Friday, April 27, 2012

Praying for the Shepherds we want, not the ones we deserve

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B (Good Shepherd Sunday)

A friend alerted me to another episode of Church bashing that took place last week over public radio. This time the incident occurred in what is predominantly, though nominally and highly secularised, Catholic Ireland. Ray D’Arcy, a popular and influential Irish Radio presenter, who like many modern Irish of his generation a self-professed atheist, made this statement over his TodayFM show last week. He used the four-letter word, the ‘F’ word when speaking about the Catholic Church. In his assessment, the ‘Catholic Church, in many ways, has f… up this country.’ (Pardon the language)

D’Arcy claimed that he had used this expletive in his comment on the Church in reaction to comments made by Michelle Mulherin, a Catholic deputy of the Irish Parliament. The comments were made by this politician before the Dail (pronounced ‘Doyle’), the Irish Parliament, voted on draft legislation which would have permitted abortions to be carried out in Ireland under limited circumstances. Fortunately, the bill was rejected by a significant majority. In the opinion of Michelle Mulherin, one of the most vocal voices opposing the abortion bill, ‘fornication (sexual intercourse outside of marriage) (is the) most likely cause of unwanted pregnancies.” According to D’Arcy, the fact the Catholic politician had made this statement, which was not strange or unusual as it merely reflected Catholic teachings, and that the abortion bill was rejected had reminded him once again of the influence of the Church in that country. Apart from the Catholic hierarchy, members of the public and listeners wrote and called in to register their protests. Eventually, under pressure he offered an apology to the listeners for the language used but refused to offer any retraction or apology to the Catholic hierarchy.

‘What’ or rather ‘who’ was D’Arcy referring to when speaking of the ‘Catholic Church’ in his statement? Was he speaking of the Mystical Body of Christ, or the Spouse of the Divine Bridegroom? I believe that none of these terminology would have even entered the mind of any ordinary Catholic, what more that of an atheist. So, was he speaking of all the members of the Catholic Church? In his defense of his controversial statement he clarified the actual target of his virulent attack. According to him, it was not directed at the ordinary Catholic, his mother being one, but rather at the Catholic leadership, its hierarchy, its shepherds – in other words, the bishops, priests and religious.

Now many ordinary lay persons would sigh with relief that they were not the actual target of his attack. Alright, it appears that what had initially come across as a general Church-bashing that made no distinction between its members was just another incident of clergy-bashing. Phew …. So it’s not about you. Or was it? Many Catholics from the pew would have agreed that such attacks on the clergy was well-deserved in the aftermath of much publicised media expose and expensive payouts by the Catholic Church in respect of the many reported cases of child-abuse by the clergy and the subsequent cover-up. What people often do not realise is that the bulk of this frenzied clergy bashing is a reaction not so much to the skeletons in the Church’s closet as mentioned above but to the Church’s perceived stubbornness and unaccommodating stand to issues concerning family life and life in general – in other words, it concerns moral issues of life and death and marriage, issues that concerns all of us, the whole of humanity.

The situation, therefore, begs the question, ‘Does the Church or in this context, its shepherds, have a right to give moral direction and speak out against violations of human dignity and life in the light of the Church’s teachings?’ The answer must always be in the affirmative. The sinfulness of its members, even of its leadership, does not preclude the Church from exercising its pastoral and teaching role – the word ‘pastoral’ here, of course, refers to the ministry of being a shepherd. The ministry of shepherd is not only confined to the members of its flock but also to ‘others who are not part of the fold, but have been given’ to it by the Father. Thus, the pastoral ministry of the Church extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church. As Jesus prophetically announces in today’s gospel: “These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

This, however, is not an attempt to offer an apologetic or pull the covers over the crimes of the perpetrators. Under no circumstances can we defend any wrongdoing by bishops and priests, especially when it is proven to be so. We must continue to demand justice and compassion to victims of clergy abuse. This is not optional. However, the demand for honesty, fairness, and perspective in the reporting of the Catholic Church abuse narrative is a separate matter altogether. In the past, a person was presumed innocent until proven guilty. Today, trial by media judges a person guilty and the suspicion of guilt remains long after the accused has been exonerated by the courts. Catholics have every right to defend the Church against wild, untrue, and unfair attacks against priests and bishops. More importantly, all Catholics have a right and duty to defend the Church and its shepherds. For want of a shepherd, the sheep will be scattered.

Perhaps, a great deal of this hatred against the institutional or hierarchical church stems from society’s attitude of being anti-establishment. The attacks against establishment is often seen as viewing it through the lenses or hermeneutics of suspicion. Every institution seems to have failed us; why not include the Church in our whole litany of complaints and disappointments? By placing the Church on the level of other establishments, we have merely reduced it to the level of a human institution. In light of man’s sins, grace for all purposes seems to have been obliterated. Today, Shepherds are being placed in bad light. In a certain way, many deserve it because for all the wrongs they have done. Because of this current scandal, God has given the entire church an opportunity to examine itself, to reform some of the disciplinary pastoral practices to safeguard the weak. The point does not denigrate from the fact that when we do see so much darkness, our world begins to close in and we can no longer see the light for what it is. People who are in depression are not able to see the light. Life loses its beauty and merely becomes functional. Thus for those who are caught up with the darkness of ecclesiastical scandal are often too blinded that they cannot see the Church as anything more than a human institution. Like human instutitons, it must tailor its message to public opinion rather than to act in a prophetic way that would challenge its people to repentance and belief and the world to change. Perhaps, there is a need to look at the Church in different light, and to see in her the Bride of Christ, the object of his love and His reason for His great sacrifice on the cross. In this new light, a light that can be blurred and sometimes even distorted by the shadows of its human sinfulness but never vanquished, we can see within her the many examples of good shepherds that have not abandoned nor betrayed their sheep. We can see within the Church, the Good Shepherd Himself acting through weak and inadequate servants and representatives. The stone rejected by the builders, by society, can still be chosen to become the cornerstone.

What reflection does Good Shepherd Sunday offer us? What must we do in the light of today’s celebrations? We need fresh eyes to look at the Church and at the institution of priests and bishops as shepherds of the Church. We must constantly make a distinction between human institutions and the mystery of the Church, which Christ has established and chosen to reach out to us through the sacraments. We must always remember that the Church is more than the total aggregate sum of its members. The Church is both divine and human. The Church is the Body of Christ, not just in a metaphorical sense but in an ontological sense. The Church continues to make present the Risen Christ to the world albeit through the poor and sometimes bad testimony of its members.

We need fresh eyes to look at our priest. It is easy to place the entire blame on our leaders whilst exonerating ourselves from ultimate responsibility. It is no wonder why most parishioners shy away from leadership positions. Who wants to be crucified? Right? We need to remember that when someone wishes to destroy the Church, you would first need to target its leaders – kill the shepherd and scatter the sheep. There is need to have a more nuanced view of priests. There are good priests and there are bad priests. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that there is always some good and some bad in each of us. We need to read the media with greater discernment as to whether it really exposes wrong doing where it is done, or whether it chooses to tar everyone with the same feathers without distinction. When you read that our bishop is making a trip to Rome at the same time as our Prime Minister’s visit to the Holy Father, one should not immediately conclude that there is some evil conspiracy or collusion. Juxtaposing a picture of Jesus with the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners does not make him one of them.

Looking at the Church and our shepherds with new eyes compels us to recommit ourselves to relate to them in a fresh way. We choose the path of prayer rather than the path of confrontation – we should always pray for our priests and bishops, for the leaders of the Church. Too often, we seek to address the issues of what we do not like through criticisms and condemnations, often done behind the backs of those who need to hear them. In a way we get the shepherds we deserve. Here, you might hear that I am advocating a confrontational attitude to take with regard to our shepherd. It is not altogether out of kilter to say that most of us would import the “political” model of our engagement into our relationship with our shepherds. The point I am trying to make is that unless you pray for your priests, you will never get the priest you desire. Criticisms rarely bring about what we want. We have never tried prayers for our shepherds and in that way, we get the shepherds we deserve.

Today, the Church calls for prayers for priestly vocations. Let us pray for priests who will follow after the heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Let us pray for priests who will be prepared to go the extra mile and lay down their lives for their sheep. Let us pray for priests who communicate God’s word to us and not just merely appease us with what we want to hear. Let us pray for our priests who will constantly reveal to us and remind us through their ministry that we are the beloved children of God, and so we are!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

You have to believe in order to see

Second Sunday of Easter Year B

When you are invited by a group of medical students to speak on the topic ‘Why do we need religion?,’ which is what happened to me last week, you know you are in trouble. I imagined a lecture room full of Richard Dawkins, skeptics and hard-core atheists, who shared a common belief that religion is dangerous, a force for evil, the ‘root of all evil’ as Professor Dawkins puts it. However, my fears were unfounded and they proved to be an extremely tame crowd.

Many attacks on religion are based on the belief there is no spiritual dimension to reality. The religious goal is unobtainable, based on a false view of reality, and illusory. To make matters worse, thinkers like Richard Dawkins hold that, while materialism is based on painstaking research and rational thought, religious views are based on ‘blind faith,’ some sort of leap in the dark, and so are plainly irrational and unthinking.

There is a particular view of the history of philosophy (at least of European philosophy) that has almost become standard, but which is a misleading myth. It goes like this. Everybody used to accept in an uncritical way the proofs of God presented by the Church – arguments like the first cause argument (the universe which can be explained as a web of cause and effects all traced back to a First Cause, which in itself is not the effect of any other cause) or arguments from design (the intricate design in the universe shows that there must be an intelligent designer). The myth continues that all these weak propositions were debunked by the modern philosopher, Immanuel Kant. After that, belief in God had no rational basis and had to become a rationally unjustifiable leap of faith.

This view of the history of philosophy is skewed in a number of ways. First of all, the Church never proposed that by just starting only with observable facts of the physical world, anyone could demonstrate that there has to be an intelligent first cause or designer outside the known universe. That would make God little more than an inference from observed facts. God is no better than the Big Bang Theory. There would not be a need for the Bible or even Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Church, however, has always insisted on the need for revelation – God communicates himself in order that people may come to know him.

Secondly, it is also a misreading of the works of Emmanuel Kant that he came to disproof faith in God and in the spiritual world. His whole critical philosophy, in fact, was written as an attempt to set faith on a firm intellectual foundation, not to offer it as an alternative to intellectual thought. A central part of Kant’s philosophy was the attempt to show that reason alone leads to unavoidable contradictions when it tries to take observed reality as the true reality, as ‘reality-in-itself.’ For him, faith – faith in God, in moral freedom, and in the possibility of moral fulfillment – is supremely reasonable. It is not a leap in the dark. It is the use of reason beyond the limits of empirical verification.

Kant pointed out that before we can speak about good and bad, right and wrong, we have to belief in the following principle: that a person should do good and avoid evil. That is the premise of morality. Unless, one accepted this proposition, there would be no basis for goodness or badness, or for morality. It might sound obvious that we should do good and avoid evil, but that basic principle does involve a leap of faith. A mere observation of material reality will not lead you to this conclusion. You simple have to accept that principle, or in our religious terms, you just have to believe … and get on with it.

People who seem to laud the superiority of science over religion must also come to acknowledge that scientific research also involves a leap of faith. Science begins with at least an implicit belief that the universe is knowable and rational. Can we empirically prove this – that the universe is indeed knowable and rational? No, we can’t. We just have to believe it.

Thus, ultimately the proposition that ‘seeing is believing’ is untenable unless it is founded on some belief – for example, that we can come to trust and believe the world revealed by our senses, that it is not merely the figment of our imagination. The person of Thomas in today’s gospel, best personifies this principle. Jesus, however, will present an alternative to this worldview. Jesus at the end of the gospel will present a new beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” In other words, you have to believe in order to see.

Today, we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday and on the occasion of this special Feast day, we would like to remember the man responsible for dedicating the Second Sunday of Easter to the Divine Mercy – Blessed Pope John Paul II. This venerable Pope epitomizes the theme of this Sunday’s gospel – Believing is Seeing. The association of Blessed John Paul and this Feast Day is more than just one of coincidence; he and St Faustina, the seer who first wrote about the Divine Mercy, are both Polish. In the year Great Jubilee Year of 2000, the Blessed Pope established this Sunday as Divine Mercy Sunday. On the same date, he canonized the Polish nun, St Faustina.

His deep devotion to the Divine Mercy would not just be characteristic of his entire life but would also mark him in death. He died, one would say by coincidence but many would attest to Divine providence, on the Vigil of the Divine Mercy, April 2, 2005. Last year, on Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Benedict beatified his predecessor, another step to his canonisation. So, here you have it, a fitting tribute in life, in death and in glorification, to the man who could rightly be called ‘The Apostle of Mercy.’

Blessed John Paul lived through the horrors of World War II where humanity descended to its worst possible expression. On a scale never before seen, millions died, not just on the battle fields but in those horrid concentration camps that made systematic murder of men, women and children more effective, along the lines of mass production assembly lines. The venerable Pope studied in the seminary under these horrible circumstances and witnessed fellow seminarians, lecturers, priests being taken away and summarily executed. For all purposes, one would not be able to see reason or even the presence of a compassionate God in all of these experiences. These horrors beg the question: “Where is God in all this?” As Pope Benedict observed, people saw “the horrors of human history, especially of the most recent human history, as an irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of a good God.”

But against this impossible tide of skepticism and disbelief, Blessed John Paul was not merely able to hold the torch of faith throughout this period, but because of his firm believe in the merciful providence of God, continued to see the power of mercy at work in the midst of persons who have even begun to doubt their own humanity. With the end of the Second World War, the cruel face of Facism was replaced by the atheist regime of Communist totalitarianism. The anti-religion regime tried to crush the Church and its members under the weight of oppressive laws. But, Blessed John Paul continued to place his hope and faith in the mercy of God, in the belief that God will never abandon his people, and finally, it would be mercy that would have the final victory. Against a materialistic philosophy that viewed human in terms of economics, Blessed John Paul presented a different vision. It is a vision that recognized humanity as deeply flawed, sinful in fact. But his vision also draws us to this truth, a truth that cannot be proven just merely by empirical means, but one which is clear to those who have faith, it is the truth that we are not abandoned. God offers us something infinitely greater than our human cruelty. God offers us his mercy.

Many historians who have studied the fall of the communist bloc, will not be able to discount the role of the Polish Pope who continued to inspire his people and the world throughout the era of the subjugation of Eastern Europe and Russia under the yoke of communism. This Sunday, we see the Pope’s greatest weapon against this massive nuclear superpower. It was not condemnation; it was not political power, nor was it economic power and surely not through the show of nuclear armaments. The pope’s greatest weapon was the Divine Mercy.

Fifty years ago, no one living under the shadow of the sickle and hammer would have believed that there could be day they could taste the very air of freedom. They would scoff at your suggestion and perhaps add, “Seeing is believing.” But seeing what has taken place in these last few years, should be able to shake the confidence of skeptics in the impregnability of their skepticism and pessimism. But one man refused to stop believing even when others saw no reason to believe. And today, it is this man who can attest to the Truth of his beliefs rather than the skeptics who held otherwise.

There are times and perhaps we are living in such times where we are weighed down by what we perceive with our senses. We see a no-win situation in our political climate and many have lost hope in the ability of our country’s leaders to remedy its ills. There are those who find that it is no longer possible to live with their spouses given the history of troubles, fights, infidelities and abuse. Some who have been hurt by the gossip, rumour mongering, slander and selfishness of others, may see no other way but to isolate themselves from the source of pain. But it the midst of all these troubles, the Risen Christ appears behind the closed doors, presenting us an answer. Peace comes not with the absence of trouble or conflict but with the possibility of forgiveness. Peace comes with the ability to believe. Peace comes when we choose to see through the eyes of faith. Blessed John Paul believed in the Divine Mercy of his God, and he saw beyond the rubble, the chaos, the destruction, the hopelessness of his times, the cruelty and brokenness of humanity – He believed beyond seeing, and for that, he saw the sun rising long before the end of the long dark night of doubt.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Finding the Risen Lord

Second Sunday of Easter Year B

Archbishop Oscar Romero has become a modern icon of prophetic resistance against social injustices and infringement of civil liberties. He spoke out loudly against the injustices that was taking place in his homeland, El Salvador. Salvador's wealthy elites, the ruling class and landowners, controlled the armed forces and the notorious 'death squads' - hired thugs who tortured, raped and murdered anyone who showed the slightest opposition to the system. Trade unionists, innocent peasants, community activists, their friends and families were killed by the thousands. Corpses were buried in shallow graves, dumped onto street corners and tossed into garbage dumps. By 1980 more than 3,000 people a month were being murdered.
In his weekly radio sermons he told the oligarchy to halt the killing, using his position to challenge the 'unjust economic structures' which he saw as the root causes of the conflict.

This effrontery did not sit well with the oligarchy. Repeated death threats were issued against the Archbishop - to no avail. Once when questioned by a Guatemalan journalist as to whether he feared the possibility of assassination, his reply was this: 'I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador... if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty and a sign that hope will soon become a reality.' As if he had already prophesied his death, Archbishop Romero was assassinated whilst celebrating mass at a hospital chapel on 24th March, 1980.

How do we testify to the Risen Lord? How can we become witnesses of his resurrection? Shouting loudly that “He is Risen” isn’t very helpful. There are many doubters out there, just like Thomas in today’s gospel. The message of the gospel, the good news of the resurrection cannot just be announced in words. The world seeks verification to this claim of ours. First and foremost, the message of the resurrection must be announced through our lifestyle.

Today’s reading explains this lifestyle – a life of a person who believes that Jesus is the Christ. It is a life definitely not lived in isolation. To be a Christian and to be a loner is a contradiction. A Christian is called to give witness to his faith through his community. It is the way he lives in community that marks him out as a true believer and an effective witness of Christ to the world.

The early Christians did exactly this. Many were amazed and impressed by their love for one another and the way they lived in community. In the first reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that “the whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common.” The good or welfare of the community was more important than personal pleasure of its individual members. This was how they testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus by their commitment to live and struggle with this communitarian dimension of their faith. The locus for the proclamation, sharing and living out the Word of God was in the community. The locus for service was in the community. The locus for celebrating the Eucharist was found in the community. The locus for learning to relate with others, learning how to listen, to accept, to forgive was found in the community. The reason for this was that the Community now had become the extension of the Risen Christ and sacrament of His saving presence in the world.

Living in community is not easy. Jesus did not say that it was. When Jesus appeared to his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection, he did not start with these words: “I am here. From now on all your problems will be solved. From now life would be perfect. From now on your community will be perfect.” Jesus did not promise any of these things. On the contrary, Jesus promised peace in spite of the difficulties that his disciples may experience. The first words he spoke to his disciples were these: “Peace be with you.”

Jesus promised peace of heart in spite of the hurts that his disciples will experience at the hands of others and hurts that they will continue to inflict on others. Peace does not mean the absence of conflict. Peace does not mean that we must agree on everything. Peace means recognizing that the risen Lord is in our midst. Peace means knowing that Christ is present even in our difficulties and problems, our unhappiness, our conflicts in the community. Peace means that Christ has gifted us with the Holy Spirit and the power and mandate to forgive each others’ faults. Jesus did not give us a solution to all our problems and whatever conflicts we may experience in the community. Rather, Jesus gave something better – the power to forgive. Jesus breathed his Spirit on his disciples and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.”

As Christians, if we claim that we love God and that we love Jesus, we must also be able to love our brothers and sisters, beginning with those in our families, our community and then with the whole of society. How do we do this? First, by recognizing that community life is impossible without Christ. We must recognize his presence in our brothers and sisters and in our community even when its hard to see Christ in the other. Second, we must look at our own wounds and the wounds of our brothers and sisters. We must recognize that we are all broken people. We are hurt by one another and continue to hurt one another. We can begin to understand and then forgive the person that has caused you hurt, when we remember that he is also hurting. Third, Jesus has given us the power and the ability to forgive one another. Forgiveness is necessary because our community is not perfect. Forgiveness is necessary because we are still not perfect.

Today, as we continue to walk with the resurrected Christ, let us renew our commitment to him to be his witnesses to the world. Let us renew our commitment to build community and strengthen the bonds of unity therein. Let us learn to recognize Jesus in each other, recognize our hurts and finally be able to forgive each other from the bottom of our hearts.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

It ain't over till ...

Easter Vigil

“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” or some might add, “It ain’t over till the fat priest sings!” This American colloquial phrase has often been cited to indicate that one should not be in too much of a hurry to predict the outcome of some activity until it has actually finished. The final outcome may yet surprise us.

The imagery of Richard Wagner's opera suite “The Ring of the Nibelung” and its last part, is typically the one used in depictions accompanying reference to the phrase. The "fat lady" is the valkyrie Brünnhilde, who is traditionally presented as a very buxomy lady with horned helmet, spear and round shield. Without wishing to fall into the trap of stereotyping, but I’ve often found women in opera usually of the bulkier built, as they have wider vocal range, and can sing louder. Her aria itself lasts almost twenty minutes and leads directly to the end of the opera. This last piece does not only come at the end of the opera but also speaks about ‘Ragnarok,’ the end of the world (or at least the world of the Norse gods), in a very significant way "it is (all) over when the fat lady sings."

What has operas, fat ladies and Norse mythology to do with this evening’s celebration? Those sitting through today’s unusually long liturgy for the first time, may also be wondering – when will it be all over. As Latin Rite Christians, we are often used to our almost painless not-more-than-one-hour services. Many Catholics are absolutely baffled at how their Eastern Orthodox counterparts can sit through a three to four hour service on a normal Sunday. Well, tonight’s liturgy comes close to matching that. In the Lectionary, seven Old Testament readings, one New Testament and the gospel have been selected for the Easter Vigil Service, not counting the lengthy Rite of Baptism that follows. You may be interested to know that before the liturgical reform there were twelve Old Testament readings and not just the present seven! Fortunately for you, we’ve narrowed it down to just three Old Testament texts. But in any event, the number and length of the readings are enough to test anyone’s patience. Why do you think the Church has set out all these readings tonight? I’ll let you in on a secret – the real purpose is to irritate the hell out of you – it’s a way the Church delivers a payback for your lack of observance and sacrifice during Lent. Ok! You know that that was just me kidding, right?

By proposing these readings to us, the Church wishes to offer us a panoramic view of the whole trajectory of salvation history, starting with creation, passing through the election and the liberation of Israel to the testimony of the prophets by which this entire history is directed ever more clearly towards Jesus Christ. The stories in fact link the Easter story to the story of mankind, to the story of the whole universe. In these stories, we see the Easter story being prefigured in the story of creation, the story of how God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, the story of how God will place a new heart in us and pour his spirit into us. It’s a story that involves death, but more importantly it is a story that acclaims life! In all these stories, when everything seems to be at an end, marking tragedy and disaster for the protagonist, something amazing takes place. The hand of God intervenes and a new ending is written! Seen in this light, the story of Easter is a fitting climax.

I remarked to a quite a few people that I was astounded at the sight of the massive crowds at yesterday’s Good Friday services. Where did all these people come from? And where have they gone? As in previous years, the drop in numbers on Holy Saturday Easter Vigil services is remarkable. The modest turnout tonight may be an indication that most people just don’t have the patience to wait around ‘until the fat lady sings.’ They are contented with the story of Good Friday. Some believe their sins forgiven if they just turn up on that fateful day once a year. There are those who are feel overly beholden to Jesus Christ for having suffered so much for them on the cross. This is their repayment, or at least an instalment to the principal debt owed. Others feel drawn to the Good Friday service because it seems to resonate with their lives, lives filled with failures, pitfalls, disappointments, and loss. They fail, however, to recognise that Good Friday is not the ending, it is only a prelude to a much greater ending, perhaps the greatest ever known in history and all eternity. It’s quite sad to see that they don’t stick around to witness the stirring conclusion of the story – the story told tonight.

Perhaps, that seems to be oft drawn conclusion to the stories of our lives. We find ourselves in a maelstrom of trouble and disaster. We encounter a whole series of problems where we find no way of extricating ourselves. We experience being stuck in the mire of despair and hopelessness. We walk into alley ways only to find dead ends. We sometimes wonder whether there will be an end to the pain and suffering. We are disappointed with how our children or marriages turn out. The temptation would often be to throw in the towel. We try to run away. Or when that doesn’t work, we look for human solutions only to find ourselves deeper in the mud after a temporary reprieve. Whatever may be the outlet we have chosen for our predicament, we only wish that this would be the end to our troubles and problems. In fact, our misery often seems to be the end!

The story of Easter tells a different tale. With just a stroke of a pen, the Divine Author changes the entire conclusion. Good Friday will not be end. The story of salvation did not end on the cross. Hope did not die on Good Friday. If one were to consider the Good Fridays of our lives, the times we’ve struggled with the loneliness and uncertainties of the dark night, the times we’ve grappled with the problem of suffering, failure and pain, as the foregone conclusion to life, then we are mistaken. Know this, with the night of Good Friday, comes the dawn of Easter Sunday. After the death of the Son of Man, comes the resurrection of the Son of God! Just when you thought that all the odds were set against you, we have a freshly written ending to the story, an ending that will never cease to surprise us and bring us joy.

My dear catechumens, tonight you will celebrate the Easter mysteries of rebirth, rejuvenation and partake of the sacred meal of Christians where you will share in the One Bread, and One Cup, the One Body and Blood of Christ. It has been a long journey for most of you. For many of you, the journey began long before you decided to join the RCIA. I presume that there will be times; you too would have contemplated whether you would be able to complete this journey. Today, you come to end of your journey of searching, inquiring, and learning as candidates for baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist, but it is only the beginning of your journey of faith as Christians. Remember, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings!

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings or in our present Easter version of the story of stories, it ain’t over till the women on Easter morning returns to tell the tale of their discovery, the story of the empty tomb, the story of the angels message, the story of fulfilled promises, the story of broken hopes and dreams healed and restored, the story of the resurrection which opens up an entirely new horizon. The empty tomb heralds that the chains and prison of death has been broken. Satan and his hold on us through sin have been defeated. The darkness of this night and every night is now brightened by the unquenchable flame of faith in Christ who is our Light. It ain’t over till they return and sing the great hymn of Easter: that soaring aria rising in crescendo, that beautiful hymn that makes the heart swell with joy and hope, the melody that lifts our spirits out of the doldrums of darkness into his unquenchable light, the words that will transform endings into beginnings: “Alleluia! Alleluia! He is Risen, Alleluia!”

Friday, April 6, 2012

What is the Truth?

Good Friday

Quid est veritas? “What is the truth?” The exact intention of Pilate’s rhetorical question in response to Jesus’ confession that he had come to witness to the truth has been subject to debate among scholars, with no firm conclusion. His statement may have been made in jest that the trial was a mockery and that he too was a victim of circumstances beyond his control, or he may have actually intended to reflect on the philosophical position that truth is hard to understand. However, regardless of his exact intention in uttering the statement, his action was to ignore the assertion of Jesus that he was the "witness to truth"

This verse has been widely quoted and alluded to in culture and literature, particularly in that of philosophical nature. While Pilate's question -- whether intended philosophically, jestfully, rhetorically, or born of frustration at the lack of a plain answer -- is by no means the first incident of someone questioning the nature of truth, it has been drawn upon many times as a significant occurrence thereof.

In a recent series of more than twenty interviews conducted at random at a large university in the United States, people were asked if there was such a thing as absolute truth - truth that is true across all times and cultures for all people. All but one respondent answered along these lines:
"Truth is whatever you believe."
"There is no absolute truth."
"If there were such a thing as absolute truth, how could we know what it is?"
"People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous."
The lone exception was an evangelical Christian, who said absolute truth was in Jesus Christ.

I would like to suggest that the same survey conducted elsewhere in the world would have revealed the same result. It’s typical of post-modern society which rejects absolutes and all attempts at defining meaning. As Clive Calver says, in an article 'Thinking Clearly About Truth' in Christianity, we "drift on a tide of uncertainty into a sea of unknowing."

Oddly enough, those who claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth make scores of decisions every day on the basis that they believe some things are true and some are false. We all do. I will not turn on a light without believing in the reality of electricity, or drive a car without believing in the effectiveness of the combustion engine. Mathematicians undertake the most complicated of calculations based on the belief that their theorems and formulaes are sound. No one undergoing brain surgery would want to be operated on by a surgeon who did not believe that some things about the brain were true and some not true. And yet, when it comes to the most important issues of life - What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Does it matter whether I am good or bad, or is there any such thing as goodness and badness? What happens when I die? Will I be called to account before God for my actions and omissions in life? Does God exist anyway? - it is assumed that either we can't know or it doesn't matter. Figuring out something that "works for me" is all that is required. Or I can assume the attitude of Marilyn Monroe who is said to have declared, "I believe in everything - a little bit."

What is the truth? Relativism isn’t a new invention of post-modernism. It existed in antiquity in the ideas of men who questioned the objectivity of truth, men who attempted to rewrite history, men who had ambitions of becoming gods. When one disputes the absoluteness of Truth, then one begins to position oneself as the dispenser and knower of all truths. One such man was the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius who remarked, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” But was Pilate conditioned by the ideology of pluralism and relativism when making this decision, or it merely betrayed a weakness in character?

Though a powerful man in a position of great authority, Pilate has the same fears that all humans have; fear for his job, fear for his life, fear of shame and humiliation, and his test is going to force him to choose between his allegiance to his fears, or his allegiance to the truth. Waiting for him to make his decision is the Son of God who stands in royal calmness watching with grace as Pilate struggles. An accurate sample of the human race, Pilate is a divided man. One side wants to free an innocent man. But the other side doesn’t want to pay the price to do it. What follows is the deepening of the psychological torment Pilate endures as he knowingly gives away his authority to be used to crucify Jesus.

Thus, what we have before us is not just a mean-spirited bureaucrat, or a pluralistic ideologue, he is an all-too-human proxy for modern man. Pilate is torn. It was not that Pilate did not know the answer to his own question. He knew truth that Jesus is innocent. His wife, Claudia, tells him that Jesus is a holy man and should not be punished. Jesus has many supporters, who will be angry if he is harmed. On the other hand, the religious leaders want Jesus to be crucified; if they are not placated, Pilate might have a revolt on his hands. And a revolt would displease Pilate's boss, Tiberius. Pilate could grasp the Truth but compromised it at the end out of political expediency. How often in our lives do we place strategic objectives such as power, money, or even the desire to be popular ahead of truth and doing what is morally correct?

Sadly, we may see a little of Pilate in ourselves. Today, the question of truth is less to do with the philosophical controversies regarding the absoluteness of the truth but rather with the moral question of whether we wish to stand up for the truth and die for it.

Pilate washes his hands, literally, of the affair. But he looks to be a broken man. Deep within, he knows that he cannot escape his part in Jesus' fate. Washing his hands will not bring him peace, will not erase the pain he feels, will not bring him closer to the definition of truth. He feels the emptiness we all feel when we make a decision without relying on the truth, without determining what is right and sticking with it. Like Pilate, we can decide to make a decision that seems to maintain the peace. But if it isn't based on the truth, can it really give us peace in the long run? The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.

So what is the Truth that is revealed by Good Friday? It is not a thing or an idea or a philosophical concept. It is a person. It is Jesus. Good Friday reveals the truth about Jesus. It would be on the cross, Jesus hanging naked and powerless, a picture of mortality and humanity at its worst, that the divinity of Christ will be revealed. Good Friday reveals that the truth of Jesus is not just some nice idea that tickles our curiosity and challenges our intelligence, it is a truth that saves us. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross will be our redemption and our salvation. Good Friday reveals the truth that the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity did not end at Christmas but is completed, accomplished and perfected by his mortal death on the cross. Suffering and death will never look the same again. No one can in all honesty claim that God does not understand their pain or suffering. The answer to human suffering lies upon the cross, God suffers with us, God has chosen to accept death for us. Good Friday reveals the truth about how life is decisive. We can choose to make decisions based on convenience, popularity, or for personal profit but the most important decisions in life, those that really matter, those that ensure eternal life, are the decisions we make in accepting, defending and dying for the truth. Finally, Good Friday reveals the truth about love. Love is not just a strong emotion. Love is a sacrifice and the greatest sacrifice or the greatest love one can express to the other is by giving up one’s life so that the other may live. Good Friday reveals that Christ is God’s love enfleshed.

In Blessed John Paul’s classic encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, he writes that the “Splendour of Truth shines forth in the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man's intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.

So come all of you, old and young. Come, weak and strong. Come! Come! Saints and Sinners and cast your eyes upon the splendour of this truth, the Truth revealed on the cross. Behold! Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung our salvation! Behold Christ, your redeemer and saviour! Behold the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End! Behold He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life! Behold the answer to your pain and suffering! Behold, He who is Love and for the sake of Love died for us!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Allowing Ourselves to be Loved

Holy Thursday

Earlier this year, on the occasion of my priestly anniversary, I received my first greeting over Facebook, which read, “Dear Fr M.C., Happy 8th Anniversary!” I was taken aback by the number of years I had served as a priest (though it pales against the years of other more senior clerics); the number of times I had celebrated weddings and baptisms and funerals; the numerous times I had celebrated Holy Mass. Eight years seem staggering! I had not been counting and my ordination seemed only like yesterday. This sudden awareness ignited a spark of recollection - these last few months have been a time of great joy for me. When asked by friends and parishioners as to how I felt about being Parish Priest in Our Lady of Lourdes, I had no hesitation in answering, “I’m very happy. I love this parish and its people.” Perhaps, God is allowing me to experience a new springtime of my priesthood and ministry.

But it has not always been like this. In all honesty, I must admit that there were times the priesthood didn’t feel like a joy but more a burden. I would often hear my mother’s voice ringing in my head, “Become a priest lah! Looking for trouble where there was none!” When I found myself drowning under the weight of heavy responsibilities, personal issues and having to contend with the problems of others, I began to doubt whether things would have been much better if I had not become a priest.

I guess a major change took place during my sabbatical year. During this past year, I came into closer contact with two very dear priest friends who each taught me a lesson about the priesthood and ministry. The first seemed to sail through his ministry without a care in the world. He was always positive and never seemed to complain about his ministry nor about his parishioners. He was not without his faults. But his people had learnt to love him and forgive him in spite of his limitations. I just found it incredulous that anyone could be so happy. Here I was, often with my litany of complaints. On the other hand, my stories of pain and misery were often matched by his stories of blessings and reason for joy. One day, I asked him for the secret of his ministry – what sustained him in the face of critics, troublemakers, and people who just got on your nerves. He gave me this simple and almost naïve answer, “Michael, they just want to be loved!” He told me that he never saw anyone as difficult. No one set out to make life miserable for others. No one deliberately plans trouble. At the heart of their pain and odd way of reaching out to others, they were just searching for understanding and acceptance. In other words, they were just looking to be loved.

Although this simple piece of wisdom changed my whole perspective of ministry and the people whom I ministered to, I still questioned my ability to be as magnanimous and as generous as this priest was. I doubted my ability to love, what more to love unconditionally. The answer came through the second priest whom I had the privilege of spending time with. This priest was unabashed in being loved by his people. It was no secret that he was loved by many in spite of his quirks and idiosyncrasies. But what inspired me about this man was that he felt not embarrassment in allowing himself to be showered with the love of others. In a conversation we once had regarding my own personal struggles at dealing with an abysmally low self-esteem, he poignantly reminded me, “Michael, you just don’t allow yourself to be loved. Unless, you can allow yourself to be loved, you will never really know how to love.”

What’s the point of me telling you all of these? Certainly, I’m not hoping to begin a new chapter or volume in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. But I have decided that by sharing these two experiences with you best sums up what this day is all about. Today, we celebrate Holy Thursday, where the double focus of our celebrations is the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist. But traditionally, this day was also known as Maundy Thursday, which has nothing to do with the name of England’s most famous comedic troupe, Monty Python. The word ‘Maundy’ is derived from a Latin word, ‘Mandatum’ which could either be translated as commandment as well as mandate. Thus, infused into the meaning of the word ‘maundy’ is both the idea of power as well as responsibility. The ‘mandatum’ that is being alluded here is the New Commandment that is found in John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give unto you, love one another as I have loved you.”

What is significantly ‘new’ about this commandment as compared to the Great Commandment which can be found in Matthew 22:36 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, and love your neighbour as yourself”) is the standard by which love is measured. In the Great Commandment of the synoptic gospels, the point of reference is ourselves – how much are we capable of loving? Fifty percent? Eighty Percent or Hundred Per cent? Self-honesty will tell us that we will never be able to give our entire self to God and to neighbour as long as sin remains a reality in our lives. But the New Commandment starts from an entirely different angle. It presents a standard of measure that is not just super-human but supra-human – it is that of Christ himself. Our love must now be measured according to the love which Christ had shown to us, in other words, the love that allowed him to sacrifice his life on the cross and a love which is represented in the sacrifice of the holy mass whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.

The new commandment or mandate of love is not just about loving others as Jesus had loved us but also a commandment to allow ourselves be loved by Jesus. We have receive a commandment and mandate to be loved by Christ himself. The starting point is not our capacity to love, but Christ’s love for us. We can only begin to love when we come to acknowledge the depth of Christ’s love for us. We can only love when we allow ourselves to be loved. This begs the question: Do you prefer to love or be loved? Although we acknowledge that everyone does desire love, the fact of the matter is that it is much easier to love than to be loved.

Why it is more difficult for us to allow ourselves to be loved? The answer is simple – a lot of us are control freaks. When I serve others, when I love others, I’m still in control. We are reluctant to give up the reins to anyone or anything including love. Allowing ourselves to be loved means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Allowing ourselves to be loved means exposing ourselves to the risk of rejection. Allowing ourselves to be loved means admitting to our neediness, our insufficiency, our incompleteness. Peter was ever eager to prove his love to Christ but he would ultimately fail in the end – he would end up denying Jesus in face of threat of danger. Peter would have been most willing to volunteer washing the feet of his Master or even that of his fellow companions, but to allow his feet to be washed by the Master was unthinkable. In the face of Christ’s love for him as demonstrated in the washing of feet, he felt the overwhelming urge to pull back instead of allowing himself to let the love of Christ to flow through him like rain. In Peter we see our true reason for not allowing ourselves to be loved – we are afraid, we are cowards, we do not wish to be beholden to others, we do not wish to turn our lives entirely over to God because that would be risking everything, even having to give up all our securities.

Robert Frost wrote, “Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” There is some truth in that. We all want to be loved but just do not how to do it. However, to truly allow someone to love you all barriers have to be dropped. Walls must be broken down. You must allow yourself to be vulnerable. I detest my vulnerability. Again, I am a coward. I don’t like to let people in. I don’t want them to know that I am worn out; I am tired; I am jaded. I have been hurt one too many times. I have misjudged what love really is one too many times. Ultimately, my inability to let those who would love me into the deepest core of my being is based on my fear that this will result in my loss. But, today as the Church commemorates the institution of these two foundational sacraments, the sacrament of Holy Orders and the sacrament of the Eucharist, I’m reminded that I must ever take the risk to be loved. Allowing myself to be loved by Christ teaches me that being called to the priesthood has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of my abilities, but on the singular privilege of God’s love. Allowing myself to be loved reassures me that I don’t have to be the Saviour, the Redeemer, the one who has it all together, Christ has already come and will continue to save the world in spite of my limitations. Allowing myself to be loved reminds me that I too am in need of redemption and salvation, and that unless I too allow my feet to be washed by Jesus, I will have no part of his life. Whenever I celebrate the Eucharist, the message of Maundy Thursday, resounds in my ear and in my heart – “Love one another as I have loved you.”

As we celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day we remember the mandate and commandment of Jesus to love each other as he has loved us, we are also called to let down our guard and allow Christ to love us, to wash our feet, to give his life on the Cross for our redemption. We often stand on the sidewalk begging for love in the streets and alleys of life. Weighed down by countless responsibilities and demands of others to be loved, we find ourselves exhausted and empty of love. We fail to recognise that Christ who loves us stands by watching in pain. He watches patiently. Perhaps, when we do have the courage to turn around and look over our shoulders, we will indeed catch a glimpse of Jesus, and it is a glimpse of love. You will find him whispering in your ear, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”