Saturday, 15 October 2016

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Exodus 17:8-13; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8

2567 ...Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. (CCC)

God calls us as he called Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the Fall: Where are you? God calls us so that we may ‘walk with him’. That’s a rather nice way of putting it, don’t you think - to walk with him? This kind of prayer is lived by many humble people in all religions but in the drama of our daily Christian lives it is ordered to an ever-growing communion with the Trinity – to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is, of course, our model for prayer. In his relationship to the Father we discover all that prayer is, its source, its power, its necessity, its characteristics.

After their sin Adam and Eve, when they heard God approaching, hid from him. How many of us do not do the same? We avoid prayer not only because we are too busy, we avoid it because we know it is a meeting with God. The most recent National Catholic Life Survey confirmed this for us once again; by and large Catholics do not pray.

And yet, I imagine that few Catholics would say that prayer is bad or unnecessary, in fact, I am convinced that practically all of them would acknowledge its importance and betray a niggling desire, if not an explicit intention, to pray more. Perhaps the teenage Jesus points to this pervasive awareness when he tells his parents: I must be in my Father’s house.

Indeed, Jesus’ simple affirmation is very profound when applied to our subject.
  • Prayer is really the communion of a child with its Father and this, in thought, word, and deed. In other words our prayer is always ‘filial’ prayer; the enduring call of a loving Father to his loving child.
  • Secondly, we are called to be in our Father’s house, to live there; it is our proper home. To reduce Christian prayer to those well-known moments when we ‘say a prayer’ is to impoverish it entirely. Our moments of prayer must always embrace the daily conduct of our life; we must live our prayer.
Understandably, since the sin of Adam and Eve, and as we become aware of our own personal sins, we can begin to develop a sense that we are somehow excluded from the Father’s house. However, this does not remove from us that deep-rooted other sense we have that ‘I must be in my Father’s house'; that there is the only place we will be truly happy.

Those of you who practise Lectio Divina will readily recognise that your daily opening of the book of Sacred Scripture is in a very real way like opening the ‘door’ to the Father’s house. We enter this door and find ourselves, as it were, in the lobby where we sit and read, meditate and pray. It is a gift of this prayer, the gift of contemplatio, that the Triune God himself will, at moment of his chosing, come to be with us. And if we are not always graced with such a visit we can always say with St Peter: Lord, it is wonderful to be here.

The more our lives become oriented to being in the Father’s house the less we desire to live in the world and the more happily we begin to withdraw from its ways. Jesus often withdrew to a quiet, lonely place in order to pray. Solitude is the great friend of prayer because in solitude we eventually find the silence in which God speaks.

If there is an absence of prayer in many Catholic lives it is often because of the lack of solitude and silence. In busy families it is difficult, almost impossible, to find either of these realities. In fact, one can grow so accustomed to always being with others and having one’s head filled with noise that solitude and silence can come to seem unpleasant, even frightening. Yet, I know of extraordinarily busy couples who have simply legislated periods of both solitude and silence in their lives in order to spend time in prayer. The fruit of their efforts is apparent in the quality of their marriages and in their responsibilities as parents, but most of all in the heavenly wisdom which makes itself a part of their lives.

One of the joys, and challenges, of my life at present is that I have been obliged to live in many different houses over the last few years. I’ve grown accustomed to accepting that each home has a different routine and 'rhythm' and that my challenge is to do my best to fit in. To live ‘in my Father’s house’ requires similar adjustments.

Jesus’ prayer, arising out of the depths of his humble heart, sought always to open him to the accomplishment of the will of his heavenly Father. That is what true Christian prayer is meant to be – a seeking out of the will of God. Many of us pray in a way that seems to be trying to change God’s mind about something in our lives so that we can go on living ‘in our own house’ whereas true prayer teaches us how to live in his.

I consider the greatest prayer Jesus ever spoke was: Father, not my will but yours be done, and I believe, furthermore, that the Father will never refuse this prayer. In his will (in his house) is every good, if only we had eyes to see and hearts to trust.

Oh, before we finish, we’d better acknowledge what Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel about prayer: Pray continually and never lose heart.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Habakkuk 1:2-3. 2:2-4; 2Timothy 1:6-8. 13-14; Luke 17:5-10

Quite a few years ago now I found myself in the dentist’s waiting room reading in a tattered magazine a report from a young Polish-Australian girl who had just returned from a first visit to her country of birth. She was full of exuberance and somewhat emotional. She said things like ‘I feel Poland is doing well … I feel the Pope’s recent visit has given courage .. I feel the economy is improving' .. and so on.

It struck me this use, or rather, overuse, of the word ‘feel’ and wondered how much ‘thinking’ our young traveller did.

A previous bishop once asked me at lunch what I thought of a certain matter and as my response began, ‘I feel that …’ He interrupted me immediately and said, ‘Spare me your feelings, John; tell me what you think.’ I was, naturally enough, mortified and the broad grins of my brother priests around the table didn’t make my humiliation easier. During dessert I thought to score a point by asking the bishop if he thought like another piece of cake. He was not amused.

It is undoubtedly true that in this world there are ‘thinkers’ and ‘feelers’. I confess to being, in certain areas, one of the latter. If you ask me if I’d like an ice cream I just consult my tummy and say, ‘Hmmm .. yes.’ On the other hand, a priest friend who sometimes accompanies me on holidays would look at his watch and work out how long since breakfast and how long till lunch and make a decision based on his calculations. A true ‘thinker’.

Thinking and feeling are usually thought of as two separate functions of the soul although sometimes it can be difficult to disentangle them. In most people they work together harmoniously for the wellbeing of the individual as long as it is remembered that the rational intellect is a higher faculty than the emotions. Many people have forgotten this. Unfortunately those who live their lives guided by their changeable and unpredictable feelings will usually lurch from one disaster to the next.

In broad terms feeling tends to self; thinking tends beyond self. Therefore, in our contemporary, individualistic, self-centred society feeling gets more airplay than thinking. Quite frankly, I was shocked to discover recently that among our primary school students one of the worst sins they could commit was ‘hurting someone’s feelings’. From here it’s only a short step to ‘feeling good’ is better than ‘being good’ or ‘doing good’.

An over-emphasis on feelings leads inevitably to an over-emphasis on self. The subversive little phrase ‘Are you comfortable with that?’ is symptomatic of the trend. Good becomes that which makes you feel good.

No wonder the young say, ‘I don’t go to Mass because I get nothing out of it; it does nothing for me.’ Having long ago lost any intellectual grasp of the meaning of the Eucharistic liturgy they are reduced to judging it by how it makes them feel.

We priests, instead of undertaking the task of re-catechising our people have all too often fallen into the trap of entertaining them - making them feel good. And so we have had rock Masses, and puppet Gospels and clown homilies, and all sorts of innovations and novelties bordering on abuse and even sacrilege.

When young people tell me the Mass does nothing for them I tell them it’s actually meant to do something for God. The Mass is meant to please God. We come to give him (not ourselves) glory and praise and honour and worship. This is our obligation as God’s servants.

And when they complain that they don’t like the music or such and such a hymn I tell them we’re not singing these hymns for their enjoyment; we are singing them for God. We are here at Mass to do something for God.

And when they tell me they don’t like the priest I tell them that God does. I tell them that God saw something very attractive in that man and called him from all eternity to be a priest. We would show ourselves very wise to go with God’s choice.

Feelings tend to invert the order of things. Reason puts them back the way they should be. I heard recently of a priest who complained to his parishioners that he is rarely thanked for the work he does among them, for saying Mass and delivering sermons, and a parishioner interrupted him and told him that as a father he rarely gets thanks for providing for his family, and his wife rarely get's thanked for her housekeeping. 'That's our duty, Father, and your duty is to do what you're doing.'

Strong words, straight from the rational intellect, and they certainly put the 'hurt feelings' back in their place. Just listen to what Jesus thinks of the matter: So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.’ Those words put us all in our place, and 'in our place' is a wonderful place to be. It brings peace to all around.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Habakkuk 1:2-3. 2:2-4; 2Timothy 1:6-8. 13-14; Luke 17:5-10

Being a Christian is a scary business. Jesus made this plain to would-be disciples. He warned them of obstacles which would be sure to come – and then went on to warn them of something even worse – providing them.
Alas for the one who provides them! It would be better for him to be thrown into the Sea with a millstone put round his neck (Lk 17:1)... . Scary business indeed!
Jesus asks so much of disciples; how can we even dream of being what he wants?
If your brother does something wrong, reprove him. Who among us is strong enough and wise enough to do that? How many of us when we see someone doing something wrong, especially someone in the Christian community, has the courage to meet with him alone and gently reprove him? And having done it once or twice, how many of us make it a habit of life?
And then: if he is sorry, forgive him. How hard is that? To forgive ... from the heart!
But wait, there’s more: And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I am sorry’, you must forgive him. Jesus really lays it on, doesn’t he? How could he expect anyone to do such heroic things?
No wonder his apostles (note the plural) say: Lord, increase our faith. They may still have a lot to learn but by this time they must have understood that the demands of discipleship cannot be accomplished with mere willpower, or intelligence or skill, or any other talent. They know it requires faith, and they ask for an increase of it. And here is where it gets interesting.
The Lord replies: Were your faith the size of a mustard seed... .
Strangely, I once found myself resisting one of the charismatic ladies in a former parish who asked for yet another Holy Spirit Seminar to be conducted in the parish. We had only just completed one and now, already, she wanted another? That would have made about three in the last year. ‘Yes, Father,’ she said, ‘You can’t get enough of the Holy Spirit!’
Well, that sounds OK if you don’t think about it too deeply, but it does pose the question: Does the Holy Spirit come in amounts? And this is precisely the problem the Lord had with the apostles who seemed to be quantifying faith – so you could have a small amount of it, or a larger amount of it.
The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, and where the Holy Spirit is present, well, he is present. He can’t be a ‘little bit’ present; just as a woman can’t be a ‘little bit’ pregnant. Of course we can surrender to a greater or lesser degree to the Holy Spirit’s presence within us and give him greater and greater sovereignty over us but then we would have to be careful when we express this sovereignty in words such as: the Holy Spirit is growing within us; when the reality is that we are growing in the Holy Spirit.
It seems to me that this is why, when the apostles said increase our faith, Jesus took them immediately out of the area of quantity, and brought them to the smallest seed he could think of, the mustard seed.
Jesus could have said, for example: If your faith were the size of a grain of sand, or a speck of dust, but the point of the comparison with the mustard seed is that it is living; it has a living power which a grain of sand does not.
Just as a small weed can split a slab of concrete, or a mustard seed can produce a huge tree in which the birds of the air find shelter, so the living power of faith can move mountains.
The secret of the living power which faith has is that it is built on the living word of God. The word of God is something alive and active, says Hebrews. The power of this living word is transferred to us in the gift of faith and our ‘faith journey’ is, in truth, defined by the extent to which we surrender to the power of God’s word in us.
We, who have received this gift of living faith in God’s Word, have a responsibility for its growth in us, or more precisely, we have a responsibility to grow in this gift of faith.

Friday, 23 September 2016

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13
As a teenager a friend of mine once took me to his father’s garage to get a tool we needed to repair my bicycle. It was an amazing place! On three of the walls there hung an inconceivable array of spanners, screwdrivers, drills, saws, hammers and so on; everything one could possibly need. Then, for no apparent reason my friend turned to me and admitted, ‘My father stole most of these from his work.’ I cannot pretend to you that I was outraged or even shocked by this confession, merely intrigued as to why my mate would, for no apparent reason, pull the veil off his father’s dirty little secret like that.
On the way home I found myself saying, over and over: His father is a thief. His father is a thief; with the same kind of amazement I would later have the first time I actually met a woman who worked the streets at night.
With the benefit of years of reflection on that strange event from my youth I have come to see that garage as a kind of image of the soul; the place where sins are stored – hidden from all who enter there – but laid out in plain sight to their owner. The Lord, of course, sees everything, hidden or not, and declares: Never will I forget a single thing you have done.
Obviously, we are on the level of a cautionary tale here. There is nothing wrong with that. Cautionary tales cause us to question ourselves and take stock of our own behaviour. So in that spirit let each of us take a walk through our home and see if there are not some things in our cupboards, on our bookshelves, in our garages which do not belong to us. And when we have done that let us check our bank accounts and even our lifestyle. Better we do this on our own, in private, than that the Lord should have to one day take us by the hand and point our dishonesty out to us.
At any rate, we do not condemn this man and his garage. Obviously the words of the Lord: you cannot be trusted with what is not yours, can justly be applied to him and, assuming he does not have a change of mind, he will be judged for his dishonesty. But there are other forms of thievery which we must not overlook.
What of those whose opulent houses, whose lifestyles, are crammed full of extravagance and luxury? Is it not possible that the Lord may one day say, ‘Those luxuries of yours are actually the property of the poor?’
Now before you accuse me of going overboard, and it is possible to go overboard here, I want to make it clear that we are all entitled to a comfortable lifestyle and to a certain degree of the luxuries that go with a normal comfortable lifestyle and that will generally include some luxuries we don’t need.
What I am speaking of here is the kind of wasteful extravagance which takes no account of the needs of our poorer neighbours. Pope Francis recently commented on this when he pointed out that all we possess which we really do not need are goods withheld from their rightful owners, the poor? Another cautionary tale for us to examine ourselves on. We may be trusted with what is ‘not ours’; but can we be trusted with what is our ‘very own’?
In this self-examination proposed by the liturgy of the Word we must not forget that it is all directed to ‘eternal life’. There are no thieves in heaven. We examine our lives to discover where our hearts lie because we cannot serve two masters. The Christian life is not about getting rid of all our money, it is about loving God and loving our neighbour. Therefore Jesus says: Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.
The crafty steward of the gospel used money to win himself friends on earth; we must use it to win friends in heaven.
In the few moments remaining let us return in a very practical way to an examination of conscience in the matter of honesty in money matters.
When we are undercharged in a store do we correct the error or do we just say ‘Oh, that’s their fault’ and pocket the money?
Do we refuse to give to charity because we say that it is the responsibility of the government? Or do we say, ‘The money never gets there, anyway?’
When we find a wallet or handbag do we make efforts to return it or do we say ‘Well, I lost mine the other day?’
Do we contribute to the upkeep of the parish and the priests? Or do we say ‘They don’t use the money properly’ or ‘I don’t agree with how the priests go about things?
I used to say until quite recently: If people stop giving they should also stop taking. I’ve come to realise this makes only apparent sense. What I’ve learned to say is: If people stop giving, it is our duty to keep giving. Not only is this the logic of the gospel; it is the way of Christ himself.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Amos 6:1. 4-7; 1Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

About 780 years before Christ a young man called Amos was taking care of sheep and tending sycamore trees in Judah when God unexpectedly called him to be a prophet. He had to denounce both Israel and Judah for their idolatry and injustice in such strong terms that he found himself expelled by the priest in charge of the royal sanctuary of Bethel. This in itself was a great crime. Imagine forbidding a prophet to speak God’s word in God’s house! It would be like getting angry when a priest mentions from the pulpit the teaching of the Church on contraception, abortion, the Sunday Mass obligation, mortal sin, or the need for the sacrament of Reconciliation.

It showed to what depths the faith of Israel had fallen and because of its sins Amos foretold its downfall and the captivity of the people.

Today we hear, for the second week, a small selection from the prophet Amos in our first reading. Written almost three thousand years ago its warning is as applicable and valid today as it was all those centuries ago.

Amos condemns the rich and powerful in language that seeks them out and ‘captures’ them in the very acts of their self-indulgence. The effect is much like that of a video camera at a wild party with an accompanying commentary full of biting scorn.

‘Woe’ cries Amos, casting his prophet’s eye on those ensconced so snugly in Zion and to those who feel so safe on the mountain of Samaria. His cry is both a lament and a warning.

The phrases are carefully chosen – ‘ensconced so snugly’ – ‘feel so safe’ – and Amos shows himself contemptuous of the blind self-assurance of the rich which allows them to live in the silly delusion of safety.

And how do they live?

Lying on ivory beds and sprawling on their divans, they dine on lambs from the flock, and stall-fattened veal; they bawl to the sound of the harp, they invent new instruments of music like David, they drink wine by the bowlful, and use the finest oil for anointing themselves

The prophet’s camera does not lie – ivory beds, divans, lambs, stall-fattened veal, harps, wine by the bowlful, finest oil. And the rich, what are they doing? – lying, sprawling, dining, bawling, drinking, anointing. Not a very flattering report, is it?

There are several judgments implicit in the prophet’s description of the rich.
Firstly, their lives are dissipated. Not only do they spend their time intemperately wining and dining but there seems to be no evidence of spiritual concern; the preoccupation with material pleasures is total.

Secondly, their lifestyle is one of degradation. It is no surprise that those who feast on fine food and consume wine by the bowlful should end up sprawling and bawling. How ironic that those who think themselves superior to others are unmasked as bereft of any personal dignity.

Amos leaves his most biting condemnation till last. All the self-indulgent carousing of the rich which he has portrayed so vividly is suddenly placed within the context of a nation in imminent danger of total destruction.

But about the ruin of Joseph (i.e. Israel) they do not care at all.

What a terrible indictment! And no wonder the Lord in his mercy moved to restore the situation. Amos bluntly pronounced the Lord’s judgment: That is why they will be the first to be exiled; the sprawlers' revelry is over. Deportation.

Many such warnings were given the Chosen People over a long period of time but they would not listen. They polluted the Promised Land with their idolatry and disobedience until finally the Lord intervened. They were taken captive by the pagan nation to their north and their Temple and Holy City were razed to the ground.

Is there a lesson for modern Australia in this scripture? Is there a lesson for the Catholic Church? Is there a lesson for you personally in this reading?

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Amos 6:1. 4-7; 1Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
Which of the two men in today’s gospel would you have liked to be – the rich man or the poor man?
Would you like to have dressed in fine clothes, feasted magnificently every day, had a holiday home for the winter months in Queensland, good health, lots of friends, and a stately funeral? Or would you have liked to be poor, dirty, covered with sores, hungry and homeless?
We are not told much more about these two men other than that one was rich and one was poor; that ‘good things’ came the way of the first man and that ‘bad things’ came the way of the other. Consequently, the parable tells us, the poor man was now being ‘comforted’ in eternity while the rich man was ‘in agony’.
Moreover, what we are not explicitly told is that the rich man was bad and the poor man good! So what are we supposed to make of this parable – the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven? I don’t think so. I think that this parable, like all parables, needs to be meditated on and prayed through so that both its message and its power can break through into our lives.
Did you notice that the poor man has a name and the rich man doesn’t? That is rather odd, don’t you think? Don’t we all know the names of the rich and famous? Those on our TV screens, in our newspapers and magazines? But how many names of the starving, the outcast, the diseased do we know?
Why do you think the gospel gives the poor man a name but not the rich man?
And did you notice that when Lazarus dies he is carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man dies and is just buried? One goes up and the other goes down.
At the time Jesus told the parable the bosom of Abraham basically meant that place in which the good awaited the final judgment. Today, we use the phrase simply to mean heaven. I think that is entirely acceptable. However we interpret the phrase we have to admit that this gospel tells us there is a heaven and, like it or not, that there is a hell.
Heaven is an eternal place of comfort, of love, of belonging and fulfilment. Hell is an eternal place of agony, torment (flames), and alienation. Between heaven and hell there is a great gulf which separates and cuts off the two realms.
Did you notice that the rich man is ‘surprised’ to find himself in hell? He never dreamt he would end up there in such a sorry state.
His first experience is pain: I am in agony in these flames, he cries. For a man who lived so comfortably on earth this ‘agony’ gives him a totally new set of priorities.
And for the first time he sees Lazarus. The man he had ignored at his own gate, the man he could so readily have helped, the man who asked for so little, no more than a few scraps that fell from his table,  he now sees a long way off in contented, unreachable bliss.
So comfortable with the sufferings of others this man now calls out for pity on his own. Father Abraham, pity me ... I am in agony... . And true to form he suggests: send Lazarus ... . I wonder if Abraham might have smiled then, quietly bemused at naïveté of this man who was having difficulty understanding that his days of being served were over.
Notice, and perhaps this is very close to the central point of this gospel, that Abraham enlightens the rich man about his present situation by asking him to remember his own life on earth. This is the key to understanding the gospel.
The gulf which separated Lazarus from the rich man now, in heaven, was the gulf the rich man had put between himself and the poor man on earth. The pity he was being denied now in hell, was the pity he had denied Lazarus in his need. The drops of water he was longing for in hell were the scraps with which Lazarus had longed to fill himself while on earth. Without a doubt, the rich man had created his own hell.
Everything he asked for was denied him. The answer to his every plea was NO!
Even when he asked Abraham a second time to send Lazarus (what a slow learner!) to his family, the request was refused. The man who was so used to being obeyed is now ignored. Not a single word he says is listened to, not a single argument he makes bears weight. He is now, truly and painfully, for all eternity, the nobody he thought Lazarus to be.
Let me ask again: Which of the two men in today’s gospel would you have liked to be – the rich man or the poor man?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

On Monday, the feast of the Holy Name of Mary, we began celebrating weekday Masses in Howlong 'ad orientem'. A big thank you to the weekday group for their acceptance of this change - ancient - but new. As a first comment I would say I was very intensely aware of myself as leading the congregation in prayer.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

Lately I’ve been reading a rather unusual book called TO MY PRIESTS. It’s a shockingly difficult translation of the Spanish original written from the years 1927 – 1931. They are inspirations or ‘confidences’ of Jesus to a Spanish woman called Concepcion Cabrera de Armida and add up to the most insightful and confronting observations I’ve ever read on the priesthood. Let me quote a little from Chapter 46 on Vanity: This vice, when it initiates itself into the souls of the priests ought to be rooted out because, if it reaches an accustomed level of living and possesses the person, it removes him from his interior and spiritual life - which ought to be where his existence gravitates - it lowers him to the things of the earth and makes him delight in them. Then he is saddened when there is a lack of human praises and he is joyful only when he sees himself enveloped in them. Powerful stuff!

Perhaps because this book caused the priestly ministry to be so much in the forefront of my thinking, today’s Gospel image of the steward giving away the master’s property to make himself popular speaks to me also of the dangers inherent in the vocation of the priest.

When I was first ordained it was my habit to invite parishioners to call me by my first name rather than say Father. It seemed like a jolly good idea. It showed people I was not ‘hierarchical’ which was code for ‘power hungry’; it showed them that I didn’t want them to think I was better than they were; and, all in all, and perhaps most importantly, showed them what a nice, friendly, approachable guy I was.

To be honest, I have now come to see that what I was really doing was saying to my parishioners 'Please like me!’ What is apparent to me, after thirty-two years of priesthood, is that I was wasting, or giving away the Master’s property in order to win a welcome for myself. I was giving away what didn’t belong to me. At the time I didn’t realize that the familiarity I then sought, even in this seemingly trivial way, would one day become an obstacle for those who needed Father John Speekman and not John Speekman. I guess that’s why so many parishioners, especially the older ones, resisted me. They understood this title was not mine to give away. It had been placed on me at ordination and represented who I had become. Another group of parishioners, however, was only too ready to acquiesce to my invitation.

A little smarter now I have begun to cast the light of this self-understanding on all sorts of areas of priestly ministry, some minor and some gravely serious. Take the wearing of the Roman collar, for example. Patients and staff at the hospital where I served as chaplain were always grateful to see me wearing clerical attire and occasionally told me so. A religious sister in lay clothes who sometimes visited the wards once chided me and suggested it was a little overdone. She asked ‘What difference does it make?’ and I answered, perhaps too abruptly, ‘When I walk down the street I make people think of God and the Church, and you don’t.’ Let me hasten to add that there was a time when I didn't wear clerical clothes either, but I have learned.

Rome has repeatedly requested priests to wear clerical attire. Our bishop sets a great standard here. Why then should we not comply with this requirement? For only one reason: it’s easier for us when we are not so conspicuous. And because people have a right to the example of priestly obedience, and of visible priests, I propose this as another example of wasting the Master’s property.

We priests need you to love us, though, depending on circumstances and life situations, some priests more than others. But this need can run very deep and often causes us to baulk at making difficult decisions.
  • ‘Father, is it OK for me to be on the Pill?’
  • ‘Father, can I still go to Holy Communion even though I’m married outside the Church?’
  • ‘Is it OK to sing “She’ll be coming round the mountain” as the first hymn at Mum’s funeral Mass?'
The more a priest needs to be loved the more difficult it is for him to say no. Then we find that awful temptation to give away more of the Master’s property. Our loyalty shifts from the Master to his debtors and the consequences are tragic for the Church; it becomes a Church ruled by the wishes of the people rather than the rights of the Master, and there is no place where this becomes more apparent than in the pulpit.

Have you noticed that there are some pulpits from which you never hear anything challenging? There is lots of affirmation, lots of thanking, lots of congratulating, lots of humour, but almost no teaching of prickly truths. It’s not that heresy is preached, it’s just that the difficult teachings of the Faith are somehow ‘left out’. As one Catholic man put it recently, ‘Our priest gives us nothing to take home. All he does is talk about climate change, refugees, and progress on the school hall.’

We priests are called to set the hearts of our people aflame, not to blow smoke in their eyes. There will be many to love us today for not challenging them - but tomorrow – they will quietly despise us.

We priests are called to use the Master’s riches to make friends who will welcome us ‘into the tents of eternity.’ I haven’t always understood this and have been as guilty as most of self-serving ‘wastage’.

Nowadays I deliberately never tell a joke at Mass; I am so conscious of how this destroys the (Lord's) sacred atmosphere which should surround it. I don’t make use of extraordinary ministers unless it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t just let the choir sing whatever they want but try to direct them more to appropriate hymns and music. Above all, I never deliberately change the words of the Mass.

All this is learned behaviour, acquired wisdom. If it is essential that we priests, stewards of the Master, remain accountable for our use of the Master’s goods, it is equally necessary that religious and lay persons be attentive also. The steward in the Gospel was not a thief, he was just wasteful - but the master still gave him the sack.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Exodus 32:7-11.13-14; 1Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

At the Saviour’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say:

‘I hope he rots in prison and then in hell,’ screamed the distraught mother outside the courtroom where her daughter’s killer had just been sentenced. I felt for her sorrow but shuddered at the curse she invoked.

Without a hint of embarrassment the parishioner explained, ‘My son has just brought his girlfriend home to live with us. I bought a lovely new double bed for them and set it up in the bungalow.’

Reading my mind the woman said, ‘Maybe the Church does teach that it’s wrong but I know I did the right thing having a child through the in vitro procedure whenever I look at my beautiful son.’

When I suggested he might like the sacrament of reconciliation before he went off to the hospice his wife replied, ‘My husband has never committed a sin in his life, Father.’

Formed by divine teaching...?

I don’t think so. In fact, each of these statements, made by Catholics, would rightly deserve the words God spoke to Moses in the first reading: your people ... have apostatised. They have been quick to leave the way I marked out for them.

The more one reads the history of the Chosen People the more one realises that God’s intent and purpose was to reveal his face to them; a revelation which would be perfected and completed in the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus.

He led the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt with fatherly compassion and patience, revealing to them always his loving kindness and tender mercy. Time and again the people forgot him and turned away from him and time and again the Lord forgave them. He gave them a Law and a Land and sent them judges and prophets. Finally he sent his own Son, his Word become flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

The living voice of Jesus speaks today as the living voice of his Church which continues to seek out those of goodwill, those who will listen, those who love truth.

The power of the Church’s teaching, the ‘active ingredient’ so to speak, is truth and only truth has power to form children of God and, thereby, to save. If only those Catholics who cling so pig-headedly to pagan views would, like the prodigal son, come to their senses, surrendering their personal opinions, and the sins which go with it, to the wisdom of Christ in his Church and allowing themselves to be healed and formed by divine teaching. What a difference this would make to the world!

The empty-headed son, full of youthful confidence in his own judgment and oblivious to the great hurt he is causing says: Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me. I can well imagine a close friend of this young man attempting to talk him out of the huge mistake he is about to make. And I am sure he would have discovered soon enough how difficult it is to influence minds and hearts which are not yet correctly formed.

Perhaps the father, who makes no struggle at all, already knows it would be pointless to argue. There are those who learn more from bitter experience than from wise counsel and so he divides the property.
The next thing we hear from the son is: I am dying of hunger; Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.

When the son appears on the horizon hungry, thirsty, poor, humiliated the father speaks no words; his actions speak more loudly. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.

This, right here, the running, the clasping, the kissing – this is the divine teaching; this is the father forming his son. This is the active power of transforming love. Not the hunger, not the humiliation, not the lesson of a painful experience but the forgiving, unconditional, power-filled love of a father for his wayward son.

In the open-armed acceptance received by the son is the invitation and the power to become all that the father is.

What miracle of healing was taking place in the guilty heart of that young man as he was dressed in the best robe, had a ring put on his finger and sandals on his feet! What depth of understanding dawned in his mind as he was led to the feast for which the fatted calf had been killed! It must have been a kind of baptism, a kind of rebirth: And they began to celebrate.

That there is something mysterious going on, impossible to easily grasp with a malformed heart and mind, is not hidden from the elder son. The conundrum is clearly enunciated: for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening. Some traditions, perhaps legends, tell us that the elder son, too, eventually ‘came to his senses’. Was it the love of his father which reached out to him in the words: My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours; which found their place in his heart? We don’t know.

What we do know is that lasting peace and joy will come to us and to our world only when we are truly formed by divine teaching; when we come to our senses and return to our Father whose saving love reaches out to us in his Church.

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Exodus 32:7-11.13-14; 1Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

Jesus was a sinner magnet. Whenever and wherever he showed his face the sinners came flocking: The tax collectors and the sinners, meanwhile, were all seeking his company to hear what he had to say. They like to be with him, in his company, and they liked to hear him speak.
There were two groups of sinners – those who knew they were sinners and those who didn’t. Those who knew who they were and those who didn’t.
The sinners who knew they were sinners liked to hear Jesus speak because he spoke words of acceptance, hope, reconciliation and love. The sinners who thought they were good and holy sought Jesus out in order to criticise, poke fun, catch him out and, finally, get rid of him. In a way I think they were actually afraid of him.
At any rate they were not pleased that Jesus welcomed the other group, and even ate with them: The Pharisees and the scribes complained. 'This man' they said 'welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
Jesus’ response is typical; he tells them a parable, three parables in fact. This was a good strategy. To set the naked truth before some people can be too confronting, it just provokes them to anger and aggression. Jesus ‘gift wraps’ the truth in a parable. He tells a story which encloses the truth he wishes to teach in such a way that his listeners are obliged to carefully 'unwrap' it and ponder deeply on the parable. Then, if they are of good faith, the truth will present itself plainly to their eyes.
What man among you, challenges Jesus, prodding the egos of his listeners to greater attentiveness: What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it?
Instantly the focus shifts from the lost sheep (the sinner) to the man who goes searching for it. This parable is not about the sheep, nor is it really about the sinner. Everyone knows it’s in the very nature of a sheep to get itself lost. When it strays from the flock it’s only doing its duty, so to speak, like an infant screaming in church. Every shepherd of sheep understands this. We should not be surprised therefore that the Good Shepherd, the shepherd of souls, knows that we humans are sadly prone to sin. He knows what we are made of, he remembers we are dust (Psalm 103:14).
The parable does not scoff at those who condemn the sinner, it just shows disbelief that such a person could exist. What man among you…? or in other words, ‘Could there be such a man among you, a man who would refuse to forgive a sinner!?’ And yet, ironically, unless one is attentive to Jesus’ use of hyperbole, there would probably be not a single man among them silly enough to leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness at the mercy of the wolves in order to save one lost sheep.
Hyperbole is extravagant exaggeration for the sake of making a point. When Jesus, for example, wanted to impress on his listeners how awful it is to commit sin he told them it would be better to pluck out their eye or cut off their hand. He exaggerated for the sake of the point he wanted to make.
In the parable we are considering it is the heart of the shepherd which comes under the spotlight, not the misdeeds of the sinner. The Pharisees and Scribes are, in a real sense, shepherds of the people and are offered this alluring image of a shepherd who loves each of his individual sheep with a preferential love.
In scriptural terms the flock of sheep is the Church: in which everyone is a 'first-born son' and a citizen of heaven (Hebrews 12:23). If the Pharisees and Scribes are seen as wanting in their love for God’s wayward children, the Good Shepherd, on the contrary, is shown as one who loves each of his sheep with all of his love and must therefore do all he can to ensure it stays within the flock.
No individual sheep is worth less than any other sheep, a fact reinforced by the parable which follows; no drachma is worth more than any other.
The merciful, loving heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the merciful, loving heart of God our heavenly Father. His mercy tirelessly seeks out each sinner and should the sinner respond there is delirious happiness and rejoicing in the whole court of heaven.
To every sinner in the state of mortal sin I say as simply as I can, ‘Your sin is not the big deal you think it is; the big deal is your return to the merciful love of God. Trust in his mercy, not in your sin. And if you continue to sin, continue to trust and to return to his mercy.’

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Wisdom 9:13-18; Philemon 9 – 10.12-17; Luke 14:25-33
  • If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.
  • Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
  • None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.
The wisdom of discipleship is born out of total love. This love penetrates and motivates, we could almost say ‘owns’, the disciple. It is the foundation for all his following (discipleship), and guides the trajectory of his life – total love, total love of Christ the Lord, total, unconditional discipleship – the wisdom which leads to the Father.

Total love of God is, therefore, the prize from which everything else flows. If we have this we have everything else. But how? How do we gain the prize? How do begin to journey towards this love?

Naturally enough, the first requirement is that we desire it. Ask yourself right now ‘Do I wish to love God with all my heart, mind, strength, soul?’ If the answer is yes – take a step forward.

Next comes Sunday Mass; regular, faithful, committed adherence to the worship of God every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. This is a basic and non-negotiable bottom line for Catholics. It is, for a Catholic, the ‘slab’ on which the house is  built. If you can tick this box take another step forward.

Then there is Reconciliation, which goes hand in hand with Mass. If we become aware that we have fallen into grave sin we go to the priest in the sacrament of forgiveness. If we are free from grave sin we do well to go to Confession at Christmas and Easter and even more regularly. So if the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a part of your life – take another step.

Daily prayer, loving service of neighbour, evangelising the culture, practice of the virtues, struggling with faults – all these are further steps in the Christian life – further transforming steps on our way with Jesus to total love of God.

To begin the journey of total love we begin with the wisdom of discipleship which grows daily with every step we take until this wisdom becomes our friend, our habit of life, and our destiny.

If we wish to see this wisdom more clearly we can do no better, after the Scriptures, than to look at the writings and the lives of the saints, because the wisdom of the saints is the love of God in full bloom.

Look at the unshakeable peace of bishop Cyprian who was beheaded in 258AD. He had refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods and when the sentence was passed he responded simply, ‘Thanks be to God.’ We then read: Cyprian was brought to the plain of Sextus. There he removed his cloak and kneeling down he humbled himself in prayer to God. He disrobed and gave his dalmatic to the deacons. Clad only in his linen tunic he awaited his executioner ... The blessed Cyprian blindfolded his eyes with his own hands .... So died blessed Cyprian.

St Rose of Lima desired to go through the whole world proclaiming the wisdom she had learnt from Christ: If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace.

St John Chrysostom writes: The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus ... I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live ... I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.

The more you read of the saints the more you recognise the wisdom of discipleship, total love, at work.

St Robert Bellarmine ardently prayed: O Lord, good and forgiving and abounding in steadfast love, who would not serve you with all his heart, when he has begun at least to taste the sweetness of your fatherly rule?

Standing on his funeral pyre, hands tied to the stake, Saint Polycarp declared: Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself ... I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Benedict XIV put it very clearly when he asked: What is it that today makes true followers of Christ cast luxuries aside, leave pleasures behind, and endure difficulties and pain?

His answer was full of the wisdom of discipleship: It is living faith that expresses itself through love. It is this that makes us put aside the goods of the present in the hope of future goods. It is because of faith that we exchange the present for the future.

Living faith, total love, wisdom; it doesn’t matter how we try to express that virtue which directs our discipleship, so contrary to the world. In the lives of the saints we see our own calling to grow in that wisdom which leads to the holiness of the children of God.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Wisdom 9:13-18; Philemon 9- 10.12-17; Luke 14:25-33

Much of my time on my brother-in-law's sheep property was spent feeding grain to the sheep. There was a drought on.

We bumped along in the ute with the feeder hooked up behind, letting her idle in first gear up and down the track feeding out the barley - and hundreds of sheep milling round, pushing and shoving their way to the grain.

Of course I had to make sure not to go too slowly or the sheep would swamp me and it would be difficult to get moving again.

It’s a powerful image and it comes to mind naturally so often in the Gospels when Jesus comes to town. People come from everywhere milling round him, pushing and shoving to get close, all wanting to be fed, or cured, or exorcised by his word. And Jesus had the experience of getting swamped every now and then and he had to take precautions - like preaching from a boat.

In today’s Gospel we read: Great crowds accompanied Jesus on his way ..

This image is slightly different. Now we have Jesus walking from one town to another and people accompanying him. He would have been going at a leisurely pace because there would have been women and children and sick people arriving all the time.

They would have been talking together about all sorts of things and by the looks of what he told them they were probably speaking about what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.

… and he turned and spoke to them. So they all stop in their tracks. Perhaps they sit down on the ground.

Jesus speaks ... and he has three things to say about being a disciple. This is the first one: If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.

Do you know what he meant by saying this? Do you think this might be a bit exaggerated? Harsh? How do you respond to this?

To put it simply, Jesus is using what’s called hyperbole to make the point that if we don’t put our following of the Lord above every other thing in our lives, we cannot be his disciples. In other words, we must put our relationship with Jesus, our Lord and Master, our Saviour, before every other human relationship, even the most intimate, and even before our very own lives. We cannot prioritise Jesus. We cannot relativise him.

Putting Jesus first has practical applications for us and very real consequences in our lives. There is a whole cluster of contemporary issues at stake here from contraception, to abortion, to euthanasia, sex outside of marriage, and so on, and even our attendance at Sunday Mass.

The second thing Jesus says is: Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

This is getting difficult, isn’t it? We have already put him first in our lives ahead of all our most loved relationships, and now he is asking us to suffer - as he did - to carry our cross.

When you come to think about it, this second command is really only a repetition of the first. If we do put Jesus first in our lives then the cross we are asked to carry will suddenly appear on our shoulders. We won’t have to go looking for a cross. Just being a true disciple of Jesus will throw up daily challenges which will cause us to suffer - just like him.

And it is only because this suffering is for the sake of the kingdom that it is attractive and bearable and that it produces this marvellous peace and joy deep within us.

Next Jesus tells us two stories to prepare us for his last statement about discipleship and if we think about it we will discover that this last one merely repeats the first two. The first story is this: And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, 'Here is a man who started to build and was unable to finish.'

The second story is like the first: Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace.

The point of connection in these two stories is to work out whether there is enough to complete the task - enough money to build the tower and enough men to win the war.

And now comes Jesus third challenge: So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.

At first sight this is puzzling. The two stories speak of having enough to do the job while the instruction of Jesus is that to make sure you have nothing.

Again it's hyperbole (except for those called to take it literally and live a life of evangelical perfection).

Jesus is again telling us to allow nothing, absolutely nothing, to stand in the way of our Christian discipleship. The Kingdom must come first!

Let me finish by telling you a little story of my own. I swear to you it's a true story. It happened when I was staying at the home of one of my many sisters and one of her daughters came home from school. She was about 15 at the time and she was not in a good mood.

'Mum' she said 'you'll never guess what happened during Religious Education today. We had an auction and we were all given $1000 dollars to spend. The teacher was auctioning things like popularity, good looks, sporting ability, fame, wealth, and so on. Down the bottom of the list was heaven.'

'I wanted heaven and so when my turn to bid came I said '$500 for heaven'.

'Well, mum, you know Michelle, the girl who doesn't like me, she doesn't even believe in God, well, she knew I was after heaven and so when her turn came she said, '$1000 for heaven.'

'And she got heaven, Mum, and I didn't!'

My sister and I couldn't help laughing, which didn't help matters, and finally she said, 'Well, what does that show you?'

My niece replied, 'I should have given everything and not tried to bargain.'