Friday, February 24, 2012

Water water everywhere

First Sunday of Lent Year B

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written at the end of the 18th century. The poem relates the story of a ship wrecked sailor who has returned from a long sea voyage. His story, however, borders on the fantastic. He tells a story of a cursed voyage due to the mariner’s own fault of shooting down an albatross, a large sea bird, whom the crew had assigned the good fortune of leading their ship out of the cold waters of the Antarctica. The crew of the ship experienced one misfortune after another, and they eventually lay the entire blame of their predicament on the mariner’s action. The dead bird is hung around the neck of the mariner as a sign of his crime and atonement for the sin he had committed. At one particular juncture, when the ship was stuck in uncharted waters without any head wind, the crew lamented their condition with this most famous line from the poem:

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The irony of this passage is that finding themselves surrounded by a great body of water, they are denied a drink. The story progresses when the personification of Death comes to visit the crew members and one by one, all of them succumb to his embrace, but the Mariner lives on to gaze upon the death mask of his fellow crew members. He bears the effect of a greater curse – to walk alive among the dead. In a moment of prayer and faith when all seemed lost, the albatross falls from the neck of the mariner and his guilt is partially expiated. Finally, he makes his way back to human civilization where he discovers a new found mission. He wanders the earth to tell his story and teach a lesson to those he meets:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner becomes an apt parable that illustrates the message contained in the readings of the First Sunday of Lent. It is not surprising then to find scripture choosing to use the metaphor of water to describe a deeper and more profound reality. Water is essential for life. Up to 60% of the body is made up of water. A person can survive up to 4 weeks without food but can only live up to 8 days without water. We need water to drink, water to cook, water to wash, water to make our vegetation grow and animals live. Perhaps, we will only appreciate the need for water when we are deprived of it. It is obvious that too little water is not good. On the other hand, too much water is also not good. Excess of water causes floods, destroys crops and exacts casualties among humans and animals alike.

Today, being the First Sunday of Lent, water becomes the symbol that ties together all the readings. The first and the second reading speak of the flood waters that almost destroyed the world. In the gospel, we are told of how the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, the desert, where there is no water. Both of these situations seem to be extremes. On the one hand, too much water nearly destroyed the world. On the other hand, it is the lack of water which nearly destroys Jesus and leads him into temptation.

But in both cases, it is the destructive power of water or the lack of it that leads to salvation. In the story of Noah, God promises to Noah that he will never destroy the world again with flood waters. At the end of Jesus’ experience in the desert, he makes a public announcement of the good news, a message that will quench the desire of everyone who thirsts for the kingdom of God. Just like the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s poem, the old sailor emerges from his watery ordeal, a wiser man, a man reborn with a new mission, a man who discovers the goodness of God in all his creatures whom he had earlier disdained.

How are these stories connected with our Lenten experience? These stories point to the need for conversion and repentance. We are often weighed down by the burden of sin. We sometimes experience great guilt as if a dead albatross was practically hung around our necks as a sign of our folly and shame. But it is only, when we turn our hearts to the one who can redeem us, can we then be freed from the fetters of guilt and sin. The way of redemption is the way of conversion and repentance.

During this season of Lent, we must die to our selfishness and to our sinfulness. We must allow our old selves to be destroyed in the flood waters of purification. We must purify our intentions and courageously face our temptations as we journey into the wilderness of our lives with Jesus. At the end of this period of 40 days, we hope to die again in the waters of baptism together with the catechumens who will be baptized so that we will rise again with them to new life in the Spirit. It is at Easter, that the symbol of water becomes clear. St. Peter explains this in the second reading: “That water is a type of the baptism which saves you now, and which is not the washing off of physical dirt but a pledge made to God from a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ …”

Today, our catechumens begin this journey into the desert, into the waters of the flood as they will be presented to the Archbishop in Kuala Lumpur for the Rite of Election. Their facilitators have prepared them for the last eight months. They are now ready to take this step of faith into the unknown. But they will not walk alone. Their sponsors will walk with them. Their RCIA facilitators will walk with them. We will walk with them. Jesus will walk with them.

As we listen to the voice of Spirit leading us into the wilderness, let us take courage and not be disheartened by any temptations which may be placed before us. The Church proposes to us the ancient Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It does so not to add to our burden but through these practices, we may be set free from sin and its effects. As Coleridge reminds us at the end of his poem, “He prayeth best, who loveth best.” Prayer opens the doors of our hearts so that we may be consumed by the love of God. Prayer frees us from the burden of sin which hangs around neck like a dead albatross. Prayer leads us to faith where we come to attest as St Paul does that “Christ himself, innocent though he was, died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God”.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dirt can be Holy Stuff

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday small children are thrilled to receive ashes. Adults too, I must confess. There is something about receiving sacramentals and praying with them which excite the Catholic imagination. Ordinarily deprived of the opportunity to receive communion like the adults, children display great excitement that they can get in line to receive something from the priest, albeit once a year. In my former parish of Visitation Seremban, a young child once complained to the grandmother, ‘How come you get to eat the good stuff every Sunday? But when it comes to me, I get the dirty stuff on my face. And I have to wait a whole year for this?’

How then do we talk about the meaning of ashes to children or even to adults? Ashes have traditionally been a sign of repentance. Although children generally know that they need to say sorry when they’ve been naughty, the idea of repentance may be too much to grasp for a little one who has not reached the age of reason (generally 8-9 years) and thus are not to be faulted for their actions.

But there is something more to ashes than just penance and repentance. It is a reminder of our mortality – all of us will die one day and our mortal bodies will return to dust. Our mortality then adds urgency to the need for repentance. We need to repent because we will not live forever. We must choose to repent today, because we are never sure whether we’ll live to see tomorrow.

Ashes from the burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday carry the reminder that the grandiose hopes of triumphal parades can so easily turn to betrayal, persecution, and burial. Ashes, made by burning palms blessed the previous Palm Sunday, symbolize the transience of our earthly status. The body must fall temporarily into dust. This fact should serve as a challenge to spiritual accomplishments. Through grace we were "buried" in Christ that we may rise with him and "live unto God." "They are not a sign of death," Fr. Merton says, "but a promise of life."

It is interesting to note that no matter how beautiful, varied and different everything we see may appear to be, all are reduced to indistinguishable ashes when subjected to fire. A beautiful and priceless painting, a human body, stacks of money, expensive clothes and flowering trees, all become in-differentiable when reduced to ashes. It may normally seem strange to admire ashes. It’s just dust – no shape, no beauty, no use, no value. Yet, ashes take on an entirely new meaning when we view it through the eyes of faith. Ashes remind us that all the things which we treasure in this life, our money, our possessions, our environment and even our loved ones are impermanent. Ashes then become a sacramental reminder and teacher – for they teach us to understand that we cannot place our trust and hope in things which will eventually disappear, things that will become ashes. Ashes point to our own mortal lives – in spite of how long we may live or how healthy we may be, one day, all of us, without any exception would become ashes.

Ashes and the mortality of human life which it represents also have a democratising effect. Each of us may come from different social backgrounds. Some of us are rich while others poor. Some may hold very important positions while others perform clerical task and other manual work. No matter who you are or where you come from, all are invited to come forward to place ashes on your forehead. Rich or poor, young or old, powerful or weak, stranger or friend - all equally sinners in need of salvation. Notice that the priests are the first to have the ashes placed on their forehead, which serves as a reminder that we priests too are sinners. In this way, we are all equal in the eyes of God. We all require forgiveness and redemption. We all need to die to our old sinful self in order to be reborn into the new life with Christ. When all is reduce to ashes, there are no longer differences among us.

It is always a bit amazing how many people are eager to receive ashes. You wouldn’t think that we need or are eager to hear reminders of mortality. After all, we get those all the time. Loved ones die. Our own bodies show signs of wear. We are in the midst of broken situations and broken communities, and we never have to look far to see decay and corruption. Despite the many reminders of mortality which surround us, we also live in a culture of denial. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” simply puts the truth on the table. It is an awesome, if unwelcome, starting point for a relationship with God’s grace.

In the light of Christ, in the hope of Christ, our mortality is not something to be feared or denied. In fact, mortality, with its inevitable suffering, is something we share with every one of our human brothers and sisters. While we might think of mortality in connection with the isolation of loss, the dust we share can be a point of connection.
We are not at our best, we are not at our most glorious, we are not most fully human only when things are going well and we are lost in the rapture of joy. We may also be at our best precisely when things are at their worst. How we respond to suffering, disaster, and death can be just as glorious as our best hymn-singing.

This season of Lent is therefore an opportunity for us to die to sin. When we die to sin we also die to the illusions and lies caused by sin. Sin tells us that we only need to think of our own needs without having to think of others. Sin tells us to make a big show of our spiritual exercises e.g. prayer, fasting, coming to church etc. Sin blinds us to the kingdom of God and tempts us with worldly values that are impermanent. Today, on this first day of Lent, let us pray that the Lord will burn away our sins and the illusions caused by such sin. Ashes reveal the truth. As our sin and illusions are reduced to ashes, our focus is now turned toward God. In God, we shall find everything that is good and beautiful. In God, shall we have the promise of eternal life which will not be reduced to ashes.

To outsiders, Catholics must look like mad people who love to dirty their face with dust, dirt and ashes. We are often corrected if we were to tolerate messiness and dirtiness. But today, you receive just that license to get dirty. Dust is looking better all the time – especially when it is joined to God’s promise that even dust can be holy stuff.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Healing or Forgiveness?

Seventh Ordinary Sunday Year B

If you were presented with an option to choose between physical healing and forgiveness, which would you choose? Now, many of you are intelligent enough to suspect that this could be a trick question and we all know how we should handle trick question; give the answer which is least plausible. But, I guess actions speak louder than words. Witnessing the number of pilgrims that came for the Mass with Anointing for the Sick last Saturday and others who went for the Lourdes bathe is clear evidence that the former, physical healing, is preferred to the latter, forgiveness. The queues for the Sacrament of Penance, on the other hand, were contrastingly short.

A similar observation could be made between two most important approved Marian shrines in the world, that of Lourdes in France and the other of Fatima in Portugal. Pilgrims will testify that the pilgrims which converge on the French shrine far outnumber those who visit the Portuguese shrine of Fatima. What could be the difference between these two shrines or rather what is the pull factor in respect of the shrine of Lourdes which is missing from that of Fatima? One can only speculate that it has to do with the popular associations made by pilgrims. Lourdes is synonymous with healing whereas Fatima with penance. The former obviously seems to be more appealing than the latter.

The contrast and seeming rivalry between physical healing and forgiveness is played out in today’s gospel story. A paralysed man comes to Jesus obviously looking for healing but receives more than that, forgiveness of his sins and salvation. It is a story of faith. Interestingly, it is not the faith of the paralytic that draws Jesus to perform the miracle and to forgive his sins, but rather the faith of the four friends. But more important than the subjects of faith, being the friends of the paralysed man, is that of the object of faith – Jesus himself. Here, in terms of the object, we are asked to examine and reflect on both his person and his authority. What authority does he possess? Who is this man, Jesus?

Today’s gospel reading is certainly familiar to many of you. Jesus is teaching in a house that is so overcrowded that there is no room even at the door. The crowd is so large that it spills into the streets. We can picture the hot crowded atmosphere within the house with its guests and owners huddled together like tightly packed sardines, sitting on the floor, shoulder to shoulder. Imagine having to make way for another person, what more a man on a stretcher. I have often noticed the expressions of annoyance on the faces of people sitting together on a bench when they have to make room for another person.

The reason why the paralytic is lowered by his friends into the presence of Jesus is very clear. He’s there for the healing, not for the teachings and certainly not for forgiveness. The words that Jesus speaks to the paralytic are somewhat unexpected, “Your sins are forgiven.” The paralytic wishes to be physically healed, yet Jesus forgives him of his sins. It must have come as big disappointment to him, at least at the initial stage. This reminds me of what happened last week. I could see the disappointment on the faces of many pilgrims who had travelled to our parish last week hoping to get a full shower of Lourdes water but were instead given a few drops sufficient for wetting the face. The paralytic is certainly worthy of compassion, no dispute about that. Therefore the statement of Jesus, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ would obviously seem bizarre, even insensitive, to the crowd. For this, the scribes will accuse him of blasphemy because they believe that Jesus has made himself on par with God.

As is often the case in the gospel accounts, Jesus uses the irony of a situation to teach a lesson. What, exactly, is Jesus trying to prove by forgiving the sins of the paralytic, and then healing him? First, as the scribes state, only God forgive sins. By forgiving the sins of the paralysed man, Jesus tells us that he operates with the same authority as God himself. Jesus reveals his identity – he is more than a great healer or teacher, he is God. Secondly, as the story tells us, Jesus can heal the sick. By the healing the sick, St Mark tells us that Jesus offers proof of his messianic claim, and in doing so, he also shows us that the Kingdom of God is at hand (cf Mk 1:15). Third, Jesus is communicating to the crowd that the Kingdom of God is about the restoration of the relationship between man and God. What was not perfect is made whole; where there was sin there is no reconciliation; and what was alienated from the community is now restored.

But the last point of this story is that Jesus points to what is necessary for salvation – it is forgiveness of sins and not healing from physical infirmities or disability. Physical health, though important, is no substitute for salvation – eternal life. Christ deals first with the spiritual problem—the forgiveness of sins—and then the physical problem—the physical affliction. Most people want it the other way around, putting greater emphasis on healing the physical ailment than fixing the spiritual problem. Solomon gives us the answer to which is more important: "The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness, but who can bear a broken spirit?" (Proverbs 18:14).

The mission of Jesus, the Son of God is to conquer suffering and the greatest suffering of all is not any form of disability, pain or ailment, but the loss of eternal life. Jesus came not only as miracle worker or a healer. He came to strike at the roots of suffering, sin and death. Sin is the cause of all our pains and sicknesses. The way to remove the effect, is to take away the cause. Pardon of sin strikes at the root of all diseases. Today, man recognises his physical frailty and searches for health and longevity. What he fails to recognise is that sin is the most insidious ailment that requires a remedy, and that eternal life, and not longevity, is man’s ultimate goal. Thus, the queues in line for healing and anointing are long whereas those that lead to the confessional are either short or non-existent. Most men think themselves spiritually whole; they feel no need of a physician of the soul, therefore neglect or even despise the forgiveness promised by Christ and offered by the Church in the Sacrament of Penance.

Many who labour under the burden of pain, disease and old age often feel abandoned by God. But our Pope in his recent message on the occasion of the World Day of the Sick reminds all of us of this truth, “God, indeed, in his Son, does not abandon us to our anguish and sufferings, but is close to us, helps us to bear them, and wishes to heal us in the depths of our hearts.” He does not provide us with a cure-all pill for our ailments, a fountain of youth that will stall the aging effects of time, nor a miraculous balm that will keep suffering at bay. But he does provide us the Eucharist, especially as Viaticum, which St Ignatius of Antioch describes as the “medicine of immortality, the antidote for death”; the sacrament of the passage from death to life, from this world to the Father, who awaits everyone in the celestial Jerusalem, where the lame will leap with joy, the blind gaze upon the beauty of his Maker and the deaf hear the wondrous voice of his Saviour bidding him to draw near

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Touch which Heals and Liberates

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The name ‘Sungai Buloh’ is popularly associated with lush nurseries where one can get a good bargain for flowers and plants. Older Malaysians will also remember that Sungai Buloh served as Malaysia’s largest leprosy settlement since 1930. At a time, when medical knowledge of this disease was in its infancy and cure was rare, the only acceptable prognosis was segregation and quarantine. Sungai Buloh was considered at that time an ‘enlightened’ segregation project because it allowed the lepers and their families to settle in a self-sufficient commune. A visitor to the settlement today would only a see a shadow of its past. Only a few residents display the marks of disfigurement characteristic of leprosy, fingerless hands, noseless faces and missing limbs. And yet, there remains a fear among outsiders when visiting the nurseries and the little Catholic chapel nestled in the valley. Perhaps, it is the fear of somehow contracting the almost extinct bacteria that causes leprosy or the lingering prejudice in casting one’s eyes on disfigured bodies and faces. The walls of alienation and separation remain although the disease has long ceased to be a threat. Although leprosy is curable, it continues to condemn and ostracise many of its victims.

When the Bible uses the word ‘leprosy’, in Hebrew, ‘tzaraath’, it did not merely mean leprosy as corresponding to modern medical terminology. In the Bible, it was a blanket term that referred to all forms of ailments of the skin, including simple skin pigmentation. But the term was not just confined to a physiological condition but also had religious connotation. Biblical leprosy was one of the many scourges that the Israelites believed God had inflicted upon mankind in retribution for sins committed, especially the sin of gossip! The first religious exercise of the fundamentalist Pharisees was to thank God that they were not born in any of the four following categories, and they prayed, “I thank you God that I was not born a Gentile (a non-Jew), a slave, a ‘leper’ or a woman!” Bearing a mark of leprosy often meant a life of alienation because lepers were forced to live meager existences on the outskirts of civilisation.

Lepers in the time of Jesus suffered not only from the disease that they had to live with. What was even worse than the disfiguring effects of the disease was the isolation and loneliness that marked its victims. The Law of Moses concerning leprosy was strict – lepers simply had to isolate themselves from everyone. At some point of our lives, we might have felt lonely, unloved or isolated from the community. Imagine then if this were to become a permanent situation. How would you feel if you were cut off from the persons you loved and cared for forever? Surely some might say that it was no longer worth living as we, as persons, were made for love and companionship.

Lepers were no longer able to stay in close contact with their families, friends and familiar surroundings. Fear and prejudice led them to being treated with contempt and scorn as they would be regarded not only as diseased persons but also as great sinners! Many would have felt abandoned and isolated by God as they were not allowed to attend the synagogue services or visit the Temple at Jerusalem. Thus, the only company that they would have had would have been other lepers themselves – and we know that being with people with the same problem all the time may not be a good thing, as we might tend to compare notes and see who is in a worse-off situation and end up even more depressed.

Today’s first reading and the gospel does not only focus on the disease of leprosy or its alienating effect, but really points to the dynamics of prejudice and offers a means of healing it. Prejudice and discrimination are negative manifestations of integrative power. Instead of bringing or holding people together, prejudice and discrimination push them apart. Prejudice makes lepers of others. Ironically, even prejudice and discrimination imply some sort of relationship. When there is any relationship at all--even a negative one--there is some integration. Prejudice is often sustained by a ‘community’ of persons whose integration is achieved through hatred, fear, and the threat of a common enemy. Thus, the prejudiced or racist ‘community’ is a parody of the authentic one.

What do the readings, the example of Jesus and the Jewish ritual laws of determining leprosy and its treatment say to us about the dynamics required for us to move away from the paradigm of prejudice to that of integration?

Let’s first look at the Jewish laws of determining leprosy. The Torah teaches that during the early stages of what seemed to be a serious skin affliction, a sick person would stand before a Kohen (priest) who would diagnose the illness. If it was determined that the person was a leper, he or she would be expelled from the community for the duration of the recovery process. The Kohen or priest was also subject to rigid rules to ensure that their powers of investigation were not abused. The first rule is that the priest must be able to examine the entirety of the lesion and not just the spot which seems to be infected. We are often quick to make pre-judgments purely on cursory reading of a situation. There is a need to examine a situation or even a person in his or her entirety. They are to be treated holistically, and not just condemned for a single defect or fault.

The second rule governing the kohen is that a priest who is blind in one eye or who cannot see well may not perform the inspections. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ saying, ’Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brothers eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:3) There is a need for honest self criticism and circumspection in order to identify and root out the various filters or blindness which we suffer that prevents us from seeing clearly. There is a danger that we may be projecting our own faults on the other. When there is discontent, unhappiness, resentment, envy and fear in our hearts, we will always see the negative in the other.

We now turn to the actions of Jesus in today’s gospel, especially that of making contact and speaking to the leper as if he was a human person. By speaking to him and even by touching him, Jesus restored his dignity. By acknowledging the humanity of another person, we are effectively summoned to address his or her pain holistically. Jesus did not just see a leper before him. Jesus saw a human person, suffering alienation and rejection and Jesus loved him. Truly seeing the other is the only way to see the face of God. By extension, we are called to consider the needs of every person that we encounter with the same seriousness with which we would serve God.

The Catholic Church has been wracked with the scandal of sexual abuse in recent decades. This certainly calls for greater prudence and supervision in the training of priests, a more open and accountable way of dealing with new cases and reparation to and healing for those who have been made victims. On the other hand, many clergy and religious who used to freely offer the face of a caring Christ through a simple smile or a touch are now immobilised by the fear that these actions will be deemed inappropriate. We live in a world where we may no longer be surrounded by untouchables but the alienation and barrier remains because many feel crippled to reach across boundaries to touch the other.

We no longer live in a world where leprosy plagues us. But there are other new forms of leprosy – racism, AIDs and HIV positive persons, migrants and refugees and others who are marginalised either by our behavior or our omission to reach out. Man has taken his first step to breach the boundaries of space and yet continue to place obstacles and barriers in relating with his fellow man. We pray that we might have the courage to move out of our own prejudice and fear and begin to touch the hearts and lives of those who long for the presence of others in their lives. We need to take steps to see beyond the fault and defect, to examine ourselves honestly and finally to see the other as a human person, not just an object, deserving of respect and love. Let us bring Jesus to them – and we might end up being surprised! In them, we will also discover the face and heart of the Lord himself – the Christ who reaches out to touch us, liberate us and heal us.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Look at me!

World Day of Prayer for the Sick 2012

A year ago, while I was in Kuching for a speaking engagement, I had the privilege of attending mass and listening to the homily delivered by Most Revd John Ha, Archbishop of Kuching, on the occasion of the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. Archbishop Ha shared a personally moving experience he had of the saintly pope during an Ad Limina visit of the bishops of the Regional Conference to Rome. He recalled that the Venerable Pope, already carrying the burden of age and the dilapidating effects of Parkinson disease, after having listened to the reports from the dioceses of the region, made this profound statement as a form of encouragement to his brother bishops. What had been a commanding charismatic voice was now reduced to slurred drawl, and yet the words were unmistakable. “If you ever feel like giving up, Look at Me.”

On this day, the day we celebrate our patronal feast day in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes, the day declared by Blessed John Paul II as World Day of Prayer for the Sick, we are asked to contemplate not just the message of healing, which all the sick and elderly would happily welcome, but also the message of suffering as prophecy, suffering as redemption. Today, the shrine of Lourdes in France is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world - principally because of the apparent healing properties of the waters of the spring that appeared during the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a poor, fourteen-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubiroux. Today, many of you have come here to this mass and other pilgrims have travelled here and waited patiently to get a taste of Lourdes water for the same reason. Many hope to receive some miraculous cure to your diseases. Others hope to find a solution to your predicament. Still many others come here seeking for peace in the midst of troubles. But Our Lady of Lourdes promises more than just physical healing. The message of our Lady in Lourdes as in many other shrines all over the world remain consistent – it is a call to conversion, a call to faith, a call to unite oneself with her Son.

At this mass, I would like to speak of suffering and sickness in the light of the model presented to us by the man responsible for instituting this celebration and dedicating it to the sick – namely the Venerable Pope which I’ve just mentioned, Blessed John Paul II.

It is no secret that this charismatic and media savvy Pope was exceptionally gifted from youth. Karol Wojtyla, as a young man and even during the early years of his pontificate, was a picture of health, vigour and vitality. As an athlete skilled in soccer, swimming, canoeing and skiing, he exhibited a great physical presence. However, in 1981, the Venerable Pope suffered an assassination attempt in Rome. The pope did regain—for a time—his health and vigour after recuperating from the assassination attempt.

In the early 90s, however, a series of health problems began to take their toll. In 1992, the pope had colon surgery, involving removal of a noncancerous tumor. The next year he fell and dislocated a shoulder. In 1994, he suffered a broken femur in another fall. An appendectomy followed in 1996. During these years, moreover, a Parkinson-like condition, if not the disease itself, began to reveal its visible effects. The point of these sobering details is to show that John Paul was clearly entering the part of his life’s journey marked by failing health and suffering.

Describing the Holy Father in the fall of 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated: “The pain is written on his face. His figure is bent, and he needs to support himself on his pastoral staff. He leans on the cross, on the crucifix....” Certainly John Paul was beginning to lean on Christ’s cross in more ways than one.

Many observers and Catholic faithful agreed that there is something beautiful and noble in the pope’s witness. He carried his suffering in a prophetic manner. His courageous perseverance in carrying out his activities as pope, despite his physical afflictions, was a heart-lifting example for all of us. This was, perhaps, doubly true for all those people around the globe who were themselves bearing some cross or affliction. Many of us, faced with the same tests, would be tempted to shrink from public view, as if infirmity were an embarrassment or personal disgrace. Not so for this pope. He refused to go into hiding as long as he could effectively fulfill his ministry as pope. He bore his infirmities as if they were badges of honor and opportunities for imitating the courage of the suffering Christ. His humble, unpretentious and unembarrassed acceptance of suffering was a dramatic form of witness. The pope offered the world a wonderful model for responding with grace to the test of suffering and illness. As Cardinal Ratzinger observed, John Paul II helps us realize that “even age has a message, and suffering a dignity and a salvific force.”

Besides being a heroic witness in the face of suffering, Pope John Paul II has often written inspiringly on the subject. In 1984, for example, he published the apostolic letter “On the Christian Meaning of Suffering.” When confronted with suffering, most of us desperately seek answers to the question ‘Why’? Why me? Why now? Why in this unexpected form? The pope, in his letter, states that Christ does not really give us an answer to such questions, but rather a lived example. When we approach Christ with our questions about the reason for suffering, says the pope, we cannot help noticing that the one to whom we put the questions “is himself suffering and wishes to answer...from the Cross, from the heart of his own suffering.... “Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering,” he points out, “but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world....Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him” (#26).

In 1993, Pope John Paul II instituted the Annual World Day of the Sick as a way to bring compassion and greater attention to the sufferings of humanity, as well as to the mystery of suffering itself. In John Paul’s message for that First Annual World Day of the Sick, he offered these words of comfort to suffering people around the world: “In the light of Christ’s death and resurrection, illness no longer appears as an exclusively negative event,” he said. “[R]ather, it is seen opportunity ‘to release love..., to transform the whole of human civilisation into a civilisation of love’ (Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, #30)” (#3).

On the 2nd of April 2005, Blessed Pope John Paul II took his last breath and died. For a pope who has devoted his papacy to defending the right to life, his valiant battle with death was poignantly apt. Pressured to abdicate the Pontifical throne, the Venerable Pope’s reply was not that of someone who was delusional nor was he clinging on to life or to his office in defiance of death. Holding the heavy of office of his papacy to his deathbed was another sign of his faithfulness to the Cross of Christ, a faithfulness that was not going to be diminished by ill health or death.

The paradox of suffering as something redemptive and prophetic can also be seen in the seer of Lourdes, St Bernadette. Although she was singly privileged with the apparitions of Our Lady and was the first to taste the miraculous healing waters of Lourdes, she would continue carrying the burden of illness throughout her short life. In one particularly moving episode of her life, the Mother Superior of her convent confronts Bernadette who appeared loitering in the refectory whilst her other sisters were out doing fruitful manual labour. The Mother Superior asked her in a stern voice, ‘What do you think you are doing here?’ To which she received this reply from Bernadette, ‘I’m busy working.’ Her superior sensing sarcasm in the answer, presses, ‘Pray tell me, what are you working at?’ Bernadette replies, ‘My work is to be sick.’

We cannot really choose to have no pain in our lives, because pain in some form is inescapable. We have no choice about pain or suffering. Sooner or later everyone must face it. Even Jesus and his mother had to undergo pain. Whether we bear it with love or not, however, is a different matter. We do have a real choice there. We are free to choose “the pain of loving” or “the pain of not loving,” the latter being a pain that is empty and barren—a pain without any redeeming qualities. We know that Jesus and his mother and other heroic witnesses like John Paul and Bernadette Soubiroux have chosen the “pain of loving.” That is, they undergo suffering for the love of God and of humanity, so their pain has rich meaning.

Those who suffer the limitations exacted by old age and illness would sound just like the servants of the wedding feast who came to report to Mary in today’s gospel, ‘The wine has run out … we have no more wine.’ Many who suffer the infirmities of aging and illness may ask the poignant question, ‘What can I possibly do in my present condition?’ Old age and illness both seem to be impediments to all the things a person hopes to achieve in his or her life. But the lives of Blessed John Paul II and Bernadette Soubiroux reminds us, especially those of you who have come today leaning on the cross of Christ, that your suffering need not be futile nor meaningless. Know this - your infirmities are no obstacles to life and to ministry. Just like Bernadette, your greatest work at this point is to be sick, for in courageously bearing with your sickness, in continuing to show love despite your pain and fatigue, you reveal and proclaim the profound mystery of Christ presence even in the midst of suffering. Today, Christ comforts you. He consoles you. He encourages you. And if any of you feel like giving up, Christ from the cross says this to you, “Look at Me!”

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Pastoral Fallacy

Fifth Ordinary Sunday Year B

A parishioner came up to me after mass. She was referring to some catecheses that I had done during the mass in preparation for changes that will take place in the celebration of sacramentals. “We are like monkeys”, she remarked without offering any explanation. I was perturbed and when pressed for an explanation, she said, “Well, we parishioners are like monkeys. When one priest tells us to do this, we do it. When another priest tells us to do something else, we do it too. And now you are telling us to do it this way, we’ll just obey and do it as you please. Monkey see, monkey do!”

It was not difficult to understand and appreciate the frustration she was experiencing. Lay people are sometimes confused by the myriad of interpretations and styles of applying pastoral policies, liturgical practices and catecheses that come from different well-intentioned priests who felt that their actions had the peoples’ best interests in mind. Ill-equipped with the necessary information, most lay persons find themselves at loss and sometimes even feel victimised at what appears to be the whims and fancies of their pastors. Much easier to just obey without much reflection – ‘monkey see, monkey do.’

I must confess that as a priest I too have been guilty of moving with the flow, in practising unthinking imitation of the current trend or a mainstream norm. During the formative years of my priestly ministry, both in the seminary and in my first years as a priest, I received many valuable advices from senior and more seasoned priests. These values continue to be guiding beacons in my own pastoral ministry. However, I’ve also received other forms of advice, which seemed reasonable at the material time, but now after deeper reflection, I have discovered the somewhat fallacious character of their argumentation.

One such piece of advice is that we can dispense with the rigours of the law on the grounds of ‘pastoral reasons.’ No one, however, actually explained what it meant to be ‘pastoral.’ It obviously implied that we had the people’s best interest and welfare in mind. Now, there is nothing wrong with acting pastorally. That’s simply our vocation and ministry as priests. We are ‘pastors’ or ‘shepherds’ of souls. Therefore it would be incumbent on us to act pastorally with deep concern for the welfare of our flock.

However, over the years I have gradually discovered that the so called ‘pastoral approach’ has less to do with the pastoral needs of the people and more to do with my own self-preservation. ‘Pastoral reasons’ became the catch-all principle that absolved me from all responsibility and culpability when it came to bending or even breaking the rules. Eating meat of Friday because we were presented with a more delicious meat selection on the menu became permissible on the grounds of pastoral reasons. Cutting down the rigours of liturgical rubrics in terms of gestures, use of shorter Eucharistic text on Sundays, introducing innovations that fitted in with personal preferences became justifiable on the grounds of pastoral reasons. Deception and disobedience were legitimised by pastoral reasons. As to what were these ‘pastoral reasons’ about, there was often little depth in identifying the real grounds. At the end of the day, the pastoral fallacy had finally become my excuse for justifying laziness and sloppiness and for promoting bad liturgical and pastoral practices.

Ultimately, the argument in favour of the people’s need is just a thin veil for protecting one’s own need – a need to be popular, a need for a an easy comfortable life, a need to be recognised for one’s own individuality.

Jesus resisted and exposed the pastoral fallacy in today’s gospel. Many people sought him out because he was healing the sick and delivering many from the power of the devil. Jesus was doing wonderful work and helping so many people. He would have certainly been tempted to continue doing this good work with the excuse that he was doing it out of compassion for these people. But was this the will of God? Was this his mission? We often think that temptation comes in the form of being attracted to do something which is bad. This is not always the case. According to St Ignatius of Loyola, the master of spiritual discernment, the devil tempts bad people with bad things but he also tempts good people with good things. Jesus could have been tempted to continue his works of healing and attending to the needs of the crowd, but this would only be an excuse to become more popular. Staying to meet the needs of the people would only be an excuse for meeting his own need for recognition and love. But he understood that his mission lay elsewhere, even though this may proof to be unpopular to his disciples and to the crowds.

Today, the readings provide us with three important criteria for making a decision.

The first criterion is that the will of God must always be our starting point of reference. It is not enough to do what is good, even if it is for the good of the other. The starting point cannot just be the needs of the other; the starting point cannot just be our assessment of what is convenient or expedient; the starting point cannot just be based on the opinions of the masses, even if it may be that of the majority. Ultimately, we must always choose to do what God wants of us. This criterion points to God’s mission and vocation for us. Sometimes, doing what God wants of us can be unpopular and may even go against our personal likes and interests.

The second criterion is that of prayer. Note that Jesus went off into the hills to pray early in the morning. How can we possibly know the will of God unless we are also persons rooted in prayer? Prayer is the life-giving link between God and his people. Prayer provides us with a moral compass and direction for life. Prayer ensures that we are not lost in the mess of activism nor allow ourselves to be distracted and tempted by the competing voices of the world and self. Prayer helps us to purify our motives and intentions so that we may not deceive ourselves into believing that we are acting in the interests of others, whereas it is our own interests which are being advanced.

The last criterion is the salvation of souls. Today, very little is often said about salvation, what more salvation of souls. Too often, the Christian message has been reduced to some ‘feel good’ gospel which provides a mixture of pop psychology and spirituality for our earthly lives. Heaven seems to be foregone conclusion whereas hell has been relegated to a myth. But, if one were to recall the answer to the second question contained in the old Penny Catechism, one will be reminded that salvation is man’s ultimate purpose – we are created by God “to know Him, love Him and serve Him and be with Him in Paradise forever.” The last canon of the Code of Canon Law, canon 1752 has often been cited as the ‘pastoral canon’ which allows dispensing with any of the requirements, rules, restrictions, prohibitions and responsibilities laid out in the Code. Any simple reading of canon 1752 will tell you that this canon has no intention of doing this. If one were to peruse this canon, one may be surprised to see that the word ‘pastoral’ or ‘pastoral reasons’ does not appear at all. Among other things, the canon does say this: that “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.’ St. Paul in today’s second reading affirms this truth by telling his readers that he deliberately chose to be “all things to all men” so that “some may be saved.” It is not enough to choose to help people who are in need. We may just be providing a temporary solution. It is not enough that we are able to provide some human solution to poverty, because we will always have the poor in a society which remains unconverted. Ultimately, the objective of salvation must come to play in every important decision that we make. Salvation must be the ultimate criteria for us offering to help those in need, the sick, the poor, the despondent and the lost. No form of human altruism can be an adequate substitute for salvation.
Very often we are tempted to forget this important mission of ours – to preach the gospel of salvation and give glory to God in all matters. We are more concerned with what others think of us – so we do the things that make them like us. We are more concerned with what makes us happy – even if that happiness is only temporary – whether it is in the form of riches, popularity, power or convenience. If our life purpose is based on these factors rather than on the will of God, we will soon find ourselves disillusioned and tired.

We are certainly more superior than simians and not just because we have far greater intelligence. We are created with purpose for a purpose – to do the will of God, to discover him in prayer and work for our salvation and the salvation of others. That’s certainly more than ‘monkey see, monkey do.’