Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Finding Peace in God's mission

Fourteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

When we open the newspapers and switch on the TV – what are we confronted with? Violence, wars, robbery, rape, murders, etc. When we look at our own lives, we seem to be experiencing problems, sometimes one after another. We don’t seem to have a way out. In the midst of all our troubles and worries, I am sure that the one thing we really desire is this – Peace.

What does peace mean? For many people, peace means the cessation of conflict and violence. This is an external kind of peace. But true peace can come to us even in the midst of problems and difficulties. Peace is never dependent on what happens to our surroundings. Rather, peace is what takes place in our hearts – it is the peace which Christ gives, the peace which the world cannot give.

The first reading gives a message of hope and joy to Jerusalem. Within this message is the promise of peace. The words may not appear strange to us. We can only understand the strangeness of this promise when we come to know that it was written during a time of suffering where Jerusalem is in ruins and under the rule of some foreign power. So, the reading tells us that joy and peace can be present even in the midst of our problems. Joy and peace can be present because it is based on the knowledge and faith that God will not abandon us and is always faithful to us. Joy and peace is possible if we can accept that God is in control even when we seem to have lost control and everything appears to be in confusion.

We can experience true peace when we are prepared to accept that only God alone is in control of our lives and of the situation in which we live in. When we try to solve problems on our own without any reference to God, we will not have any peace. In fact, our anxiety and sense of frustration may even increase when we try to take things into our own hands. We will experience turmoil and confusion especially when we think we know what is best for ourselves and for others and insist that God should also follow our way of thinking. When things do not happen according to what we have planned or prayed for, we become frustrated and angry.

How can we experience the peace of Christ? We can experience this peace if we are prepared to die to our selfish wants. We must crucify our ego to the cross of Jesus as St. Paul did, as we are told in the second reading. Dying to ourselves means that we are allowing God to take control of our lives. That is the reason why Jesus tells his disciples not to bring along “any purse, or haversack or sandals” on their mission. All these things can give the disciples a false sense of security. These things will tempt the disciples into believing that they are in control of their lives. Rather, the disciples must accept that it is the one who sends them, Jesus, who will be the one who will sustain them and guide them on their mission. They will experience true peace when they realize that their mission is only a small part of the greater mission of Christ and of God.

We are called by Jesus to be peace-makers, to be messengers of hope and peace to those whom we meet. We are called to die to our own wants and the need to be in control of our lives and the lives of others. Let us during this Mass, pray for the grace to submit ourselves more willingly to God’s will. Let this be our constant prayer: “Not our will but God’s will be done.”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 3

Paul, the Jew (Part 1 of 2)

What Paul preached and taught was his own interpretation of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. It was based partly on the tradition accepted by all the churches (1 Cor 15:1-6), but he pondered it over the years and his knowledge of the Old Testament, interpreted to some extent by Jewish tradition, helped him to see the meaning of the Christ-event as no other first century Christian was able to do. “He was our first great theological thinker, not a systematic theologian but an apostolic herald of the gospel, essentially a preacher.”(1) According to W.D. Davies, “both Hellenism and Judaism are Paul’s tutors unto Christ.(2) But it is Judaism which is the more significant.” Paul looked back with pride on his life as a Jew of the Pharisaic tradition (Phil 3:5-6; Gal 1:14; 2 Cor 11:22). As a Jew he thinks and expresses himself in Old Testament categories and images. He quotes the Old Testament often (90 direct citations), usually according to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.(3) The significance of this is often lost to us who do not appreciate the fact that all the wealth of Greek literature lay open to him; yet at the most he only quotes a Gentile writer twice (cf. Acts 17:28 – where he quotes the Greek poet Aratus; Titus 1:12 – he quotes the poet Epimenides)(4). Paul relied extensively on the Old Testament. Possibly it was not all he knew, but certainly it was all he needed. He quotes the Old Testament to stress the unity of God’s action in both dispensations and often as announcing the Christian gospel (Rom 1:2) or preparing for Christ (Gal 3:24). Even if he contrasts the ‘letter of the law’ and the ‘Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:6; Rom 2:29; 7:6), the Old Testament “is still for him a means through which God speaks to humanity (1 Cor 9:10; 2 Cor 6:16-17; cf. Rom 4:23; 15:4).”(5) Indeed, we shall later see that most of his theology and this anthropology clearly reveals this Jewish background.

According to Barclay, Paul, to the end of his life was “proudly, stubbornly, unalterably a Jew.”(6) The polemical passages in which Paul reacts against the Mosaic Law should not be allowed to obscure the fact that even the Christian Paul looked back with pride on his life as a Jew of the Pharisaic tradition (Phil 3:5-6; Gal 1:14; 2 Cor 11:22). When he wrote to the Corinthians in answer to the charges of his detractors, Paul took his stand on his Jewish lineage: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I” (2 Cor 11:22). Although the three words are basically synonymous, all have their own distinctive nuance. A ‘Hebrew’ was a Jew who could still speak Hebrew (or more accurately Aramaic) in contradistinction to the Jews of the Diaspora, many who had forgotten their native language for the Greek of their adopted countries. An ‘Israelite’ was specifically a member of the covenant nation. To be a ‘descendent of Abraham’ was to have absolute racial purity – proselytes to Judaism were still regarded in many circles as second class. Therefore, Paul’s claim was that “there was nowhere in the world a purer Jew than he.”(7)

Paul did not himself abandon the ancestral laws and customs of his own people; in many things he was still a devout Jew. Again and again Paul’s Jewishness comes out. For example, we can deduce this from his treatment of Timothy in Acts. Timothy’s father was a Greek but his mother was a Jewess, and so we find Paul taking and circumcising Timothy in order that Timothy might be able to work amongst the Jews (16:3). In another instance, we find Paul taking what appears to be the Nazirite vow; when we find him shaving his head at Cenchrea (18:18). When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, we find him undertaking to be responsible for the expense of certain men who were engaged in carrying out the Nazirite vow in order that he might make it clear that he was no destructive renegade from the Jewish faith (21:17-26). In all these instances, we find a man that has never forgotten his Jewish origin; he never turned his back on the faith of his fathers.

But it was not only in his words and actions that Paul’s essential Jewishness came out; it was equally clear in his thoughts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paul’s theology is profoundly and thoroughly Jewish: it tells the story of how the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who spoke through Moses and the prophets, has now acted to fulfil the promises made long before and to enable God’s people to inherit their long-awaited blessings through the coming of the Messiah (e.g. 1 Cor 10:1; Rom 4:1; 9:3, 10; Gal 6:16). Paul’s speeches in Acts paint the same picture as his letters do (Acts 13:16-41; 28:23). Yet according to Paul’s ‘gospel,’ the people who inherit these blessings, the people who are the true ‘children of Abraham’ are not all who are Jewish, but all who have faith in Christ, whether they be Jew or Gentile. Indeed, ‘in Christ,’ according to Paul, ‘there is no longer Jew and Gentile’ (Gal 3:28; cf. 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11). So Paul’s theology is essentially Jewish, yet it claims Israel’s identity, blessings and salvation for a community which is not comprised solely of Jews, but of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. There is, then, in Paul’s theology “a fundamental tension between continuity and discontinuity: Paul’s message did not represent a rejection of his Jewish ‘past’, but neither was it simply a straightforward continuation of it.”(8)

1. Sherman E. Johnson, Paul the Apostle and His Cities (Wilmington: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987), 32
2. W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: SPCK, 1979) 1.
3. Matthew Thekkekara, The Letters of St. Paul: The Face of Early Christianity (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1997), 18.
4. William Barclay, The Mind of St. Paul (London: Collins, 1958) 13-14.
5. J oseph Fitzmyer, “Pauline Theology” in Raymond E. Brown et al (ed), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 1382-1416, cf 1384 n. 82:10.
6. Barclay, 11.
7. Ibid.
8. David Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul (London: Continuum, 2000) 82.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 2

Paul of Tarsus

Paul was born into a conflict of cultures: a Jew in a Hellenistic environment. This may be seen from the fact that he, like so many of his contemporaries, is known by two names, one Hebrew and another Greek/Roman. His Hebrew name, Saul can be found in the Acts of the Apostles prior to 13:9 whereas the Roman-Greek name, Paul, can be found for the first time in that same passage and thereafter. The Roman-Greek name of ‘Paul’ is also used in 2 Peter 3:15 and in his letters. There is however no evidence to show that the name ‘Saul’ was changed to ‘Paul’ at the time of his conversion.(1) Marrow suggests that Luke had used the Hebrew name in the Jewish part of his narrative in Acts, and the Latin name in the part given to the Gentile mission.(2) In other words, the former name was probably used in the Jewish circles and the latter in the Roman-Gentile circles, for he possessed a Roman citizenship as well. In any event, we are really not certain as to the reason for the change in name. But as a Jew, we have come to know his pedigree from his own account that runs as follows: “Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless” (Phil 3:5-6). According to O’Connor, such a concern to affirm his Jewish credentials betrays the expatriate, i.e. a Jew living in the Diaspora.(3)

Perhaps it is only by accident that in Paul’s letters preserved to us he never mentions his native town. Our information comes from the Book of Acts. After Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, a Christian named Ananias was told to go and inquire for a man from Tarsus named Saul (Acts 9:11). Paul then was baptized and went to Jerusalem to meet the apostles, who brought him to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus (9:30). Some time later, Christianity came to Antioch in Syria, and because of such great success there Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Paul and brought him to Antioch (11:25-26). The great missionary journeys of Paul begin after this. There is one other reference to Tarsus. When the Roman tribune allowed Paul to speak to the mob, he told them of his conversion and began with the words, “I am a Jew … and was born at Tarsus in Cilicia. I was brought up here in this city. It was under Gamaliel that I studied and was taught the exact observance of the Law of our ancestors. In fact, I was as full of duty (‘zealous’) towards God as you all are today” (22:3). This last statement suggests that Paul while still small was brought to Jerusalem by his parents, spent his childhood and youth there, and received something like an education under one of the most famous of rabbis. No doubt it was his heritage that led Paul to be concerned, as we shall see about the relevance of the Jewish tradition for Christianity. The strong concern of the Pharisees with proper living of the Law would lead Paul to later considerations of the place of the Law in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s letters also show clearly that the content of his thought was essentially Jewish, based on a knowledge of Jesus’ life and death and on thorough acquaintance with the Old Testament and Jewish tradition.

Paul certainly claimed to be a Pharisee, a member of the tribe of Benjamin and a Hebrew born of Hebrews (Phil 3:5); that is, both he and his parents spoke Aramaic or Hebrew. But there is a slight puzzle here. As most scholars would point out, although Paul’s letters show much acquaintance with Jewish tradition, his thinking and methods of argument are only partly Jewish, and he obviously had some Greek education. Unlike the Pharisees of Holy Land, Paul’s later career certainly demonstrated his openness to Gentiles. This would have been possible if Paul was exposed to the Hellenistic influence of a Gentile city like Tarsus. On the trade route between Syria and Asia Minor, Tarsus was prosperous and cultured – a center of learning. As Paul would describe it in Acts, Tarsus was “no insignificant city” (21:39). It is therefore suggested by Johnson that it is likely the family returned to Tarsus from time to time as Paul did after his conversion.(4)

It may very well be that Paul also had some formal training in the Greek culture within which he lived, for Jews in the cities of the empire often attended the schools and had training in athletics and rhetoric. Education was uniform throughout all the Hellenist cities and everyone shard a common treasury of poems, stories and speeches which they had memorized. Higher education consisted mostly of rhetoric. There students learnt the structures of speech, manner of delivery, and models that could be used for various circumstances. Tarsus, for example, was wealthy and ancient enough to support the higher forms of culture. It was a famous ‘university town,’ one which had both philosophical schools and schools of rhetoric.(5) Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia (a Roman province), in other words, was a microcosm of the Hellenistic world. Paul would have learned here some of the quotations from Greek writings that found their way into his letters. Although later on he downplayed these principles as external show (1 Cor 2:1-5), Paul nevertheless learned and even used them when they were helpful. Thus, this part of his early education would also have been significant for Paul’s later career.(6)


1. Matthew Thekkekara, The Letters of St. Paul: The Face of Early Christianity (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1997) 15, n. 11.
2. Stanley B. Marrow, Paul: His Letters and His Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1986) 7.
3. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 32.
4. Sherman E. Johnson, Paul the Apostle and His Cities (Wilmington: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987) 26.
5. On the history and background of Tarsus, see Johnson, 26-30.
6. Tambasco, 6-7.

The Cost of Discipleship

Thirteenth Sunday Year C

If Jesus were to appear in front of you today and tell you: “Come, follow me!”, what would your reaction be? Would you immediately say “Yes” or would you ask Jesus for some time to settle your personal and family affairs? What are you prepared to give up in order to follow Jesus?

What is the cost of discipleship? Today’s gospel gives us a very clear picture of what is required of us. It can also be frightening picture. The gospel story tells us that we must be prepared to give up all things that we value in order to follow Jesus. No value, no ‘good thing’, no person, can take precedence over the call to follow Jesus and become his disciple. As we examine the gospel story, we see three different scenarios.

Jesus’ answer to the first question that although all other creatures may have a home, the Son of Man himself has no permanent home, highlights the point that a disciple needs to give up all forms of security in order to follow Jesus. What are some of our securities – it may be a good job, or a good education, or a good family.

The second man excused himself from following Jesus immediately because he expressed his need to fulfill his filial obligation to bury his father. For the Jews as well as for the Chinese, looking into the funeral arrangements of one’s parents is one of the most important duties a person must fulfilled. Yet even this, according to Jesus, does not take precedence over the call to follow Jesus.

Lastly, the third man who meets Jesus receives the answer that if one has begun to follow Jesus, there is no turning back – “once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

These three men and their different situations are used as examples to illustrate the high cost of discipleship. They are not to be read literally. Jesus is not asking us to be unfilial or to discard our obligations to our parents and elders. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells us that service to God should never be used as an excuse to escape from one obligations to one’s parents. But the meaning of the present gospel story is that one must be prepared to die to one’s own personal likes and dislikes and personal agenda in order to follow Jesus. In other words, today’s gospel is related to last week’s gospel where Jesus tells the disciples: if you wish to be my disciples, you must deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow me.

In the first reading, we see Elisha, after having answered the call of Elijah, slaughters the oxen and burns the plough which represents his past profession. This action of his is very significant. It means that he is giving up everything: he is abandoning for good his life of rich farmer and he is embracing a new profession: to be prophet in the following of Elijah. This is a sign of firm commitment.

Once we have decided to follow Jesus, there is no turning back. We must burn our bridges and our boats that we have left behind. This is the meaning of Christian commitment and Christian discipleship. Let us pray during today’s Mass, that we will receive the strength and the courage to follow Jesus and also be firm in our commitment. “Once our hand is laid on the plough,” there is no turning back.

Friday, June 18, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 1

I begin teaching a course on the Pauline and Catholic Epistles in the Church of Assumption, Petaling Jaya today. This module is part of the bible study course offered by the Regional Biblical Commission (RBC) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. I have decided to post the following paper that I wrote several years ago on the Jewish and Hellenistic influences that had impacted St Paul and his writings. As the paper was quite lengthy, I have decided to serialise it for the purpose of this blog.


If there is, after Jesus, any person of stature and importance in the early Church, that person is Paul. Till today, the vast influence of Paul, rightly called the first Christian theologian, is met with mixed reception. For some, Paul is indeed the great hero of the Christian church, the one who most clearly perceived the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ and most enthusiastically presented the message of the good news. For others, however, Paul was largely responsible for taking the pristine Jewish message of Jesus and corrupting it, turning it into a Hellenistic type of religion which Jesus could hardly have recognized, let alone approved. Still others are also annoyed by some of his statements about women (1 Cor 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:34). Similarly, on the topic of human sexuality, Paul seems to have minimal respect for marriage when he asserts his preference for celibacy (1 Cor 7:8-9). These reactions may not appear to be too alarming if we were to consider that Paul was noted to be a controversial character even in the New Testament writings (e.g. in the Acts of the Apostles). The 2nd letter of Peter tells us how from the beginning Paul was held in esteem, and yet was in the storm of controversy: “Think of our Lord's patience as your opportunity to be saved; our brother Paul, who is so dear to us, told you this when he wrote to you with the wisdom that he was given. He makes this point too in his letters as a whole wherever he touches on these things. In all his letters there are of course some passages which are hard to understand, and these are the ones that uneducated and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture -to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:15-16).

Certainly Paul is a strong personality and his letters indicate that people either loved him or hated him, but were scarcely ever neutral or indifferent toward him. Yet we must appreciate that he addressed all of his letters to specific problems of specific communities and often in the heat of battle. His occasionally strong statements (strongest in his letter to the Galatians), need to be properly interpreted, and must be balanced by his total vision of Christianity. Another important area of study would be to see how the Jewish and Hellenistic background of Paul had influenced his mission and writings. In fact, we may conclude that Paul was the right person for the right time. Raised a Jew in Gentile territory but educated in the best traditions of Judaism, he was eminently suited for his time to help bridge the gap between Christians of Jewish background and the ever increasing numbers of those of Gentile background.

Christianity did not develop in a vacuum. Neither did the development of Paul’s theology. Paul recognized that Christianity needed to address itself to the questions and concerns of its day. “To the Jews I made myself as a Jew, to win the Jews; to those under the Law as one under the Law (though I am not), in order to win those under the Law; to those outside the Law as one outside the Law, though I am not outside the Law but under Christ's law, to win those outside the Law” (1 Cor 9:20-21). So it may be said, with some qualifications, that “Paul redesigned Christianity from the simple message of Jesus, not to change its essence, but to adapt it from a rural, Jewish setting to the contemporary urban Gentile culture” of the various communities he founded or ministered to. (1)

In attempting to construct Paul the Jew and Hellenist, I will be drawing on various sources. In examining his writings, I will concentrate on the seven letters that are almost universally accepted as authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Another source of information comes from the Acts of the Apostles. As scholars would caution us, we must use Acts prudently. Luke writes Acts in a way that idealises Paul beyond his historical character, and uses him, along with all the other persons in Acts, in order to express Luke’s own faith message and theology. In Acts, Luke wants to paint a picture of the ideal Christian community and their missionary efforts extending over the Roman Empire. A casual reading and comparison of some descriptions in Acts with Paul’s versions of the story will highlight the different pictures we can get and the caution with which we must read Acts. We must therefore pierce through this interpreted history to capture the historical Paul. In spite of the extensive studies that had been done on the subject of Paul and his background, he remains very much an enigmatic figure – he simply resists easy classification. In this study, we will only be examining two facets of the apostle – his ‘Jewish-ness’ and his ‘Hellenistic-ness.’

1. Anthony J. Tambasco, In the Days of Paul: The Social World and Teaching of the Apostle (New York: Paulist Press, 1991) 13.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Redemptive suffering in Christ

Twelfth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a god that will bless us with riches and good fortune, a god that will protect us from all harms, a god that will solve all our problems? When I reflect upon my own Chinese culture, I realised that we, being the pragmatists that we are, will use anything or pray to any god that will benefit us personally. The most popular gods are those that give us wealth and health. This was the kind of God or Christ that Peter was thinking off in today’s gospel. For Peter, Christ has come to liberate Israel from their conquerors, the Romans, and lead the whole nation of Israel back to their glorious past. For Peter, Jesus, through his miracles, is the solution to all problems.

But Jesus gives a very different picture of his role. Jesus speaks of himself being “destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death.” He wants Peter and his disciples to understand that this is the most important image of God – the God who is prepared to suffer and die for us because he loves us.

If we want to be disciples of Christ, we must also be willing to “renounce ourselves and take up our cross every day and follow him.” Whatever happiness we may seek in this world is always temporary happiness. Having obtained what we have desired – whether it be a better job, or a bigger house, or a beautiful wife, or a good husband, more money – we become easily dissatisfied and begin to search for other things that will satisfy. But nothing can truly satisfy but the love of God. True happiness comes from us knowing that God loves us and that is all that is needed. This is eternal life - to know that God loves us so much that he is prepared to give his only Son to die for us.

The only way to attain this true happiness, the only way to attain eternal life is this: we must be willing to renounce all other things which may deceive us into thinking that they can promise us lasting happiness. In fact, much unhappiness comes from us striving for things that we either can never attain or which we leaves us wanting more. We must die to these desires in order that we may desire only for God. We must die to our selfishness and our greed and be reborn again in Jesus Christ.

That is why St. Paul tells the Galatians that all of us who have been baptized in Christ, are now clothed in Christ and “there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female,” but are all made one in Christ. It is interesting to note how in the face of tragedy and suffering, people are brought together in solidarity and support for each other. For example, estranged members of the family who have not been talking with each other are brought together at the funeral of a parent. Or how families and friends and even strangers come to help and support those who have experienced some personal tragedy.

Suffering is not our enemy. Jesus has taught us this through his life example. This does not mean that we must intentionally look for suffering and cause unnecessary suffering to ourselves and to others. We all experience pain and suffering because this world is not a perfect world, and we humans are not perfect and we continue to hurt and be hurt by each other. But when suffering comes, we can either choose to complain and become bitter and angry with others, with ourselves and with God; or we can choose to see how God can bring some good out of this experience - life out of death.

Today, let us bring all our problems, our pains and all our sufferings before Jesus knowing that he truly understand what we are going through because he too had experienced this on the cross. Let us learn from him, how our crosses – our sufferings - can become fountains of new life.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pontiff Calls God Audacious; Says Priesthood Is Proof

Closes Year for Priests With 15,000 Concelebrants at Mass

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 11, 2010 ( The sea of white-vested priests who filled St. Peter's Square this morning heard from Benedict XVI about the "radiance of the priesthood," as the Pope proposed to them that the "true grandeur" concealed in holy orders is God's audacity as he "considers men capable of acting and being present in his stead."

The historical papal Mass on today's feast of the Sacred Heart thus concluded the Year for Priests.

"The priest is not a mere office-holder, like those which every society needs in order to carry out certain functions," the Holy Father told the 15,000 priests participating in the Mass. "Instead, he does something which no human being can do of his own power: In Christ’s name he speaks the words which absolve us of our sins and in this way he changes, starting with God, our entire life."

God uses "us poor men," the Bishop of Rome said, in order "to be, through us, present to all men and women."

"This audacity of God who entrusts himself to human beings -- who, conscious of our weaknesses, nonetheless considers men capable of acting and being present in his stead -- this audacity of God is the true grandeur concealed in the word 'priesthood,'" he proposed. "That God thinks that we are capable of this; that in this way he calls men to his service and thus from within binds himself to them: this is what we wanted to reflect upon and appreciate anew over the course of the past year."

Call to youth

Benedict XVI suggested the Year for Priests was to "reawaken our joy at how close God is to us, and our gratitude for the fact that he entrusts himself to our infirmities."

Priests and the whole Church wanted to use this year, the Pope said, to "make clear once again that we have to ask God for this vocation. We have to beg for workers for God’s harvest."

This petition, he proposed, is itself God's "own way of knocking on the hearts of young people who consider themselves able to do what God considers them able to do."


The Bishop of Rome then offered a line-by-line reflection on the Psalm from the liturgy, the well-known verses of "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

"God personally looks after me, after us, after all mankind," the Pope reflected. "I am not abandoned, adrift in the universe and in a society which leaves me ever more lost and bewildered. God looks after me. He is not a distant God, for whom my life is worthless."

"God knows me, he is concerned about me," he continued. "This thought should make us truly joyful. Let us allow it to penetrate the depths of our being. Then let us also realize what it means: God wants us, as priests, in one tiny moment of history, to share his concern about people."

As a shepherd, the Pontiff said, the Lord "shows us the right way to be human. He teaches us the art of being a person. What must I do in order not to fall, not to squander my life in meaninglessness? [...] Living with Christ, following him -- this means finding the right way, so that our lives can be meaningful and so that one day we might say: 'Yes, it was good to have lived.'"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Moving Forward with Grace and Forgiveness

Eleventh Ordinary Sunday Year C

What is the basis of our faith? What is at the heart of Christianity? Is it the obedience of God’s law and the laws of the Church? For many people, religion is seen merely in these terms – as the keepings of laws. A Catholic is one who must come to church every Sunday, must not eat meat on Friday, must go for confession at least once a year etc. When we begin to think of our religion as merely a set of laws, several things happen. When laws become the only consideration, our faith is then based on fear of judgment and punishment from God. If we obey these laws we will be blessed and nothing bad will happen to us, but if we break these laws then we will be punished and cursed.

When religion is based on fear, we become judgmental. We judge others by external appearances and behaviour. We are ready to catch people when they make a mistake and are quick to ostracise them from the community if they are habitual sinners. This was the kind of the mentality that the Pharisees had in today’s gospel. Based on his perception of his religion, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house only saw a sinful woman. This woman is described as one who had “a bad name in town.” Perhaps, this is an indication of the kind of lifestyle that she lived. She may have worked as a prostitute. For the Pharisee, this woman’s sin is too great and cannot be forgiven. She will always be remembered for the mistakes that she had made in the past rather than what she can become in the future.

How do we see others? Do we often judge others by appearance? Do we often remember their mistakes and use it against them?

Today’s readings remind us of what it really means to be a Christian. According to St. Paul in the second reading, “what makes a man righteous is not obedience to the law, but faith in Jesus Christ.” What does this mean? It means that religion is not just following a set of rules and laws. Religion and faith is based on relationship with God and Jesus Christ. So, what is at the heart of our faith must not be the laws but love. This is how God relates to us – not as a judge waiting to punish us when we have done wrong but as a God who loves us. St. Paul speaks of his faith: it is “faith in the Son of God who loved me and who sacrificed himself for my sake.”

Since our faith is based on love rather than the law, we are also called to mercy rather than judgment. Today’s gospel gives us the beautiful story of Jesus and the sinful woman. Jesus also tells a parable that highlights the importance of mercy and forgiveness. Jesus saw the woman differently. He knew that she was a sinner but he also knew of what she could become if given the opportunity. Mercy and forgiveness creates the opportunity for change. Mercy and forgiveness allows us to leave the past behind. Mercy and forgiveness is how God relates to us and he challenges us to also show mercy and forgiveness to others.

We have been speaking about our parish as a welcoming parish. In order for this parish to become a welcoming parish, we must first learn how to forgive. In order to welcome others, we must show mercy, not judgment. The sinful woman in today’s gospel showed hospitality to Jesus. In return, Jesus rewarded her with mercy and forgiveness. May we too begin to show mercy, understanding and forgiveness to one another. We recognize that we are all sinners. We acknowledge that we are not perfect. We admit that we have hurt one another by our selfishness and jealousies. But we should not be trap by these failings. The way forward is through forgiveness and mercy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reach Retreat 2010

I spent the weekend (June 5-6) facilitating a retreat for the Reach Deaf Ministry of St Francis Xavier Church, PJ. Around 16 deaf persons and three hearing persons attended the retreat conducted at Villa Hermine, a convent cum retreat centre run by the FMM sisters.

The theme of the retreat was "Mary, the Model Disciple". Most of the deaf had little exposure to Marian devotion or theology. It was an opportunity to share with them the deep spirituality of Mary and how Mary could serve as their model of Christian discipleship.

The retreat took the form of a reflection of Icons and scriptural narratives which involved Mary, i.e. the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Wedding at Cana, the Crucifixion and Pentecost. In the last session, I shared with them the four Marian dogmas which arose from Christian imagination and Sacred Tradition.

More photos on Facebook.

Here's a video of me signing at the beginning of the mass:

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Meal for Strangers, A Meal that Unites, A Meal for Mission

Corpus Christi Year C

Much has been written and spoken about the Eucharist. Can anything else be said about it? I believe that the three readings of today can still give us some new insights.

In the first reading, we have Melchizedek, a foreigner, extending hospitality to Abraham. Melchizedek is not of the same race as Abraham, neither is he a close acquaintance. Melchizedek is in fact a stranger who goes out of his way and shows unusual hospitality to Abraham. Everytime we celebrate the Mass, Jesus extends hospitality to us. He does not only extend hospitality to those who are considered good and holy but also to strangers, luke-warm Christians, and sinners. The Eucharist is not an exclusive meal confined to only a few select people. We must always remember to extend hospitality to all who come to our Church, because in various ways they are hungering and seeking for meaning to their lives.

In the second reading, we read of St. Paul’s harsh words to the Corinthians. The main problem of the Corinthian church was the existence of factions. There were those who were rich and those who were very poor. There were those who thought themselves holier than others. There were those who were followers of Paul and others who were followers of Apollos. But in the Eucharistic community established by Jesus, there can be no room for factions. All are united in the Body of Christ. That is why St. Paul tells us that every time, we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are “proclaiming Christ’s death.” The Eucharist calls us to die to ourselves – to die to our selfishness, our prejudice, our suspicion of others.

Finally, the gospel tells us that the Eucharist calls us to be involved. There is no room for indifference and pushing the responsibility to others in the Eucharistic community. Jesus challenges us at every Mass – “give them something to eat yourselves.” The Mass does not depend on the priest alone. It depends on every one of you – in the way you participate in the Mass. You cannot complain of receiving nothing during the Mass if you do not take the trouble to contribute something. Each of you can contribute something by preparing yourself well before the Mass, by participating in the singing and the responses, and by listening attentively to the Word of God.

Every Mass is an occasion and an opportunity to extend hospitality to others- especially to strangers, the weak, the elderly, little children and those who seem to be alone. Every Mass is an occasion for us to die to ourselves and to our prejudices. Every Mass is an opportunity for us to participate in the mission of Jesus to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Let us pray during the Mass, for the grace to grow in our hospitality, in our self-denial and finally in our participation in the works of Christ.