Monday, August 22, 2011

Remembering Christ in the Caesarea Philipi’s of our lives

Invariably, our steadfastness in being true to our declaration that Jesus is the Christ becomes tested and tried not so much in times of plenty and joy, but rather, in times of trial and tribulations. This is a truism that cannot be easily denied. It is always easy to be true to our Christian values and demands when the going is smooth, the bank account is healthy, the larder is full, and our kids are on the straight path in life. After all, these are easy signs that God is indeed blessing us, and our natural response would be to continue walking on our path in Christ’s footsteps.

However, there will come a time when this path seems to veer into the side roads, where undergrowth becomes daunting to clear, and where our faith becomes tested and tried. I believe that these are the times when we have to make that deliberate choice to stay close to our Christian convictions and not ‘sell away’ our Christian identity too easily.

In yesterday’s gospel text, this was graphically put across to us by the seemingly innocent mention of the geographical area of Caesarea Philippi as the place where that conversation between Jesus and Peter took place. Scripture is rich with depth and meaning, and there are no wasted words in the Bible. Although it seems to be something merely mentioned in passing, there is really a deep theological and spiritual significance regarding Caesarea Philippi.Notice that they were not in Jerusalem, the great and beloved city when this conversation took place. Jerusalem was considered to be God’s chosen city. It was the place of high religious office, the place of the temple, and the city of light. But not Caesarea Philippi. This is a place up north called the Golan Heights. And it was also a place which was where the pagan god of Pan was especially honoured. Strange, you’d think, that Jesus would choose a place like this to ask Peter if his allegiance to Christ was going to be steadfast.

I think we all have our Caesarea Philippi moments in life. These are the times when we are somewhat far from where it is easy to be close to God’s temple, where the structures of faith and our familiar pillars of society are constantly reminding us to walk the walk of faith. I guess, in the Jerusalems of our lives, it is easy to declare Jesus as the Christ of our lives. At least, it would be far easier in comparison to when we are at our Caesarea Philippi’s of our lives where God seems to be somewhat distant, or at best, on vacation for whatever reason.
This is when compromise can easily be what we choose, and take the path ‘most’ travelled.I was leafing through the iPad version of the Straits Times from my home Singapore just this morning, and was dismayed to read that there are more and more couples who have headed abroad to places like Thailand, Belgium, Israel, and the United States to choose the gender of their baby through a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In short, this is really playing God in an extreme way, where not only is the embryo dabbled with humanly manipulated, it is also ‘engineered’ to ensure the chosen and preferred gender of the baby will be ‘made’. As if the IVF choice was not intrinsically evil in itself, this adds an even deeper layer of evil which is easily masked by the seeming ‘good’ that can come out of it, because after all, a ‘boy’ child would be for the good of the family line. Obviously, the fact that life is a gift from the true and unique giver of life is overlooked and ignored, making the couple’s choice and intentions far more important God’s.My compassionate side reminds me to try to see things from the couples’ viewpoint. Of course, being Chinese, a son would be wonderful, and I can empathise with couples who are barren and who would love to have children of their own. But barrenness can really be a hallmark of faithfulness if only couples could carry this as a mark of sacrificial or redemptive suffering for so many other reasons, the reparation of souls being a very good one. Sure, it could well be that none of these couples are Catholics and who have been well grounded in good Catholic moral education and formation, and that is why they choose this option of life selection. But this is a very clear example of being in a Caesarea Philippi region of life, where other ‘gods’ are worshipped and one is far from the heart of Jerusalem, the ‘true pole’ of the earth.

I can easily think of other forms of Caesarea Philipis – the temptation to stray from fidelity to one’s spouse; the lure of lucre through illicit means that are so easy and attractive; the walking out from responsibilities of family, society and even nation; or the giving up of life altogether.

What made Peter so remarkable in his response to Jesus was that he declared so pointedly that Jesus was the Christ – meaning the ‘saviour, the anointed one’ in that situation, and in the very next moment, which we will see next weekend, Peter gets it wrong and gets called Satan. Well, that’s us too.

But this is where we need to model ourselves after Peter, because in the end, it was the mercy of Christ that he clung on to that really made him the ‘rock’ that had firm foundations.


  1. hi fr luke..
    honestly.. i share the same thoughts with you when i read the IVF thing. It's big biz for the medical indutry.. yes.. it's like playing God.. but to the medical industry.. it's a multi million industry.. who cares the morals and implications and the side effects of it.. so long the "customers" got the "goods" they be it.. Who says they are playing "God"?? they may shout back at you.. i doing a good deed" of helping this childless couple. they may say..

    But what if along the way things go wrong..?? sue and counter sue?? haha.. the next happy person is the lawyer and they are evermore "ready" to help you. don't get me wrong.. not all the lawyers are like that.. but the big money is there and temptation ae aplenty and may not be easy to resist..

    I empathise with childless couples who are trying to have kids after many years of trying.. all i can say dun give up hope on God.. one faine day he will give you one kid.. even if not i'm sure He will give you something much better that this world would give..

    God Bless !


  2. Hi Fr Luke

    Hope you have settled down well by now.

    I felt very encouraged by your sharing.

    However, I cannot agree that such matters happen in the social norm because these couples may not have been moulded in the Catholic faith or teachings etc. It really depends on our upbringing, the traditions we are accustomed to.

    I am in my sixth month pregnancy. As early as in the first trimester, many concerned friends and especially church people kept asking whether it is a boy or girl. Some boldly told me that they are praying very hard for a boy for me! Telling me it's good to have a boy to form a 'perfect family' since I already have a 9-year old girl. My daughter was devastated to hear all these because she is praying so hard to ask God to give her a sister. Why are we defining a 'perfect family' according to our whims and unable to accept God's gift as to how He wills? Why must it be boys, what's wrong with girls? Did God made a mistake when He gives a girl to a certain family for reason beyond us? When finally we were told we are having a girl, despite all the old wives' tale of physical signs (sharp pointy tummy, extremely active baby, etc) indicating that I might be having a boy, but facts are facts. Some told me, never mind, girl also can, as long as she is healthy. My question was why never mind, why should we mind in the first place? What if the child is not healthy, defect to be exact, what then? Should I abort the child because he/she is imperfect in our eyes? Can't we see beyond this that God has His reasons and what He asks is to open our hearts to accept His Will for us? A life is precious and sacred, perfect in His Eyes, even though, in our eyes it may be defective! I have heard of a number of couples who shared how their 'defective' child gave them so much love, joy and yes, pain at times.

    My point is by the pressure of the social norm, many couples succumbed to pressure to wanting a boy and to ensure a healthy one so that it is acceptable. Just as in Singapore, everything we are taught is to achieve perfection, thus, we compromised our values, our belief, our way of life in Christ!

    In the end, as you so well put it, it is at these Caesarea Philipis occasions that will test our trust and faith in God and ask 'Who is Jesus to me?' to let everything fall into place according to His plan. Thank you for your sharing.


  3. I had a Caesarea Philippi event not too long ago. & even though I knew all too well how I should behave - I didn't because of my HUGE ego. I was filled with shame afterwards when someone close expressed disappointment.

    It's so ironical: if I had chosen God's ways at that moment, I would be free of the shame & remorse now. & if St Peter could deny Jesus 3 times & then went on to have a total transformation to the extent of dying for the faith, then there is always the hope that we can all be the same.

    Thank you, Father, for your sharing.

  4. Dear Father,
    There is something comforting in the notion of having faith. Faith gives us hope that a meaningful encounter with a merciful God of love is possible. Faith creates the illusion of a bubble to alleviate the often dreary paths that each of us take. But the fact also is that ‘God helps those who help themselves’.
    While the increased number of options on creating a designer baby constitutes a slippery slope on morality, I also know of people who so desperately want to have a child and it can be an obsession causing so much suffering, insecurity and depression. It is a very rare person who is content to rest of faith and faith alone, and the path ‘most’ travelled is testimony of that. Having or not having a baby can be a bond breaker and seriously undermine marital relations. If it is a balance of evils, can we then not see IVF as trying to help oneself but still invoking the grace of God – since the process of IVF is itself fraught with uncertainty and with high failure rates. If even IVF fails, then the answer from God on having babies is a resounding No. But at the end of the day, if so vehement a stance is taken against seeing a try at IVF as tampering with God’s will, then wouldn’t medical treatment in general be wrong? If God has meant me to die from cancer or a heart attack, then by having surgery/chemotherapy or a bypass, aren’t I playing God to some extent? Such grey areas do raise questions and debate which are never satisfactorily explained from either the religious or secular point of view.
    But thank you and God bless you for the thoughtful sharing on encountering the Caesarea Philippi moments in our lifetimes. I have begun to look forward to Monday mornings since encountering your blog.

  5. When I was at the cave-like place in Caesarea Philipi where we were shown where the pagan Gods were worshipped, I came to understand why Jesus could not have chosen a more appropriate place. It was as if, like Peter, we were asked to confront our faith in the face and presense of all these "pagan gods" which could overwhelm us, and to make a deliberate choice and as such recognise with our eyes and from within our hearts, who is the Lord of our lives. I remembered being so awed by the wisdom of our Lord.


  6. Dear readers

    It is with appreciation that I see so many comments on my blog entry, especially when I am physically so far away from you. I guess the internet does make the world a small place – much smaller than we can imagine.

    There has been a comment from AP which I feel must not be left unaddressed, or at least, un-responded. AP feels that such questions that have moral implications (indeed, as do most questions for that matter) have not been satisfactorily explained from either the religious point or the secular point of view.

    While I cannot say much from the secular point of view and give reasons for this apparent lack, I will have to be the face of the Church in this blog to say a sincere mea culpa for the apparent silence that does sometimes seems deafening in cases like this. Actually, the Church has never been silent. The Encyclical Humanae Vitae, a papal letter by Pope Paul IV on the regulation of birth was the official Church’s voice on such matters as IVF way back in 1968. But I suppose many can feel daunted to read such letters perhaps because it may contain what I often like to say ‘Vaticanese’, which is my take on Church language. It’s not an official dialect of any sort.

    But the long and short of it is that we cannot and must not play God in matters that have a direct impact on life. There must be no direct killing of any sort.

    We must not make the mistake of putting all medical-related issues on the same plate and discuss IVF (which is a form of direct killing) with cancer treatment (which is not direct killing).

    There are some issues which are clear from the get-go that they are morally and intrinsically evil, IVF and now, PGD will rank among them. Sure, the end result looks good – the beholding of a child. But we must never ever just look at the end as a determining good, and from that, derive that the means are justified, no matter how dark and twisted those means are. Perhaps this is where the Church has not been strong and loud enough, and the world’s voice has drowned out the fundamental basis of our moral decisions, because the world has often said that the ends do justify any means.

    Cancer treatment has no direct killing. Your statement that God may ‘mean for one to die from cancer or a heart attack’ and from that, extrapolate that having medical intervention makes us play God to some extent is a very loaded and has lots of presuppositions. That we all will one day die is a given. That God may want us to die from cancer of some other means is problematic, in the theological sense. God does not will death. Cancer is not something that comes from God, but is a result, very often, of our own making – think of how we have introduced carcinogens of all sorts into our bodies. That is why I fully believe that smoking is a moral evil. But that is something that I am sure moral theologians debate about.

    I am not a moral theologian by a long shot, nor am I training to be one. But I thought that I had to address this not just for the sake of AP, but for all my readers who may have similar thoughts.

    God bless
    Fr Luke

  7. Dear Fr. Luke,

    Mondays’ have been a welcoming day of the week since I was introduced to your blog. Your sharing has been very inspiring and I have gained deeper insights to many spectrums of the Catholic faith and teachings as I am relatively new in this faith (still attending RCIA).

    Thank you for your sharing and God Bless...


  8. Looking back, some of my Caesarea Philippi moments were also my watershed moments - of spiritual growth. In this “ I ”-age of instant gratification of wants and quick fixes, it is so inevitable for one to feel empty and find life lose one’s story which has hitherto given a framework and meaning to one’s life . In our Caesarea Philippi, I feel that- Jesus is showing us where to look for God....for reality and truth – not only in the concerns and aspirations of our times but more so from within the cave of our heart – so to speak.

    Being in touch with the source of life within brings us more and more into a relationship which transcends wanting.......that can enjoy and respond to the bounty of God’s goodness in our world. For example, we begin to understand and appreciate the difference between being healed/cured ( be it physical ailment or otherwise) and being whole. Discipleship may not be any easier for He promised to ‘refresh’ us when we are burdened and not to remove the burden. However, our prayer refrain will not be solely one of seeking divine intervention to remove suffering but more of a presentation of our need to the Father, fully trusting that He would do the best thing.

    Thank you Fr for an insightful piece – God bless you.

  9. Dear Fr Fong
    Mere observer of both the practical view (represented by AP bravely setting out a real dilemma of a modern day catholic) and the church view (valiantly defended by you). While you remind us that the path can veer to the side roads, AP really strikes a chord with his seductively well-written sharing on practical issues and I hope for further discussion if he chooses to respond as I can begin to see cracks appearing in both camps. The discussion was interesting and awe-inspiring and I have similarly gained a deeper insight to this spectrum of our faith which is seldom openly debated. Kudos and Thank you and God Bless All of you.

    Inspired searcher in the catholic faith.

  10. It is indeed interesting to see that the previous commenter started out by pointing out the apparent ‘dilemma’ between the practical and the church view. Yes, it is true – that the Church’s view has never been the ‘practical’ view. Pragmatism is often based on and centers on what best suits the human ego, and is most convenient, what is least challenging and offers the least resistance. In John’s words, it would be the ‘world’ view. But we are not mere human beings. We are first spiritual beings learning to be human. And we forget that too often, or rather, we are very un-aware of this fact. Most of us think that we are human beings first, trying to be spiritual. We need to reverse this, because thinking that we are human beings first gives us a rather ‘uphill’ climb that is often filled with tedium and ennui.

    When we make the practical the ‘di-riguer’ or ‘de-facto’ standpoint, yes, there will appear the ‘cracks’ as the writer above mentioned. Actually, theology has two tasks – pointing out the apparent cracks, and going back to Church tradition and finding the right tools to deal with these ‘cracks’, which are often not cracks in theology, but cracks in society and the way that society deals with the human heart and mind. We always have to go back to the starting point of anything, and in the case of morals, it has to be the ‘why’ that we are created and given life. Once we put that aside and forget that, we will get our moral knickers all in a twist, and down the road, it will appear that our view overshadows the view of life as God sees it. Perhaps this is where “Inspired searcher in the catholic faith” takes his/her point of departure.

    My invitation, which really is the invitation of the Church – go back, go back to the origins of life and the why we are created. It is when we only make the search halfway and end there, that it becomes most dangerous because it only gives us a half-completed picture.

    Fr Luke

  11. To Fr Fong

    Not intended to offend you. There was no need to defensive and the personal attack on me suggesting I depart is painful.... It is a dilemma because I do not live in Jerusalem. I am not perfect but I have found it difficult to uphold my catholic faith and that I can understand AP’s views because in my life no one will dare to question or can write like him. (Why you don’t scold him?) But they strike a chord with me because my wife and I are not blessed with any children. We did not opt to go for assisted reproduction technique and now that we have passed the mark, and regret a lot.
    So I interst to know actually why IVF cannot. But we have remained faithful to the catholic faith, and worry often about our twilight years with no children of our own. We still search, we still pray, we still are active in our parish. God Bless You Father.


  12. Dear Richard

    Please do not think that I am offended, Robert. Rather, it appears that I am more mis-read and mis-understood. By using the phrase “point of departure”, I am not at all suggesting that you leave this blog. I am merely pointing out your starting point of your view or argument. Perhaps it is a phrase that is not quite familiar to you. My apologies.

    I am most edified that you are carrying the difficult and heavy cross of barrenness, and this needs to be acknowledged as a victory in process.

    Why is IVF deemed evil by the church? This is not meant to be a blog on moral or bio-ethics, but it certainly seems that I need to delve a tad deeper into this particular issue, which is not clearly understood by many.

    Firstly, the physical intimate union of spouses has a two-fold purpose. It is unitive and procreative. That it is unitive demands that both spouses fully respect and honour each other such that one does not impose on the other one’s demands and needs merely based on the desires of the self. That it is procreative means that each union requires an openness to life as deemed fit to be given by the giver of life – God. Any act that deliberately prevents the latter from taking places puts one’s personal will in a superior position to God’s.

    But in the case of IVF, there is human interjection and manipulation of both the spermatozoa and the egg. This is the first level of evil. The procurement of these and the fertilization of the egg outside of the natural and God- intentioned means is problematic principally because in the natural process, one egg is fertilized by one sperm. In artificial fertilization, a whole batch of eggs is ‘harvested’, and these are fertilized as a batch. Now we have a whole array of zygotes or embryos, each with the potential of becoming a full human being. And because each one has that potential, each should be given the chance of fulfilling that potential. But this is hardly the case. Those with a sympathetic and humane bent will say “we will freeze the embryos”, which is firstly, not something natural, and secondly, problematic on the point of the selection process.

    Secondly, we have the problem of playing the role of God. Who makes the choice of which zygote to implant in the womb? The doctor? What criteria is he using? Obviously he (and the couple) will want ‘normal’ children. Does this mean that ‘defective’ zygotes are to be ‘discarded’? Isn’t that life? Have we not heard myriad stories of how families are changed and become transformed through the acceptance of children with special needs? I could go on and on but these are just the most obvious. Chiefly, the problem lies in who gives the doctor or the parent for that matter to make the choice and to play God?

    Richard, for these two reasons alone, the Church holds that artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization is morally illicit. Sure, on the surface it looks fine. The picture of a couple so happy holding a child that they ‘have always wanted’ often hides an evil that one doesn’t see with the morally untrained and un-questioning eye.

    Do continue in prayer, in hope, and most importantly, in the search for God's will in this. I pray you remain faithful to the Catholic faith, and continue to contribute lovingly to the parish life.

    I leave you with the image of Mary and the significance of her virginity. A virgin was considered a useless person in her times because fecundity and fertility was prized. She was thus a willing ‘empty vessel’, but for God. Teachers always tell us that empty vessels make the most noise. Couples who are barren, and are willing to take this as something that can be offered up to God for a higher good or end, become vessels that can make the most noise too – a noise of praise and reparation for souls that delight God’s ears.

    God be with you, Richard and your wife.

    Fr Luke

  13. I sorry for misunderstanding. You say so many things to explain to us and me and my wife are thankful for that. I think the other person also run away already. Nothing to say. God Bless You Father.


  14. Dear Father

    No schism exists. We are all on the Fr Luke camp until you start throwing people out – starting with me, Ladies first :)... First and foremost, we are all Catholics. As such, like it or not, we are subject to the laws and teachings officially issued by the Church. Though you have to admit that the Church has been wrong before. For example, it was only in 1992 that Pope John Paul II officially conceded that the Earth revolved around the sun although it was apparent since the 17th Century. In his statement he vindicated Galileo by saying that the scriptures were not wrong but just mistakenly interpreted by the theologians.

    So while I personally still take the view that IVF in its incarnation today or nearer into the future not be entirely intrinsically evil, it is always hoped that there will be avenues for Church law reform. This is not the appropriate forum to advocate change and therefore the current rules must apply. As it is, you, Fr Luke must be the shepherd who brings God’s message ‘to choose between a life unknown where He leads the way, or follow earthly trends that will surely pass away’. But serendipitously, you are a particularly skilled kung fu panda able to conjure up explanations, images and ideas (everything except fire and brimstone which are of course rather unfashionable) for all of us to make the Church’s stand a lot more palatable.

    I enjoyed the new idea (to me at least) that ‘We are first spiritual beings learning to be human’. Though ironically your point that we should go back to the origins of life and the why we are created evoked again memories of previous church conflict with Darwin’s theory of evolution. But taking up this logic to its logical conclusion, it makes good sense to go back and back and back – from Darwinian evolution - to the Big Bang – and then with a Quantum Leap – to the idea that people come from intelligence, freedom and the beauty that is identical with love. Perhaps then there will arise from that proper search, a completed picture which will ultimately resonate with the rich tapestry of the Catholic faith.

    So I have not run away yet and still have something to say. The blog ministry provides a unique forum and with your vigilant censorship and responses, shines a clear guiding light for all of us inspired searchers in the Catholic faith.


  15. Thank you so kindly, Ms AP. You are God's blessings this week, and thank you for making clear your gender. Happy searching.

    Fr Luke

  16. Hi all
    This is really the first time that I am very inspired by your blog in the middle of the week. Father you are an amazing priest and Ms AP is one gem who really can think and write well. Is she academic? She and you too both are God's blessings this week. So proud of our online catholic community. Thumbs up.


  17. Fr. Luke,

    You've written another wonderful piece. I am happy that you have highlighted the struggles that many endure, especially those with infertility issues and how indeed it can be a path that Christ is truly embraced.

    As always my hat goes off to you, especially because of your fortitude to speak on moral issues like IVF. Sadly, while the Church speaks about morals and ethics of reproduction and love, these issues some how don't always make it to the laity with the clarity needed, and with such a preponderance of secular rhetoric abounding, voices like yours are so extremely important.

    God bless you always.

  18. Hi Fr Luke
    Want to add my support. This week's sharing and all the comments are so power. I find so funny Ms Ap call u the spiritual Kung Fu impressive. Super like! God bless.


  19. Dear Fr Luke,
    I like very much your comment that have to “go back to the beginning” when we examine moral issues. In the beginning was the creation story and we were created in the image of God to know him, love him and to serve him. The Church may be wrong on (many) occasions about science but I would like to think that the Church is right about moral issues. Debates on moral issues are based on Theology, which is the understanding of God-speak. Hence, when we go back to why we are created, we find our answers there.

    Like you said, we are spiritual beings trying to be human rather than the other way around. When we remember this, we would not find ourselves all tied up in knots. If we were able to create and select life, could we also destroy and terminate life? Wouldn’t the arguments for euthanasia, quality of life, and even genocide become seductive too? Because the Church holds life in such sanctity, we can see so much beauty in the “defective child”, the suffering and the dying. How often I wonder why we Catholics could see so much joy in the cancer patient who is struggling with pain, or the relative looking after the loved ones who may be suffering from Parkinson’s, dementia or schizophrenia? I guess because we know new life is a gift from God and giving this life away (in our dying) is also a gift. Today, I truly see the wisdom in our late Pope JPII’s gift of letting the world see him degenerate with Parkinson’s disease.

    Having said this, I need to say that I don’t judge those who resort to IVF. I empathise with couples who are barren. Children are an expression of a couple’s love. I truly believe our Church has to do more in this area to advise them about IVF – I understand the Church allows some non-evasive fertility treatments but I just can’t google them. Even more crucial is to offer counsel and compassion to these couples.

    Thank you for being, as always, the shepherd who says it as it is but with love and understanding.

  20. This is really a wonderful blog. For a long time I have questions that like Richard, I don't dared to ask and I am grateful that someone was able to start the ball rolling. I also cannot breathe because this can be very sensitive and I also feel you respond strongly at first. I admire AP to remind that we are all in the same camp and even enlighten chuch can be wrong but she not offend. There are many ways to say things and say wrong way can offend. I never even know church has been wrong! So today's 'takeaway' is very rich because you have given so many images like Kung Fu panda and she has also idea on fit this with real scientific fact and make quantum leap back to faith. Seems like all roads lead back to God in the beginning and this is comforting. You are God's blessings.

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  22. Lest I be labelled a heretic or a relativist, do note that I have never said that the Church is wrong, or that the Church has led her people down any wrong paths. The Church's teachings on Faith and Morals are, as has always been, infallible. But only in those areas. Any other realms that are in questions, for instance science and geography, are not in the purview of the infallibility of the Church. Thus, when the Pope in 1992 called the declaring of Galileo Galilei in 1633 a heretic for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, it was making a declaration that in the area of science, it was not THE authority. Only in the area of faith and morals is she of absolute authority. The sad fact that that there have been members of the clergy that have been committing heinous acts of immorality vis-a-vis the recent sex abuse scandals does not for one moment mean that it is no longer authoritative in the areas of faith and morals. We must not be blindsided by the wrong acts of individuals who were weak, and think that this negates on all counts the authority of the institution that upholds truth. though I would be quick to admit that it does become much more difficult to be a 'face' to front a Church that has been hit and smeared by such sinful acts.

    It is mercy, that allows us to carry on, and it is mercy that is needed in the end.

    Fr Luke

    NB - I had to remove my previous posted comment because I discovered several typo errors.