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.'

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Ecclesiasticus 3:17-20.28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19.22-24; Luke 14:1.7-14

Jesus went for a meal to the house of one of the leading Pharisees and he noticed something. He noticed the way they were picking the places of honour. He noticed their lack of humility!

Humility, and its opposite, pride have to do with an inner attitude to ourselves, others, and God.

Where does this attitude come from? How does it grow within us? What can we do to develop a ‘right’ attitude to ourselves, to others, and to God?

Servais Pinkaers OP, a wonderful moral theologian, says that early on in our history, at the time of our Original Sin, it was as though we suddenly caught a glimpse of ourselves - and a terrible thing happened.

'I love you' became 'I love you to love me.'

Consciousness did a U-turn and became ‘self-consciousness’. Love did a U-turn and became ‘self-love’.

It was the birth of the Ego - in the negative sense of the word - in the destructive sense.

There are two things about the Ego we should notice:
  • it has a voracious appetite
  • it is a master of disguise
The Ego has a voracious appetite. Everything is fodder for the Ego. It claims everything. It claims our gifts, our achievements, even our holiness. 'Yep, I am much holier than you! - and I did it my way!'

The Ego is also a master of disguise. It is so cunning and so subtle but only at the beginning.

Since Ego wants its own way, and not the way of the other, it has to pretend a lot. It has to pretend it only wants what is for the best. It certainly can’t afford to let others think that it is only feathering its own nest.

It does this because the Ego wants, ultimately, that the whole world, even God, should serve it. The Ego cannot serve, it demands to be served.

Jesus himself said: I have come as one who serves and this is because he only ever did the will of his Father and not his own will.

The first, and most subtle step in the Ego’s insatiable desire to become the ruler of the world is that it has to conquer the individual - me - and you.

My Ego is hard at work trying to conquer me, and your Ego is hard at work trying to conquer you.

It begins by making servants of our hearts and minds and faculties.
  • Our ears .. so that we hear only what it wants us to hear.
  • Our eyes .. so that we see only what it wants us to see.
  • Our minds .. so we think only what it wants us to think.
  • Our hearts .. so that the only one we love is ourselves.
And then we will see only the realities that promise to further our desires. Oh, dear, what a calamity!

Jesus was totally humble - he was humility itself. He could see right through every disguise of the Ego, even the most subtle ones. Jesus never needed evidence about anyone - he knew what a man had in him and he noticed how he acted - either according to humility or pride.
  • Those who chose the places of honour.
  • The widow who put her mite in the temple coffers.
  • The tax collector, Matthew, who he called to be an Apostle.
  • The woman who anointed his feet at the Pharisees’ house.
Jesus was humble, a true servant. He did only the works his Father gave him to do and he spoke only the words his Father wanted him to speak.

The Church is like that. She speaks only the words she hears Jesus speak.

And we, priests and people, should be like that - speaking only the words we hear the Church speak.

So humble people are lucky people. Jesus says they will be exalted in the kingdom of heaven. But already here on earth they are lucky.

They don’t have to be jealous. They can let others have their gifts. They don’t have to hold grudges. Humble people can forgive easily because they know who they are; they know their sins. And humble people can stop hating themselves and start loving others.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Ecclesiasticus 3:17-20.28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19.22-24; Luke 14:1.7-14

Those who know me well know that I have a particular fondness for vampire movies, a fondness which began with the Underworld series. The vampire world, like ours, is divided basically between good vampires and bad ones. The good vampires care for humans and each other; the bad ones don’t. They just care for themselves. And, of course, just like in our world, there is always some unexpected redemption going on – some goodies turn bad and some baddies become good.

But what I like about all this is that somehow, in the allegory of the vampire, I read more clearly the human drives and motivations, the virtues and vices, which we non-vampires usually take greater care to conceal. Vampires have tremendous gifts and powers and don’t need to fear the things we fear, like death for example, because they are already dead. Therefore they are usually more transparent than humans because they put less energy into concealing who they really are.

For us humans, concealing who we really are is generally the task of the ego which always imagines that we are more than we really are.

To keep us in the illusion of a greatness we don’t possess the ego will defend us from each and every attack of its adversary – the truth – or, in other words, reality.

It will attempt to paper over our interior frailty and weakness with all sorts of external adornments like fame, popularity, power, money, and even the highest place at table. All these things will help to disguise the emptiness, the nothingness, within; to make us and the people around us believe, falsely, that we are something more than them; something we actually are not.

Not only will the ego defend us from threats to our imagined greatness but it will also occasionally attack – cutting perceived enemies down with an array of vicious weapons like: lies, bullying, gossip, slander, and so on.

To prevent us and others from seeing the truth about ourselves the ego has to be fast on its feet – like a vampire. How often does the poor heroine, confronted by the vampire, turn around to run away only to find him once again standing before her? My ego is that fast! Everywhere I turn I find – myself – me, me, me. It’s all about – me.

Naturally, the arch-enemy of the ego is humility. If ego is all about me; humility is all about you. Ego takes the highest place at the table; humility surrenders it to you. Ego invites rich neighbours to its feasts in the hope that it will be repaid; humility invites the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind because it seeks only the good of the other without thinking of itself. Humility embraces the truth; it embraces reality – the ego is a lie, it is, like the vampire, already dead.

For the Christian to live in humility it must find a way to disarm the ego, to strip it of its power, to uncover and recognise its lies. For most of us this is the task of a life time. It is almost a definition of the Christian struggle though it must take into account that without the grace of God the struggle would be too much.

I recall a meeting between two female vampires. One said to the other, ‘I suppose you are going to hurt me because I killed your father.’ The other said, “No, I killed a man too, and I guess he was someone’s father. I am no better than you.’

This, of course, is the great insight, the great truth, upon which humility is built: I am no better than you. The prophet Elijah (1Kgs 19:4) put it in these words: I am no better than my ancestors. The Christian seeking perfection might say: I am no better than my fathers, in fact, I am worse.

It came as no surprise to me that one of the vampires who had lived for many centuries declared, in a heated moment, that being a vampire was a misery. Being under the thrall of a strong ego is much the same. Only humble people really enjoy life because they have seen and acknowledge who they really are. They know the truth about themselves and can move on from there.

Humble people have no need to be self-assertive; to hold grudges; to be jealous of the gifts of others; to be constantly competing for attention; to hate themselves, to judge their neighbour. Humble people find it very easy to forgive because they know their own sins. They can accept God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of other because they have owned their weakness and confessed their sin.

One of the ‘Originals’, the first four vampires, Klaus, fell in love but the girl would not have him. He ached for her but to no avail. Klaus was a powerful and ruthless man whom no one could stand up against; he always got his way, except with this girl.

Gradually Klaus makes a discovery. The more he relinquishes his need to always prevail the more this beautiful girl is moved to feel for him. The battle with himself is not easy but bit by bit he lets go of his ego and more and more the girl is drawn to him.

What Klaus had discovered about the love of his life is no news to us Christians: The greater you are the more you should behave humbly; and then you will find favour with the Lord.