Sunday, 25 April 2010

Good Shepherd Sunday: 4th Sunday Easter, Yr C, Shaftesbury

Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is Good Shepherd Sunday, when we think about how Christ is ‘The Good Shepherd’, and about how He shepherds us through the Church, through the ministry of priests. However, in recent months the media coverage of priesthood has been dominated by the gross failures of certain priests and by the failure of bishops to adequately deal with those priests, and as a consequence I don't think I could speak about the priesthood without making a reference to this.

If you were here a few weeks ago you would have heard me say how this whole business has been a tragedy, and a tragedy of our own making. I don’t want now repeat what I said then, but if you want the written handout I gave there are still some copies in the porch: .
Today, I want to make two simple points to try and re-establish your confidence in the priesthood: that the sacraments continue to shepherd us even when they work through unworthy priests; and, that most priests are not as bad as the media stereotype is painting us.

I know that many of you feel let down by the fact that those priests have behaved in a way so radically opposed to the compassionate shepherding they are supposed to offer. You feel let down, and so do I, and so do the vast majority of priests who feel the taint of this scandal very closely.
But, it is important to note that the number of priests who have been guilty of these offences is a small minority of priests. In fact, the statistics show, as has been carefully researched at the prestigious Stanford and Santa Clara Universities in California, , that Catholic priests are HALF as likely as the rest of the population to behave in this way -even though the media stereotype now associates this abuse specifically with priests. So, if you now look at a priest with suspicion, you should be TWICE as suspicious of any else who is NOT a priest. Or, to phrase that conversely, you should have twice as much confidence in a Catholic priest than you have in anyone else.
In addition, the sexual abuse rate among Catholic priests is no higher than the rate among male non-Catholic clergy. More recently, similar statistics have also been reported in journals like Newsweek
-and the basic implication of these statistics is that this is not a problem unique to the Catholic Church, in any sense. What IS unique to the Catholic Church is that a much greater degree of trust is betrayed when the person who behaves this way is a priest.

I know that many of you feel even more let down by the behaviour of certain bishops, bishops who have covered up, or at the very least failed to respond, to these cases. You feel let down, and so do I, and so do the vast majority of priests, and, I might point out, so do some good bishops who made many hard decisions to get rid of priests and are now tainted with the same label of inaction that applies to others.

But the basic point that I want to make to you today is that we NEED our priests and bishops.
A holy and GOOD priest is a great thing to behold, and a great gift to his people.
But the things that the priesthood gives us are so important that God has arranged things such that those things come to us even when a priest is mediocre, or even when he is sinful. The base line things that the priesthood gives us are: the sacraments and the teaching of the Church –and these are important because these are how we have union with Christ, these are how we encounter Christ today.

The clearest example of this truth is what we have come here for today: the Mass.
You have not come here to Mass today to see and meet me –at least I hope you haven’t.
You have come here today to meet and encounter Christ. Christ fed the crowds 2000 years ago. And He promised at the Last Supper, the First Mass, that when we “do this in memory of” Him, the bread and wine become what He said of them: His Body, His Blood, His Soul and His Divinity -as food for our souls. The priest, configured to Christ the Head by an indelible mark on his soul at his ordination, the priest follows Christ’s command and what Christ promised comes true: and we encounter Christ.
And this comes true even when the priest is half-hearted, or lazy, or otherwise sinful, the sacramental miracle is so important that FOR THE SAKE OF THE PEOPLE it works even when the priest is lousy.

Of course, in extreme cases like those in the media recently, a priest's unworthiness means that he must be removed from his office. But, in more daily cases of a priest's unworthiness, the shepherding that comes to us in the sacraments is so important that Christ has established His Church in such a way that this shepherding works despite, not necessarily because of, the worthiness of individual priests. Sometimes priests are not worthy –and this is damaging to the Church –that’s why the Eucharistic Prayer of every Mass prays especially for the clergy: because it’s important for everyone that the clergy are holy.
But priests in general are much better than the media reports have been giving the impression that they are.
And even if they weren’t, the shepherding of the sacraments comes to us even so, and it’s a great and wonderful gift that we should thank God for.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

2nd Sunday of Easter, Shaftesbury

Jn 20:19-31
We recall today a person and an event so significant that the name and phrase still lives on even in our post-Christian society: a "doubting Thomas".
Thomas is often criticised as a sceptic, one who refuses to believe. But I suspect myself that he actually more of a cynic –a cynic being someone who has come to believe more in evil and suffering than in good and God.

Suffering and the experience of evil is something that can make us doubt the existence of goodness, and this is cynicism. So that when the cynic hears others talk of goodness, he points to evil and suffering. And I think this is what we see in Thomas: it’s not just that he doubts like a skeptic, but that he positively believes in the negative. What does he refer to when they refer to the resurrection? He speaks of the wounds that killed our Lord, he speaks of the experience of suffering, of disaster, of what has gone wrong.

The Thomas who we heard doubting was not always so cynical. Earlier in the gospel, when Jesus set out for Jerusalem where He faced certain death, Thomas bravely said to the other apostles, "let us also go, that we may die with him"(Jn 11:16).

But by the start of today's gospel passage, this brave disciple had changed dramatically, he had become cynical, and refused to believe. What had happened in between? The Cross. The experience of the suffering of the Cross had shattered his faith. And suffering can destroy our faith too.

Even though suffering is a time when we need our faith the most, to remind us that we are united to our loving Lord on the Cross, of the happiness that awaits us in heaven, of the fact that we have a loving Father who watches over us, even if we cannot see exactly how. Just when we need our faith the most, pain can lead us to doubt these basic truths.

How does our Lord respond to a cynic's doubts?
In response to Thomas's doubts, our Lord showed him His wounds, and He publicly displays them to us too, to show that He has triumphed over them. The same Jesus who hung before us on the Cross, also appeared to show that He had faced and overcome suffering. Thus Jesus says, "In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world"(Jn 16:33).

This is what enables us to have faith even though we live in a world where there is suffering. We know that our God has suffered with us, and for us, and even more, that He has triumphed over it, and promises us a share in His victory, if we but put our faith and trust in Him. That's why St. John says, "this is the victory over the world: our faith"(1 Jn 5:4).

Scripture also reminds us that suffering can TEST our faith (1 Pet 1:3-9), and that it not only tests it, it purifies it. Suffering can lead us to re-examine where we actually put our trust, is it in ourselves and our human strengths, or is it in God alone? Thomas's faith crumbled under the weight of suffering: like the other disciples, his faith had been weak.

But the sight of the risen Lord rebuilt his faith, and it can rebuild and strengthen our faith too. Because even though the experience of suffering is great, the triumphant resurrection of our Lord squarely faces that suffering, and still promises us hope in something even greater.

Every religion, or philosophy must try to deal with the problem of suffering, but none can do so as well as Christianity. The cross and suffering are unique to our faith alone. In the creed we say, "We believe" that Christ suffered, was crucified and died. We do not say that we believe we live in a perfect world with no pain. But greater still is our statement of faith in the resurrection and Christ's triumph over death and suffering.

When our faith is tested by suffering, as it easily can be, when we feel like giving in to cynicism, we would do well to recall the sight of our Lord showing his triumphant wounds, a display that gives faith in him credibility even in a world of tribulation.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Easter Sunday, Shaftesbury

Jn 20:1-9; Acts 10:34-43
Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. I want today to say a few words about an aspect of the relationship between the seeing and believing.
We just heard the account where it records how St John, the beloved disciple, went into the empty tomb, “He saw and he believed”(Jn 20:8). What he saw enabled him to believe.

Now I am a scientist by background: I got a degree in mathematical physics before I finally responded to my vocation and went off to train to be a priest. And I still largely look at the world as a scientist: a scientist deals primarily with what he sees, with what he can measure, and with the repeatable testable phenomena that he can analyse to compare theory with measured fact. For a scientist, the phrase “He saw and he believed” can seem quite scientific.

But what I have gradually come to realise, at a deeper and deeper level, is that there are many truths that I don't know because I myself have seen them and measured them, but they are true even though I myself have not seen them and have not measured them. This sort of truth I have to know by a different process: I have to know it by trusting the testimony of another witness.
For example, when I was talking to my sister on the phone she told me that my niece can walk now, but I had not seen this myself, I only knew this because I trust the testimony of my sister. And it would be a foolish sort of narrow-mindedness that said I would only believe things that I have seen myself -I would end up not knowing many truths that I otherwise could know.

The truths that we know by faith we know on the evidence of witnesses. None of us here have met, heard, and eaten with Jesus in the manner that we heard Peter, in our first reading, telling the people how he and those who were with him had "eaten and drunk with [Jesus] after his resurrection from the dead"(Acts 10:41). But to accept the evidence of reliable witnesses, reliable witnesses with written records of what those witnesses saw, who saw it, and when they saw it -to accept the evidence of such witnesses is a reasonable thing to do, a reasonable way to know these truths.

But to know these truths we have to acknowledge that there ARE truths beyond what we have seen for ourselves. Actually, this is what we see in St John, the one who "he saw and he believed". As I said, he went into the empty tomb, saw, and believed.
But I want to make a VERY important point to you: What was it that he saw? What was it that he saw that enabled him to believe? Did he see a choir of angels? No. Did he see a blinding light? No. Did he see a dead body come back to life? No. And hadn’t yet seen Jesus in His resurrected state either.

What did he see? All he saw was an empty tomb. And yet, because he approached what he saw with the right attitude, the sight of that empty tomb enabled him to "see" much more than he physically saw before him. Before he saw the empty tomb he neither realised that Jesus had risen from the dead nor realised that Jesus was going to rise from the dead. As this passage and others make clear: neither the women who first went to the tomb, nor those that went after them, were expecting the resurrection. “Till that moment they had failed to understand the teaching of Scripture, that he must rise from the dead”(Jn 20:9).

But, because St John approached that reality open to the truth, once he did see the empty tomb he saw much more: he saw the truth that Christ had risen from the dead. And of course, as we know from other passages, he and others met the resurrected Jesus shortly after this account.

Now, for ourselves, St John gives us a good role model: to be open to the truth in such a way that we know more than is immediately before our eyes. If we approach our lives with the eyes of faith, then in our daily living we too will see more than is immediately before our eyes: we will see the truth of the Lord's presence, we will feel the guiding of His hand, and know the strength of His grace, but only if we look at things as St John looked at things, as “he saw and he believed”.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Easter Vigil, “O Happy Fault”, Shaftesbury

I’ve mentioned a different unusual, if not odd, thing in each of the last two days’ Triduum liturgies. Tonight I want to refer to a 3rd unusual thing: the phrase, “O Happy Fault”, the “Felix culpa” I sang of the Exultet.

The Exultet then went on to describe this “happy fault” as the “necessary sin of Adam”. And this might seem even more confusing: In what sense could any sin possibly have been ‘necessary’?
Before saying any more I should note that this is the language of poetry and exclamation rather than the language of strict precise theology –but nonetheless it conveys a deep truth.
In what sense was that sin of Adam ‘necessary’?
It wasn’t logically necessary, it did not NEED to happen, and Adam and Eve did not need to do it: Our First Parents, named amidst the symbolism of Genesis as ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, were free not to commit that first sin, that Original Sin. If they were not free to not commit this sin then there would have been no need for the Devil to tempt them, and there would have been no meaningful way to speak of it as a ‘sin’.
It was necessary in another sense: It was needed IF we were to have “so great a Redeemer”. It could well have not happened, they could well have not sinned. But if Adam had not sinned, there would have been no need for the great event of the Redemption.

If there had been no sin, there would have been no need for the death and resurrection of Christ, there would have been no glorious CELEBRATION of His victory, the victory we recall at Easter.
I follow the school of theology that argues that Christ would have come anyway: He would have come as one of us even if there had been no sin to efface –He would have come to COMPLETE our human nature, our human nature that longed to be fulfilled by union with the Divine, the union that occurred in Christ’s own person when He as a Divine person added a human nature to the Divine nature He already possessed.

But if there had been no sin then this union with God would not be wrapped up in the glory of victory.

To take a somewhat loose comparison: consider a captain who has glory simply in being captain of a great company of soldiers, and consider the glory his soldiers have simply from being part of such a great company with such a great captain. Now, compare him with that same captain if he has the additional glory of victory in a battle. Such a victory only comes at a cost, and it only comes because there was some enemy that arose that needed to be conquered. Both of these (the cost and the enemy) are not desirable things –but the greater glory achieved is because of the “happy fault”. And his company share in that glory, in the benefit that was accrued from that “happy fault”.

The “happy fault” of that Original Sin of Adam was indeed a fault, was indeed an evil. It was an offense against the all-good God who had showered such blessings on our First Parents. It was an act of disorder and disharmony that skewered the order of the whole of material creation causing the disorder that we see all around us, a disorder such that “all creation groans in eager longing” (Rom 8:19) to be set free from its bondage to decay. It brought suffering to a world that had not known suffering. It was an offence that cast our First parents out of the harmony of Eden and exiled them to a land where they and their descendents merited damnation.
It was truly a “fault”.

But it is a “happy” fault because God drew out of that evil an even greater good. As St Thomas Aquinas teaches, this stands as the definitive example of how “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom”(ST III q1 a3 ad3). That “fault” is “happy” because the act of Redemption has given us an even more beautiful and inspiring sign of His LOVE for us: His death on the Cross. It is a “happy” fault because it has displayed an even greater degree of the Lord’s GLORY by His victory over sin and death in the resurrection. And it is a “happy” fault because we SHARE in that victory by our union with Christ. By being incorporated, by grace, into the Mystical Body of Christ we share in the glory of the Head –we gain more from this than He did!
And thus we can sing, “O Happy Fault!”

Friday, 2 April 2010

Good Friday, Shaftesbury

We may well have some people here are unfamilar with the Good Friday liturgy, and if you're not a regular here you are very welcome. But you will see us do something today that might seem very odd: you will see us kneel down before an image of a dead man, and you will see us kiss the instrument of his death.
I say this for the benefit of our regular Catholics because it is important that we too remember how unusual what we are doing is. Similarly, someone might ask, why do you have an image of a dead man hanging in your church? Why do you have an image of that same dead man hanging on the walls of your homes?

We do not do this because we are morbid. We do not do this because we have some bizarre fascination with death. We do this as an act of love, devotion, and gratitude to the man who died, and also because He was not just any man, in fact, He was not just a man –He was and is God.

We in England are not accustomed to outward displays of affection, or outward displays of devotion. We often laugh about overly-demonstrative Italians, or Americans. But even Englishmen show SOME acts of affection, and that particular type of affection that is called “devotion” is what gathers us here today.

We gather here to honour Christ, Christ who died on the Cross for us.
But even today, when we focus on His death, it is important to remember that if He was STILL dead we would not be here at all today. It is because He ROSE from the dead, because He actually showed Himself to be what He claimed –namely God Himself, it is because He is all-powerful that His death is of such significance for us. It is because He is all-powerful that we look back to His death and see what a free act it was on His part, that we see that it was something that He chose to do for us, that we see that it was an act of love for us, that we see that it was the sacrifice that takes our sins away, that reconciles us back to God.

So, when we see that image of a dead man on the Cross, we are recalling that He was not just a man, He was and is God. And we are recalling that the Cross was not some random disaster but rather was the culmination of a long-foretold plan of the Almighty, a plan to save us from our sins.
And recalling that should awaken a response from us, should awaken affection.

The affection that the Cross should awaken in us should be the type of glad, joyful affection that arises from gratitude.
If we think of how often we feel gratitude to people for much smaller and mundane things, surely, the gratitude we should feel for someone dying for us should be much greater.
Of course, it’s possible to not feel gratitude at all. We all know the annoying feeling of someone ignoring the good we have done for them. And surely Our Lord feels the same: the many apparitions of the Sacred Heart have told the saints, and through them have told us, that He who once walked among us with a real human heart with real human emotions, He still has that human heart, even in His risen and glorified state, and He feels affections for us, and He feels our lack of affection for Him, our lack of gratitude. As He put it in His apparition to St Margaret Mary, “Behold this heart that has so loved men, and yet been repaid with such ingratitude and coldness”.

Gratitude, then we have gratitude, gratitude inspires love. And love inspires works of devotion, and devotion expresses itself in signs, signs of affection.
When we genuflect before the Cross, when we kiss the image of the crucifix, we are outwardly expressing our devotion.
And such acts of devotion do not just express the devotion we already have, they help foster and build it up.
So, as we do this today, let us ask the Lord to increase our love for Him, to increase our awareness of what He has done for us in dying for us, because, as St Paul put it so long ago, this is what proves that He loves us: that He died for us, while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8).

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Maundy Thursday, Shaftesbury

There are a number of unusual things that we do as a part of the Triduum liturgy over these three days -things that are unusual, yet have always felt right to me as I grew up with the liturgy. One of those things in the procession at the end of tonight’s liturgy, when we remove the Blessed sacrament from the tabernacle and take Him to another place: the altar of repose.
This feels right when we return tomorrow on Good Friday, because the world that stands empty at the death of Christ is mirrored in the church’s emptiness of the tabernacle.
But even more than this, the symbolism seems right in that tonight is about Jesus leaving us, Jesus leaving us to go and die, Jesus leaving us to go from the comfort and intimacy of the Last Supper and the Upper Room to go to the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Tonight's liturgy is very much about Jesus leaving us, and so it is only suitable that the liturgy should end with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament leaving the tabernacle. And it is only suitable that the liturgical tradition calls on us to "watch" in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, "watch" in prayer as the apostles were called on to watch in prayer in the Agony in the Garden.

Tonight's liturgy, as we focus on Jesus leaving us, reminds us of what Jesus left us to remain with us when He was gone, and each of the three things that tonight’s liturgy focuses on is a different aspect of the gifts He left us "to reveal His love", as the opening prayer tonight's Mass said.

There were three things He gave His apostles at the Last Supper: the Mass, the Priesthood, and the New Commandment.
The first of those gifts, namely the Mass, was itself a twofold gift. In one aspect it is the gift of His Presence: His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity, present in the Blessed Sacrament, present to be the food for our souls. While the other aspect of that twofold gift of the Mass was the gift to us of the perfect prayer, namely the sacrifice of the Mass. In both of these aspects His gift was that He was to remain with His Church even as He was leaving it.

The second of those gifts, the Priesthood, is the automatic corollary of the gift of the Mass. If the Mass is to be a gift from Christ to us, then it must be a gift that is received, not something that we make ourselves -and the fact that the priesthood is received from another priest from another priest who received it from a priest who ultimately received from an Apostle who received it from Christ -this is the guarantee that the Mass is our gift from Christ, and not merely our own invention. The Priesthood is a very particular form of Christ remaining with His Church.

The third and last of those gifts, the New Commandment, was given at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you”(Jn 13:34) –not merely to love, but to love as He has loved us. And while these words are not in tonight’s liturgy, they are expressed in the loving humility of the foot-washing that is in tonight’s gospel and is re-enacted in the ritual tonight. They are expressed also in the fact that the liturgy specifies that gifts for the poor are to be brought up in the offertory procession of this night -and tonight the SVP will be bringing forward offerings of clothing of the homeless.

These three things are the pivotal ways in which Christ remains with us: in the love of the New Commandment; in the Priesthood that gives us the Mass; and in the Mass itself. Christ left this threefold gift that night. And He went from the Upper Room to the Cross, to the Cross, to the death that was itself that threefold act of love, of Priesthood, of the Mass. As we think of how He left that room to go to the Garden, let us in our hearts and minds accompany Him, and recall what He left us when He went.