Sunday, 31 August 2008

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 16: 21-27: "If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me."

In this Gospel Jesus is talking about CHOOSING suffering, which might seem odd: One of the universal features of humanity is that we all want to avoid pain. Who here if faced with the choice between pain and pleasure would choose pain? No one.
There is of course a name for those who suffer from that sickness, that perversion of the mind, that loves pain: masochism –those who harm themselves because they get a tragic perverse pleasure out of pain.

So, WHY does Jesus let us to love suffering, why does he tell us we MUST suffer if we would be His disciple: “take up your Cross”?
Does He hate us? Is this why He wants us to suffer? No.
Scripture teaches us, and our Catholic Faith holds this as a pivotal truth, that God never wanted suffering for His creation. He created His world perfect. Suffering only entered the world as result of Original Sin.
But after suffering entered and damaged His creation, God did not reject His creation but took that suffering and made it the instrument of our Redemption –on the Cross.
And if we want to share in the Redemption then we have to share in the Cross.

Many people look at Christ Risen and say, “I want a share in that”.
It’s very faddish to have an image of the RISEN Christ.
But what was the road that Jesus took to get to the Resurrection?
It was the Royal Road of Calvary
And if WE would share in the Resurrection then we must walk that same path, we must seek to share in the Cross –“the disciple is not greater than his master”(Mt 10:24).

Of course, suffering comes to all of us anyway. This is because we live in a Fallen world tainted by the effects of Original Sin.
But we can take that with Christ on the Cross, and find grace and salvation,
Or we can suffer alone and in frustration and gain nothing.

Jesus told us to “take up our cross” and there are two ways we must do this: passively and actively.

Passively, taking up our cross means accepting the difficulties of life. We can grind against them in anger and impatience, or we can accept them. That doesn’t means we shouldn’t see the doctor, but it does means that when we reach that limit of what we can control we ACCEPT our limits and accept them as the cross the Lord would have us carry –and the particular cross that each of us is given is, in providence, weighed and measured for our own strengths and our own needs, to be for our good: what we CAN bear and what is GOOD for us to bear.
Some of this cross is illness and old age. Some of it is the difficulties of bearing with others, patiently.
But whatever our cross is, “taking it up” means taking it with Christ, means having HIM with us to bear it –His grace and strength.
It also means, if we carry our Cross well, it also means being gradually purified and transformed of the disorder in our passions, having new virtues build within us so that we love more freely and discover that the crosses we struggle to bear alone can be fruitful of borne with Christ.
More than anything, carrying our Cross means union in love with Christ, being transformed in the burning but purifying crucible of suffering with our Beloved –and this bears fruit.
I know of this transforming grace more from reading the saints than from my own growth in holiness, but I know it nonetheless, and I know that a priest who fails to say this because it’s awkward to talk of the cross is failing his congregation not helping it.

Finally, there is a second way that we must ‘take up our cross’, and this is actively. In order to be more FREE in accepting our passive suffering we must step that step further and SEEK additional suffering. This proves our willingness to take up the cross, and more than proof, as a habit it makes us more FREE taking up the cross.
This is why we find ALL the saints enduring more than the minimum.
For ourselves, it might be talking longer to that person who bores us, working harder for the person who we know will ignore our labours, or denying ourselves pleasures in the way we do especially in Lenten Penance.

If we would be His disciples, then we must actively SEEK the Cross, because there is no other way to find Him who was crucified, to find and be united with Him who loves us and chose to suffer for us. We must seek the Cross.
To back to where I began, does this means we are masochists, loving suffering or its own sake? No. What it does mean is that we love it in as much as it brings us to Christ and brings us union with Christ.
"If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me."

Sunday, 24 August 2008

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 16: 13-20
We just heard the greatest question ever to be asked in the history of mankind. And it is a great question only because the ANSWER is great.
The question was: WHO is Jesus.
If the answer had been: A saintly man, like Francis of Assisi, or, a wise teacher, like Buddha;
Then, it would not be the greatest question.
But because the answer was: He is God –this man walking around is God,
Then, it was the greatest question ever asked and the greatest answer.

Now, generally, when someone claims to be God he gets locked up in a mental asylum. The Lord Jesus, however, was taken seriously. To understand why he was taken seriously we need to recall the series of events that was building up to this question, and to appreciate why everyone must have been asking this same question: WHO is he?

So what had been happening in the build up to this question?
He had taught so wisely that huge crowds came to Him in the wilderness;
He had fed 5000 with just 5 loaves and two fish;
He had walked on water and calmed the storm –WHO can do that?;
He was the one that people said of Him: “He has done all things well” (Mk 7:37)
He was the one that people said of Him: “He taught with authority” (Mt 7:29)
He was the one that the first time that soldiers were sent to arrest Him they returned empty handed saying merely: “No one has ever spoken like this man” (Jn 7:47)
More significantly, He claimed to do things that only God was allowed to do:
He claimed the authority to forgive sin (e.g. Lk 5:21)
He claimed the authority to change the Law of Moses (e.g. Mt 12:8).
WHO is he?

So Jesus claimed to be God, and, rather than being locked up in a mental asylum people took Him seriously. What must the force of His personality have been for that to hold?
To meet God-made-flesh must have been quite an experience!

It was St Peter who identified Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, the one who is both fully God and fully man.
But by coming to know Christ, Peter came to know much more.
Christ, as the God-man, both fully reveals God to us AND fully reveals perfect humanity to us, and this second thing is very important too. As the great Pope John Paul II put it, quoting the Second Vatican Council: Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself.

By knowing Christ, St Peter knew everything that every Pope in history would ever need to teach and preach, and that is why this proclamation was the basis for Jesus appointing him the Rock on which he built His Church.
By knowing Christ, perfectly God, he knew all mankind will ever be able to say of God;
By knowing Christ, perfectly human, he knew all mankind would ever need to be taught about what it means to be human: the whole moral life, from the immorality of cheating on your tax returns to sexual immorality; from the need to rest and enjoy wine at the feast at Cana to the need to suffer and sacrifice for others on the Cross.
By knowing Christ, the first Pope knew everything he as Pope needs to know and teach.
I’m not going to preach on infallibility today, I’ve given you that handout, but it is this text that explains why the Pope is infallible.

For ourselves, we each need to be certain we have understood the import of that question: “But you, you do you say I am?” If we have not recognised that He is both God and man, that He is the long awaited Messiah, the one all creation as yearning for, then we have failed to grasp the significance of the greatest question ever asked.

Infallibility: What does it mean and does it matter?

This can alkso be viewed as A4 pages at:

‘Infallibility’ is the term that is used to describe the fact that the Catholic Church teaches the truth and the way that it teaches the truth. Without it we cannot know the truth with certainty.

The Mission to Teach to Truth
Jesus Christ declared Himself to be “the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6)
He came to teach the truth. Christ willed that the truth be known by all peoples and so He appointed His apostles to go out and teach the truth:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:18-20).

The Catechism points out that the Church’s mission is the same as the mission of Christ and was founded by Christ for this very purpose:
"The Church's mission is not an addition to that of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but is its sacrament" (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 738).

This teaching mission was entrusted in a particular way to the 12 Apostles who Christ singled out for this role, and these Apostles appointed the bishops to continue this role. The Church thus has a structure that was given to it by Christ:
"The Lord Jesus endowed his community with a structure that will remain until the Kingdom is fully achieved. Before all else there is the choice of the Twelve with Peter as their head" (Catechism n. 765).

The Promise that Christ would Guide the Teaching of His Church
Christ not only commanded His Apostles to teach the truth but He promised that when they taught they would teach faithfully:
“He that hears you hears me; and he that rejects you rejects me (Lk 10:16).

By the gift of the Holy Spirit the Apostles were promised to know the whole truth:
“When the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth” (Jn 16:13).

The Apostles thus teach accurately not by their own ability or wisdom but by the Holy Spirit. This was the same with the first pope, St Peter, who recognised Jesus as the Christ only by the power of God:
"Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).

Authority and Division
The teaching authority in the Church was given to us by Christ in order that we might have a focus for unity when divisions come. Christ knew that divisions would come (e.g. Mt 24:24).

Pope Clement in 96AD wrote:
“Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full knowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these would die, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office” (Corinthians, n. 44).

When divisions come we should listen to those who hold proper authority. It is the pope, as the successor of St Peter who possesses the fullness of Christ’s teaching authority. It was St Peter who was appointed as the visible head of Christ’s Church:
“And I tell you, you are Peter [‘Rock’], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).

The bishops as individuals do not all possess the full charism of infallibility. They possess it if they speak in union with the pope and in as much as they speak in union with the pope:
“the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's Successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teachings concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely” (Lumen Gentium n.25).

What does ‘Infallible’ mean?
Literally, the dictionary definition of infallible is: "incapability of error or deception".
This means that when the Church teaches authoritatively it is not capable of error, i.e. it is protected by Christ from teaching error.
Similarly the Bible is called ‘inerrant’, free from error.

However, neither the writers of the Bible nor the popes are free from sin. The promise of Christ concerns their role of teaching and is restricted to their role of teaching -it does not concern their personal lives.

Note also: being free from error does not necessarily guarantee that the pope will be courageous in his teaching and it does not even guarantee that he will teach beautifully –but it does guarantee that he will teach free from error. This means that we can listen to the pope with confidence and believe what he teaches.

Is everything the pope teaches infallible?
The pope’s infallibility relates only to those acts by which he is acts as pope. i.e. there are certain conditions that must hold for his teaching to be infallible.

Vatican I and II taught that there are four conditions for a papal teaching to be infallible: The pope must be speaking "ex cathedra" ("that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority…."); he must be defining something (in “a definitive act”); it must concern “faith or morals”; and he must be teaching something that "must be held by the whole Church". i.e. a ‘definitive’ act is not just a casual comment or even a usual Sunday sermon.

The bishops met in union with the pope in Council, or in a Council authorised by the pope, teach infallibly when they define doctrine under the same conditions. The bishops and pope also teach infallibly outside of a Council when they re-iterate what the Church has always taught.

Bishops or church leaders who have separated themselves from the authority of the pope lack the authority that would otherwise give them infallibility. They thus do not have this guarantee of truth. It is thus unsurprising that the Protestant ecclesial communities that have separated themselves from Rome divide again and again over doctrine. Present divisions in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality and women bishops are a tragic example of this.

Does it matter?
It matters to us that the Church teaches infallibly because if the Church is not infallible then there is no secure means by which we can know the truth. If we cannot know the truth then we cannot know Christ.
If the Church is not infallible then Christ’s mission to teach the truth was only successful for His own generation. Conversely, because the Church is infallible then the truth of Christ can be known in every age by all those who choose to recognise the authority of the Vicar of Christ, the pope, the successor of St Peter and Christ’s voice on earth.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 15:21-28
Today’s gospel text contains one of the most bizarre passages in the Gospels: In it Jesus speaks words to a woman in need, and yet His words seem inexplicably harsh. He first seems to refuse her request for a healing. Then He compares her to a ‘house-dog’ because she is a Canaanite not a Jew. Though, finally, he commends her faith and grants her the miracle, yet, His rude harshness seems bizarre. How can the God-man who normally looks on the crowds with compassion, who seeks our and saves the lost, how can he speak like this?

There are two meanings to this event:
One, for the Israelite apostles who were listening, so that they might see the faith of a non-Israelite and see the truth of the teaching that Christ came to save the gentiles too;
The second, for the woman herself –a test of her faith, a tough test.

Many commentators note that the text records His tough words but does not record His tone of voice and does not record the look on His face –both of which may have very significantly altered the way the words came across.
Yet, regardless, His words are tough.
However gently said, they are clearly a TEST of her faith, and test that seems tough.

Rather than attempt to explain the motives and intentions of Our Lord, I’d like, instead, to note that His testing of the woman in many ways parallels the testing he sees to make of each of us in our lives.
We might ask: WHY did He test the woman’s faith?
We might also ask: Why does he test OUR faith? Why is life difficult? Why does God knock us about so? Or, rather, Why does God allow life to knock us about?

A partial answer to the reason of why life is difficult is not hard:
Suffering is in the world because of the effects of Original Sin –not because of God;
Suffering is in our lives because we each need to carry the Cross as Our Lord did;
Suffering is in our lives because there is no road to purification, no road to the Resurrection but by the Cross.
But, still, suffering is a test to our faith.

If we look again to this Canaanite woman, How did she respond when her faith was tested?
She held on: She did not say, “I do not understand why Jesus is saying this, therefore I will walk away”
In effect she said, “I do not understand why Jesus is saying this, but I do still know that He is a mighty miracle worker, he is clearly the Messiah, therefore I will continue to come to Him because there is nowhere else for me to turn”

The simple lesson we can learn from this woman, is that, We, too, when life’s events seem to test our faith, we need to hold on to the basics, the basics of our faith:
God does exist
He is a good God
He is in charge of life and of my life
He is with me and for me, even if I don’t see how.

Though on one level today’s gospel seems bizarre:
One of the key messages of today’s gospel is that we must hold on even when our faith is tested, and, if we do, faith will be rewarded with grace in this world and eternal life in the next, just as the Canaanite woman held on and her faith was rewarded with the very things that she had asked for.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

There is a very simple question that we need to repeatedly focus on: is God REALLY active in our world and in our lives?

I ask that question in the light of today’s Gospel account (Mt 14:13-21) of the feeding of the 5,000. Because there are sceptics alive today who say that such a miracle could not have really occurred –“God doesn’t do such things” they say. And, more certainly, “God doesn’t do such things in OUR lives –he’s not active now”.

Well, such an attitude fails to treat the people of Jesus’s time as real people with real brains of their own. Because those people were people just like us. For them, too, God’s activity could seem distant and remote:
They heard of signs and wonders of the Old Testament, but they probably didn’t really expect such things to happen still.
They heard of miracles in distant places, but they probably didn’t expect one to happen in THEIR town.

So when the Lord Jesus Christ somehow fed a crowd of over 5,000, those people would have been amazed. They were not fools, they would first have wondered: Did he have a stash of food hidden that we didn’t see? Did lots of us actually have our own food hidden? These would have been their first thoughts. These would have been the first thoughts of the 12 apostles too.
What left them all amazed and in awe of the Lord was that it was evident to them that some MIGHTY deed of God had just been worked.
And like any of US, in such a situation, they must have been left thinking: God does actually work deeds in OUR day and in OUR place and in OUR lives.

We, today, like them 2000 years ago, hear of miracles and wonders and signs.
We hear of them from long ago, in the Bible, in the lives of the saints.
We hear of them far away, things that even today we hear of every year in places like Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje.
But the truth, my friends, is that God was not only active long ago, and is not only active far away, but he is active now and active here and active in your own life.
And most of the time he seems to do little for us, is because we refuse to see it or refuse to let Him, as the sad refrain from the Gospels often said, “He worked few signs there BECAUSE OF THEIR LACK OF FAITH”.
God is active in our lives by His guiding Providence, by the strength of His grace, by the nudges and calls He makes to us if we will but be open to them. He may not be active doing what we would tell Him to do –but that does not mean He is not active.

There is one activity of God, in particular, that I want to refer to, and that is in the Eucharist.
The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament said that God would come and feed His people. We need to be fed in the body. But EVEN MORE we need to be fed in the soul. We feeding of the 5000 was a sign of the feeding of the Eucharist that Christ was to institute in the Mass. If you listened to the words of the Gospel, it echoed the words we hear in every Mass, words of the Last Supper: He took the bread, he raised His eyes to Heaven, He blessed the Bread, He broke it, and it gave it to them –THROUGH the ministry of the apostles, as He does now through the ministry of His priests.
The Lord knows what we need, and in every reception of Holy Communion He gives Himself to us not just as Himself, but with the specific graces we need for this time. He is always everything, and I am never fully open to Him.
But He always knows the graces I need, and that is what is available to me.
Will I need patience today? This Holy Communion will come with the graces for it.
Will I need strength today? This Holy Communion will give me that.
But only if I believe it, and only if I open myself to it.

I started by asking: Is God REALLY active in our world and in our lives? If we have the faith to say yes, then it is in this Mass that we will find Him, and find His activity for us.