Thursday, June 26, 2014

Continuity and Reform

Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul

I have often wondered why these two saints, Peter and Paul, were celebrated together. Were not each deserving of a special day of celebration, each in his own right? Both had certainly earned it. Who could say enough about these great preachers of our faith? Yet, the Church, in its wisdom, had deigned to celebrate the feast of their martyrdom on a single date. In a sermon in the year 395, St. Augustine of Hippo said of Sts. Peter and Paul: “There is one day for the passion of two apostles. But these two also were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day, consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labours, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who had a knack of drawing catechesis out of stone, had this to say about the juxtaposition of these two figures, standing as guardians at the Plaza of St Peter’s Basillica. “Christian tradition has always considered Saint Peter and Saint Paul to be inseparable: indeed, together, they represent the whole Gospel of Christ. In Rome, their bond as brothers in the faith came to acquire a particular significance. Indeed, the Christian community of this City considered them a kind of counterbalance to the mythical Romulus and Remus, the two brothers held to be the founders of Rome. A further parallel comes to mind, still on the theme of brothers: whereas the first biblical pair of brothers demonstrate the effects of sin, as Cain kills Abel, yet Peter and Paul, much as they differ from one another in human terms and notwithstanding the conflicts that arose in their relationship, illustrate a new way of being brothers, lived according to the Gospel, an authentic way made possible by the grace of Christ’s Gospel working within them. Only by following Jesus does one arrive at this new brotherhood ...”

The common feast day of the “twin” apostles, so to speak, brings a long biblical pattern to its final expression. Throughout the bible, one tradition seemed responsible for stability and continuity, the other for enrichment and expansion. The first conscientiously cared for flock and protected it from external threats; the second looked beyond the safe confines of the paddock. The first secured survival, the second made the survival worthwhile. The first pointed out the way to the final destination; the second enriched the stages along the way. Of course, Peter symbolises the first, Paul the second.

As we celebrate the martyrdom of these two apostolic princes, we can wrestle with what often appears to be factionalism and polarisation within the Church, between those who stand as guardians of Tradition and orthodoxy and those others who advocate for greater reform and progress. A clear example of this split can be seen in the manner of interpreting the significance of the Second Vatican Council and its implementation. The fifty years following the Council has been racked by differing theological opinions about the significance of this Council, but basically, whether this ecumenical Council had taken the path of St Paul to move beyond traditional confines symbolised by St Peter, or was the Council merely another stage in a continuous stream of renewal and reform over the centuries, articulating the eternal gospel in new ways without changing its content? Our last three pontiffs, Popes St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and recently Francis, teach that we must read the documents of the Second Vatican Council in the light a hermeneutics of continuity or renewal rather than one of rupture, in other words, that the teachings of Vatican II form a link and are in continuity with the teachings prior to the Council, rather than the latter having replaced and overridden the former. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “The Church both before and after the council is the same one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church journeying through time.”

The lessons of history, however, show us that the Church, always firmly rooted in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, is reformed and always reforming. “Semper ecclesia reformanda” (“The Church is always reforming”), as Pope St. Gregory I the Great taught. Continuity and reform provide the correct map for the study and implementation of Vatican II.  Pope St John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, saw in the work of the Council a synthesis of faithfulness and dynamism in the spirit of Sts. Peter and Paul.

The essential complementariness of these two different apostolic personalities mirrors the two great Popes of our times, Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis. For the first time in a long time, there are two living Popes. Unfortunately, the secular media and certain quarters who advocate a hermeneutics of rupture often attempt to pit the style and focus of Pope Francis against his predecessor, Pope Benedict. Often, in heaping praises on the new pope, one tends to cast odium on his predecessors – Pope Francis, portrayed as a modern St Paul, is often depicted as undoing and correcting the regime of Pope Benedict, the more conservative St Peter. Ironically, most people who enjoy juxtaposing the popes fail to recognise that comparisons of their dress style or anything else for that matter is tripe & even unfair. What Francis does not intend, we may be sure, is that his actions and teachings are to be seen as contradicting his predecessors and their legacy. Francis himself has publicly paid tribute to the vast contributions of Pope Benedict and has also affirmed his support for the hermeneutics of continuity rather than discontinuity.

As we reflect on these issues, we can find a model in St Peter and St Paul for dealing with issues of continuity and renewal. Yes, Peter and Paul, two pillars of the Church, were different in personalities and had different vocations, yet they were united in one testimony: they gave their lives for the love of Jesus and the gospel. While Peter represents stability and continuity in the Christian community, Paul represents the missionary outlook of the Church. The Church at large, human society and each individual are a mixture of these two lines: one that cautiously seeks to be rooted, the other that acts excitedly across many barriers and/or boundaries; one that must ultimately take responsibility for all actions, the other that is always dreaming new visions. Rather than to see one in conflict the other, the examples of our two apostolic princes demonstrate that these paradigms can be and indeed are complementary. Thus reminding us that the Church is both universal and particular, ever ancient and ever new, unvaryingly pastoral and always missionary. Yes, the Church breathes not with a single lung but with two, one Peter, the other, Paul.

The appearance to us this day of both these luminaries together brightens the Church, for their meeting produces a wealth of light, not an eclipse. It is not the case that one has a higher orbit and is placed above, while the other is lower down and passes under his shadow: Nor does one rule the day, the other the night, such that one would overshadow the other if they appeared opposite each other. Rather, both share equally in Christ, the everlasting source of eternal light, and have attained to the same height, glory and radiance.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

We Receive Because We Are

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

In the second Christian century, Saint Justin the Martyr, wrote several steering apologetical sermons in defence of Christians and their practices. In the first of such apologia, he wrote on the Christian’s belief in the Eucharist, “We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Saviour became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving. No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.”

The basic principle outlined in the second part of this quotation is this: Only Catholics may receive holy Communion, and Catholics who do receive holy Communion must be properly disposed. The reason for this should be obvious to those who truly appreciate the significance of the Eucharist. In Communion, we receive the very body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Not only is it an intimate encounter with Christ, but Holy Communion deepens unity with the Church, more fully assimilating us into Christ. Therefore Holy Communion is not something to be taken lightly. It should always be considered a great and holy privilege, and we must ensure that we are properly disposed.  

Such a strict regiment was not the invention of the early theologians of the Church. It is a fruit of systematic reflection of scripture. In the New Testament, St. Paul reminded Christians about proper reverence in receiving the Body of Christ: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself..”  (1 Cor 11:27-28).

For Catholics, communion is not just an act of worship but also an ecclesiological act. Our reception of communion is ontological – we receive communion because we are in communion. Full communion should never be regarded as a trivial desire to be together, but rather involves completeness of "those bonds of communion – faith, sacraments and pastoral governance – traditionally known as Creed, Cult and Code – as outlined by St Justin Martyr. For Catholics to participate in such communion without establishing these bonds would be self-deception and hypocritical. It trivialises the very act of receiving communion and reduces it to a purely symbolic and instrumental ritual. Likewise, when we formally refuse to accept the Church’s proper authority to teach, rule and sanctify – her doctrinal inerrancy, her spiritual jurisdiction and her sacramental power  - these rejections separate us from the body of the Church.

To some people, I am sure, these restrictions seem harsh and unnecessary, anachronistic to say the least, and a violation of the ecumenical spirit of our age. The question is, "Why are there so many restrictions about receiving Holy Communion if people are of goodwill and the Eucharist is so helpful for us?" “If Protestants allow other Christians to receive their communion, why can’t we be more hospitable?” These are certainly legitimate questions, motivated by good intentions. But good intentions are never sufficient reason to allow open communion. The reasons are more subtle than that. The first reason, as I have already pointed out, is that the reception of holy Communion is not just an expression of belief in the Lord Jesus Christ but also an indication of membership, "communion," in the Church, the Church where its members visibly share "oneness of faith, life and worship." Unity among Christians is not yet complete, and the reception of Holy Communion by other Christians ignores this reality. The second reason is that the reception of Holy Communion in a Catholic Church presumes Catholic belief about the Eucharist, in the doctrine of transubstantiation and that the mass is a veritable sharing in the sacrifice of Calvary, doctrines rejected by other Christians.

While the motivation for inviting everyone to Holy Communion might seem to be "ecumenical," in the long run the practice does more harm than good to authentic ecumenical relationships. The most detrimental thing is to use the Eucharist as a ‘tool’, a functional means, to make friends, trivialising its value and relegating it to a superficial coffee house or mamak stall ‘fellowship.’ It is also detrimental to Christian unity to just "white wash" our differences with others and sweep it all under the carpet as if such differences were insignificant. Unity based on a whitewashing of differences, according to Pope Benedict, is a facade and only stalls fruitful dialogue. Pretending that there are no differences and by resting on the lowest common denominator of the faith is to pander to false and promiscuous union.

Returning to the question of proper disposition, how do we properly dispose ourselves?
First, you must be in a state of grace. In other words, you must not be in a state of serious, grave or mortal sin. To receive the Eucharist without sanctifying grace in your soul profanes the Eucharist in the most grievous manner. The Didache, an early Christian document written around A.D. 70, which states: "Whosoever is holy (that is in a state of sanctifying grace), let him approach. Whosoever is not, let him repent" (Didache 10). 

The requirement of being in a state of grace leads us to the second point. You must have been to confession since your last serious sin. The 1983 Code of Canon Law clarifies this point: "A person who is conscious of a grave sin is not to . . . receive the body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible" (CIC 916). 

Third, you must believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, that is you must believe that what you consume is truly, really, and substantially to the Body and blood of Christ. According to St Paul, "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself" (1 Cor. 11:29). A survey was done in the United States where it was discovered, to my horror, that more than a third of the American Catholics polled, don’t actually believe in this doctrine. I’m not sure what a local survey would have revealed. But here again, we are reminded by St Augustine, “No one should eat this flesh without first adoring it … we should sin were we not to adore it.”

Fourth, you must observe the Eucharistic fast. Canon law states, "One who is to receive the most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion" (CIC 919 §1). Note that the law says before Communion, not before the beginning of Mass.  So, one hour isn’t very long. Elderly people, those who are ill are excused (CIC 191 §3).

The Eucharist, the source and summit of our Christian life, continues to be a spiritual magnet that draws people to experience the riches of our Catholic faith. But we must never forget that the issue of communion hinges upon our proper disposition and further on our Catholic understanding of Church- Eucharistic communion is inseparably linked to full Ecclesial communion and its visible expression. We receive communion because we are in communion. Anything less would be hypocrisy and a lie.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Central Mystery of Faith

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Today the Church celebrates the Holy Trinity. It is not as obviously dramatic and exciting as Christmas and Easter, but it is a sort of summary of the highlights of the Easter season, the revelation of the salvific mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us. "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the 'hierarchy of the truths of faith'.” (CCC 234) St Athanasius, the great Father and Doctor of the Church, who fought vigorously to defend the orthodox faith in the Trinity against the Arian heresy of his time which denied the divinity of Christ, in referring to this mystery of faith, “And the whole faith is summed up, and secured in this.” If any doctrine makes Christianity Christian, then surely it is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Yet, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, most Christians are poor in their understanding, poorer in their articulation, and poorest of all in seeing any way in which the doctrine matters in real life. One theologian said, tongue in cheek, “The trinity is a matter of five notions or properties, four relations, three persons, two processions, one substance or nature, and no understanding.” All the talk of essence and persons seem like theological jargon reserved for philosophers and scholars, but certainly not for ordinary folks.

How did we come upon this doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity? Was it something that the Church invented? The church did not come to embrace the doctrine of the Trinity because there is a sentence in Scripture that says: "there is one God existing as three persons equal in divine essence, but distinct in personhood." In fact, there is no sentence like that in the Bible. Rather the reason the church has embraced this doctrine is because scriptures unwaveringly speak of one true God, not three Gods, and yet reveals the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as God, and as distinct persons. There are many verses that speak of God’s oneness. Then there are the myriad of passages which demonstrate that God is Father. Next, we have the scores of texts which prove the deity of Jesus Christ, the Son. Then we have similar texts which assume the deity of the Holy Spirit. The shape of Trinitarian orthodoxy is finally rounded off by texts that hint at the plurality of persons in the Godhead, dozens of texts that speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the same breath, equating the three in rank, while assuming distinction of personhood. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a philosophical concoction by some over-zealous and over-intelligent theologian, but the keystone to our faith which can be shown, explicitly or implicitly, from a multitude of biblical texts.

What does the doctrine of the Trinity mean? The Athanasian Creed, one of my favourite definitions, puts it this way: “Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons, nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit, still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.” The two key words here are essence and persons. When you read “essence”, it speaks of divine nature or “God-ness.” All three Persons of the Trinity share the same “God-ness.” One is not more God than another. When you read “persons”, it refers to a particular individual distinct from the others. Theologians use these terms because they are trying to find a way to express the relationship of three beings that are equally and uniquely God, but not three Gods. That’s why we get the tricky (but learnable) language of essence and persons. Perhaps, the easiest way to explain this doctrine is to state what it is not:
  • The doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity rejects monarchianism which believes in only one person (mono), the Father, and maintains that the Son and the Spirit subsists in the divine essence as impersonal attributes not distinct and divine Persons.
  • The doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity rejects modalism which believes that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different names for the same God acting in different roles or manifestations (like the well-intentioned but misguided “water, vapour, ice” analogy).
  • The doctrine rejects Arianism which denies the full deity of Christ, like the Jehovah Witnesses.
  • And finally, the doctrine rejects all forms of tri-theism, which teach that the three members of the Godhead are three separate Gods, like the Mormons.

But our consideration of the Most Holy Trinity, cannot just remain or be confined to the philosophical concepts of essence and personhood. "The Holy Trinity," according to Pope Francis, "is not the product of human reasoning. It is the face with which God revealed himself, not ex cathedra, but by walking with humanity, in the history of the people of Israel, and above all in Jesus of Nazareth. It is Jesus who has saved us. Jesus is the Son who made us know the merciful Father and brought to the world his 'fire', the Holy Spirit, who guides us, who gives us good ideas, inspirations."  This doctrine teaches us that we worship a God who is in constant and eternal relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Community is a buzz word in today’s culture, but it is only in a Christian framework that communion and interpersonal community are seen as expressions of the eternal nature of God.

Likewise, it is only with a Trinitarian God that love can be an eternal attribute of God. Without a plurality of persons in the Godhead, we would be forced to think that God created humans so that he might show love and know love, thereby making love a created thing (and God a needy deity). But with a biblical understanding of the Trinity we can say that God did not create in order to be loved, but rather, created out of the overflow of the perfect love that had always existed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who ever live in perfect and mutual relationship and delight. The Orthodox Churches of the East have a beautiful way of describing this. They use an ancient Greek word, “perichoresis” which means ‘dancing in a circle’. This means that the persons or the modes of God weave in and out of each other in a blissful, dynamic circle, always inviting others into the eternal dance of communion.

Let us then rejoice in the richness held out by God the Holy Trinity. God is a triad of persons in eternal, self-giving love relationships. The Christian community is to reflect this divine community. We’re to love one another; share with one another; rejoice and mourn with one another; share our lives. As the world sees the Christian community it believes in the divine community. The ultimate apologetic for the Trinity is not some clever analogy or philosophical explanation. It’s the common life of the Christian community. In the second commandment God forbade the Israelites to create an image of him. We’re not to make any image of God, for God himself has made an image of himself in the world: humanity. God’s image in humanity has been marred by our rebellion. But now God’s redeemed people, the Church, in its life of communion, is his image in the world.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lord and Giver of Life

Solemnity of the Pentecost

The third person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is sometimes referred to as "the forgotten" member of the Godhead. He is, no doubt, the least spoken of among the three persons of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s no surprise that this is the case for many of us, since this most mysterious person of the Trinity has very little analogous correspondence with our visible and experiential reality. We can think about God the Father in terms of our own experience of our own fathers. We can even picture him as this kindly and fatherly old man with his signature beard and a twinkle in his eye (sounds like Santa Claus!) In the case of the Second Person, there is no problem picturing him as he is the most pictorially represented of the Three, and since we are dealing with a man who like us actually lived almost two thousand years ago in Palestine.

But when it comes to the Holy Spirit, however, the matter becomes complicated. Since the Holy Spirit has not assumed any bodily form, it is impossible for us to imagine him in any concrete way. His old English title, “the Holy Ghost,” obviously did not help, even though we may picture him as the more affable and friendly Casper rather than the malevolent spirit in Poltergeist. His spiritual nature comes across as something ephemeral and non-tangible. The best visible representation we could possibly have of him is to depict him as a dove, since the gospels narrate how he descended upon Jesus in this form; or as tongues of fire as how the Acts of the Apostles described the event of Pentecost in today’s first reading.

So, who is this most mysterious member of Most Holy Trinity? The third part of the Creed affirms this Truth: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” Just as the title “Lord” in reference to Christ is an affirmation of divinity, when the Church applies the title “Lord” to the Holy Spirit, she is saying that the Holy Spirit is truly God, co-equal with the Father and the Son. We also profess that the Holy Spirit is the “giver of life”. For the ancients, breath in the body was the sign of life. Then it came to mean the source or principle of life. God’s Spirit was involved in the production of all life in the world as we read in Genesis (1:2): “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” It is the Spirit that gives life, both physical and spiritual. In order to have eternal life a man must be born “of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5). According to St. Paul, “the Spirit brings life” (2 Cor 3:6). So in the Creed we proclaim our belief that the Holy Spirit is “the giver of life”.

But apart from these two theologically rich titles given to the Holy Spirit, the mention of the Holy Spirit in the third part of the Creed is also an affirmation that Christ's work of redeeming the world did not stop with his crucifixion and resurrection. Quite the contrary: those events were the launching pad, the beginning of a ministry that reaches its resolution only when the whole world is redeemed through the work of the Holy Spirit, a work which continues in the Church. And it is in the context of the Church that we must now find the Holy Spirit’s most profound mission.

One of the characteristics of a life of true love is that we become bonded to each other. Thus the account of what took place at the First Pentecost is less of an emphasis on the spectacular appearance of tongues of fire, the visible sign of the Spirit’s presence, or even a lesser emphasis on glossolalia, the ability to speak in foreign tongues and the tongues of angels. The main point of the story is how the Holy Spirit acts as a principle of communion for this disparate gathering of peoples who hail from different parts of the world and who are visibly divided by language and culture. The story is about undoing the harm and healing the injury done at Babel, where through man’s willfulness to reach the heavens without reference to God, humanity suffered the curse of disharmony and disunity. Now with the descent of the Holy Spirit, these barriers are no longer impenetrable. The Holy Spirit is thus set as a bond between God and man, and also between all the faithful. This bond is called “communion.” This is where the ephemeral and non-corporeal Holy Spirit is made visible, within the communion of the Church. Contrary, to what we often assume, communion is never the product of human machination or natural camaraderie, it is and always will be the work of the Holy Spirit.  Communion is the result of the creative and harmonising power of the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict once taught, “unity can only exist as a gift of God's Spirit, which will give us a new heart and a new tongue, a new ability to communicate.”

That is why at the beginning of every Mass, the priest says these words as the opening greeting: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” It would be highly presumptuous for him to arrogate to himself the sole responsibility and power to establish communion through his welcoming demeanour by substituting the above liturgical greeting with a more affable personal one, “Good morning everyone, How are you today?” The Holy Spirit is the One through whom Communion is achieved. Apart from him, no communion or at least permanent communion would be possible. In other words, the Holy Spirit gathers the people who are divided, knits and weaves them together into the Mystical Body of Christ. We must therefore remember that every act that seeks to foment disunity, create discord, cause divisions, or choose individualism over communal living (going ‘solo’ like the Lone Ranger), would be a sin against the Holy Spirit.

Today, we labour under the illusion that harmony, peace and unity can only be arrived at through a suppression of the Truth. Many believe that Truth is divisive, that conflict arises as a result of conflicting ‘truths’, none of which is absolute. This myth is furthest from the Truth. Authentic unity is never the product of compromising the truth or blurring the lines between Truth and error, but is derived from a humble submission to the Truth. Love and communion must always be in service to the Truth. The contrast between Babel and Pentecost can also be seen here. The people at Babel sinned when they pursued their own version of the truth, but at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enlightened the apostles and the first converts to the Church with the Truth of Christ. The first brought division, the second brought unity. At Pentecost, the Risen Christ lovingly and mercifully pours forth his Spirit of Truth upon the apostles and He will remain with the apostles, their successors and the Church always because Christ is with his Church always, thus confirming the Truth that is authoritatively taught by the Church. If there is conflict and opposition, it is not because the Truth is its cause. Rather it is sin.

Therefore, it is not enough that we should strive for unity and live in peace with one another, but we must also live according to the Spirit of Unity and Truth. And so, we must pray for the Spirit to enlighten and guide us to overcome the temptation to follow our own truths, and to welcome the truth of Christ transmitted in the Church.

Life in the Spirit reassures us that we are not pathetic victims, huddling together whilst the storms of 'progressive' secularism consign us to the dustbin of history. We are the people of God, we are the Body of Christ, and we are the people led by His Spirit. We are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus to a people who are spiritually starving and in desperate need of it. We have been made witnesses of the passion and resurrection of Christ, bearers of the Cross, and proclaimers of the Word of God, but we are also beneficiaries of the Spirit who refreshes, heals, inspires and always draws us into deeper communion with Christ and His Body, the Church.