Monday, June 26, 2017

Is the God we are often angry with really God? Or is he a being of our own construct?

The things that we hear in the confession as confessors often do several things to us.  Many, if not most of history’s well-known confessors have admitted that hearing confessions have humbled them to a great degree.  This is true.  It always humbles us to see how hardened sinners have come to the realization that the God of mercy had been waiting so long for them to come to that point in their lives to admit that they had strayed and drifted so far off course.  It further humbles us to be used by God in the celebration of the Sacrament to impart God’s mercy so lavishly. 

The other thing that is often revealed to us is how stilted and underdeveloped many Catholics are in their notion of God.  While it is lamentably true that many of the faithful have a very simple and basic theology (if at all), what they reveal about how they feel about God, his mercy and his justice give us the impression that so much of their so-called ‘sins’ are really an unnecessary burden that they are carrying around with them, sometimes for a huge part of their Christian lives.

Let me explicate.  Let’s say that a penitent confesses that he is very angry with God because there is so much violence in the world.  In this one line, he is saying much more than he articulates.  First of all, there is the reason for his anger.  When asked why he is angry, he could reply by saying that a loving God, and a God who is just, will not let such injustices happen in the world.  It is also very possible that he is saying that if he were God, he would do a much better job at being God.  There’s a hidden pride in this, if we get to the ‘brass tracks’ of things.  This person may have prayed with great fervor that the violence be stopped by some divine act, and this would solve problems at so many levels, one of them being that angry atheists who don’t believe in God’s existence would then have to rescind their stand.  However, God doesn’t operate this way, and so it gives one some reason to be infuriated with this god.  Again, the hidden or unseen arrogance would be that God’s ways appear to fail, especially when put against the scrutiny of man’s very limited judgments and standards. 

Getting back to being angry with God, putting all that was considered into perspective, it becomes clear on such occasions that the real sin isn’t so much anger with God, but that one’s idea of God was faulty and erroneous.  The penitent was, to be fair, guilty of worshipping a self-created or false god, than of being angry with God per se.

I’ll try to use a metaphor from mathematics to make this clear – if we get the fundamentals of a mathematical formula right, we will be able to apply this to the problems that we are trying to solve, and come to an acceptable answer.  But if we get it wrong from the level of the formula itself, the correct or acceptable answer will never be reached.  We will need to address the formula and right what was wrong in the first place to reach a correct solution.

I am not saying that faith is like math.  It is far more complex and delicate, with more mystery than epistemology.  But just like math, the basics often affect the end with results that are grave and alarming.

I try to spend some time counseling my penitents in the confessional whenever I see signs of this in their confession.  Though it is often appreciated, I am sure what is not appreciated are the very slow moving lines outside my confessional room, resulting in causing penitents in line being angry or impatient with the line that moves with the speed of molasses.  A wise priest once told me – as a confessor, treat each person in the confession as the most important person in the world.  Doing this will always mean that time cannot be hurried.  But if I have helped to open the eyes and mind of a person who had been worshipping a God of his or her own construct, it would have been worth the wait. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

At the heart of the priesthood is the Eucharist. At the heart of the Eucharist is the love of God – a thanksgiving reflection on my 16th sacerdotal anniversary.

At this time each year, I usually reflect upon something personal to me – how I have lived the past year as an ordained priest of Christ.  Come tomorrow, June 20, I would have been an ordained priest for 16 years.  Especially having come sailing through a life-threatening illness 4 years back, it has become clear to me that just making it past another physical year does not make an anniversary a big deal.  How one has lived out one’s vocation and how one has allowed oneself to be used by God to achieve his divine purposes ultimately reveals the quality of the year of life that has passed. 

Liturgically, what defines a priest most clearly and significantly is his role as an alter Christus or ‘another Christ’ at each celebration of the Eucharist.  It is his official role that he carries out each time he dons the priestly ceremonial robes and enters into the paschal mystery of Christ.  Doing something that is truly awesome once is always a memorable and breathtaking experience.  The Mass is precisely that.  Awesome and breathtaking.  But doing something awesome and breathtaking day in and day out, being deliberate about one’s actions and mindful about the divine implications of what is happening when one’s words are enunciated can become a challenge.  Of course, one can easily just go through the motions and at the end of it, be satisfied that it was a ‘job done’.  Christ, on the other hand, did not treat Calvary as merely a ‘job done’, but over and above everything else, it was ‘love done’. 

More and more, and I am not sure if it is because I am now past 50 years of age, or because I had the wonderful gift of the cancer episode, I am brought to a deeper level of awareness of how much love is at the heart of the Eucharist.  It was of course something that we had learnt in our theology classes when we were seminarians-in-training.  Learning something in class is very different when it comes to applying it in life, as anybody would know.  More so when it is a mystical reality that is being imparted.  Maybe it’s more than age.  Maybe it’s just that I have been mellowed.

Increasingly, each time I pray out loud the words of the Eucharistic prayer, I am led to a place where the energy that made it all possible was an energy of love.  God, as Jesus reveals, is love, and his actions reached love’s apogee on Calvary.  We who are baptized into Christ are the unmerited beneficiaries of this love that saved us.  The words I just wrote in the preceding sentence do not justice at all to just how truly magnificent and astounding God’s mercy and salvation is.  We can only get a glimpse of its deep reality now each time we participate actively in the Eucharist, and pray with great eagerness that after we die, we enter deeper into its embrace to truly live eternally in the love that saved us.

Because love is at the heart of the Eucharist, love then has to be at the heart of everything a priest does outside of the Eucharist.  How I live my life as a priest has everything to do with how conscious I am of the divine reality that I celebrate the Mass.  It is when there is little or no awareness of this connection that I allow the troubles and burdens of the world to overwhelm me.  Isn’t that the reason human beings sin?  When we forget the fact that we are in fact sustained and created in God’s love that we mistakenly take hold of life’s helm and direct the course of our lives according to our own ego-driven whims and fancies?

So, because it really does all come down to love, a reflection of my last 365 days as a priest of God has to then be seen in that light.  How much love has been the driving force of all my priestly work, my prayer, my relationships, my ministry and my daily activities. 

I wouldn’t dare say that I had been in that state of awareness 100% of the time.  I certainly can do better, and I want to – because more and more is it made clear to me that in everything I do, when it glorifies God, there the grace of God is too.  St Paul was so clear that everything that he was and did was due to the grace of God (1 Cor 15:10).  Attributing my last 16 years as a priest to anything else would only be remiss of me. 

Here’s to the next 365 days! 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Being right is so much easier than being truly empathetic and human.

There is a great struggle that goes on inside people who are predisposed to righteousness.  God, the bible tells us, is righteous.  And because that is the case, we human beings who are made in his image and likeness, will find ourselves gravitating towards righteousness.  Together with the call to holiness and sanctity and perfection, lies the call to be righteous as well.  When this is insufficiently understood, it can become a great stumbling block for many people. 

Classic moral teachings that are seen in the Roman Catholic church gives those under her care very clear moral guidelines, and many of them do require a certain moral framework within which they are both intelligible and beautiful.  In order to comprehend and embrace this beauty, one has to also embrace a certain philosophy of life.  One classic example is the Catholic teaching that all human life is sacred, from natural conception to natural death.   Within this broad understanding lie all of the church’s moral teachings that include a prohibition against abortion, artificial and manipulated conception, sex outside of marriage (whether they be heterosexual or homosexual in nature), and the act of ending one’s life willfully.  For the most part, these laws make brilliant sense only within the system of a Catholic mind.  Outside of the acceptance of an orthodox Catholic moral mind, many of these teachings will be easily discarded, ignored and dismissed as merely being fussy. 

This is why it is understandable that many who do not operate within this philosophical and moral framework and mind stridently find our teachings offensive and reprehensible.  The many who troll Church teachings on the Internet are evident of this. 

How does the Catholic broach this?  Jesus’ teachings have been clear to love one’s enemies, and herein lays the great challenge.  To love those who disagree with us requires of us to do what is also difficult – to enter into their shoes and walk with them.  Will we find ourselves at some sort of impasse when we do that?  Certainly.  While we can sit with brothers and sisters of the same-sex community and even have meals with them, sometimes we may find ourselves making silent judgments on how imperfect and narrow their definition of love is.  Even as we try to enter into a dialogue with those who are pro-choice, angrily carrying our pro-life placards and harbouring resentment and silent rancor at our opponents easily make us appear self-righteous, making our cause doubly challenging.  Unwittingly, it may give us a sense of moral superiority, and can even cause us to appear churlish. 

Perhaps this is why so many prefer to take the high road of moral righteousness.  It is far easier to hold tightly to the rudiments of moral truths that we had been grounded on and tell the world ‘you are wrong’.  Doing this, unfortunately, impedes dialogue and a softening of hearts.  Those of us who are in official positions of leadership in the faith have a far more pressing need to remember this, even as we instruct and form the hearts and minds of the faithful who come under our care.  More and more, with the world having strong views that are often directly opposed to the Church’s, it becomes even more imperative that we never forget to have charity in the foundation of our lives. 

I am the last to say that this is an easy task.  I myself have sometimes taken the easier way out and out of either indolence or impatience, chosen instead the high ground of ‘shoulds’.  I have to keep reminding myself of the old adage that God does write straight with crooked lines.  To be able to see that my brothers and sisters who live differently could be teaching me a thing or two about charity, patience, kindness and generosity is humbling. 

We need a new way of not just holding the truth with a new empathy, but also a new way of imparting it.  Truth as truth is unchanged and unchangeable, but it may require repackaging frequently.  This has to be the task of any serious theologian.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A note to the celebrant of my funeral Mass.

As a priest, I have presided over many funeral Masses and services. I have also been to many more of them, presided by other priests as well.  The beauty of the liturgy is found among other things, in its timelessness and consistency.  Priests are not free to change, augment, add or remove what are the essentials.  Generally, and for the most part, priests “read the black and do the red”, as liturgists are wont to say.  However, there are still many celebrants who are keen to take liberties at making the Mass, especially at Weddings and Funerals, something other than what it should be.  Being a concelebrant at such liturgies is often a test of real Christian charity, especially when one chooses to withhold one’s comments.

So, I have decided that somewhere in my storehouse of notes and instructions, I would want to make it clear that there are in fact certain things that I would not want to happen or said at my funeral Mass.  Providentially, I have the platform of my weekly blog to “put it out there” for not just the celebrant of my funeral Mass, but also for those who happen to read my weekly spiritual musings.  Lest this be seen as an act of vanity, I assure you, dear reader, that it is not.  It has a much larger hoped for effect – that as you read this blog entry, you too will now become clear and aware of what a funeral Mass should be, helping you to know how a well catechized Catholic ought to be praying at such gatherings.  Hopefully, it will also help you to leave similar instructions to your kith and kin when it comes time for your own funeral.

1.   All Masses are about Jesus.  Don’t make it about me.
We can easily think that funeral Masses are about the person lying in the casket.  This is robbing God of his rightful thunder.  All Masses are a celebration of the Paschal Mystery.  This is the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and how this has saved the world.  Making it about any other person or any other event detracts from the essence of the Eucharist.  For that matter, wedding Masses too when badly celebrated denigrate something that is meant to be divine and centered on God and his mercy, diluted to become an event which is wrongly understood as the Bride and Groom’s day.  The focus needs to be taken out of the person and be given to God as he truly deserves. 

2.   My funeral is not my canonization.  If at all, leave that to the proper authorities.
I have been to too many funerals where the well-meaning celebrant declares with disturbing authority that the person in the casket is now in heaven.  No one but the Congregation for the Cause of Canonization has that authority.  And in all likelihood, it will be many many years, even decades or centuries before this would be official.  To hear the priest say that ‘grandma is now in heaven’ is at best platitudinous at such times, but they are just that – platitudes.  There is no certainty that the person is not in need of purgatory and its purification.  Besides, we as Church cannot and must not downplay or ignore the doctrine of purgatory.  Understood well, this doctrine is a most merciful teaching and too few are thankful for it. 

3.   Eulogies really have no place in any Catholic funeral liturgy.
The reason for this is very much based on the understanding that the Eucharist is never about us but God and the sacrifice of Jesus.  It is also for this reason that any applause for human efforts and skills for a choir that sings at Mass denigrates the celebration into a stage where the human person and talent displayed is the focus. 

4.   Move the eulogizing to its proper place – at wakes.
I may have seemed cold and insensitive to have removed anything about the person from the funeral Mass, but this doesn’t mean that nothing at all should be said about the deceased.  Much can and ought to be said and shared about the person’s life during the nights and days of the wake services held either at the funeral parlour or the homes of the deceased.  The setting and ambience of these places make it much more appropriate to speak with candor and fondness.  Sometimes, the language used in churches where eulogies have been slipped in were not only inappropriate but offensive as well.  Some funeral liturgies have seen secular music being played within the walls of the church.  As much as “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was the favourite of the deceased, or that “If we hold on together” brings back tender memories of times shared with the deceased, it has to be said that Guns N’ Roses and Diana Ross really do not have a place in the Liturgy.  

This reflection is not original.  I came across something similar which I thought was genius by an American blogger named Chad Bird some time back, who by the way is not a Catholic.  His blog entry seemed to point out that such funeral gaffes are also committed in his church, and similar umbrage is taken by members of their flock when their pastors hold funeral services.  If I may make a point of observation, this kind of liturgical faux pas most likely stems from the narrative that most people have in life – that our lives are about us.  Take this to its natural end, it will only end up making our deaths and our salvation are also all about us.  

This could be the last thing that we need to fight to overcome till our last breath.  Literally.