Monday, May 28, 2012

Charity and the love of God and neighbour.

I learnt something from my godson yesterday when I spoke with him over the phone in Holland.  Apparently, Holland has a public holiday on the Monday following Pentecost Sunday.  I remarked that it was rather interesting because from what I know about the church in Holland, it is as alive as a doornail.  The Dutch church had experienced persecution in the past, and after having been emancipated in the 1860s for about a century, it gained some ground, but it has not been anywhere near being a strong Christian country, but instead, has been a tremendously secular society.  Apparently, less than 2% of the country’s Catholics are regular in Mass attendance.  So, it was very interesting to hear that the entire country ‘celebrates’ Pentecost Sunday as a public holiday.  My suspicion is that it had a history of being meaningfully celebrated in that country as a religious holiday in its past, and this is somewhat of a ‘hold-over’ holiday, and because it doesn’t take a religious person to enjoy a day off from work, most, if not all, would want that retained, even if only as a religious holiday in the nominal form. 

But it is a pity.  On a day like Pentecost, where the Church celebrates a maturity of faith, a strengthening of the Spirit, an enriching of wisdom and an outpouring of fortitude and proper fear of the Lord, there are people celebrating a holiday of this event only in name.  Instead, many would have taken quite a few (or a few hundred) steps backward in terms of faith, weakened in the Spirit, and have little fear and instead, disregard for the Lord.  Yet, they want the holiday.  I am sure that there are other countries like this, but the only reason I am citing Holland is because I had a first-hand encounter of this.  I am sure that it is not alone.  In fact, it is such a pressing problem that Pope Benedict is embarking on the New Evangelization strongly, in an effort to re-evangelize the Catholics who have all but thrown out their faith of the window because they have come to the conclusion that their faith is no longer meaningful.  The truth, however, is just the opposite – Catholics who have left often find out later that what they thought was the truth, was their interpretation of the truth, and perhaps something a result of being catechized poorly or learning from wrong teachers.  Sadly, the secular society is a very bad teacher of core Christian values, and this ‘teacher’ has misled thousands, if not millions, from what true Christianity is about.  Indeed, the New Evangelization effort is very necessary right now.

Stained glass impressions of the Theological Virtues of Hope, Charity and Faith 
We don’t need to go far from home to see this effect of bad catechesis and poor praxis of the faith.  I just realized that one of the people who had asked me to bless a new home just before I left Singapore for the United States last year was a person who had actually left the Church for quite a number of years, perhaps decades.  In a casual conversation with one of her relatives whom I personally know, it was only revealed to me that this person was ‘desperate’ to have her new apartment blessed so that she could live there peacefully.  I had no idea that this was not a ‘practicing’ Catholic when I went there to bless her home.  As a general rule of thumb, I would ensure that Catholics have as little of a superstitious mentality as possible before I proceed to bless homes.  Hopefully, the little catechesis I give before blessing anything causes them to ponder about their relationship with God. 

A secular country celebrating a spiritual holiday.  A non-practicing Catholic wanting her home blessed.  What do these two have in common?  Maybe one thing – that there is a great desire to love the grace of God, but a great reluctance to love the God of grace.  Is this disturbing?  To a priest whose life is all about getting folk to open their hearts to the love of God, it certainly is.  It shows me that there is just so much more to do, because there are so many levels of society which have yet to hear the Word of truth in life. 

The nurturing of the theological virtue of Charity is something that has been impressed on me by my Dominican lecturers in the course that I am taking right now.  Charity is also the theological virtue that enables us to love our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.  It is the virtue which, as St Thomas says, allows us to love other for the sake of the other.  It is what allowed Jesus to say ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’ on Calvary.  It must be what allows so many injustices to go on, not because we condone it, but because it is a reflection of ignorance.  Charity binds everything in perfect harmony, upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and ultimately, raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love.  Without the gift of Charity as a virtue, we would end up only loving ourselves in a selfish and introverted way, and deface the divine image that we are created in.

When I act with true Charity in the heart, it becomes less important if a non-practicing Catholic doesn’t go back to Church on Sunday after I bless her home, though of course it would be much better if she does.  Charity also makes me say that perhaps it is still good that Holland has Pentecost Monday as a public holiday though only 1.2 percent are Church-going, because it makes the Dutch think, even for a moment or two, about the Holy Spirit in their lives.  Charity enables me to not think that I have ‘wasted’ my time catechizing her before blessing the home, because it would allow some way for God’s word to gain access to her heart, even for a moment or two.  In other words, it’s ok if things are still not perfect on the spiritual front before they enjoy the good things of God, because Christ did not wait till the world was sinless before he died for it. 

But I have also realized that my being as close to a state of grace does play a great part in whether or not I let Charity operate through me.  It is only when I am aware of this that my priesthood becomes an instrument of holiness for others, making my personal choice for God and holiness, so that it can become a reason for others to make similar choices in life. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Where shall we go to?

When Jesus gave the discourse on the Bread of Life in John’s gospel, his audience, who were mainly Jews, found his teaching intolerable.  They heard him on one level, which is a physical level.  And because they only heard him on a physical level, they understood that Jesus asked them to be cannibals.  Upon hearing this, they walked away. 

After the unbelieving Jews had left, Jesus was surrounded by his disciples, and he asked them whether they too, wanted to go.  You’d think that they decided to remain with Jesus because they had deep faith in him.  But that was not the reason.  Peter the spokesperson of the group probably uttered a truism, which was hardly a confession of faith when he replied that they had nowhere to go to, because Jesus had the words of everlasting life.  You would notice that it was hardly a strong, affirmative statement of faith.  It was more like “we don’t really have choice, do we?” type of answer.  He knew that Jesus had and was the truth, but he also found himself in a quandary.  It was not a very comfortable place to be. 

Perhaps that sums up a lot of the truth of our faith lives.  If we are true to ourselves and if we are honest to our deepest feelings, there are times when our faith is not something that puts us in a comfortable place either.  These are the moments of our lives when we are challenged by the evils and dishonesty of the world.  If we are looking out at these through the eyes of our faith, and if we stay with our faith values, it will often not be a very comfortable place to be in either.  Parts of us will want to take revenge for hurts, for betrayals and for wounds of various natures caused by others.  Inside of us we will realize that there are also areas within us that want to have the last word in an argument, and to trump our adversaries with an upper hand that is not in any way kind.  The very excusable and raw elements of us seem to demand that we do not want to forgive, to not be kind, and to be self-seeking.  After all, the world seems to get away with a lot of such execrable behaviour.  However, if we are constantly aware of our deep Christian calling, and stay true to them, we will also find ourselves uttering the same phrase that Peter did “Lord, we shall we go to?  You have the message of eternal life.” 

Is this a good place to be in?  It’s not necessarily bad to be in a quandary of this sort, where we feel a tug in our lives from two opposing directions.  This means that our consciences are working and that we are not resting on our spiritual laurels.  Of course, when we know objective truths we should not be wondering whether or not the grass is greener on the other side, but being aware that there is another ‘side’ helps us to be more sensitive to the plight of others, developing a compassion that can often be left under-developed, making us sometimes arrogant in our self-assurance.

I am certain that in our constant search for what ‘thrills and delights’, we will hear Jesus asking us like he asked his disciples that day “What about you, do you want to go away too?”  When we are aware of Jesus’ question, don’t be too disconcerted when you find yourself replying like Peter did, when he said “Who shall we go to?”  A questioning faith can show a developing faith that allows the grace of God to move one toward holiness. 

But perhaps a caveat needs to be added here.  One reading this may think that it is ok to leave our children to fend for themselves as far as faith and morals are concerned.  That would be as kind a move as push them off a high cliff.  Many parents are saying that they are not baptizing their children as infants because they want them to make the decision about the importance of faith and the Church when they are adults.  My reply to them is:  if they are not made to see the importance of it when they are young and formable, what makes you so sure that they will see the grave importance of it when they are older?  There is a great wisdom in infant baptism, but perhaps the problem lies in parents not being able to explain rationally the reason for this sacrament of initiation, either to their children or to themselves.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Life rightly understood is not about rights

The young people whom I have had the opportunity to minister to as a priest have been oftentimes one of the most delightful as well as the most challenging at the same time.  Some of them have been very well formed spiritually, but for the most part, they also seem to be worldly savvy rather than actively putting their faith into practice when faced with the struggles of daily living.  Sad to say, the world does seem to be a stumbling block, preventing them from living out their faith.  The way it panders to their feelings, influencing their moral standards and desensitizing their conscience makes it a particular challenge to any minister, lay or ordained, to reach them at their hearts and souls.  Generally, they seem to relate to what is portrayed in the movies, and I have on occasion had to use some phrases that are particularly useful to bring across a teaching point.  I recall one phrase that Peter Parker, also known as Spiderman, uttered in the movie of the same name.  It ran "with great power comes great responsibility".  It has been a very useful phrase for teaching not only youth, but adults as well, as there is a lot of truth in it.  Perhaps the adult world should hold that as a golden rule as well.

In the past week, we saw how President Obama, arguably the most powerful man in the world, make a personal statement about how he supports gay marriage.  He made it clear that it was a personal belief, citing how among the members of his own staff who lived out their homosexual orientations in life, he came to see how good and effective they were as workers and staff members.  It was the first time ever that a President of the United States of America made such a public and quasi-official statement on gay marriage, and understandably, it caused Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to respond with great concern this stand of Mr. Obama.  Needless to say, the gay rights activists were beside themselves to see such endorsement given to their cause at the presidential level.  It brought to mind Peter Parker's phrase with a heavy heart.

It is clear that marriage as an institution is being threatened on so many levels as it is.  The last thing it needs now is to have a same-sex union to be called a "marriage", let alone having it presidentially endorsed, even if it is a "personal" opinion.  It will most certainly be misread and misquoted as something that is official and bona fide, even if it is not.  Marriage is and has always been the sacred union that joins a man and a woman in a lifelong exclusive bond.  It has been raised to a sacramental level, meaning that when that union is lived out in its fullest and most selfless, loving way, it mirrors God's very own existential love because from it comes the possible fecundity of another human living being.  This is simply not a possibility in any same-sex "marriage".  Using the word "marriage" so loosely and with such flippancy will undoubtedly confuse the impressionable young minds.  This will stymie the Church’s efforts in forming the minds of our future adults.

What is the root of the issue here?  There are many, I am sure.  But one of the biggest issues is that of a misplaced and misinformed sense of "rights".  We do have rights, but they are all within the purview of God’s divine law.  Inside of this issue of misinformed "rights" are erroneous presumptions like  "it's my right to do with my body as I please", or "to satisfy my deepest longings is my right as a human being" or “I have a right to find my own happiness no matter what it takes”.  However, at the heart of a true Catholic spirituality is the fact that life is not about rights, and instead, that life is a gift given out of grace.  The moment the "rights" card is waved and brandished about and thrust in the face of our interlocutors, it is clear that we are no longer on common ground.

We only need to read and reflect on the temptations of Jesus in the desert to see that life is not about "rights".  His three temptations were all "rights" centered, weren't they?  Being the Son of God, the tempter insinuated that he had rights and privileges.  Turn stone to bread, get the angels to be at his service, and right to be given the world if one worships the wrong god. 

These are very real temptations, and everyone faces them at some point in their lives.  Jesus gives us the right approach when faced with such temptations.  Pun definitely unintended.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Preparation for Marriage begins in our childhood

It came up again.  It was during the Liturgy and Spirituality class that the discussion veered into the hot topic of why separations and annulments are so rampant in the Catholic Church.  Fr McManus, our erudite professor was rather insistent that it was two sacraments that have seen great fallout in recent times.  They are, in his opinion, the sacraments of Reconciliation and Matrimony. 

My hand was sprung into action and shot up into the air to give my 2 Singapore cents worth of comment to this statement.  I felt that being the only ordained priest in the class, I had the experience behind me, to not only give an alternate opinion, but also to back it up my claims with concrete examples.  When I was given the nod to contribute, I had this to say: “Although the two sacraments you mentioned have experienced much negativity and a poor reception, one of the things that have caused this is due to the misunderstanding of what the Sacrament of Confirmation truly is.  It has been the greatest challenge of catechists and priests to get that part of life and faith formation right in order to prevent the later fallout which is almost bound to be seen in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Matrimony.”  The professor did not seem to be surprised. 

It was part of the course’s aim to uncover the spirituality behind each of the Sacraments of the Church celebrated in the Church’s rich Liturgical tradition, which ultimately serves to give each person encountering Christ in that sacrament to a richer and deeper mystical spiritual life.  This has always been the purpose of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, where two baptized Catholics, entering into a spousal union, become the means in and through whom each party becomes lifted to a higher level of union in Christ with the Holy Trinity.  In short, it is not just the notion of a life that is shared between Peter and Mary that is celebrated in Holy Matrimony.  Whilst this may be good and wonderful on the basic human level, the Church’s desire and aim is that in this sacred union, Peter and Mary become, as it were, the conduits through which each one lives their own baptismal life to the greatest level possible so that each one’s life becomes a living testimony of great holy union with God.  And they will do this when each one in the sacramental marriage become as loving as Christ, as forgiving as Christ, as selfless as Christ, and as single-minded in giving his or her entire self to the other in imitation of Christ who had given his entire self to the Father out of love, because the Father, as John 3:16 tells, had loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish by may have eternal life.

Admittedly, this does seem to be the “holy Grail” of married life, and would appear to be the Quixotic aim which for many many couples, for the most part may just remain an ‘impossible dream.’  But perhaps it is because most couples do not have the notion of just how utterly powerful and life-giving the persons of the Holy Trinity are for each other and for the existence of the entire universe that most have only a vague idea of what a true marriage is. 

What we get exposed to forms our ideas.  I don’t think that this statement can be refuted or dismissed as a generalization.  What do most couples going into marriage get exposed to?  Nowadays, these “exposures” would be the idea that a marriage is a wedding, and that it costs a lot to get married.  The dress has got some prime importance, and that the wedding day is the “bride’s day”, so she is at liberty to do just about anything she wants, including getting a standing ovation as she walks up the church’s aisle, exposing half her body to all and sundry in God’s house.  No one really pays much attention to the scripture readings at the Mass, and everyone is waiting for the supposed ‘big moment’ of the kiss (which is something that is non-existent in the rubrics of the liturgy of the Rite of Marriage but which many priests turn a blind eye to), and from that moment on, just about everyone in the church can’t wait for the Liturgy of the Eucharist to be over so that they can get to the next more important part of the wedding – the photographs and the eating and partying. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not a party pooper and I do think that there is a time for partying.  But if scant attention is paid by couples as to what a true marriage is constituted from, and whose image and likeness the marriage ‘body’ is called to imitate and draw its graces and spiritual energies on, it’s no wonder that so many marriages are going downhill from the wedding day on. 

There is really very little theology that people want to appreciate in marriage, and that is a shame, because it is when there is a proper and healthy understanding of where the marriage theology is drawn from, and where it is helping couples to aim towards, most couples will just coast along in their married life, and just hope that they can cope with the pains and struggles that will inevitably come about when married life is lived out. 

Our professor was lamenting that when he sees couples coming to him for marriage, there is just so much spiritual ‘slack’ that he needs to pull up just to get the couples to meet the Church at where Mother Church wants to meet them at the spiritual level when they get married.  Many Catholics are not even confirmed in their faith, and to ask for a Sacramental Marriage at that point does seem to show not only a deficient appreciation of the faith, but also a sad understanding of what a sacrament does to a person’s life. 

Am I convinced that there is a very great problem that the Church is facing when dealing with couples wanting to get married?  Without a doubt.  I am also convinced that one of the ways that this can be addressed is to form our youth well, but to be fair to them, the way that many of them have been educated and formed in life, parents and by their school systems often stymie the formation of hearts and minds that good catechesis tries to undertake.  If parents would supplement what catechesis does at home with constant and consistent discussion and reflection on the part that God plays as a central role of life, it will go a long way in getting youth to centre their lives in a more grounded way.