Monday, May 31, 2010

Rejuvenation in my priesthood

It is certainly not a very comfortable time right now to be a priest in the Catholic Church. The entire world over, many, including Catholics, seem to be very wary of priests, especially in the light of the scandal that has rocked the church. I suppose the wary ones can’t be blamed for being overly cautious. The Church has let many down, and this Church is paying the price. But the problem is that the young men who have recently become priests are actually paying the price of the sins of the former generation. I was somewhat jolted into this reality on Friday evening, when I con-celebrated at the sacerdotal ordination of three Franciscan Friars.

On most accounts, it was a very moving, artistic, and beautiful liturgy. The hymns were tasteful, the movements were thoughtful and deliberate, and it didn’t take much to see that a lot of thought and prayerfulness went into the event, making it a true celebration in every sense of the word. But what was most poignant about it was that despite all that is happening to the priesthood, despite all the skepticism and negativity surrounding priests and the Church, our wounded clergy received a new energy and a new spirit at that priestly ordination.

Having been a priest for coming close to 9 years now, I am seeing the wisdom and the necessity of participating mindfully and attentively at such celebrations because it gives the enervating and emasculating priesthood a ‘shot in the arm’, to be reminded once more that what we do as priests, who we are as priests do have a positive impact on the people of God. Perhaps some of us have been somewhat jaded by the incessant aspersions cast on the priesthood and as a result, have shrunken back into our shells, and only when officially needed, come out with trepidation to ‘do our priestly duties’ and can’t wait to get back into our safe havens.

Thinking and living this way as priests will see us die a very sad death. But at ordinations, where young (and perhaps not-so-young) men remind us of our vigour, our dreams, our somewhat lost youth, before the hairline receded and the bellies grew large, if we are really present to the words of the Prayer of Consecration, where we priests together with the Bishop raise our hands in a co-consecratory body, something like dying embers within our hearts can become re-ignited and inflamed once again.

It is for this reason that I believe that married couples need to participate at wedding masses and services often, in the same way that priests need to con-celebrate at Ordination Masses. This is because I believe that we (priests as well as laity) have a certain dementia in us. We forget our dreams and perhaps we have displaced or misplaced our generous desires of loving others. Through the years, due to disappointments, pains and struggles, we are loath to being enchanted by life.

The sex abuse scandal that has shaken many of us is not as pernicious as something that can already be infecting both priests and laity. What I am talking about is cynicism, skepticism and pessimism.

My little readings about St Francis of Assisi revealed to me that this little man in stature was a giant in faith, and one thing about him was that he was always enchanted by the world. My hopes for the three young men who were ordained on Friday is that they never cease to dream, never become daunted by tensions, and to dare to be men who never flag in their zeal for enchantment.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Our need to respond at Liturgy

What makes a wonderful Mass?

I’d love to take a straw poll after Mass on any given Sunday, and ask people at random this question. I’m quite sure that these could be some of the answers that I could get:
“When the choir blends its voices so beautifully like angels”, or
“When the Lectors proclaim the Word with great clarity”, or
“When preachers give great insights at a well prepared, crafted and delivered homily”, or
“When the servers execute their duties with great pomp and alertness”, or
“When the celebrant sings everything with heartfelt meaning and is on pitch”.

While I am sure that if all of the above happen together at a Mass, it may send some into ecstatic celestial heights, these, unfortunately, do not a wonderful liturgy make. What separates good liturgy from awe-inspiring liturgy literally lies in the mouths of the congregation.

In all that we do, what gives us great delight is when there is a positive response to our actions and overtures. We could be putting up a concert, writing of a book, producing a movie, or inviting friends over for a meal. It makes little sense to act or sing to an empty hall, to write a book which no one will read, let alone buy, make a movie which people simply will not watch, or get a meal ready for friends who will not turn up.

What happens at each Mass has a gravitas of far more import than any of the examples that I just listed. God is coming into our lives in a concrete way. God is offering himself to us over and over again. What God requires of us is to respond adequately and appropriately to this great grace (which saves us), which we do not deserve at all.

When properly understood and celebrated, the entire liturgy becomes a great offer and response flow - of love offered, and love received; of loved received, and love returned. That is what happens between the persons of the Holy Trinity, and our liturgy then becomes a mirroring of that great exchange of love.

Once we see how deep the Mass goes, then we will begin to understand that each gesture, each response, each action well executed and mindfully carried out becomes our return of gratitude and love to the one who is love. And when we are loath to respond with mindfulness, when our response is more timid than throaty, when we prefer to let the choir “perform” than to blend our voices with theirs, we are showing a lukewarm response to God’s offer of love and life.

When I am aware of this as a priest, then I will want to lead my people to as great a response as possible, because that marks fantastic liturgy. I’ll want the choir to be one that is giving their all to God, I’ll hope that the lectors really know how to proclaim and not just read, and I want to ensure that each altar server truly becomes the model participant at each Mass by his singing, opened mouth response and deliberate and mindful gestures.

Sadly, the world today seems to have become far too self-centered for this meaning to take place on a large scale in a church congregation. Dare I hope that an entire congregation deeply understands this? I’m not sure, because there will be many who will say that Mass for them is a ‘me and God’ moment, so “let me speak to God in my heart”. The understanding of the Church’s liturgy, which is public worship, has sadly seemed to be reduced to something personal and private – something that it never was, and never will be.

I used to get very upset as a celebrant to see Catholics who refuse to sing, who won’t respond to prayers, and who are very reticent and withdrawn and cold at Mass. Yet, these could well be the same people who go to rock concerts and show far greater enthusiasm with their response when the singer says “somebody scream!” or “I want to see you jump on the floor!” God, it seems deserves far less response and warmth than a mere mortal who demanded an entrance fee of hundreds of dollars and who thrills albeit momentarily.

Why do I say, “Used to get upset”? Perhaps I am beginning to see that being upset doesn’t make things better. It doesn’t help me to operate out of a mellow space and a compassionate heart. I just hope that I am able to impart, in a lucid and gentle way that we need to adjust our collective response to God’s offer of love and mercy.

Because when we do, heaven happens.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The battle within

The Church Fathers of old used to say in a rather simplistic way that inside of each of us, there lays two minds and two hearts. Some of them even went on to say that there are also two selves inside each of us. Not that we are schizophrenic in a bad way, but that there lies a great struggle deep within and each day, we will find a ‘battle’ going on between the two selves.

In just one moment last week, right in front of me was what I just described. I was waiting to cross the road at the zebra crossing when I saw a man holding on to his little daughter’s hand ensuring that she would not run onto the road. This he did with his right hand. But it was what was in his left hand that was somewhat incongruous. In his left hand was a half-burnt cigarette.

The incongruity to me was more amusing than it was glaring. The man was clearly very caring for his daughter’s safety and life. But on the other hand (literally) he was holding on to what is proven to be something that is toxic to life – not just for him, but also for all who breathe in second hand smoke coming from the act of smoking nicotine.

While I am not a smoker, and will never be one, this column is not meant to upbraid anyone who is smoker. I convinced that with so much written about the negative effects of smoking, most smokers actually do know that what they are doing is simply not beneficial to their health. Whether they are doing anything about this is a personal struggle. It is the incongruence of what I saw that set me thinking about what the Church Fathers said about that two-selves struggle that many of us are grappling with in our lives.

We in the Christian faith say often that Jesus saves us. But this statement has so many dimensions that if we don’t pause often to think about it, it becomes a cheap throwaway phrase that doesn’t impact our lives very much in a real way. One of the ways that Jesus ‘saves’ us is by revealing to us that within each of us, we have the life of God. And the more we respond to this godliness by our life-actions, we become fully alive in God. But he doesn’t mean that God forces us. In fact, the more we freely choose to respond to the divine inside of us, the more we grow that godly mind; that godly heart within.

But aren’t we all an admixture of that divine image, as well as the broken person that struggles with a propensity to sin? That’s what the Church Fathers meant. Sometimes, we find ourselves choosing to go against our right reason, truth and right conscience. That is when we give in to our self-centered leanings and ‘go for it’, as the current lingo likes to put it.

But in reality, it’s not as clear as that, is it? The truth is that we all struggle, and for most of us, a lot of the time, we are like that man whom I saw across the street at the zebra crossing. We want to do good and we want to live out our divine calling, which is imaged in that man holding tightly to his daughter’s hand. But at the same time, aren’t many of us also holding on to our various cigarettes and sending out second-hand smoke to those who are around us, harming us as well as those we love? Especially when we do this with hardly a smidgen of reflection about the choices that we make?

Conversion is never a one-time event. We would be na├»ve to think that a baptism, or a RCIA journey is enough to make us immediately ready for heaven. It is a process, and within that process lies the discovery that the struggle, the choosing, the reflection has to continue. Our life becomes then that canvass on which we draw big – from that huge, generous and selfless mind and heart. Or conversely, we can be fearful and draw small squiggles – from that little, selfish and small-hearted mind and heart.

Just to realize that our lives are that juggling and struggling between the two selves is a step to conversion.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"I Do" should start with "Do I?"

Marriages are made in heaven. So are thunder and lightning.

That’s an old joke with obscure origins. But it does say something that I think rings true about what constitutes the basis of a lasting and holy union of two lives for the remaining years of their lives on earth.

I have been a Marriage Encounter priest for more than 6 years now, and one of the things that I firmly believe that sets our society on safe ground is a stable and holy marriage. The very fibre of our society becomes threatened and shaky once the institution of marriage as a permanent and lasting feature starts to become compromised. We see it happening all around us, and Catholic marriages are not spared the plague either.

There are plenty of mitigating factors that contribute to the complex problem of marriage instability and the possible eventual separation of a married couple. What most marriage counselors do is ‘damage control’ but it is precisely that – control of damage that has already been done. The kinds of ‘damage’ are commonly infidelity, mistrust, lost romance, or a growing incompatibility between marriage partners. I have had my fair share of helping troubled marriages myself (by the way, the Marriage Encounter programme is not for troubled marriages, but to help good marriages become better), and one of the most difficult things to do is to get them to meet at some common level from where a dialogue can commence with as little acrimony, anger and wound-opening occurring as possible.

As I grapple with the task of helping marriages to become whole again, my silent question to myself is often “where did it go wrong?” It came to me recently that perhaps it’s not so much a question of “where did it go wrong?” but more a question of “did the couple begin from a correct starting point before getting married?”

Perhaps I need to qualify what I am saying. My reflection on marriages in this morning’s blog pertains more to Catholics who marry Catholics. It is not an aspersion on what the Church calls ‘mixed marriages’, where a baptized Catholic marries an unbaptised person. The Church has always recommended that the two parties coming together are baptized, cherish and practice their faith with a maturity, and are in full awareness that all that they have, all that they are, is gift from God.

What is the correct starting point for anyone contemplating something as serious as marriage? It would be to seek enlightenment and divine assistance to marry someone whom God wills for us to marry. The same should be asked of by the other party.

Put plainly, a well ordered life, which leads to a well-ordered marriage, is to love God first before loving another human being. Married couples that love God first individually, whose love of God is the number one love in their lives, becomes rightly ordered. And before seeking a marriage partner, to have sought God’s assistance is akin to asking God “Lord, is it your will that I should marry? If so, please point me towards the right person who would help me fulfill your will in my life. Is this the person who will help me to fulfill your mission in my life? Do I see this person as the one who, together with me, will make us a couple set out for mission in the world?” Imagine the other party searching for someone in her life making a similar prayer. In the search for holiness and godliness, those two lives will be guided by God. And for mission.

But from the way I look at many marriages now, it seems that God’s guidance, God’s pointing of the way, or the desire to do God’s will is something that is so far from the mind of the baptized Catholic. Perhaps one is deemed too ‘holy’ if one begins from this kind of a starting point, and so, a man or woman-hunt begins without much divine assistance, without a seeking of God’s will, with nary a thought of the need to become mission-oriented in one’s life. When this happens, what kind of criteria does one base one’s choice of a life-partner on? A few of them come to mind – good looks, intelligence, material stability, sensibility, a sense of humour, and some semblance of compatibility. One doesn’t need a relationship with God to base one’s choice on those factors. In fact, very often, the problem marriages start become problematic precisely when those very factors change or become compromised.

The church has in its wisdom always strongly recommended that baptised Catholics marry baptized Catholics but not many couples seem to grasp why. It is not so that we can become more in-bred, as some may think. It is more so that our whole lives are begun on the right footing and that we are on a solid starting point in fulfilling God’s will with a mission mindset. Many I suspect, know that this should be the norm, but it is not fully appreciated for the wisdom and stability that it offers.

I know that there are many Catholics who have married partners who are not Catholics, and have cited reasons like “so that she/he can become Catholic one day” as their contribution to evangelization efforts. Red flags flutter in my mind when I hear this, because if one has an agenda for marriage that is not one of unconditional love, it puts the marriage on very shaky ground to start with.

Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that not all marriages in which both parties are baptized Catholics stay intact throughout. A baptism is a rite, but living a baptized life requires effort, disciple, and a certain asceticism that is full of sacrifice, in imitation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Perhaps my blog today is not so much targeted at couples who have been married, or even those who are struggling with being a loving couple. I do hope that there are single Catholics reading this, who are beginning their adult lives, and wonder how to start thinking about marriage, or if they should be married at all. Before looking for a partner, before putting down on a piece of paper what you want to see your partner having as your ideal qualities, perhaps the better thing to do to is to see if your relationship with God is such that he is the number one love in your life. And if he is not, do something about this; re-orientate your life so that God slowly does take up that prime spot. Because once he is, and your life partner shows a similar love of God, your marriage becomes something that is set on rock, because it will be the love of God that is sealing your marriage in a very real way.

So, long before the “I do” of the marriage vows are made; long before finding a partner, the question to ask is “do I?” - Do I love God first? Do I want to do God’s will in my life? Do I understand that my life is for God’s mission? Do I desire this more than anything else in life?

These questions will make the “I do” declaration before the Altar of God an acknowledgement that both parties are going to be partners with God to do his will on earth, as in heaven. And yes, these marriages will then be made in heaven, because these marriages will be made for heaven.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The 'why' of our existence

Have you ever looked up into the vast night sky and gazed into space? We here in Singapore aren’t as blessed as many of our brothers and sisters are, living in areas where there is so much land that they can just go into open spaces where there is less lights illuminating the sky, allowing the brightness of the millions of stars to overwhelm the star gazer. I remember going to Tasmania quite a few years ago, and in venturing out of the room at night, happened to look up and was just floored at how beautiful the stars were that night. If any of you readers happen to live where gazing into a vast night sky is possible without the use of a telescope, I’d encourage you to do that, and ponder the question – why do we exist? Of all the stars, planets and solar systems out there, why are you given the life that you have right now?

Our faith tells us that we are not made on the whim and fancy of some creator who arbitrarily decided to give us (and everything else, for that matter) life. Our faith reminds us, through the Word, that God has a great plan in store for us when he created. He created us out of love, and for love, and rightly, to glorify God. In other words, we were loved into being. In fact, the very act of a marriage consummation is itself a testimony of life being something that comes out of love.

But the question remains – did we need to be created by God? Is God in himself complete, and sufficient without our being created? He has to be. If God can experience a lack, an insufficiency, or any kind of incompletion, he would not be God. He would need something else, or someone else to ‘complete’ him. But God has to be in himself, always complete. In our reflection of life, I am sure that our view of the world and our attitude toward life itself will change for the better when we come to see that God did not create us for himself, but so that we could participate in his divine life. In other words, God made us for our sakes, and not for his. Life in God, life in the Trinity was (and is) so complete, so overwhelmingly beautiful that the life of God bubbles over into more and more love, and more and more life.

I happened to watch an episode of a documentary recently entitled “I shouldn’t be alive”. Each episode apparently features the very dramatic and near-death experience of one person, and how this person survived that particular life-threatening situation. The one I watched featured how an experienced sportswoman who went on a training run alone in the wilderness encountered an accident and fell a great height, shattering her pelvis. Through several days of keeping herself from slipping into unconsciousness, she managed to keep awake till she was found by the authorities and brought to medical help, and to life. Indeed, under such treacherous circumstances, a person like this lady recounting such an incident should say, “I shouldn’t be alive”.

When we find ourselves pondering over our lives, our very existence, and the ‘why’ that we are here at all, I believe that our lives will change, our attitudes towards our enemies, our refraining from acts of forgiveness and kindness will soften the moment we come to the realization that we should not be created at all, but we were. That there is no need for us to “be” should floor us, perhaps like the way that night sky floored me that night in Tasmania. But the fact that we are, the fact that we exist, shows the grace of God at work, and the tremendous act of God’s mercy.

May we not need to be found in the ‘jaws of death” in order for us to appreciate greatly that we have been formed in the loving “hands of God”.