Sunday, 28 March 2010

Palm Sunday, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 22:14-23:56
Last year I told you how my little nephew asked me why Jesus rose from the dead. Not to be outdone, some time afterwards, his younger brother asked me a similarly profound question about the crucifixion. I was sat at home, in my bedroom, reading my Bible, while little Ethan, at the age of 3 ½ was asking me questions about various things on my shelf. And he brought me a crucifix, and he asked me, "Uncle Dylan, why did they do that to him?" I guess my answer wasn't very satisfying, because a few minutes later he brought me another crucifix, and again asked me, "Uncle Dylan, why did they do that to him?"

The simple answer to this question is: they did “that” to Him because they hated Him. They brought Him to Pilate, demanded that Pilate crucify him, they mocked, insulted, beat him, and spat on him –because they hated Him.
And why did they hate Him? As we just heard how Pilate asked, “Why? What evil has He done? I have found Him guilty of no crime.” (Lk 23:22). As we’ll sing on Good Friday,“Why? What has my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite? He made the lame to see, He gave the blind their sight.”

The central core of the reason that they hated Him was clearly expressed in His trial before the Sanhedrin, as we heard in that reading of the Passion. We know from other passages in the Gospels that the chief priests and Pharisees were jealous of Jesus because of the huge crowds flocked to Him, that they argued with Him because His teaching fulfilled the Law of Moses in a way that contradicted their own interpretation of the Law, and we know that they had contempt for Him because He was of humble origins -a Galilean, from the country.

However, there was more to Jesus than the description of those simple facts conveys: there was something about Jesus that demanded a reaction from the people who encountered Him: sinners repented, sickness was driven out, demons were exorcised, fishermen left their boats and nets by the shore of the sea to follow Him, crowds flocked to hear Him teach.
But, the reaction to Jesus was not always positive: the Gospels also record times when the crowd left Him because they did not accept His teaching, because they said "this is a hard teaching”(Jn 6:60). There was one ‘hard teaching’ in particular that demanded a reaction either in favour of Him or against Him: His claim to be "the Christ", "the Son of God", to be the Lord God Himself: the great “I AM”(Lk 22:70 c.f. Exodus 3:14). Every other claim He made was rooted in this ‘hard teaching’. This demanded a reaction; and this caused the reaction that led to His crucifixion.

The reaction that led to His death is, on a deeper level, the either-or reaction this is demanded of each one of us in our encounter with the Lord God. When we encounter the Lord either in prayer, or in the needs of our neighbour, or in the minute by minute moral demand that we live not in selfish mediocrity but live a life worthy of God and offered to God: when we encounter the Lord we either love Him or we reject Him in sin. And so the rejection of Christ on the cross is the perpetual sign of the rejection that each of us daily make of Him in our sins.

And this, paradoxically, is why the cross is OUR salvation and not only the salvation of the Jews. Because Jesus died because of MY sins, and particularly because He CHOSE to die for my sins, because He chose to enter this world and submit Himself to death for our sakes: because He died for MY sins He thus died as an act of love for me, to save me.

So, when my nephew gets older he will hopefully mature his question from, “Why did THEY do that to him?", to, “Why did WE do that to Him?”, to, “Why did I do that to Him?” And He will know that the shame we might otherwise feel from having done this to Him is taken away by acknowledging what we have done:
like the thief on the cross who became “the Good Thief” by turning to the Lord, admitting His guilt, and receiving the promise: "today you will be with me in Paradise"(Lk 23:43).

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Concerning the Pope’s Letter on Clergy Abuse

Despite the fact that we are now in Holy Week, the volume of recent media coverage leads me to think that some comment on the abuses is appropriate:

Like many of you, I have been both saddened and sickened by many of the cases we have read about. The clerical abuses and their subsequent cover-up by bishops has been one of the greatest evils in the Church in our lifetime. Any attempt to deny this would be misguided. The Pope’s recent letter to the people of Ireland is an attempt to rectify a grave and longstanding problem. He apologises, says, “I openly express shame and remorse”, and announces a major level investigation called an “Apostolic Visitation”. Such a letter is unprecedented and indicates the seriousness with which the Pope sees the matter. As Catholics we should be glad that such causes for shame are being addressed, even if much belatedly. In England, our bishops have put very extensive measures in place to protect children with the aim of preventing such occurrences in the future –the police checks that many of our own congregation have undergone are a part of this. This said, vigilance and transparency are needed for the future.

I know that many of you have had your own faith weakened by seeing reports of clergy and bishops behaving in this manner. Perhaps I should add that my own confidence in our bishops has also been seriously weakened. Nonetheless, I know that all Catholics sin, including bishops and priests. Further, I know that Christ has established His Church such that it serves us even despite sin: the sacraments come to us just as truly from a sinful priest as from a holy one. The essence of the Church is about something that reaches beyond the sinfulness of its current members. It is the fact that the Church was founded by Christ that gives us confidence to believe His promise to remain with His Church, even in the midst of sin.

While recent reports have focussed on the Church it is important to remember that such cases of abuse have occurred in many other institutions: state schools, social services, child care, foster homes, and others. The pattern of cover-up that moved offenders to other institutions where they offended again was common in all these non-Church institutions. In judging Church leaders it is important to note that they followed a pattern of behaviour common to all these institutions. It is also important to note that the rate of abuse by clergy is no higher than that among teachers, or among parents, or among other family members. This does not excuse but it does help to understand how this happened.

You will all have read the hostile media coverage of these events. It would be remiss of me if I failed to point out that the anti-Catholic bias in these reports has further compounded a grave problem. Such bias makes it difficult for us to see the truth because the truth is not clearly set before us. Concerning the Pope’s recent apology letter, it must be noted that many news reports condemned the Pope’s letter even before they read it. For example, the morning before the letter’s publication The Times ran a story saying that “the pastoral letter has already been judged a failure”. Other reports inaccurately complained that the Pope’s apology failed to refer to similar scandals elsewhere, or failed to call for priests to face normal police prosecution, ignoring the contents of his own letter which explicitly state these things. Meanwhile still other reports have been attempting to distract attention from his apology by two different attempts to directly connect the Pope with failures to remove abusing clerics –both smear attempts have lacked any substance but have sadly succeeded in further damaging the Church’s reputation. Surely we should ask ourselves why such media attacks ignore other institutions and disproportionately focus on the Catholic Church. Yes, they may complain when we fail to practice what we preach, but do they attack us for this or simply use this as an excuse to attack us for continuing to teach unfashionable truths about sexual morality?

Concerning the most recent media attacks on the Pope, alleging that he personally failed to remove an abusing Milwaukee priest: Detailed comments can be read from the Vatican and from Archbishop Vincent Nichols: In summary: In the 1970s, Fr Murphy, a Milwaukee priest, was reported to the police for the abuse of children. Later, in the 1990s, the Vatican was asked to start an additional procedure against the cleric for the specific (past) offence of “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession”. At this stage the cleric was elderly and had long been removed from priestly ministry. The Vatican informed the Archdiocese of Milwaukee of “penal” steps to take against the cleric but he died before these were fully implemented.

For ourselves, in addition to continuing to implement the recent child protection procedures of the dioceses of England and Wales, we would do well to join the Pope’s call for prayer to “make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm”, for “fasting”, as well as heeding his call that “particular attention should also be given to Eucharistic adoration” for this intention.

I would urge you to read the Pope’s sensitively written letter. While the letter does not change the fact that these abuses have take place it does at least indicate that the Pope is seeking to address these abuses.
Fr Dylan James, 26th March 2010


Some excerpts from his 7 page letter, the full text available online:

1. Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church. Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.

2. ... considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country, I have decided to write this Pastoral Letter to express my closeness to you and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation. ... I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children. Such an acknowledgement, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future. ...

4. [The Pope criticises] "a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal".

6. To the victims of abuse and their families: You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning. ...

7. To priests and religious who have abused children: You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders ... Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy. ...

11. To the bishops: It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. [...] it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness [...] cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

5th Sunday Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Jn 8: 1-11
You’ll sometimes hear non-Catholics say that forgiveness is too easy for us Catholics: we just go to the priest, confess, and we’re forgiven –the implication is that we don’t really need to be sorry. Conversely, as a priest I sometimes come across people who don't believe they CAN be forgiven –and they don’t believe it because it seems too easy. Part of the answer to both of these is to note what TRUE sorrow, true ‘contrition’, really involves, and that’s what I want to say a bit about today. Because solemn Church teaching very clearly lays out what is involved in true sorrow, defined especially at the Council of Trent.

Firstly, being sorry means realising that there is something be need to be sorry for, recognising that we have sinned. And true sorrow, when we recognise our sin, true sorrow responds with hatred of that sin. Hatred because we recognise that the sin is ugly, or, more perfectly: hatred of sin because we recognise that sin offends our loving God.

Hatred of our sin means that we don’t want to keep sinning. Thus contrition, true sorrow, also involves what the Church calls a “firm purpose of amendment” –we have to intend to change. If someone does not intend to change then they are not truly sorry. We have this expressed in today’s Gospel, when Our lord did not simply forgive the woman caught in adultery but said to her, “Go and sin no more”(Jn 8:11).
This includes the resolution to remove oneself from those temptations we call "occasions of sin".

The Church also teaches us that contrition involves the desire and intention to confess our sins. Thinking back to last’s week’s Gospel again, we heard an example of this in the Prodigal son, not only planning what he needed to confess, but then confessing. Wanting to be forgiven, being sorry for our sins, involves the intention to come to the sacrament of forgiveness in Confession.

Lastly, I want to mention an aspect of true sorrow that is often neglected, and I think it is because it is so often neglected that people often think that forgiveness seems too cheap, too cheap to be REAL -when we realise what this aspect costs we perhaps better realise that forgiveness is true:

The last aspect of true sorrow is the desire to make “satisfaction” for our sins. To take a simple example of the need for satisfaction: if a child breaks a jug of milk in a tantrum; the mother might then say she forgives the child; but the milk and broken jug still need to be cleaned up. ‘Satisfaction’ is the remedying of the effects of our sin, even though the guilt of the sin is forgiven. For us as Christians, the “eternal” satisfaction for our sins was paid by Christ on the cross. But there is still what is called the "temporal satisfaction" that we each need to pay for us our sins –and this varies with every sin, but if we do not intend to make such satisfaction than we are NOT sorry. For example, if a thief says that he is sorry but does not intend to return what he has stolen, then his sorrow is not real. In the Gospel we have the example of the tax collector Zaccheus (Lk 19) who when he converted to Jesus said that he would repay all the people he had cheated of their money –such is true sorrow. Similarly, but in less direct ways, an adulterer must want to make amends to his or her spouse. And, for each of our sins we must want to make amends, and this is what true sorrow means, and this is what true forgiveness depends on.
Sometimes this takes a long time, years, to make amends for our sins, but true sorrow WANTS to make up the wrong we have done to others –is HAPPY doing it, knowing that the Father accepts the sinner back.
My last part of this last point is that this satisfaction also includes the need to make satisfaction to God –because we have offended HIM by sinning. When we do works of penance and self-denial, when we offer little sacrifices, these are some of the ways we seek to make satisfaction to Him. And now, during Lent, our Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are all called “expressions” of contrition (CCC 1434).
Back to where I began: people often don’t believe in forgiveness because it seems too easy, and it seems too easy because people often don’t realise what true sorrow entails. Knowing what it entails helps us know that it is real. It entails: hatred for the sin we have committed, resolution not to do the sin again, resolution to avoid the occasions that lead us near that sin, it entails the desire to be reconciled by confessing our sins, and lastly, the desire to make up the damage of our sins, to make “satisfaction”.

A summary of these points is found on this week’s newsletter as follows:
True Sorrow
Today’s Gospel reminds us that true contrition (sorrow) involves more than just words, it involves:
• Detestation of the sins we have committed;
• The resolution not to sin again, what is called a “firm purpose of amendment”. This is why Jesus not only forgave the woman caught in adultery but told her to “Go and sin no more”(Jn 8:11);
• The resolution to avoid “occasions of sin” (as part of a firm purpose of amendment);
• The resolution to be reconciled to God by confessing our sins in the Sacrament of Confession;
• The resolution to make “satisfaction” for our sins. For example, a thief who does not intend to pay back what he has stolen is not truly sorry, thus, as St Augustine says, “The sin is not forgiven unless what has been taken away is restored”. In the Gospels, the tax collector Zacchaeus demonstrated this when he said that he would repay all the people he had cheated of money (Lk 19). The type of satisfaction we need to do for our sins depends on the sin: satisfaction to a spouse you have been impatient to will be less specific than repaying stolen money, but true sorrow still seeks to make satisfaction to those we have offended.
To read more please look at the Catechism of the Council of Trent and search “Sacrament of Penance”.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

4th Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury 11am Mass

Lk 15:1-32
We’ve just heard the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son – a familiar text, even in our secular world.
I want to focus on simple question: WHO is the prodigal son?
For some of you, you may think of your children –maybe who have left home, or left the Faith. In that context, the Gospel reminds us of our need to be ready to welcome them back
But, at its simplest and most profound level, for EACH of us, the question of WHO the prodigal son is: The prodigal son is ME, and it is YOU. And the Gospel is about our Heavenly Father’s desire to welcome us home

The prodigal son needed to go home, But there are many different things that PREVENT us going home.
For many in the secular world outside, they are prevented by not knowing the simple fact that they are AWAY from home, because they do not know the Father and the Father’s heavenly home, because they do not know the beauty of heaven, because they do not know that life has a deeper purpose than feeding self on husks of swine.
For many others outside, they are prevented by not knowing that they are in sin, prevented by the fact that they deny that what they are doing is wrong, prevented from coming home by the fact that they deny that they are away from the Father’s house.
For still others in the world outside, they are prevented by a combination that results in despair: In that cynicism in which there seems no hope of lifting self out of mire -not knowing that the Father DESIRES them to return, makes POSSIBLE their return, gives GRACE and Strength to return, despite repeated failures.

But what of ourselves? How do we grade according to those three tests I mentioned?
Do we presume that we are already home? –because I know it’s easy for me to relax into my life, to falsely presume.
Do we presume that we are not ourselves blind to our own sin? –the longer I’ve lived the more I’ve seen sins in my life that I was blind to in the past, which raises the question of which sins in my life TODAY I fail to see.
And, we might not think that we despair, but if we are comfortable in our own mediocrity, content to not love God more, then that is a form of despair.

As Christians, we might well say that we are both away from the Father’s home and at home.
To come home more fully, we need to realise all the ways that we are away from home, we need to look at our lives honestly, and realise that our lives are not yet as God would have us live them.
When Jesus told us how we should live, He told us we should be perfect: He did not say, ‘Be mediocre as your heavenly Father is mediocre’, or, ‘Be good enough as your heavenly Father is good enough’. No. He said, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5: 48).
To be perfect, means to love perfectly, to be alive and sensitive to the needs and concerns of our family, our neighbour.

Sacramentally, the most pivotal realisation of our returning home to God is going to Confession. We’ll soon have our parish Lenten penitential service. In the sacrament of Confession Jesus has given us the MEANS to return to Him, via His Church, to hear His words of forgiveness.

The Gospel of the Prodigal Son is a reminder to each of us not only that we NEED to come home to the Father, but that we CAN go home to the Father, that He is ready to welcome us, that He is calling us, and that His grace is strengthening is –if we will but use it.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 13:1-9; 1 Cor 10:1-12; Ex 3:1-15.
Sometimes Jesus says nice comforting things; sometimes harsh and worrying things. Sometimes we hear Him say things like, “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28); but sometimes this same Jesus says things like the harsh words in today’s Gospel, “Repent, or you will perish”.

Because we Christians believe that God loves us, we can sometimes forget that God has also threatened to punish us. In addition to the Gospel we just heard a frightening passage from St Paul in which he described how the Israelites "failed to please God and their CORPSES littered the desert", he adds: these things happened as "a warning to us".
Jesus Himself is no less alarming in His words to us. He refers to two tragedies, and says, "but unless you repent you will all perish as they did", and soon REPEATS, "but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did".

Now, I am not repeating this passage to you just to frighten you; and the Church does not give us these readings just to frighten us. And Christ did not warn us just to frighten us.
The same Jesus who sometimes said what seemed easy things at other times said tough things because BOTH types of things were an expression of His love for us and for the people He was originally speaking to.
When a mother or father warns a child that if they put their hand in the fire they are going to get burnt the parent is not saying this out of some twisted desire to worry and panic the child –rather, the parents is saying this because the parent knows the very real danger that the child is in, even though the child does not know or understand the danger that the child is in.

The people that Jesus was talking to didn’t think they were in danger: They thought that they were saved; they thought that as the Jews, the Chosen People, they had nothing to worry about. But Jesus told them that they did indeed have something to worry about because their lives were not bearing fruit. Like the fig tree in that parable, unless they started to bear fruit they would be cut down and thrown on the fire; God would wait a bit longer, but eventually time runs out for each of us and the question will be: did you bear fruit?

God does not force salvation on any of us: He has made us free; He has made us capable of rejecting Him by our indifference to His love.
Jesus warns us because He knows that it is easy for us to fool ourselves, just as the people who He was talking to had fooled themselves. We can fool ourselves that none of this applies to me: I don’t sin, God wouldn’t punish ME. But Scripture says it does apply to me: “If we say we have not sinned, we make God out to be liar, and the truth is not in us”(1 Jn 1:8-10).
Bishop Christopher reminds us of the need to go to confession during Lent. It’s a much needed part of a repentance and forgiveness. As he said in one of his Lenten pastoral letters, "Judging from the very small number of people who present themselves for reconciliation, many of us need to do a truth assessment about ourselves as a matter of some urgency"(Lent 1998).

(pause) God warns us because He cares for us. In fact, we could say that this is the foundational theme of this week’s readings. Right through the Bible, from the garden of Eden to the apocalypse, any warning from God is ALWAYS preceded by a revelation of God's love and care.
A care shown in today's readings in the way that the Lord sought to rescue His people from Egypt: He said to Moses, "I have seen the miserable state of my people... I mean to deliver them... to a land flowing in milk and honey". A care shown in the parable of the fig tree, where the gardener gives the tree another year to try and produce fruit.
The warnings only come because, despite the repeated displays of God's affection for us, we fail to respond.

One of the ways a response can be awakened in us, is the warnings we find today. A kind of SHOCK treatment. But we must remember that the only purpose of the shock is to remind us that Jesus came to SAVE us from perishing, a salvation that He offers to all of us, IF only we would turn to Him. If we always keep in mind that the Lord is rich in mercy, full of compassion, that He has already shown His patience with us, then we will not find it too hard to do what He asks, to look at the lack of fruit we have produced, and respond to Him with love and repentance. Let the prayer of publican be ours: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner”(Lk 18:13).