Monday, March 25, 2019

Of confessions, truth, compassion and exorcism. What's the link? Read on.

It’s that time of the year when the line of penitents at the confessional become significantly longer. After all, Lent is the season where Catholics are encouraged to face their own shortcomings in a more serious way, and when they ought to be doing their ‘Easter duty’ of making a good confession at least once a year, and preferably before the celebration of Easter.  

When I approach a sin being confessed, I often follow up with a few related or secondary questions like ‘why did you find yourself doing it?’ and, perhaps when it is a sin of lying that is confessed, I'd then ask ‘to whom was it that you lied?’. As a confessor priest, I am always trying to give my penitents some insight into their lives and the way that they have somehow programmed themselves in life, and hopefully, be able to give them the sufficient tools to face these same situations in a better, more enlightened and mature way that next time the temptation to sin comes around again.

When it is the sin of lying being confessed, you may well ask "What does being able to identify the reason of our lying help us to do?"  To illustrate this, a story may help.  Imagine a penitent coming to me and confessing that he has lied, perhaps even repeatedly, to his parents, and leaves it there without elaborating it further. Of course, the sin of lying is grave, but when asked why he had lied to his parents, he reveals that he doesn’t want his parents to know the real reason for his staying out into the wee hours of the morning on Saturday nights, so he cooks up a story of being with some friends who are considered ‘safe’ company by his parents.  The truth is, however, that he had been mixing around with friends whom his parents considered dangerous company, and had instructed him clearly about not hanging out with, and because they have been known for bad behaviour due to overindulgence of alcohol.  

If the penitent just leaves the confession at the sin of lying or dishonesty, he would most likely not arrive at the real root of the issue at hand, which is his disobedience of his parents, and that he is mixing with questionable company.  Repeated confession merely of the sin of lying will not get him to face the fact that the choice of his preferred company on Saturday nights is what needs to be changed.  There are of course, variants of this issue, where young children confess to lying to their parents about not having homework when asked, when in fact they do have undone homework, and the reason they lied was so that they could have more game time on their computers or electronic devices.  The issue is far more than just lying – it is their choice of pleasure over being conscientious students and responsible students.

Reading this, you may wonder why as a confessor-priest I seem to be so inquisitive and doing what may even be termed ‘digging’.  Certainly, I can just leave it at the sin of lying and carry on with giving a penance and asking the penitent to pray the Act of Contrition, and as it were, move on to the next penitent and clear the line that is long and waiting outside the confessional.  It really boils down to one thing – compassion and concern for the soul of the penitent.

I just came out from a 5-day course on Exorcism and Deliverance, conducted by a team of Exorcists and their lay assistants from another Diocese.  We learnt many things about this misunderstood and under-appreciated ministry that has roots in our Catholic Tradition which have been somehow either glossed over post-Vatican, or suffered from too heavy an emphasis on the post-modernist culture.  It is clear that the Church has really resulted in losing something that has given it a good reason to be holy and to always aim for the heights of heaven as our goal in life.  Could it be that the Church is currently suffering the crisis of moral failure even at the upper echelons is due to the fact that it has put aside or let dust settle on some very important traditions that had been assiduously adhered to in the past?  I came across a very insightful quote from Gustav Mahler recently regarding tradition, where he said that tradition isn't the worshipping of ashes, but the preservation of the fire.  

One of the things that came out loud and clear in the course is the need for compassion for the demoniacs in every exorcism that is carried out.  As much as there is a need to be very firm (and perhaps even unflinchingly fierce) in his approach to the demon he is battling, there has to be a very sincere care and tenderness at the same time for the person who is possessed by the demon in question, who needs to be seen as a victim.  

In truth, it is the love of the oppressed son or daughter of God whom God loves so unconditionally that brings the exorcist priest to want to bring him or her out of his diabolical shackles that he or she is in.  Video footages of real life exorcisms that are authentic do not see the priest standing several feet or some safe distance away from the demoniac, but sitting or standing very close to the afflicted sister or brother, placing the exorcism stole that he wears around the shoulders of the demoniac, and having his hand placed over the person’s head.  All these are clear demonstrations of a love of the person, while rebuking the evil spirits that infest the person at his or her soul.  

We were clearly taught that if an exorcist doesn’t have compassion for the afflicted, and sees him or her as a beloved child of God that he truly is, the ministry of exorcism will lack something so necessary – love and charity – not for the demons, but for the person harassed and trapped within.  His ministry will only be something that is purely mechanical, and hence, he may not be a very effective exorcist.

All the while as I was learning from the course, it became clear to me that something similar needs to be on my consciousness when I minister as a confessor-priest.  While I would love to be able to say that I am always aware of the need to be compassionate in the confessional, I cannot.  There are times when we get physically tired, and are not giving our all on the other side of the screen.  I am reminded that we cannot just be perfunctory because we are dealing with peoples' souls.

If a confessor priest is merely mechanical and perfunctory, the lines outside of the confessional may be efficiently cleared,  but if compassion is lacking, we priests may not be able to convey the love and mercy of God in a way that is perceived at the heart.

Monday, March 18, 2019

How we understand the term ‘glorifying the Lord by your life’ is revealed in the way our lives are lived.

“Glorify the Lord by your lives”. As Catholics, we hear it ever so often in our liturgical prayers, at the Collect at Holy Mass, in the hymns that we sing, and whenever we pray the “Glory Be” prayer, which is something that we as Catholics have learnt to pray from a very young age.  It has been almost drilled into us as Catholics that we should be glorifying the Lord, but as in so many things in life, even something that is correct, proper, and just, can end up merely being something that is passively uttered, leaving its truth at the doors of our lips without it making that necessary entry into the portals of our hearts, and transforming our lives from within.  So what does it really mean to glorify anything?  And far more importantly, what does it mean to glorify God?  What does a glorified life look like?

‘Glory’ is translated from the Greek doxa and the Hebrew kabod.  While the Hebrew has connotations of heaviness or weightiness, it also has ‘deference’ and ‘honour’ behind it as well.  The Greek doxa is a term that denotes the commanding of respect and magnificence.  In the New Testament, particularly in the transfiguration accounts of Jesus, this term becomes something that James, John and Peter get a direct and first-hand encounter of when they personally witness Jesus being glorified.  They are essentially bedazzled when the face and clothing of Jesus on that mountain become radiant and spectacular.  But this glory isn’t so much just something that happens to Jesus as something that emits from Jesus.  Perhaps the fact that Peter utters something as random as wanting to set up three tents in that moment reveals that he was too gob-smacked by the glory of what was manifested before him.  

That God deserves glory and that he is the source and origin of glory because of his divine being is something that goes without saying.  After all, the Creed that we recite each Sunday has us saying that God is ‘light from light’.  There is a lot packed into that phrase consisting of three simple words.  Can we add anything to God’s glory?  Can one add beauty to the essence of beauty itself? To do so would be even more audacious than gilding the proverbial lily.

So how do we understand that our lives ought to be lived such that God is glorified?  This is something that is truly right and just only if we get one thing right – our baptism in Jesus.  At the core of our baptism is that we are now adopted children of God, living not for ourselves alone, but ultimately as members of a people that have a divine inheritance and dignity.  It is for this reason that we apply a high standard of living and loving than just what our own hearts desire.  Indeed, our lives are therefore not about us.  If it is not about us, then what is it about?  It is essentially about God, and giving God the glory that he deserves.

In order to do this and to understand this well, an analogy is not just helpful but necessary.  The analogy I choose to use is that of a magnifying glass or a lens.

A magnifying glass is essentially a lens, and what it does is that it enlarges or magnifies the image whose light passes through the lens, and when this light lands on our eyes, or on a surface, like a screen, it enables us to see the image with greater clarity and greater light.  This is how we ought to see our lives viz-a-viz God and God’s glory, where God is the light of truth, beauty and goodness, and our lives are merely the lens through which this light of God becomes clear to the eyes of our brothers and sisters.  Without a doubt, it has been the result of centuries of theological reflection and discourse that has given us such insights, enriching the way that we live our Christian lives.

But what is much more remarkable is that long before such theological studies and reflection took place, this truth was already prophesied, lived out and proclaimed by none other than Mary, our Blessed Mother.  It is in her Magnificat uttered in her visit to her cousin Elizabeth that saw her intuiting this truth with such conviction where she said that her whole life was to be a magnification of God, where her soul would magnify the Lord.

Mary understood with such clarity that not only was this her mission in life, but the raison d’etre of her existence.  She was only interested in being the spotless magnifying lens that brought light and clarity to the world that looked upon her as mother and the model Christian disciple. Mary’s life was lived so selflessly and with such humility such that she was willing to be transparent and unnoticed, much like the way a magnifying glass or a lens is not noticed in itself, and needs to be transparent. Just look at the way we enter a cinema hall and watch a movie on the screen before us.  It really is the lens of the projector that makes the experience possible, but all the while, hardly anyone is grateful to the lens and what it is doing.  

If we are finding it hard to know what glorifying the Lord by our lives means, it could also reveal another truth – that we are placing far too much importance on ourselves and what we want in life as Christians, than on making God our reason for our lives.  And if we need a model to do this well, Mary is the model par excellence.

Monday, March 11, 2019

If there is something not right about the phrase “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual”, there is also something just as wrong about the phrase “I’m not spiritual, but I’m religious”.

There is a lot of talk about the increase in numbers among us of the ‘nones’ these days, especially in blog and vlog posts by Catholic commentators in the Western countries.  The ‘nones’ are the group of people who, when it comes to filling out personal particular forms asking for their religion or faith, check the boxes ‘none’. They make up a very large number in the West, and I believe that this is not just something that is restricted to the West alone.  What is more disturbing is that it has been noticed that the people that make up these ‘nones’ include people who have been baptized at birth, or perhaps even later on in life, and have at some point in time jettisoned or abandoned their faith.  We who are in Asia must not think that this is something that is not happening on our own shores. 

One of the very common things that ‘nones’ and those who do not profess to practice any formal religions say is that they are “spiritual, but not religious”.  On the surface, this oft-touted phrase can appear to be rather ‘cool’ and maybe even sophisticated, giving the impression that being religious isn’t as chic, enlightened or savvy as those of us who give ourselves over to formal religion and practice it with great dedication and regularity.  What is it that makes being ‘spiritual’ something that is appealing to anyone?  Conversely then, is being ‘religious’ something that is deemed shallow, na├»ve, and maybe even callow?  As Aristotle so correctly described the human person as a rational animal, I am wont to believe that no one really does anything without good reasons behind their decision, so the ‘nones’ too must have very good reason to say that they are spiritual, but not religious.  

One thing that sets religious people clearly apart from the non-religious, (and I am referring to those who assiduously practice their religion with great dedication and regularity, applying it to every sphere of their lives as possible) is that there is very often a discipline that is involved.  Whether one calls it discipline, effort, regularity, or commitment, it is clear that those who are religious are not those who blow hot one day, and cold on another.  It calls to mind what many consider the motto of the US Postal system which goes something like “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”.  Encapsulated in that statement is a deep and serious commitment and dedication to the task at hand.  Where serious application of one’s religion to one’s life is concerned, this motto seems just as applicable.

Does the human person naturally apply oneself to a committed cause with such dedication?  In my encounter with many different people in my years both working in the secular world, and the many more years being a pastor of souls as a priest, I must say that this is a rare grace.  Many, if not most people, do not do very well when it comes to commitment and living lives with great dedication.  There is instead, a preference for simply ‘going with the flow’, or waxing and waning according to one’s moods and feelings.  The human heart is somehow hardwired to take the path of least resistance, and this preferential option mitigates against choosing something that requires moe effort than less.  I’m not sure if this could be the cause of the existence of the ‘hook up’ culture, where men and women prefer to live together without any commitment to marriage, because it is far more convenient for the self to be preserved, and furthermore, there is always the possibility of calling it quits when selfless loving becomes too challenging.  Merely being ‘spiritual’ doesn’t have any dimension of commitment and staying the course.

I am also wont to believe that this underlying current is what makes being spiritual far more attractive and convenient than being religious with any degree of seriousness.  This is because when one is merely spiritual, one doesn’t need to adjust one’s life, where there is a need to align one’s life with an aim that is greater than oneself and one’s principles.  A life that is just ‘spiritual’ has no codified commandments to live by, no specific rules to follow, and doesn’t have any particular need to give oneself over to discipline.  Being merely spiritual is really pretty much an ‘anything goes’ way of living one’s life with little need to face the challenges of a conversion that mellows one’s heart.

Of course, there are the other arguments that many will bring up to say that religion has been the primal cause of so many wars and violence in the world, but can one seriously attribute that to the existence of religion per se?  When one’s view of and approach to religion is fundamentalistic with leanings to violence and hatred, it is always a distortion of true religion.  While I would concede that it may appear to be the case where religions seems to have been the root of violence and wars, it is always far more accurate to attribute it to the false and erroneous way that religion had been understood and practiced that has caused it to become the scapegoat of world violence.  

Having said this, there is also a flip side of the “I am spiritual, but not religious” dictum that has a dark side to it as well.  This is when anyone simply says that they are religious, but are not spiritual.  This would describe someone who is a devotee to the practices of their religion, but hardly imbibing and living out what one’s religion teaches at its core.  This is when one brings one’s shell to Church on Sundays, but has little or no heart in lifting one’s mind and heart to loving God and neighbor, and when one ‘says’ prayers rather than entering intoprayer.  In this way, one can be assiduous in following ritual as an external form, but could really be a pagan in the depths of one’s being.  One could really then call oneself a Christian, but only because one physically goes to Church, or has one’s name appearing on a baptism certificate.

In truth, being spiritual alone is not enough, in the same way that being religious alone is not enough.  The truly holistic person is one who tries his best to do both to the best of his ability.  The fact that Jesus in the gospels is often seen berating the Pharisees for merely following rules as an external exhibition of religiosity reminds us that our practice of our faith needs to go deep.  As we Catholics enter into the season of Lent, let us make greater efforts in making sure that our Lenten practices help us to grow spiritually as well.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The challenge of bringing little children to Mass each Sunday.

If one goes by the letter of the law (as far as Canon Law is concerned), then parents would not be faulted if they simply come to Mass without their children because the laws of the Church are only binding for children who have reached the age of reason, which is around 7 years.

But this doesn’t exonerate Catholic parents from fulfilling a very binding parental duty of baptized children, which is something that every Catholic couple promises to at the Marriage Pre-nuptial Enquiry with their priest, where they promise to bring their children up and educate them in their faith.  This phrase “educating children in the faith” is as deep as it is broad, and the educating of children in the faith includes giving them the opportunities to be familiar with regularity at church and Mass attendance on a weekly basis. It is not to be only understood as making sure that the children attend weekly catechism classes in the parish. Properly understood the parents are the first catechists of their children, way before they get introduced to their catechism teachers at the age of seven.

Being regular at Mass on Sundays and being comfortable with prayer isn’t something that is easily caught like a flu bug. It requires training and it requires great effort.  I may not be a parent, but I am fully aware of the great challenges couples have when they bring their infants to church on Sundays.  If one were to merely follow the guidelines laid out by Canon Law alone, children would only start coming to Mass when they reach the age of seven. Which child would willingly do this at 7 years of age, if he or she had not been regularly exposed to this practice on a weekly basis for the first 6 years of his or her life?  It thus makes great sense to start this practice right from the beginning of our child’s earthly life.

Just getting these helpless babes ready to go out at a specific time and to meet a target that is out of one’s control is a feat in itself, partly because the call of nature ignores such schedules.  As a priest celebrant at Mass on Sundays, I look at these determined parents with full respect because I see such great effort to do this without fail each Sunday. Being on time at Mass for these parents is often a hit and miss event.  Sometimes they make it on time, and sometimes they don’t.  I give them and these families a very wide berth and extend truckloads of charity toward them.

I can see that they are trying hard to do what is best for their children, and they want their family’s presence at Mass to make a difference to the Body of Christ, and believe me, it does make a world of difference.  I have visited churches in many other countries where parents themselves aren’t regular at Sunday Mass, and the congregation is often void of the presence and sounds of little children.  The Body of Christ at such Masses are often mainly a geriatric gathering, and it makes for a weakened faith just by the physical absence of our younger brothers and sisters.

It doesn’t make it any easier for these parents when the community around them cannot appreciate all that they are doing to educate their children in the faith either.  Often, and this is not an exaggeration, I do get complaints from church goers about parents who do nothing to calm their crying babies in church, and get very upset that their plaintive cries at Mass are causing a distraction, and these parents get the death stare from their fellow Catholics in the surrounding pews.  

Whilst some Churches are blessed to have a space specially set aside as a ‘crying room’ for these parents, not all Churches have the luxury of space.  My parish certainly doesn’t.  Can anything be done to help assuage the situation?  While no solution can ever be a perfect solution, there is one thing that I do tell parents which I believe can help tremendously.  

Where you should be seated at Mass needs to take into consideration the age of your children.

When children are infants, the best place to be seated is at the back, near the exit doors.  This is because it gives you a quick way to bring your crying child out of the prayer hall, out of the earshot of the parishioners. Some churches have external speakers where people standing outside the main hall can still participate in the Mass. And once your child is calmed and contented, you can easily join your family back inside the church.  A seat that is near the doors of the church enables you to do that without disturbing the community too much.

If your child is a toddler, the back of the church is going to be the worst place to be seated, for the simple reason that toddlers need to be engaged.  They want to see what is going on in the front.  When they are small in stature, especially when the congregation stands, all that they are going to see is the backs of people, and there is nothing exciting nor engaging about staring at a wall made up of peoples’ backs.  They are sure to be bored silly, and begin to stir. They need to be right up in front, where the ‘action’ is.  Let them see Father as he receives the gifts, prepares the Altar, and raises the Paten and the Chalice containing the consecrated Lord.  Let them smell the incense, even if this finds them covering their noses as the smoke fills the air.  At least they are being engaged, and as all children are wont to be, they will begin to ask questions - why is Father doing this or that, why is he wearing such strange clothing.  Why is it green today, when last week it was white?  These are teaching moments for every parent, and it keeps them engaged even after the Mass is over.  

Many Churches also have an upper gallery and I do notice that many parents like to be seated there.  If you have infants or toddlers, those are the worst placesto be in, mainly because it is such a walk to get up there, and once your child starts getting cranky or starts to praise God in a language of his own (i.e. bawling), you are not likely to make that long walk downstairs, going past all the seated parishioners.  You are, and I have seen this constantly, going to just try to calm the child by carrying him in your arms and do the ‘bouncing movement’ and walk up and down the back of the gallery, thinking that this will either calm the child or make yourself invisible to the crowd and to the celebrant of the Mass.  Believe me, you won’t.  You are in fact making things harder for all concerned.  

The other thing that needs to be said, and regularly too, is this:  

Parishioners seated around or near families with young children need to extend great charity towards them

If you find yourself bothered terribly by the crying of children at Mass, there are two things that you can do. Firstly, you can always find another place to be seated at Mass, away from the distraction that believe these children are.  You are not obliged to always be seated at the same place each Sunday, but I do suspect that many parishioners are creatures of habit.  

Secondly, it would certainly help if all of us can walk a mile or two in the shoes of these parents before we start criticizing them and castigating them without words.  I am sure that with all things being equal, these parents too wouldn’t want to have crying children at Mass.  Our charity towards them needs to take this into consideration, and when we do, we will find our judgments on them evaporating rather quickly.  When we do this, our love for our brothers and sisters will be put into action, and we will strengthen the Body of Christ in a very powerful way.  

Just remember that Jesus always welcomed the little children, simply because it is to them that the Kingdom of God belongs.  If we make it difficult for the little ones and their families to come to Mass, can we really say that the Kingdom of God belongs to us as well?