Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Sacred Tradition is not man made

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

I’ve often heard this accusation, “The Catholic Church is full of man-made rules.” “Where in the Bible does it say that the Sabbath should be moved to Sunday, that we can’t eat meat on Fridays, that abortion is wrong, that two men can't get married (to each other), that I have to confess my sins to a priest, that we must go to Mass every Sunday, that a woman can't be a priest? Didn't the Catholic Church just make all of this stuff up? That's the problem with the Catholic Church: It's too concerned with man-made rules, and not with what Christ actually taught.” The surprising thing is that this is often expressed not by Catholic-bashing Protestants, but strangely (or perhaps, not so strangely) by Catholics themselves. The corollary to this is that if these are “man-made rules”, then there is no need to follow them. You can dispense with them as how Christ dispensed with the man-made rules and traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel passage. Interesting argument but seriously flawed.

Yes, it is correct to state that many of these rules are man-made, Christ made them and Christ was fully human. It was Christ Himself who instituted the Eucharist: “Do this in memory of Me”, He said at the Last Supper. “Go therefore and baptise”, He said, and it was He who included the Trinitarian baptismal formula in the rite. Our Lord was the master of creating traditions! But let us not forget this little, often ignored, seldom stressed point – Christ was also fully divine – He was fully God. So, no, though there are man-made rules in the Church just like any human organisation and society, and these rules can technically be changed and have changed over the centuries, there are fundamentally certain rules set in stone, on an unbreakable and indissoluble “stone”, precisely because God is the author, and man isn’t.

Alright, given the fact that divine laws can’t be changed except by God, how about all the disciplines, canon law, rules and liturgical rubrics of the Church? Aren’t these man-made? Well, just because they are “man-made” doesn’t necessarily empty them of value. Traffic laws, statutory laws, municipal by-laws, school regulations, association rules would equally fall under the same category of being “man-made.” Can you imagine a society or a world that totally departs from any law or regulation and everyone is allowed to make decisions, behave, and act upon their own whims and fancies? If you’ve ever watched one of those apocalyptic movies of a dystopian world in the not too distant future, you will have your answer. We will soon descend into a society of anarchy, lawlessness, violence, where justice is merely an illusion and “might is right.” The reason for this is because none of us are as sinless as the Son of God or His Immaculately Conceived Mother. Laws are not meant to curtail and restrict our freedom. They are meant to ensure that our rights as well as the rights of others are protected so that true freedom may be enjoyed.

In fact, man-made traditions, mark our daily lives. Every morning, it’s the same ritual for millions of people: have a shower, get dressed, pour a cup of coffee, eat breakfast, brush teeth, etc. Human life is marked by all sorts of  “traditions”, whether it is setting up a Christmas tree, giving out red packets on Chinese New Year, having a cake and blowing out the candles, or celebrating with a meal. Ritualism, whether it’s pagan or religious, seems to mark the life of human activity in every culture, whether it is that of neighbourhood families, or that of the Church. Why? Because symbols are a language unto themselves; they carry a meaning that conveys something deeper, whether it is love, danger, memory, or mystery.

That is why it is often surprising to hear both Catholics and non-Catholics condemn Catholic traditions, claiming these are merely “human traditions” that Christ Himself condemned. But did He? Well, frankly, He does seem to say so in today’s gospel passage as He condemned the practices of the Pharisees: “The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations. You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.”  For the detractors of the Church’s man-made traditions, it doesn’t get any clearer than this! But a more careful examination of Christ’s words indicate that He was not condemning human tradition, but those who place human traditions, laws, or demands before true worship of God and His will expressed in the commandments. The problem wasn’t “human traditions” but specifically “human traditions” that obscure the priority of worship and God.

Man was made to worship God; it's in our very nature to do so. Every other human activity should either flow from this or should rank second to this. This is what liturgical rubrics hope to achieve. Detailed instructions for both the priest and the congregation are intended to ensure that God is ultimately worshipped and glorified in the liturgy, and not man who is to be entertained. In other words, all these “man-made” rules of the Church which, to some of us, doesn’t seem to be what Christ taught, actually flow from the heart of Christ's teaching. Christ gave us the Church to teach and to guide us; she does so, in part, by teaching us to know God, to love Him and serve Him and through all these, be united with Him in Paradise forever. But when we substitute our own will for this most basic aspect of our humanity, we don't simply fail to do what we ought; we take a step backward and obscure the image of God.

Church rules are not just plucked out of thin air by “a bunch of celibate old men wearing dresses at the Vatican”, they are not just arbitrary as if these joyless old men wanted to kill spontaneity or make life miserable for the rest of us. And just because some of these celibate old men have been guilty of departing from those rules, does not absolve the rest of us from following those rules. These rules are given to us because the Church is our parent, she is both Mother and Teacher, guided, as Christ said she would be, by the Holy Spirit—not simply for her own good, but for ours. And so, like any mother, she tells us what to do. We may resent this as condescending. We may refuse to accept whatever reasoning the Church gives us. But at the end of the day, she guides us through these rules, disciplines and teachings because She truly cares and loves us and wishes us to arrive at the safe harbor of Paradise.

It is often very convenient to denounce Catholic tradition as “man-made” or “human tradition” just because we don’t like it. The hypocrisy of such an accusation is often lost on those who supplant the Church’s tradition, rules and rubrics, with their own interpretation and version. The sexual abuse controversy raging in the Church is the result of choosing to depart from those rules, disciplines and teachings. By covering up the abuse, bishops and heads of seminaries have substituted worldly standards of non-judgmental tolerance for Christ’s “hard” teachings about sexual morality.This is the real truth. When we ignore or reject the rules of the Church, we are merely replacing them with our own “human traditions.”  In fact, we are putting “aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.” It is not those who keep the rules but those who flagrantly break the rules that are the modern day Pharisees condemned by the Lord in today’s gospel.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that Sacred Tradition, rather than a set of “man-made rules” or “human traditions” is “the living memorial of God’s Word.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains that Sacred Tradition “is not the transmission of things or words, an assortment of lifeless objects; (but) it is the living stream that links us to the origins, the living stream in which those origins are ever present.”  Therefore, we should be putting aside our own arrogant personal thoughts and opinions, rather than God’s commandments, and come to acknowledge that it is not stupidity but humility to listen to the voice of the Church because as St Ambrose reminds us, “the Church shines not with her own light, but with the light of Christ. Her light is drawn from the Sun of Justice, so that she can exclaim: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20).

Monday, August 27, 2018

Do you want to go away too?

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B (2nd Homily)

We unabashedly profess in our Creed that the Church is Holy. But we humbly and sadly acknowledge that the Church is also made up of sinful members, whose lives are sometimes totally at odds with that universal call to holiness. In the past months and weeks, I’m sure you have heard, as I have, “I’ve had enough,” from many within our Catholic community. With all the revelations of abuse and questions of the culpability of those religious leaders who did not address the problem in an open, transparent and timely fashion, the wounds of so many that may have begun to heal have been opened up again with similar strains of anger, disillusionment, even disgust, and many are saying, “I’ve had enough.”

The scandal of clergy sexual abuse has grown from being, as the church once claimed, about a few bad apples, to a world wide disaster stretching across various continents, revealing not only cover-ups by bishops of priests’ behaviour but accusations against archbishops and cardinals. Those who hold the authority of teaching, guiding and governing us. Those who have been entrusted to preach “the message of eternal life”. As I read report after report, commentary after commentary on the current crisis, I was assailed by a cocktail of emotions. As a priest, I felt both ashamed and demoralised. If that was my experience, I dare not imagine how the victims, their family and the laity would react to this avalanche of damning exposes.

Even if the Church is now trying to address more openly the terrible reality of abuse by its clergy, the stories that continue to emerge about the global dimensions of the problem and especially the pattern of denial and secrecy on the part of the hierarchy challenge all of us to ask how we continue to find light and peace and hope in the face of darkness, distrust and disgrace. Some people feel that the behaviour of their leaders are “intolerable” and believe that they can no longer in right conscience remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt.

It is in the midst of such a crisis of trust in the leadership of the Church, and anticipating that many of the faithful are contemplating to walk out if they have not already done so, the confession of Simon Peter at the end of today’s gospel is heartening, “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.” This comes immediately after a major walkout of followers of Christ. They find his claims and his teachings “intolerable.” This was a sad watershed moment in Jesus’ ministry. From now on the crowds begin to thin out. The cross on Calvary would begin to draw near. Following Jesus’ would lose its celebrity appeal and attractive shimmer. The pain of seeing the disciples leave Jesus must resonate with most of us. We’ve seen how friends, family members, relatives, fellow BEC or parish members leave the Church. There seems to be a plethora of reasons why people do so. Some are disenchanted with their priests or with fellow church members. It doesn’t help with all these scandals we hear or read about in the media.

But the Twelve remained, at least for now. They too will flee when the going gets tough, when our Lord gets arrested. But for now, the words of Peter helps us to make a fine and necessary distinction between personalities and the content of their teaching. Of course, it is only natural that we often confused the two. So many flock to parishes or churches who boast of priests and pastors with cultic personalities. Likewise, so many turn a deaf ear to this or that cleric, just because they have cause to dislike them. Rarely do people pay real attention to the content of their teachings and its fidelity to Truth. In other words, popularity often trumps Truth. And that is why we priests are not only tempted by sexual sins and material possessions. But perhaps apparent, the sin of wanting to appear popular. When we try to bend or window dress the Truth, we risk losing not just authentic love but also our souls and the souls of those whom we commissioned to guide, to teach and to sanctify. When we are too busy pretending to be someone else, someone affable, someone attractive, at the expense of the Truth, then we end up selling the people a lie, and that perhaps is the greatest abuse of our ministry.

We are all scandalised, and rightly so, by the sins and failures of some of the Church's members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people. But let this not distract us, as Satan wishes to do, to see that it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever (cf. Heb 13:8). He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Where so many human shepherds have failed the People of God, this Good Shepherd will never betray your trust. Like Peter, we are challenged to make that same confession, “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life!”

Our Lord poses that same question to us today, “What about you, do you want to go away too?” The question involves both a push and a pull dimension.  A “push” question - Why go? If it is to find a safer haven, a less corrupt and more pristine Church, “with no speck or wrinkly or anything like that, but holy and faultless.” then I think that many will be disappointed.  A “pull” question - Why stay? There may be a hundred reasons to leave, but only one fundamentally good reason to stay - Because Christ chose to stay. It is because of His choice, that we can truly claim, without any trace of hubris on our part because we can take no credit for it, that the Church is Holy. The Church is Holy, because she is the Bride of Christ. The Church is Holy in spite of the sinfulness of its members, because the Church is the Body of Christ, who chose to die for us sinners. When Jesus died, his community fell apart. He had been betrayed, denied, and most of his disciples fled. It is easy to remember the many “Judases” and their painful betrayal but difficult to remember the courageous and exemplary holy souls like St Peter and the apostles and many good faithful Catholics who choose to stay! If we are thinking of walking out because of Judas, think again. It’s not Judas that we are walking away from. It’s from Jesus. As much as the Enemy tries hard to paint a bleak picture about the Church, we should not lose sight of the bright holy radiance that She gives through the saintly and exemplary lives of her sons and daughters. That’s the power of the resurrection.

The darkness within the Church is real, and it has too often gone unaddressed because of our refusal to acknowledge it. But the light within the Church is also real, and has too often gone unappreciated. If the answer to darkness is light, then the antidote to sin is holiness. Our answer to all these horrific revelations which highlight the sins of the members of Body of Christ, should not be to walk out, to despair, to give in to resentment and wanting to get even. It is fine to feel shocked and to be angered. But unless we move on in the path of light, seeking to be witnesses of light, striving to bravely live our lives in holiness, then sin would truly have the last word. For when we choose to focus only on the darkness that we see in the Church, we will miss the consolations the Church offers, out of concerns for its shadows.

I want my Church to shine. I know you want the Church to shine too. And she shines best through the beautiful lenses of the saints, whom one author likens to stain glass windows allowing the light to enter the darkness of the Church’s interior. But I understand that everything, from our institutions to our innermost beings, are seen through a glass, darkly. Before, we can appreciate that light, we need to clean the soot, the dust and the dirt of those windows - there must be purification, there must be cleansing, there must be repentance and reparation. So don’t leave, there is a big clean up job to be done and we need all the help that we can get. Only then can we make our way forward, in bright hope, as we reach beyond the darkness of sin to the Light of the Eternal One.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Plant yourself like a tree

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

I’m not sure when it happened. It’s been this way for a long time. But, someone slipped in under the cover of night and moved the goalpost. There was a time when I could say something with such conviction, not only because I honestly believe it to be true, but I could also cite a paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church or a canon from the Code of Canon Law. There was no ambiguity, there was no need for any legal gymnastics to force a round peg into a square hole, there was just plain clarity in the teaching and position of the Church. I guess it no longer feels that way. Only the other day, someone asked me whether I was aware that a particular teaching had changed because Pope Francis had changed it. I was quite certain that he hadn’t and I was trying to convince the person of the same, but she wasn’t buying it. Instead, I received a stinging retort, “Father, you should actually update yourself!”

Yes, we seem to live in a world of shifting theological goalposts, where what used to be the perennial unchanging and solidly anchored teachings of the Church are now subject to supposed “changes” because the Church needs to move with the times. Society needs trendsetters, not theologians. Any resistance to adaptation with the latest fashion and fad would be condemned as rigid and intolerant. The Church that refuses to “update” its teachings is seen as being obstinately blind to changing fads and disrespectful of the feelings of certain groups of people.  The sole purpose of moving our goalposts is the fear that we will lose people; never mind, even if we are leading them to hell or selling them a lie. Being accepted by the media is more important than the truth. It’s strange that lying to someone isn’t considered disrespectful. The whole purpose is to ensure that everyone feels welcomed, un-discriminated, and un-judged, even though their aim seems to be way off the established parameters of the goal post. If their ball can’t reach the goal-post, we will just have to bring the goal post to them!

When push comes to shove, our Lord held His ground. He was not going to shift the goalpost just because it was unpopular, just because the crowds and even some of His own disciples were threatening to leave Him. These past few Sundays Our Lord had been speaking of Himself as “the Bread of Life”. He was of course setting the people up for what would be the most difficult statement to understand that He ever spoke. Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said that they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” The real game changer is that He meant that not just merely in a symbolic way but in a literal manner. In today’s passage we read: “After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Christ said, ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’” Notice that He made no attempt to soften what He said, no attempt to correct “misunderstandings,” for there were none. Our Lord’s listeners understood Him perfectly well. They no longer thought He was speaking metaphorically. If they had, if they mistook what He said, why no correction? On other occasions when there was confusion, Christ had explained just what He meant. Here, instead of attempting to correct any misunderstandings, He repeated Himself for greater emphasis.

He knew many would leave at that point and yet He persisted. “After this, many of his disciples left Him and stopped going with Him.” (John 6:66). Our Lord let them go. He did not chase after them to assure them He was just talking “symbolically” because they understood His words correctly but they could not accept it. This is the only record we have of any of Christ’s followers forsaking Him for purely doctrinal reasons. If it had all been a misunderstanding, if they erred in taking a metaphor in a literal sense, why didn’t He call them back and straighten things out? Both the Jews and His followers would have remained with Him had He only said He was speaking only symbolically.  But He did not correct these protesters.  Faced with the risk of mass desertion and the unpopularity of our position, many of us lesser mortals would have crumbled under the pressure and moved the goalpost to fit in with our audience’s perception and expectation. But our Lord didn’t. He held His ground.

So when you next read or hear from someone that the Church has rethought and changed its doctrines, well you can confidently tell the person, “No, the Church cannot change its doctrines no matter how badly some theologians or groups may want it to or how loudly they claim it can.” The doctrines of the Catholic Church are the deposit of faith revealed by Jesus Christ, taught by the apostles, and handed down in their entirety by the apostles to their successors. To change that would be to change Christ. The Church does not, indeed cannot, change the doctrines God has given it, nor can it “invent” new ones and add them to the deposit of faith.

However, this closure to public revelation doesn’t mean there isn’t progress in the understanding of what has been entrusted to the Church. It is true that the Church does not have the power to do the impossible, to change or delete divinely revealed truths. But it is also true that the Church has the ability to dispense individuals or the whole Church from observing certain ecclesiastical disciplines. Changes in Church legislation does not mean and cannot mean changes in Church doctrine. Furthermore, the Church has a duty to clear up obscurities and misunderstandings regarding the deposit of faith.  The Second Vatican Council through its Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum 11) explained, “The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down… For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.”

One good example of this has to do with the doctrine of Transubstantiation (the teaching that at the moment of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine becomes, the substance of the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, though the appearances of bread and wine remain). This is a doctrine that had always been believed by the Church, but whose exact meaning was understood more clearly over time. The Bible clearly says this change happens, but it is silent about how it happens. The technical theological term “transubstantiation” was not formally adopted by the Catholic Church until the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215. This was not the addition of a new doctrine, but was the Church’s way of defining what it had always taught on this subject in terms that would be so exact as to exclude all the incorrect explanations.

So, if you are unhappy with some teachings of the Church because they don’t seem to match up to your expectations or approve of your present lifestyle, grow up! Don’t expect the world or the Church to bend backwards and move the goalposts to feed your sense of entitlement.  Catholics don’t have to follow every fad, fashion or new fancies of the world. We just need to follow St Paul’s command: "Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). Our anchor is Christ. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, our foundation. No matter what else changes or catches the fancy of man, the Gospel does not change. The Commandments do not change. The capital sins do not change. Morality does not change. Truth does not change. When they do change, or when man’s perception of them changes, it’s good to remember the advice of Margaret Carter, the belle of Captain America, narrated by her niece at her own funeral, “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong, is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.”