Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Spiritual Homecoming - Clergy Retreat 2009

Fr. George has just returned to the parish from his retreat, which also coincides with the end of the clergy retreat month. In an earlier posting, I had shared briefly about my retreat experience under Fr. Savio Hon SDB from Hong Kong. Below is a letter which he wrote to Archbishop Pakiam providing a summary of the 2 retreats which he had preached in Malaysia. I find his reflections on spiritual homecoming very reassuring and uplifting and have received his permission to publish it in my blog.


Today I finished preaching the second batch of retreat to the priests. I’ve had a good time in both retreat centers and found myself among very good priests.

Every day I gave two talks, the Mass homily (except a few times when the main celebrant gave the homily himself), and had private dialogues with the priests. The Leitmotif I chose was on the “longings” in priestly life.

The human person has always been longing for something. Longing stems from our very structure as a human being. In different ways we experience it. Shakespeare talked of “immortal longings”; K. Rahner spoke about the “torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable”. It makes us feel, lonely, unfulfilled, and restless. Like a fire uncontrolled, it sometimes urges one to relentless and unquenchable pursuit of pleasure and power that no strength is left to awaken the spiritual desire for God. St. Augustine gave us a key to the understanding of our longings in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. “Domine … quia fecisti nos ad te, et inquietum cor nostrum donec requiescat in te”.

The problem of longings is not a new problem, but has become one unique to our age in which we are surrounded unprecedented secularism. Michael Jackson danced and sang, and moved the world. He himself was carried away by drug and sex in the hope of meeting his longings. Mother Teresa cared for the poor and amazed the world. She was guided by God to follow the same longings, and found holiness in her life. When secularism pushes us away from God, we need to find a spiritual home to accommodate our longings and to turn them into energy for holiness. Yes, finding a spiritual home for our restlessness is my unifying theme.

In my talks, I invited different Saints and personages (Our Lady of Sorrows, Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, Matteo Ricci, Don Bosco, Vianney, Teilhard de Chardin, John Paul II) to be present and let them speak through their life and writings about their longings in the priestly life.

I also invited them to sing more Latin songs and gave them some Latin quotations from the authors. Of course, I had them explained (text and context) and they seemed to taste more the treasure of the tradition. Someone said jokingly in those six days he learnt more Latin than in those years in Theology.

In the mean time, I invented the figures of Peter (aged 50+) and John (30+). They both are priests and friends. Through their amusing incidents they throw some light on their priestly life and ministry. In three evenings I also showed them (free attendance) the DVD of Don Bosco and of Matteo Ricci.

In each talk I give them some handouts containing quotations from the Bible and the above personages. I am delighted that no one sleeps during my talk, but more consoled by the way they pray.

One day before the last day of the retreat I asked them to have a kind of “desert” time where they stayed alone in silence and solitude with God and prayed. They wrote their prayers and offered them in the Eucharist. The prayers were so well written that with their permission I have them typed and printed out for them.

In my last talk, I shared with them the Priestly Ordination Prayer (both Byzantine and Latin rites). Then we went through the our spiritual journey by quoting one short “saying” from each of the Saints and Personages. Then I asked the priests to share their prayers or reflections so as to encourage our brother priests. On both occasions, the sharing was heartwarming. Yesterday almost all spoke (since the number of retreatants is smaller). They themselves also amazed that the sharing could be so smooth and spontaneous. One was getting a bit moved and had tears welling up in the eyes. In the first retreat sharing, one said jokingly that he had tried not to write a prayer too holy but then reading the prayers of other priests he found himself among the saints. They all were edified by the prayers of their fellow priests. The Archbishop emeritus of KL, Soter Fernandez, said that it was one of the best retreats for him. Anyway, they are good people and have treated me very nicely.

As for the re-building of a “spiritual home” in our priestly life and ministry, I suggest them to resume the habit (if forgotten) of daily examination of conscience in the evening. Pastoral Planning and Spirituality Scheduling should go hand in hand.

Savio Hon

Monday, September 28, 2009

Feast of the Archangels: Ss. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael - September 29

I have this anecdotal story of how I got my name, Michael. Michael, the archangel of God, means "He who is like God." Perhaps, my parents never really understood the magnitude of its meaning and so "Michael" seemed like a reasonably good name to give to their third and youngest son. Well, back to the anecdotal story... My dad's name is Joseph and mom's Mary. So, when they had me, they just couldn't call me "Jesus." So, the next best thing came to mind ... ta da!!!

Angels are an essential part of the Christian faith. They are a "truth of the faith" and are mentioned over a hundred times in the Bible. Tomorrow, September 29th, the Church's liturgy celebrates the Feast of the Archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, which happens to be my patron's feast day.

Michael (Who is like God?)(Hebrew: מִיכָאֵל‎, Micha'el or Mîkhā'ēl; Greek: Μιχαήλ, Mikhaḗl; Latin: Michael or Míchaël; Arabic: میکائیل‎, Mikā'īl) was the archangel who fought against Satan and all his evil angels, defending all the friends of God. He is the protector of all humanity from the snares of the devil. The symbols of Saint Michael, the one God appointed to drive Satan and his followers out of heaven and who stood baring the entrance to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were forced to leave it are dragons, swords, and the scales of justice.

Gabriel (Strength of God)(Hebrew: גַּבְרִיאֵל, Modern Gavriʼel Tiberian Gaḇrîʼēl; Latin: Gabrielus; Greek: Γαβριήλ, Gabriēl; Arabic: جبريل, Jibrīl or جبرائيل Jibrail; Aramaic: Gabri-el) announced to Zachariah the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist, and to Mary, the birth of Jesus. His greeting to the Virgin, "Hail, full of grace," is one of the most familiar and frequent prayers of the Christian people. Gabriel, the messenger is represented by a lily, the flower of purity.

Raphael (Medicine of God)(Standard Hebrew רָפָאֵל, Rāp̄āʾēl, "It is God who heals", "God Heals", "God, Please Heal", Arabic: رافائيل, Rāfāʾīl) is the archangel who took care of Tobias on his journey.Raphael, the guide and healer is symbolised with loaves, fishes and an ointment jar.

From the sixth century to 1970, September 29 was originally observed as Michaelmas Day and honored only St. Michael. St. Gabriel was observed on March 24 and St. Raphael on October 24. Since 1970, September 29 has been celebrated as the Feast of all three Archangels.

The Orthodox Church also pays honour to the Archangels on a different day, November 8th, which they call the "Synaxis of the Archangels." The Orthodox believe that Archangels comprise only one of the ranks of angels. They believe there are Seven Archangels. "Michael, Gabriel and Raphael" are descriptive titles as their names are too terrible for men to know. Here, these three give honor to Jesus Christ and reveal Him to mankind.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (328, 329, 330) has this to say about angels in general:

“The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.

St. Augustine says: ‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ’spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are , ’spirit’ from what they do ‘angel.’ With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they ‘always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven’ they are the ‘might ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word.”

As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.”

For a comparative description of the archangels, go to my posting in the AMEIA blog.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Recognising the Gifts of Others ... or being threatened by them

Twenty Sixth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Last week’s readings, if you remember, spoke of jealousy and ambition and how these things can destroy the community and our relationship with one another. Today’s readings continue with the same theme and how jealousy can also be an obstacle to the mission of Christ and of his Church.

The Church is the Body of Christ. Like any human body, it has many parts. Each part of the body has a special role and purpose. Hands are use for writing, lifting, holding and carrying. Hands are not meant for walking. That’s the role of our feet. Feet are meant for walking and not for writing. Likewise, our eyes are meant for seeing and our ears are meant for hearing. The eyes can’t say to the ears – “we don’t need you”; “we can take over your roles.” Similarly, the ears can’t take over the role of the eyes.

The image of the Body is important in understanding today’s readings. Jealousy often blinds us to the importance and roles of others. We often think that whatever we do is the most important thing. We feel that our role is indispensable. We feel irritated when others seem to be doing the same thing. When competition enters into church life, the mission of Christ is interrupted.

We see this happening both in the first reading and in the gospel. In the first reading, some of the elders that were appointed by Moses and who had received the spirit from him felt threatened by those others who had not gone through the same selection and yet received the spirit. They could not understand that God gives his spirit to whoever he chooses. God’s election of his people is totally free. His hands cannot be tied. Some people cannot claim to have a monopoly over God, or his Spirit, or the Truth. God gives himself to all. The same thing happened with the disciples of Christ. They felt threatened by another man who was able to cast out devils. They saw him as a competitor. But Jesus saw him differently. Jesus could recognize the gift of the spirit in this man. Jesus makes this important observation: “Anyone who is not against us is for us.”

We must not see each other as competitors. Rather, we must always encourage the gifts, talents and contributions of others. We can do this only if we remember that we all part of the Body of Christ. We can only do this if we realize that we have one common mission, the same mission of Jesus Christ, that is to build God’s kingdom and not our own kingdoms.

Let us examine ourselves in today’s mass. Are we an obstacle to others? Do we encourage the use of talents and gifts in this community or are we fonder of criticizing others? Are we more concerned with our own activities and projects rather than with building the community and doing God’s will?

If we have been guilty of some of this faults, if we have been jealous of others in the community, if we have been an obstacle to others, if we have failed to give encouragement, then it is time for change. We must be prepared to change ourselves and not others. This is what Jesus meant when he said: “if your hand or foot or eye should cause you to sin, cut it off.” Stop blaming others. Start taking responsibilities for the problems that we have brought to this community. Then there will be salvation for us and for the whole community.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Clergy Retreat 2009

Majodi, Plentong. 14th to 20th September 2009.
Preacher: Fr. Savio Hon SDB

For the past week, Fr. Savio brought the retreatant priests on a profound hagiographical journey of faith and spirituality, that spanned from the patristic age (St. Augustine), through the Middle Ages (Ss. Bernard, Thomas Aquinas,John of the Cross) then on through the age of the missionary expansion (Matteo Ricci), right down to modern times (St. John Bosco and Teilhard de Chardin). He not only drew from their inspiring life stories but also elucidated and expounded the theology, spirituality, mysticism of these great men who shared a common identity of being priests. It was a refreshingly different experience for many who were used to thematic presentations, and yet a profoundly rich one which was deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. He helped us delve deep into the treasures of the church in order that we may rediscover the essence of our priestly identity and mission.

Perhaps, the wisdom of the St. John of Cross best summarises this whole experience:
"Though holy doctors have uncovered many mysteries and wonders, and devout souls have understood them in this earthly condition of ours, yet the greater part still remains to be unfolded by them, and even to be understood by them.
We must dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides."

Fr. Savio speaking to retreatants in Conference

Retreatants in Conference

Retreatants at Mass
Fr. Savio preaching at Mass
Group photo after Concluding Mass
Retreatants in the refrectory

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Bane of Community Living: Jealousy and Ambition

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year

How do friendships sour? How do rifts occur within communities? How does disharmony set in to our society and culture? The answer simply lies in today’s second reading taken from the letter of St. James. He writes: “Wherever you find jealousy and ambition, you find disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done...”

The greatest threat to our relationships as members of a family, the community and the Church often does not come from the outside. It is easy to blame all our problems on external factors. But very often, the greatest threat is found among ourselves. Our problems begin with feelings of jealousy that we have against one another. This is fueled by ambition for power and status. What is the cause of jealousy and ambition?

This is similar to the question that St. James asked in today’s second reading: “Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start?” He gives the following answer: “You want something and you haven’t got it; so you are prepared to kill. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force.” Likewise, in today’s gospel, we see the disciples of Jesus fighting among themselves over the issue of power. They were arguing over which of them was the greatest.

Both jealousy and ambition stem from a sense of insecurity. When we are not comfortable with ourselves, when we feel that we are not good enough and that others are better off than us, when we feel that others threaten our status and position, we feel jealous. Jealousy affects our relationship with others. In fact, jealousy destroys relationship because when we are jealous of others, we try to work for their downfall. Jealousy leads to gossip and slander. One of the worst threats to community living is gossip, especially gossip arising from jealousy. The easiest way to destroy a person is by destroying his reputation. Sad to say many of us are often guilty of this. When we feel that others are doing better than us, when we feel that others have more knowledge or experience, when we feel that others are more popular than us, we feel threatened. A community that is filled with jealousy among its members will be wrecked by the same jealousy. If all our energies go into our petty squabbles instead of putting our hands to the plow in building God’s kingdom, we will be the stumbling block for the whole community and for the kingdom of God.

Are we guilty of jealousy and ambition among ourselves? Are we allowing our jealousy to destroy this community? Do we encourage and support one another in our ministry and good works or do we always try to find something negative about what the other person is doing? If this is happening, then we must put a stop to it immediately. Jesus has this to say to all of us: “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” We are called to humble service. We are called to work with one another to build God’s kingdom. We are called to conversion.

Conversion can only take place through prayer. St. James reminds us to pray – to pray not only for our selfish motives, to pray not only for the success of our own projects. We must pray for one another and for the whole community. We must pray that this community in the Church of Visitation, Seremban, will become a reflection of the values of the kingdom of God – a place of love, mutual acceptance and forgiveness. But prayer is not enough. We must be prepared to change our ways and heal our relationships with one another. Let us stop pointing the finger at one another. Today, Jesus invites us to look honestly at ourselves and pray for the conversion that is needed.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Faith is Relationship

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Many of you are familiar with your catechism. Let’s try. Who made you? God made us. Why did God make you? To love him, know him and serve him and be with him in paradise for all eternity. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God’s only son. Our Saviour and our Redeemer. Some of you are also able to list down the ten commandments.

Is this what faith is all about? Does faith mean memorizing our catechism? Today’s readings tells us that faith is more than mere statements of belief. Faith is more than learning our catechism. Faith is more than just knowing about God and Jesus. There is a big difference between knowing about something and really knowing that thing. Knowing about something or someone means that we have all the facts and information about that thing or person. But knowing someone means that we have a very special and intimate relationship with that person. The first has to do with knowledge alone. The second involves a relationship.

Therefore, our faith must not only remain at the level of knowledge. Our faith is first and foremost a relationship with God and with Jesus. In today’s gospel, we see the story of how Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One of God. As the story develops, we come to understand that this recognition is only at the level of knowledge. Peter knew about Jesus but didn’t really knew him as a person. Jesus, therefore, sees the need to explain who he really is and what his mission entails. Jesus tells Peter for the first time that he must suffer grievously, be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and finally be put to death. But after three days he will rise again. This is the part which Peter couldn’t understand. Peter was satisfied with the knowledge that Jesus was the Christ but could not accept the fact this Messiah must suffer and die.

Jesus corrects his understanding and further explains that if one is to become his disciple, if someone wants to have an intimate relationship with Jesus and not only be satisfied with knowing about Jesus, that person must be prepared to follow the same fate of Jesus. Faith of a disciple requires that he must be prepared to renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Jesus.

Therefore, our faith as Christians isn’t only about knowing our Catechism. Our faith isn’t only memorizing a set of beliefs. Our faith calls for conversion. It calls for commitment and finally it calls for action. St. James challenges us to show our faith through our good deeds. It is not enough to say that we have faith. Faith is proven through the lives we live. Faith is proven by our readiness to accept the cross of Jesus and follow him. Faith is proven when we are prepared to lose everything, even our lives knowing that “anyone who loses his life for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

This is the faith which we profess. It is dangerous and a powerful thing to believe in God and Jesus, but it is also a rewarding thing to have the faith of a disciple. Today, let us examine our own faith. Is our faith only a faith taken from the catechism books? Is our faith only a safe kind of faith that tries to avoid trouble or the cross? If this is the kind of faith that we have, we are challenged to go deeper and further. We are challenge to think in God’s way and not man’s (taken from the gospel). We are asked to renounce ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus along the way of the cross, but also the way to eternal life and glory.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Eyes to See But No Vision

Twenty Third Ordinary Sunday Year B

What does it mean to be blind or deaf? Many of us cannot imagine this scenario. It would be too frightening to even think of the possibility. We would really be missing a big part of the world as we know it. We won’t be able to see our loved ones or hear them speak to us. We would be blind to the beauty of the world and deaf to its many sounds.

Well, there is a story of an American woman named Helen Keller who was both blind and deaf. She was not born blind and deaf. She lost both her sight and her hearing after becoming ill at the age of 19 months. When she was 7 years old, her parents could no longer control her. She used to throw tantrums in frustration because she couldn’t make others understand what she was thinking and others couldn’t communicate with her too. Her parents then hired a private tutor, Anne Sullivan, to teach her. Ann Sullivan could not make any progress for the first few weeks. Then one day, Ann took Helen out for a walk. Ann took Helen’s hand and plunged it into a pool of water. Then she began to spell the word ‘WATER’ on Helen’s palm. Then Ann took Helen to a pump and let the water from the pump run down Helen’s hand. This time, she spelled the word ‘WATER’ again. Something happened to Helen at that moment. All of a sudden, she became aware that this sensation of the water was connected to the word ‘WATER’ which her teacher had spelt on her hand. Helen would later write in her own autobiography that the world all around her opened up at that single moment. She now understood that she could see and hear the world around her through these letters and words. Helen Keller would eventually become one of the greatest and most well-known speakers in America and the world. She spoke at many outstanding universities and impressed her audience, many of them professors and great thinkers. One day, Helen Keller was asked this question: “What is worse than being blind?” Her reply was: “Being able to see but having no vision.”

Today, we hear in both the first reading and the gospel that God has come to open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. This does not mean that all blind people and deaf people will be healed miraculously. What the readings are saying here is that God has given his people a new vision: a vision to see the world as a place of love, justice and peace. In other words, it is a vision to see the Kingdom of God. This vision allows us to see God in every person, whether young or old, poor or rich, good looking or ugly, bad and good. This vision challenges us to treat every person with equal dignity. When we begin to see every person as a child of God and we treat them accordingly, then the world will be transformed into the Kingdom of love, justice and peace.

But, unfortunately Helen Keller was right in her observation. We may have eyes to see but no vision. Therefore, instead of seeing goodness and God in others, we only see their faults. We see status instead of equality. We see outward appearance instead of inner grace. We see the colour of the other person’s skin, his clothing, the size of his car, the power that he wields and the things which he possesses. As St. James tell his readers in the second reading, we have turned ourselves into judges, “and corrupt judges at that?”

Today, let us pray for the grace to see others through the eyes of faith. Let us speak to them with words that come only from God and not from hatred and jealousy. Today, Jesus says to us, “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” Let our eyes, our ears, our tongues and our hearts be open to the power of God in Jesus Christ, so that we can transform this world into His kingdom.