Saturday, May 28, 2016

Homily for the Fourth Day of Parish Novena 2016: "Instruct the Ignorant, Counsel the Doubtful and Admonish the Sinner"

Preacher: Fr Simon Yong SJ

The theme on the 4th day in our Novena series reminds me of war. Why? In waging a war, we choose to maximise damage on our enemies whilst minimising cost to ourselves. I am not suggesting you do this but just for the sake of illustration. If you want to be a suicide bomber, it does not make sense to target a crippled old aunty to make a point, right? For impact, say if you have this evil intention to terrorise a country, you might as well choose to exterminate the Chief Executive rather than a low ranking official, correct or not?

Likewise, since we started, the size of the congregation has been decent. Now that it is packed on account of Sunday’s obligation and what better captive audience than to lob the theme “Instruct the Ignorant, Counsel the Doubtful and Admonish the Sinner”? Unfortunately, today is also Trinity Sunday and to make the connexion between this mystery and the Spiritual Acts of Mercy—to instruct, counsel and admonish—is not an easy task.

For, in this climate of victimhood, it may be uncomfortable or embarrassing to be admonished but what is tougher is to be the one who has to do the admonishing. Why?

We live in a fractured world. And the politically correct wind that blows is fanning this flame of brokenness or woundedness. When we are offended or feel that we have been victimised it is not easy to hear the hard truth because we become preoccupied with two facts. Firstly, that we have been hurt and secondly, we also struggle with a nagging grievance or loss that we were unjustly denied the respect that we were entitled to. When the ego is bruised, our faculty for truth is compromised.

Let me give an example a practice that is widespread in some Churches. A sizeable section of the congregation will walk out before the final blessing or hymn—especially when announcements are made. The more brazen ones leave during or just after Holy Communion. The authentic Catholic tradition is simply this: The Priest is the last person to enter the Church but he is the first person to leave. Why? If you believe that you have received the Lord truly, substantially and really present in the Eucharist, then that Eucharist was made possible by Christ Himself, in the Holy Spirit and through the agency of the ordained priest. Can you see the discrepancy between the respect you have for Christ in the Eucharist and the disrespect of Him when you leave before His priest does? For no good reason, one should never come late for Mass and one should never leave before the priest has left the sanctuary—unless of course, for a good reason, you have a relative dying in the hospital and you are a doctor responding to an emergency.

Imagine your parish priest interrupting the announcements and shouting “Oi, it is disrespectful to leave before the final blessing given or announcements made”. That might just be the last time you ever see of them trooping out because you have embarrassed them and they would go to another Church...

The question is, why is there a permanent state of woundedness or victimhood?

There was a time—our illustrious teachers trained in Kirby and Brinsford will tell you that—when spoken English had a standard pronunciation. But when inclusiveness became the new catchword, regional variations flourished in the name of differences. Before that, there was a standard to uniformity but now the standard no longer exists and it is OK to be different. It would be considered overbearing to enforce a standard. For example, our spelling used to be standard UK spelling but now our Ministry of Education is accepting American spelling--look up to the poster on my left and see the word "centered"--it is supposed to be spelt "centre". The fact is because we have become so illiterate that Microsoft is doing the spell check for us.

My point is we have canonised differences and this has been forced upon us by political correctness. Any attempt to question this canon of differences [actually canon and difference are somewhat mutually exclusive because canon speaks of standardisation whereas difference abhors uniformity] will come across as judgemental. Would you dare to judge and hurt a person? The operative word here is hurt. There is always someone hurt by insensitivity of one kind or another. As someone said, if ever you are losing an argument shout racism, ageism or sexism and people often back down.

You appreciate now the work of instructing, counselling and admonishing is a thankless task that many leaders do not want undertake for fear of losing brownie points. Many priests have failed in these spiritual acts of mercy for fear of offending or hurting those who are already hurt.

Here, I am not interested in adding salt to injury. But, I am interested in exploring why the task to teach is so much more complicated. You see, when Pope Francis took over the throne of Peter, sliced bread lost its novelty value. You know how people say “the best thing since sliced bread”. Immediately, the world warmed up to Pope Francis, confirmed by his famous ex aeroplano “Who am I to judge” declaration. Whereas, the previous occupant of the See of Peter was considered too judgemental simply because he was trying to cut through the thickets of relativism. He was an unappreciated teacher—one who dared to instruct, counsel and admonish.

The central question of Benedict XVI has always been the search for truth. A reviewer of one of his books says this of him: Benedict has consistently pointed in the direction of truth that ultimately leads to love. The perfection of what it means to be human is love and this perfection can come only through communion, a fact that is expressed in the very nature of God, the Holy Trinity. Just when you think that instructing, counselling and admonishing are too much of a judgement on people, in reality, they are at the core of our communal search for truth and when we have discovered truth, we will also encounter the Trinity.

What is it about truth that is relevant to the tasks of instructing, counselling and admonishing?

One of truth’s nature is its objectivity. Here I am not subscribing to the notion that I have the truth as in I “possess” the truth and therefore you listen to me. You know how that is like when someone arrogates upon himself the arbitration of what is true and talks down to you? We never “have” truth. At best, truth has us. We are servants of truth and never its masters. Thus, one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. Whilst claiming possession may be symptomatic of arrogance, what is destructive is to simply dismiss truth as unattainable. It is one thing to say “I have the truth” and it is another thing altogether to say, “There is no such thing as truth”. The denial of truth’s objectivity will lead to relativism, utilitarianism and ultimately totalitarianism.

It means that when truth is unattainable then nothing holds anymore. In many an argument, we arrive again and again at this relativistic dead-end road where “what you believe is true, is true for you and what I believe is true, is true for me”. It just means that one opinion is as good as another and we are condemned to silence. In which case we will become incapable of moral reasoning and are thus reduced to who can make use of whom. Is that not utilitarianism? When there are no ethical values because there is no objective truth, we easily become users of people. And, in the absence of morality, we are further reduced to who as more power or access to power. When power is unchecked by objective truth, it becomes totalitarianism. To cite an example: In the name of inclusiveness, the new religion is now intolerance. Inclusiveness means that we must be accepting, open and welcoming but, the problem of inclusiveness is that it is tolerant only when we agree with it.

A few illustrations may help. Take, for example, euthanasia—otherwise, falsely known as mercy killing. More and more people are coerced to accepting it as a “new normal”. If you stand against it, you will be deemed inconsiderate because you have no compassion for the sufferer. Another example is the hot debate on same-sex marriage. If you dare to speak up against this “new normal”, the weight of judgementalism will be brought to bear upon you. Try doing it on your Facebook account and immediately trolls will descend on you. Your vice for speaking up about the truth of man and woman is the sin of offending people who do not share your belief! Finally, those who are traditionally-minded are disliked because they are considered to be too extreme. The irony is that those who claim to be inclusive are hell-bent on excluding anyone who cares enough for orthodoxy. At the inclusive[1] altar of double standard, truth is the first victim.

We live in this really messed up world where people are afraid of this quest for truth because they have been told repeatedly that there is no such thing—it is all about perspectives. Nowadays we hear that every religion leads to God. It is merely that each one takes a different ascent up the mountain to arrive at the same summit. It is all about perspectives.

I am head of formation for the diocese of Melaka-Johor. Big deal right? A senior priest said to me at the last Recollection, “Why are you keeping quiet? You are the head of formation, man. You form one arm of the diocese with pastoral actions as the other. You should be saying something”. I turned to him and said, “Do you see how many priests and deacons there are in this room? I bet you there are as many opinions on any subject as there are heads in this room. Before I can say something, we will get entangled with egos who claim that their perspective is the only true one. Do you think it is easy to propose formation for a diocese? I do not want my head to be chopped off”. That may be my dilemma but it does not excuse me from the hard truth of the spiritual acts of mercy.

So, next time when you are offended and hurt by an argument or you have been admonished and feel marginalised, you may brood but do not stay brooding like a victim but ask the question: Is there truth in what was being said? Is it true?

More than ever, we need the humility of truth for truth is not a private quest but a communal act.[2] There is a quote from Einstein which for the longest time I cannot find the source. He said something to this effect: “Considering the many discoveries I have made, people have asked me what I thought of them. You know, I don’t want to be right. I just want to know if I have been right”? This is a man whose moral compass points in the direction of truth. He is not obsessed with being right or that he possesses the truth. He is more concerned about whether or not he has stood on the side of right and true. You know how we may call upon the Lord to be our witness, certain that God is on our side. Einstein would ask the more ethical question: Are we on God's side?

It is only when we have learnt humility that the tasks of instructing, counselling and admonishing become an exercise of love and the discovery of the communion we have been invited to—a communion of truth which is life with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit

[1] Being exclusive is considered to be the aboriginal sin. The Kingdom of Grace, following St Paul’s “neither Jew nor Gentile” supposedly admits no binaries—at least not the binary of “in” or “out” or “we” or “them”. As a result, discipleship means no boundaries, no categories and flattening every moral and social hill in light of our inclusive God.
[2]Veritas, quid est veritas”? was Pilate’s wrong question when Jesus was forced to face him. The question should have been “Who is truth”? Jesus is Truth. He does not hide behind the truth. If Jesus is Truth, then the Church, Magisterium, Sacred Scripture and Tradition are all derivatives in the sense that they derive their authority from Him who is Truth. One unappreciated source of truth is the GIRM. You noticed how the servers here are bowing their heads. Some of you are following their lead too. What happens when a new priest comes may be the disappearance of the head bow—thus, reducing the head-bow gesture to a form of capricious imposition by the current parish priest. But, is the head-bow currently practised by the servers in this parish a fanciful fetish of a whimsical priest? No. It is mandated by the GIRM. Some priests regard this gesture as a “Western” imposition and so feel that they are under no obligation to follow it. But, the force of the GIRM comes not from a “Western” imposition but rather from it being part of the nearly 2000-year tradition of the Church. If one of truth’s nature is its objectivity, then its validity is not dependent on whether I like it or not. In other words, truth is not capricious. Therefore, the uniformity of the rubrics acts as an objective insurance against caprice and against the clerical abuse of the laity.  Sadly, there exists a cult of personality which actually canonises “caprice” to the point that the laity will not appreciate the truth mediated by the GIRM. Instead they are held captive by the whim or fancy of the priest and the laity’s only option is to accept or follow because the priest does it that way. The cult of personality does not allow people to see that the priest is actually following a benchmark not of his making but that of the Church with a 2000-year history.

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