes” to God, but drag their feet, clinging to some “small” sins, nursing some attachments to the evil that they’ve supposedly renounced?  Purgatory is the process after death where these attachments, the umbilical cord which binds people to the old world, are cut so that people can be free to enter into the life to come.  It is the hospital where the infection of sin is eliminated.  Purgatory is not a kind of temporary hell. Hell is eternal separation from God, but purgatory facilitates our eternal union with Him.

The next question which follows, did the Church just make this all up? Is this teaching about praying for the dead and purgatory unbiblical and just man-made? The answer is definitely no. The teaching on purgatory and praying for the dead finds its source in scriptures. The earliest Scriptural reference to prayers for the dead comes in the second book of Maccabees. Since Protestants reject the idea of praying for the dead, this book is not included in their canon (collection of books in the Bible). The second book of Maccabees tells how Judas Maccabee, the Jewish leader, led his troops into battle in 163 B.C. When the battle ended he directed that the bodies of those Jews who had died be buried. As soldiers prepared their slain comrades for burial, they discovered that each was wearing an amulet taken as booty from a pagan Temple, a violation of the Law. So Judas and his soldiers prayed that God would forgive their sins.

Second Maccabees tells us, very succinctly, “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032). In God’s plan of salvation, our deeds of love offered in union with Christ’s own sacrifice may help others. Christ calls us to be co-redeemers with Him. Just as His passion, death and resurrection brought salvation to the whole human race, so our deeds of love united to His, by God’s own design, can help those who have gone before us. It is a spiritual work of mercy.

Let’s be honest. The vast majority of us will not go immediately to heaven after judgment because we’re not living as true saints in this world but are regularly making compromises with our faith. And because of this, the vast majority of people will need prayers after they die. We would need a lot of prayers. So we need to take these things seriously – our funeral liturgy is meant to worship God and beg His mercy for the dead and not an opportunity to glorify or canonise the dead. We need to start offering masses for the dead because there is no greater prayer, there is no greater sacrifice, than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which re-presents the Sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary. It’s time to visit the graves of our loved ones, not just to remember them but to pray for them, not just once a year but as often as possible. As St Ambrose of Milan taught us, “We loved them in life, let us not forget them in death.” 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The only great tragedy is not to become a saint

Solemnity of All Saints 2018

You may know of the different vocations in the Church, the married life, the priesthood, the consecrated life. But all these vocations are different expressions of one common vocation – the universal call to holiness. This is because heaven is our ultimate vocation. We are called there by God. We are called to be saints! Though many in false humility or self-honesty would refute the claim that they are saints, having heaven as our goal is practically saying, “We want to be saints!” But just like any vocation, we can accept it or we can reject it. It requires a choice and a choice that orders all others. If we choose eternal life with God in heaven, our choices now must be ordered to it. We should choose Him in daily life: choose Him on Sunday mornings by coming to Mass; choose Him during the day and pray; choose Him in our moral lives, choose Him in our relationship with others, choose Him in how we deal with material things; choosing Him instead of sin, and when we do sin, choose to come to Him and ask Him for His forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance. Choose Him more and more each day!

Many think that sainthood is a privilege reserved only for the chosen few. Actually, to become a saint is the task of every Christian, and what’s more, we could even say it’s the task of everyone! Notice the name of today’s feast – “All Saints.” The inclusive “all” is meant to encompass both the named and the unnamed saints. The simple truth is that everyone who is in heaven is a saint,  not just those who have been officially declared saints, but all those who have chosen God during their earthly lives and whom God has rewarded by granting them their choice eternally: to spend eternity with God in heaven. Many of these people were great sinners, but, responding to God’s grace (which is always there), they ended up turning to Him and choosing Him the rest of the way. Most of them were not even aware or thinking of becoming saints. The good thief chose God on the Cross and on that day, was with Him in paradise. On the other hand, those who freely choose against God in this life, who choose against Him in their daily choices in place of selfish self-interests, God also gives them eternally what they want: to selfishly choose themselves rather than God. They got what they worked for, they got what they desired, and they got what they chose. We call this place Hell, a state where souls have excluded God eternally.

In Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Gaudete et Exsultate, dedicated to this theme of extraordinary “ordinary holiness”, our Holy Father tells us, “(God) wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” (GE #1) This is the truth we celebrate today. We are all called to be saints. This can sound like a lofty goal, something reserved for special people. It brings to mind great heroes and heroines of the faith, the martyrs of the Church, extraordinary holy individuals like St Teresa of Kolkata or St John Paul II. Sometimes God calls people to be Gospel witnesses in these exceptional ways. But more often, He doesn’t. More often, God encourages us to answer the call to holiness in less dramatic, but no less, important ways, in our day-to-day interactions with spouses, parents, students, neighbours and parishioners. If you wish your family, BEC, ministry or parish to flourish, simply seek to grow in holiness. The reverse is also true. If you wish to destroy or impede the growth of your family, BEC, ministry or parish, then choose the path of sin, selfishness and vain-glory.

Pope Francis talks about the saints “next door”: “I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them ‘the middle class of holiness.’”

What’s the winning formula for saintliness? We can begin with the Beatitudes. The pope calls them “a Christian’s identity card.” Living according to the Beatitudes helps us to become the saints God wants us to be.  But that doesn’t mean the journey will be easy. Many have tried to live up to them, but then quit because they appeared to be too hard or not rewarding enough. Some only pay the Beatitudes lip service, others try to redefine them, while still others completely reject them. There will be challenges, sometimes very difficult ones, along the way. We will need God’s grace and a healthy dose of self-discipline to do it. But, thankfully, we have the support of the saints already in heaven, which our liturgy calls the “great cloud of witnesses,” who are praying and interceding for our benefit as we journey down the path of holiness. To believe greatness is attainable, we need successful role models to emulate. There is a desperate need for real heroes and heroines, models and witnesses of faith and virtue that the world of sports, cinema, science and music cannot provide.

If you have visited the Holy Land, you will soon discover that the putative site for the Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of the Beatitudes is only a few dozen feet above sea level, but for us Christians it is spiritually the highest peak on earth! On this holy mountain in Galilee, Jesus proclaimed the new law that was the expression of Christ’s holiness. They are not an abstract code of behaviour. Jesus is the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, the peacemaker. He is the new “code of holiness” that must be imprinted on hearts, and that must be contemplated through the action of the Holy Spirit. His Passion and Death are the crowning of His holiness.

Holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavour, but rather a continuous choice to deepen one’s relationship with God and to then allow this relationship to guide all of one’s actions in the world. Holiness requires a radical change in mindset and attitude, to become more and more Christ-like. Looking at Jesus, we see what it means to be poor in spirit, gentle and merciful, to mourn, to care for what is right, to be pure in heart, to make peace, to be persecuted. This is why He has the right to say to each of us, “Come, follow me!” The acceptance of the call to holiness places God as our final goal in every aspect of our lives. Thus, Jesus does not say simply, “Do what I say.” He says, “Come, follow me!”

St John Paul II, who canonised more saints than all his predecessors once taught, “At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.” How true! Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness and a crisis of saints. As a corollary, Pope Francis tells us that “to the extent that each Christian grows in holiness, he or she will bear greater fruit for our world.” (GE # 33) In recent times, as we are inundated with news of our leaders, our shepherds, consecrated men and women, struggling not only with mere foibles or personal weaknesses, but even with the gravest of mortal sins, we need more than ever to have authentic and believable witnesses who swim against the current of rot and aspire for the heights of holiness.

Let us never forget that we are all called to heaven. Heaven is our vocation. As our Holy Father reminds us, “Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace.” For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint”. (GE # 34)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Keep Going, Don't Stop

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Today, the gospel presents us with the familiar story of the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. It is an important story because it is the last healing miracle to be recorded by St Mark in his gospel and it comes after Jesus’ triple prediction of His passion, death and resurrection, and at the end of the lessons given by our Lord to his disciples on the theme of discipleship. Thus, the story of Bartimaeus serves as a conclusion to our Lord’s catechesis on both His mission and that of His disciples. The clue to understanding this story is found at the end, where our Lord names faith as what impels Bartimaeus. The rest of the story shows us what that faith is.

Bartimaeus alone grasps who Jesus is. So far, no one else in Mark has been able to perceive so much about Jesus from so little data. The title Bartimaeus uses, “Son of David,” appears only here in Mark. It is a Messianic title (earlier, St Peter had identified our Lord as the Messiah, but his understanding fell short of Jesus’ mission and role). For Bartimaeus, the title obviously indicates that Jesus is God's Chosen One, the Christ, the Messiah, God’s designated agent, and it introduces the notion of Jesus as a royal figure, an image that becomes very important when Jesus enters Jerusalem, goes on trial, and dies as a king. Ironically, Bartimaeus, a beggar, a man of little scholarly education and in spite of his physical blindness and all its connotations of spiritual ignorance, sees what no one else sees.

Bartimaeus persists despite hindrances. People in the crowd rebuke him, demanding he be silent. It is interesting to note that the opposition came not from the Roman soldiers or the unbelieving Gentiles. Of all the places where challenges may come from, it came from the most unexpected source – the followers of Christ. But Bartimaeus is not daunted. Desperate people do desperate things. His desperation renders him incapable of taking “no” for an answer. Faith does not come easily to people in the gospel of St Mark; it must surmount obstacles and discouraging voices to obtain what it seeks. This is a person who has honestly come to grips with his own frailty and neediness and understands that apart from some outside intervention, he is totally hopeless and helpless. He is convinced that without an outside gift of mercy and grace he will starve, therefore he purposefully puts himself in the pathway of Jesus, he risks making a nuisance of himself, he makes himself available to be touched by the grace of God.

Shame usually silences the person, even the desperate. But hope opens Bartimaeus’ mouth and makes him cry all the louder, “Son of David! Have pity on me!” The crowds may have wanted to spare Jesus’ trouble and embarrassment of having to deal with the mad rantings of a blind beggar, but they fail to see that their reprimand of Bartimaeus threatens to limit the range within which the Lord might dispense His compassion and grace. Bartimaeus knows better and persists.

Another translation of Bartimaeus’ cry, “have pity on me,” is found in our familiar liturgical response, “Lord have mercy.” Our modern translation 'have mercy' is a limited and insufficient one. The Greek word which we find in the gospel and in the early liturgies is “eleison.” “Eleison” is of the same root as “elaion”, which means olive tree and the oil from it. We find the image of the olive tree in Genesis. After the flood Noah sends birds, one after the other, to find out whether there is any dry land or not, and one of them, a dove brings back a small twig of olive. This twig conveys to Noah that the wrath of God has ceased, that God is now offering man a fresh opportunity. In the New Testament, in the parable of the good Samaritan, olive oil is poured to soothe and to heal. In the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, it is again oil that is poured on the head as an image of the grace of God that comes down and flows on them giving them new power to fulfil what is beyond human capabilities. Both king and priest stand on the threshold, between the will of men and the will of God, and he is called to lead his people to the fulfilment of God's will; to act for God, to pronounce God's decrees and to apply God's decision. But here Jesus is no ordinary King although He is hailed as “Son of David,” “the Messiah”, “the Christ,” which means the Anointed one of God.

So, as blind Bartimaeus cries out “have pity on me” or “have mercy on me,” he is a representative of fallen humanity crying out for mercy, a cry for the end of the wrath of God, of the peace which God offers to the people who have offended against him; further it speaks of God healing us in order that we should be able to live and become what we are called to be; and as He knows that we are not capable with our own strength of fulfilling either His will or the laws of our own created nature, He pours His grace abundantly on us (Rom 5:20). He gives us power to do what we could not otherwise do. Bartimaeus, like all of us sinners, is crying out for forgiveness, redemption and salvation.

Because of the persistence and steadfast faith of Bartimaeus, what happened next is surprising. Verse 49 tells us, “Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him here.’”  Jesus, who was on His way to Jerusalem to fulfil His mission, stopped. Christ stood still. The Lord could have simply carried on with His busy schedule, but in His great mercy and compassion He stopped and took notice of the poor blind man. Unlike James and John in last week’s gospel, who had asked for seats of honour, Bartimaeus asks for the right thing. He only asked that his sight be restored. Bartimaeus seeks no special privileges. And he gets it right. The Lord has not come to bestow power and honour but to open our eyes to the new spiritual, social, and material realities made possible when God reigns. He came to offer us the greatest gift of all, salvation. Seeing his faith, the Lord said “Go, (or in some translations highlighting the word “way”, “Go your way”) your faith has saved you.”

Bartimaeus is not the first person who approaches Jesus in faith, seeking a miracle, but he is the only one who ends up following Him, presumably straight into Jerusalem and into his confrontation with the priests, scribes and Pharisees. He follows Jesus on the road (on the “way”). He moves from the periphery (begging by the side of the “road” or the “way”) to the center (following Jesus on the “way”). The movement on the “way” actually points to Christ Himself, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Our relationship with Christ is anything but ambivalent. If we are not on the way, we are most likely in someone else’s way.

The faith of Bartimaeus comes as an important reminder during these crucial times. It’s been a tough year for everybody. It’s been a tough year for the Church as a whole. Given the current situation, giving up seems the easiest thing to do. However, giving up will only lead to nothing. These are times when we require the resilient faith of Bartimaeus, who in spite of the obstacles and push-backs, kept steady on his course. He kept his focus on Christ and did not allow the negative voices and behaviour of others to distract him or discourage him. His story is also a critical reminder that life may be full of setbacks and disappointments. The Christian community and the visible Church may fall short of our expectations, even leaders and shepherds can disappoint, but hope helps us to cast our vision beyond this passing world to have a glimpse of the eternal. While we sometimes get stuck focusing on the here and now, our present dilemma isn't the end of the story. God's plans are nearly always bigger than we think. The Church is much bigger than the earthly pilgrim church which plods along on its journey to its heavenly perfection. The sting of our relatively short-term disappointments in no way compares to the ultimate hope we have in Him, the One who does not disappoint.