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.

Monday, 22 August 2016

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7,11-13; Luke 13:22-30

Jesus was a great traveller, always on the move. What drove him was the Gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom. Somehow it was a burden to him that there were people who had not yet heard it and so he kept moving: Through towns and villages he went

Of course, you realise, Jesus is still travelling today, still on the move, still bringing the Good News to the towns and villages of the world. He has handed this great task over to the Church, his body, and the energy for this mission comes from the same source, the need to bring the Word to all who have not yet heard it or responded to it.

And so today Jesus comes to our town. You have just heard his word proclaimed in the readings from the prophet Isaiah, from Hebrews, and from the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus comes to us as he came to the towns and villages of Palestine - teaching. He is going to teach us something tonight.

Have you ever realised that Jesus’ travelling is part of his teaching? His travelling was not aimless; it had a direction. When we connect the dots we see he is, as the Gospel says: making his way to Jerusalem … his own narrow door, the place of his suffering. Jesus does not just teach the truth; he lives it. In fact, Jesus is the truth.

Someone said to him, `Sir, will there be only a few saved?'

The ‘Jews’, those Jews opposed to Jesus, used to imagine that there would be only a few saved and that they would be the few. They thought themselves pleasing to God for the same reason they found themselves pleasing; because they scrupulously kept all the little details of their man-made laws.

Jesus doesn’t argue the case. As we have observed time and again during the election campaign our politicians refuse to answer questions because often they seek to hide the truth; Jesus frames his answer to precisely illuminate it.

He teaches his listeners, and us, that the real question we should be asking is not ‘Will many be saved?’ but ‘Will I be saved’? This is why he changes the future tense to a present imperative: Try your best to enter by the narrow door…
  • try – now - the door is open now.
  • your – don’t worry about others.
  • best – (Greek: agonizesthi = struggle) – with every fibre of our being.
Before us, uncompromisingly, stands the narrow door. The Greek word also includes the sense of straight and would therefore preclude anything crooked from entering the Kingdom.

We love wide doors with plenty of room to ‘wiggle’. The modern phenomenon amongst all too many Catholics to recast the Faith, to do away with the ‘narrow’ bits like contraception and abortion, gay relationships and Sunday obligations, is a clear expression of this tendency to accommodate the truth to suit the comfortably 'wide' ethics of the world.

But Jesus makes it plain that we can’t saunter in casually at our own convenience and on our own terms: I tell you, many will try to enter and not succeed.

The narrow door to the Kingdom is an illustration of the narrow demands of discipleship. This door stands open now and the merciful love of God invites us now to strive with all our might to enter by it because: Once the master of the house has got up and locked the door, you may find yourself knocking on the door …

The gentle phrase ‘you may find yourself’ is intriguing and evocative. We have all had the experience of pushing on the bank door only to find it locked. We push and pull but the door doesn’t budge; it’s closed and locked; trading hours have finished. And if we manage to attract the notice of the bank teller and ask to be let in he will point to the clock and shake his head.

The key point here is that this ‘surprise’ we feel (gosh, is it 4 pm already, I thought it was only 3 pm?) before the locked door, will not alter the fact that it is locked.

‘I thought‘ will not count against the Lord’s clear warning: I tell you...

To our surprise we may find ourselves arguing the case as we did so often in our lives, making excuses for our sins, giving ourselves privileges, seeking exemptions.

Notice again the past tense? "We once ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets" We have all heard the equivalent story in our own day. “Our lamps were once lit. I used to pray, I used to go to Mass. I used to be an altar boy. I used to be good.”

God will not be wheedled into admitting into his Kingdom those who ignored, or changed, his teaching in favour of some past superficial acquaintance. Rather than the presumptuous overconfidence so prevalent among us today I would speak in favour of a healthy fear. 'I’ve always been a Catholic, I’ve always been to Mass, I’ve always been a priest. Is it possible that I have still never let him convert and change me – that it has all left me just as selfish, gossiping, judgmental, dishonest, money-hungry, self-seeking and impure as always?'

Then there will be weeping and grinding of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and yourselves turned outside.

Yes, indeed, if you have been creating ‘wriggle room’ for yourself by adapting the Church’s teachings to your own preferences I would counsel fear. Be afraid, very afraid. Have done with that complacency. Get rid of that false confidence and listen again to the Lord’s words: Try your best to enter by the narrow door…

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7,11-13; Luke 13:22-30

Try your best to enter by the narrow door ...

Once again we find ourselves standing before a door.

There are all sorts of doors in Sacred Scripture – wooden, bronze, gold-covered – even doors made of precious stones. There are locked doors, open doors; doors torn from their hinges, doors newly built; doors broken and restored. Doors to keep out the bad and doors to lock them up. Doors which imprison the good and doors which protect them.

The first mention of a door is in Genesis 4:7: God is speaking to Cain who is angry because God accepted his brother Abel’s offering but rejected his own. God warns Cain: ...is not sin at the door like a crouching beast hungering for you, which you must master? That sounds like a door you don’t want to open.

Can you guess who made the first door? It was Noah. God ordered him: ...put the door of the ark high up in the side... (Gn 6:16) and then God himself closed it. That door saved the ark from the elements and, symbolically, from the evil which would soon be destroyed outside the ark.

Already we notice just from these two examples that the primary purpose of a door is to divide, and usually, to divide what is seen as good from what is considered bad.

Observe how Lot (Gn 19:6) pleaded at the door with the men who wanted to have carnal relations with his guests. They would not listen to him and attacked. His guests opened the door and pulled him to safety inside and then: they struck the men who were at the door of the house with blindness, from youngest to oldest, and they never found the doorway (Gn 19:11).

In Egypt where the Hebrews were slaves God once again made the door of each house the demarcation point between good and evil. He commanded the Hebrews to kill the Passover Lamb and then (12:7): Some of the blood must then be taken and put on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses where it is eaten; and then (Ex 12:23): when Yahweh goes through Egypt to strike it, and sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, he will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to enter your homes and strike.

In the desert God placed another door in the midst of his chosen people; it was the door of the Tent of Meeting. Moses and Aaron often went to this door to speak with the Lord. It was a door they could not enter without the Lord’s permission and only with the greatest of reverence (Num 20:6): Leaving the assembly, Moses and Aaron went to the door of the Tent of Meeting. They threw themselves face downward on the ground, and the glory of Yahweh appeared to them.

The doors (gates) of the city of Jerusalem had immense symbolic significance in the holy Scriptures from the time Nehemiah rebuilt the walls and set the doors in place to the time Jesus passed through them riding on a donkey. As the years went by these gates became more and more deeply associated with the day to day practice of the faith of God’s people.

One clear and rather poetically beautiful example of this is seen in Nehemiah 13:19 where the Law of God falls on the dwelling of the People: So just before the Sabbath as the shadows were falling on the gates of Jerusalem, I gave orders for the doors to be shut, and said, 'Do not open them again until the Sabbath is over'. I stationed a few of my servants at the gates to see that no load was brought in on the Sabbath day.

By now you will be beginning to appreciate that doors in the scriptures are very significant things in all sorts of ways. There is the door (Mt 6:6) we must shut on the noisy world when we go in to our private room to pray to our Father; the door to God’s generosity (Mt 7:7) which God promises will be opened if we knock in prayer; the door of the wedding hall (Mt 25:11) which the five tardy bridesmaids found closed; the bolted door (Lk 11:7) which can be opened only with hope-filled persistence; and the narrow door to the Kingdom by which many will try to enter but will not succeed.

Finally we consider two more doors.

The first one is the door to heaven, a door which will not surrender to false claims of familiarity with the Lord. The Lord opens this door only to those who belong to him. I do not know where you come from, he will say, to those whose discipleship was a pretence. And many will be turned away in anguish, with weeping and grinding of teeth, as they witness others taking their places in the feast of the kingdom of God.

The second door brings this entire reflection home to the present moment; to each one of us in a profoundly personal way. It is the door to my and to your heart. Of this door Jesus says (Rv 3:20): Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with Me.

Not only do we knock on the door of heaven – heaven knocks on the door of our hearts.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Jeremiah 38:4-6.8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
There is little a criminal on death row can do the night before his execution. He might read a book, watch TV, make a last call to his family, or enjoy a final meal. The fact is, of course, he has run out of options. In a few hours he will be led by the guards to that place where he will be hanged, or shot, or injected with a lethal chemical. Justice will be done and he will find himself standing before his Maker.

The people of Judah, in today’s first reading found themselves in much the same circumstances as the condemned criminal. Countless times they had betrayed their God – the God who had warned them over and over again, sending judges and prophets to them. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you... (Joshua 24:20). Now the Chosen People find themselves on death row. The chickens of all their bad choices have come home to roost and soon they will be destroyed by the savage Chaldeans massing at their borders.

If we are to believe the prophetic voices of our times, contemporary godless, immoral, murderous Western civilisation is, if not on death row then certainly, at least, in prison. Our many crimes against God, born from our intellectual and spiritual pride, have unleashed forces which we cannot now control and which threaten to overturn our arrogant superiority. Our choices are growing fewer and fewer; we, too, are running out of options. Many times have we been warned from heaven that a chastisement is coming for the world. (But who in their right mind cannot tell by simple observation the direction in which things are going for the world, and particularly for Christians?)

Perhaps Fr Dwight Longenecker sums it up well: When we look at the state of the world today – the  pace of moral decay, the threat of war and terrorism, the rapid disintegration and persecution of the church we seem helpless to turn back the tide. It is as if we are facing the sea and watching the surging wave of a tsunami rolling in.

But let’s check back with our man on death row. He is awake and being prepared for his final walk. Unexpectedly a priest enters the room – the never-sleeping mercy of God – in the form of an elderly, kind chaplain. He offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the promise of life in the face of death. But he is rebuffed. Moments later the unfortunate prisoner goes out to undergo the justice of man, and then, having rejected mercy, to face the justice of God.

King Hezekiah stands on the wall of Jerusalem gazing northwards. He can almost see the Chaldean hordes. There is no help at hand. Suddenly a man stands before him, the prophet Jeremiah. He brings a word from God – an unexpected, merciful word.

If you surrender, you and the people, your lives and this city will be spared. You will be taken to a foreign land but you will live and prosper there. If you resist, you will be destroyed.

Poor King Hezekiah cannot bring himself to obey the word of God; it's such a risk! Having rejected mercy he must now experience justice. The city is destroyed, the people are slain and the survivors go into the cruellest slavery.

And finally, we get back to our own day as we approach the tipping point of our sins; the point of no return. Many times have we been warned and yet we seem to be blind and deaf. There can be no doubt that God will intervene. Listen to this warning from Sr Agnes Sasagawa (1973) from Akita in Japan, a stigmatic, whose messages from our Lady have been approved by the Church: As I told you, if men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity. It will be a punishment greater than the deluge, such as one will have never been seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead...Each day recite the prayers of the Rosary. With the Rosary, pray for the Pope, the bishops and priests.

The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church, in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate Me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres – churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord. The demon will be especially implacable against souls consecrated to God.

To a humanity standing on the brink of chastisement the Father sends his mercy - his only Son. He spoke to St Faustina in the 1940's: While there is still time, let them have recourse to the fount of My Mercy; let them profit from the Blood and water which gushed forth for them…….. before I come as the just one, I first open wide the gates of My Mercy. He who does not pass through the gates of My Mercy must pass through the gates of justice. He is speaking, of course, of the Sacrament of Confession as well as of the Chaplet of Mercy and the  3 pm Prayer.

So, I guess, it's rather easy to grasp. The man on death row and king Hezekiah made their choice - it was the wrong one. Now it's our turn. What is our choice to be? Justice? Or mercy?

Saturday, 6 August 2016

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Jeremiah 38:4-6,8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

Listen carefully to the second alleluia verse from today’s Mass: Alleluia, alleluia! My sheep listen to my voice, says the Lord; I know them and they follow me. Alleluia!

In biblical times sheep from a number of flocks would be gathered in a single sheepfold for protection during the night. In the morning each shepherd would open the gate of the sheepfold and call his sheep. The sheep which belong to the shepherd listened to his voice and followed him out to pasture. Delightful image, isn’t it? Lovely to imagine.

We, of course, are the sheep. God enters the sheepfold by becoming man in Jesus, the good Shepherd. He comes into the world and calls us. Those of us who belong to him listen to his voice. He knows us and we follow him. Again, a beautiful thought, a lovely image which, as the Opening Prayer of the Mass says fills our hearts with the ‘warmth of your love.’

But the rest of the sheep, what about them? It’s ok for us luxuriate in the sunshine of God’s love as we follow him along the path to heaven but what about the rest? They are left behind. They do not belong to him – they do not listen to his voice – he does not know them – they do not follow him. I know we resist the thought but  – they are doomed!

The Scriptures speak of them in clear and unmistakable terms: they are doomed because they do not belong to Jesus.

Are you getting uncomfortable? Are you beginning to feel the division in these words? You should be, and so should I.

So what is it that has divided the sheep? What is it that has determined who belongs to Jesus’ flock and who doesn’t? Paradoxically, it is Jesus himself! Jesus, the Saviour, the Shepherd, the Lord who prayed: May they all be one; he is himself the cause of division!

This is for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus did not come just to ‘be with’ the sheep, he wanted them to be with him and, of course, we know that to be with Jesus is to be like Jesus.

Secondly, he came to lead out those who were his, to bring them to the Father with whom he was one: Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I in you... I want those you have given me to be with me where I am... .

And so it is the call of Jesus which divides us: three against two and two against three; the father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Do you get the message? There is nothing more divisive than the truth. And before the truth which Jesus claims to be - we must all choose.

In this strange, confused generation so besotted with catch cries borrowed from the world of business and politics, like ‘welcoming and inclusive’, the gospel of truth, which divides not only mother from daughter, but also joints from the marrow (Heb 4:12), stands as the Word which alone can save.

Next week someone will actually ask Jesus the question: Sir, will there be only a few saved? There is nothing at all welcoming and inclusive about Jesus’ answer, nor about the narrow door which he tells us to try our best to enter because many will try to enter and not succeed.

How different is this teaching from those false gurus who pervert the gospel and tell people that it’s very difficult to go to Hell and (nearly) everyone goes to heaven? For them the road to heaven is wide and the road to hell is narrow when actually the Gospel puts it exactly the other way round.

It brings to mind this verse from Lamentations 2:14: The visions your prophets had on your behalf were delusive, tinsel things, they never pointed out your sin, to ward off your exile. The visions they proffered you were false, fallacious, misleading.

So while we are in this area of the divisive word of truth let us listen to this ‘welcoming and inclusive’ word from Jesus: Do you know why you cannot take in what I say? It is because you are unable to understand my language. The devil is your father, and you prefer to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the start; he was never grounded in the truth; there is no truth in him at all.... But as for me, I speak the truth and for that very reason you do not believe me... A child of God listens to the words of God; if you refuse to listen, it is because you are not God’s children.

Fortunately, while there is life there is still time for a turnaround for even the most hardened sinner. Fortunately we are not really sheep, even though we often behave like them. Fortunately we are children of God who, like all children, have free will. Like the prodigal son we can come to our senses and go back to the Father.

And even more fortunately we are able to help in bringing the Gospel to those who have not heard God’s call, or have forgotten it. We are sent, as disciples of the Master to speak to our culture the word of the gospel – Come to me! Keep my commandments! Love the Lord your God! Love one another! Belong to me and you will live!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48

My parents were immigrants from Holland and arrived in Australia in 1953 with five children and barely a penny to their name. My father worked various jobs, anything he was offered, and my mother kept house. Two more children came and then a third was adopted. We never missed Mass and we never missed the family Rosary after dinner.

When they were ready to build their own house my parents instructed the architect to provide for a small niche in the wall above the fireplace in which they would put their carved wooden statue of the Sacred Heart. They obviously wanted God ‘built-in’ to their home. Above their bed hung a beautiful crucifix.

Ours was a Catholic home; our parents lived a Catholic marriage and they did their best to make their family a Catholic family. Consequently our family life was a life lived in the presence of God.

Now let me tease this out a little just in case you miss my point. The catholicity of our family started from within the marriage of my parents - we children went to Mass because my parents went to Mass; we prayed as a family because my parents themselves prayed. The modern idea of sending the children off to Mass with grandma or aunty Mabel was entirely foreign and, I may say, repugnant to them. Nor was the idea that their Catholic duty as parents was finished because they sent their children to the Catholic school.

From time to time we children had the privilege of hearing our parents saying their night prayers - three Hail Marys for world peace, one Hail Mary for vocations, another for the Pope’s intentions, three for purity, one for the souls in Purgatory, one for mum’s mother, one Hail Mary for Anneke, one for Conny, one for John (that’s me), and so on through to Caroline, the youngest.

My parents lived their daily life in the presence of God and so brought their eight children to live their lives in the presence of God. And we still do; all eight of us are practising Catholics.

Believe me, that I am able to use my own parents as an example of real Catholic faith is a privilege not lost on me and one which I would never take for granted. My parents had the Faith.

Again, let me develop this a little more. My parents understood that the Faith was not about them and their hopes and wishes, nor was it about their ideas or opinions. My parents understood clearly, and they gave their children to clearly understand, that the Faith was about God’s truth, and his hopes and dreams for them. My parents did not have their faith, like so many who call themselves Catholic today, they had the Faith, and that is a vastly different thing - the faith of the Catholic Church - the faith which obliged them to a joyful obedience.

I well remember in my late teens asking my father, a former seminarian, if Pope Paul VI would allow for the use of the Pill. Without hesitation he said no! He told me ‘the Pope won’t change it because he can’t change it.’ Even at that stage my father knew that the prohibition against contraception was so deeply imbedded in authentic Catholic teaching that no Pope could change it. What a man!

I’m glad my parents were spared the worst of the clerical abuse scandal, it would have given them much suffering. They loved the Catholic Church and they loved being Catholic. And yet I can hear them saying, ‘It doesn’t matter! No matter how bad it gets, no matter how many bishops, or priests, or even Popes commit sin, the Catholic Church is still the Church Jesus founded and he will be with her till the end of time.’

Somehow my parents were graced with the wisdom to see the difference between the inviolable purity of the Church and the sinfulness of the frail human beings within her.

In the little time remaining let me say that living in the presence of God necessarily means living in the presence of others. Each one of our readings today urges us to that quality of faith which enables us to stand ready to meet the Lord but this readiness embraces also the way we relate to the needs of others.

Last week the Gospel presented us with a man who was wholly centred on himself. For him there was no God to thank for his huge, rich harvest and no other with whom to share it.

My parents, though they worked incredibly hard to make progress in life, always lived in the presence of others; their readiness to make room in their family for an adopted eighth child is beautiful testimony to this. One could multiply examples of this charming awareness of others but as a priest I am also now struck, post factum, by their faithfulness to giving to the Church each week.

It may seem to the casual reader that I have bypassed the readings this week or, at least, made only tenuous connections, so I’d better make a few more.

My parents knew ‘what kind of oaths they had put their trust in.’

It was by faith …’ that they lived every moment of their lives.

They deeply understood that ‘…when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him.

I pray that we can all follow their example.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Ecclesiastes 1:2;2:21-23; Colossioans 3:1-5.9-11; Luke 12:13-21

A headline from Zenit, a news service from Rome, caught my eye: Cardinal Says Healthy Economy Not Top Priority.

The item went on to tell us that: Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has warned against elevating the economy as an absolute good, adding that an economic model that supports human development is needed … He warned that making the economy an absolute will end up "subverting the order between ends and means", making it into something "omnipotent", as a result "the earthly end is confused with the transcendent".

Now, I realise you’ve probably gone to some lengths to be here today, organised your day around getting to Mass, dodged a bit of traffic, and most likely you have quite a few other things on your mind. The last thing you need is for some smart-alec priest go quoting obscure statements from obscure cardinals in Rome.

Well, let me simplify.

Firstly this word good. Usually it’s an adjective describing something else like a good day, a good outcome, a good decision or, if you’re a fisherman, a good catch. But it can also be a noun – a good. Health is a good. Beauty is a good. Intelligence is a good. Wealth is a good. Most people have lots of these goods.

Naturally enough not all goods are of equal importance. A singing talent is a good but not as important as health. I would rather lose my singing voice than lose my health.

So there is a hierarchy of goods, they are ranked by their importance. Immediately the next question presents itself: Is there an absolute good; a good worth having above every other good?

For a believer the answer here is rather more simple than for an atheist. For a believer the ultimate good is eternal life or, if you prefer, heaven. The atheist will have to examine what for him is the ultimate good and, in fact, for many it would probably be a healthy, rich, happy life here on this earth.

Cardinal Bertone’s first point is that the economy is not an absolute good. It is undoubtedly a good, and an enormous good, but not an absolute good.

It’s not that he measures a good economy against the absolute good of happiness in heaven because against that good nothing can measure up, everything is inferior. No, he measures a good economy against human development. He quotes Pope Benedict who says that the economy must ‘foster the common good of the human family.’

The economy must be a servant, not a master. A vibrant, powerful, stable, growing economy is only good to the extent that it truly serves the development of the human family and, I would add, although I think it is implied in the Pope’s words, towards the ultimate good.

What good is a strong, stable economy if it leads people away from developing as human persons? What if it only caused people to become a collection of ego-centred hedonists? In many so-called underdeveloped countries the happy family life and the community-mindedness of its citizens stand in stark contrast to their poverty. They are poor but essentially happy.

Over the last few years, ever since we first started hearing about the value of the Australian dollar and the state of the money markets on the evening news services there has been an almost obsessive preoccupation with how the economy is faring. We don’t seem to be as much concerned with how our society is going though - with all sorts of problems of marital breakdown, delinquency, unemployment, many types of crimes, pornography, abortion, and so on.

A good economy is, as the Cardinal says, a means not an end. If we confuse the two and make the economy an end instead of a means, then we risk confusing the earthly with the transcendent. When this happens people begin living as though there were no God and no eternal destiny for humankind. Then this world becomes the absolute end instead of heaven, and this time, as distinct from tomorrow or the next day, becomes another absolute at the expense of the future of humanity.

Nothing has importance anymore except that people have money, and I don’t mean you, I mean me.

This is the kind of man the Gospel is speaking of. His riches are his riches, and he possesses them without any reference to anyone except himself. Listen again to the parable with particular care to man’s response to his new wealth: There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his land, thought to himself, "What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops." Then he said, "This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them, and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time".

In this man’s world there are no poor people; there is just himself. He thought to himself, he spoke to himself, he acted for himself. This is what happens when ‘the economy’ is made into an absolute good.

And what would he do with his wealth? - take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time - just like my sister's cat.

The Cardinal warns us not to make an absolute out of the earthly at the expense of the heavenly. Jesus does the same: Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?

When the earthly meets the heavenly we want to be ready. Only eternal life is absolute and this is the tragedy which happens when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.

There is a line from Matthew 6:33 which is screaming out to be quoted by way of conclusion and I hope we all take it to heart: Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well.

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5.9-11; Luke 12:13-21

This hoard of yours...

Are you a hoarder or, at least, do you have hoarder tendencies? Lots of people do, you know. It’s a baffling urge which the psychologists tell us has its origins in insecurity. Personally, and I’m no expert, I believe hoarding, like most personality dysfunctions, has its origins in our fear of death.

However right or wrong that may be we all know that hoarding is such a problem in our society that they are making all sorts of reality TV shows about it.

People hoard all kinds of things. Imelda Marcos, it seems, had a thing about shoes. Others collect old newspapers, bottle tops, canned food, animals, clothes, or cutlery. Some collect popularity, power, prestige or just plain old ordinary cash. It doesn’t really matter what is being collected it just seems that having a lot of it is somehow ‘comforting’.

But hoarding has another dimension. It is not simply the collecting of items – it is also the inability to part with them. Hoarding is all about me. All those things I’ve hoarded are mine, and not yours.

This is why the final question of Jesus is such a painful taunt to the hoarder: and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?

Hoarding, then, is not just a harmless affirmation of self, it is – consciously or unconsciously – a rejection of the other. Count the number of first person pronouns in these few lines:

What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops ... This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them, and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.

Even the word you which is used only once is directed to the self. Where the ‘other’ should stand only the ‘I’ can be found. Tragically the hoarder of the gospel has become an icon of all hoarders, amassing for himself and speaking to himself.

With startling energy Jesus cries out: Fool...! You can almost see the man jump! He is right in the middle of the process of making a decision about his future life. He believes he has it all worked out: This is what I will do; and Jesus cries, 'Fool!'

It is to this groundless confidence that Jesus directs his cry. This very night the demand will be made for your soul. In other words ‘Fool, you may store up grain, you may store up goods, but you can’t store up years because they are stored in my barn not yours. And tonight there are no more left for you.’

Let us not forget that Jesus speaks this teaching, this warning, to all who live totally absorbed in the here-and-now, wrapped up in comforting material illusions without any thought at all for God or for others.

Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.

These are words of life spoken by the author of all life. They are full of wisdom and light and the wise take them seriously: A man’s life is not made secure by what he owns.

Undoubtedly we all seek security. It is a natural instinct. And we are all, to varying degrees, afraid of death, the ultimate source of insecurity. Jesus knows this about us and he knows of our hapless tendency to grasp at anything, anything at all, which we suspect might make us feel less the insecurity which comes with being alive.

The more insecure the world becomes the more common becomes the phenomenon of hoarding. And it doesn’t matter if what we collect is hundred dollar bills, fame, or old newspapers, it’s still hoarding and it’s still a waste of time. It does not and cannot make us safe.

Real safety is assured only by making ourselves rich in the sight of God. To do this we must change our basic orientation to the passing material things of this world, none of which, ultimately, are worth collecting.

St Paul’s counsel is invaluable: ...look for the things that are in heaven ... Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth.

To this we may add the words of the psalm: Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart. Then we may rejoice with the alleluia verse: How happy are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

One day someone should compile a collection of photos of people at prayer; not the fake ones we see in some religious books but real ones of real people really praying.

Something happens to a person when they are at prayer – their whole demeanour changes – something magical, which can’t be counterfeited. The mere sight of someone at prayer touches the deepest part of us and we can’t help but be drawn.

I sat once in a church behind an elderly American monk. He came in and knelt, his hands folded on the pew in front of him, he bowed his head slightly, closed his eyes and didn’t stir a muscle for the next twenty minutes. Around him there seemed to be an atmospheric change. It was as though we were kneeling in a church in Indiana and he was kneeling before the throne of God. I, for one, could not take my eyes off him.

What would it have been like to see Jesus at prayer? It was not unusual for him to pray alone in the presence of his disciples. Today we are told: Once Jesus was in a certain place, praying, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray …'

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the disciples sitting all around on the grass, on a rock, on a fallen tree – just watching the Lord at prayer. It must have been a profoundly moving experience.

For us, prayer is a graced moment when we stop what we’re doing, we put aside the things that preoccupy us and, from deep within ourselves, we reach out for God. It is a moment of communion with God in which our faith embraces him, and we surrender ourselves to him.

What prayer was for Jesus we cannot really know. His relationship with the Father was profoundly different from ours. That’s why Jesus never at any time spoke of ‘our’ Father. He always spoke of his Father or your Father. That is also why he said, in answer to the disciple’s request: Say this when you pray … . Jesus could say ‘my Father’ in a way that we never could.

At any rate the disciples were so deeply moved that when he finished they asked him: Teach us to pray. They wanted not only to pray, they wanted to learn to pray well. The first lesson here for you and me is clear – the first requirement for real prayer is to want to pray – desire.

The second lesson is equally apparent – our prayer must be within the prayer of Jesus, within the unfolding plan of God.

We constantly have to ask ourselves, ‘What does my prayer have to do with the concerns of God and the coming of his kingdom?’ To put it more simply: What does my prayer have to do with God?

You may find this notion a little surprising, even puzzling, but it is possible for us to pray in such a way that our prayer has little or nothing to do with God. Without realising it we can become so self-absorbed that our horizons shrink and we become entirely focussed on our own anxieties and concerns. Then God becomes merely a supermarket, a hospital, or a welfare agency, the handy repository of those things we think we need.

Our prayer, even when we do make legitimate petitions, should express our worship and love of God and a desire that, above all, his kingdom should come because, sadly, it is possible for our prayer to overlook the prerogatives of God and actually lead us away from his kingdom. That is why Jesus says – Say this when you pray: Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come.

This is the proper starting point for all prayer because this was always the starting point for Jesus. This is the spiritual light which must cast its radiance on all our petitions.

This revealing radiance will tell us if our prayer has to do with the kingdom of God, our journey to holiness, our becoming like Jesus, or if it is just a collection of impertinent requests for impossible exemptions from the human condition. This kind of prayer is not ‘within the prayer of Jesus’. Rather it is a rebuke to God which suggests that God has somehow made a mistake and we have to ask him to fix it.

So now we can see the importance of the 'Our Father'. The kingdom of God is coming; it is close at hand. Our most urgent task, more important than our house, our work, our health, is to seek the kingdom in our lives and to be ready for its final arrival.

Let’s pray to the Father for our daily bread. He knows what we need before we ask him. Let’s forgive the sins of those we need to forgive and ask God’s pardon for our own. Let’s ask God’s grace to overcome the many temptations which seek to turn us aside from the right road. Let's ask God to deliver us from every evil.

Constant readiness requires constant prayer but always the kind of prayer that harmonises with the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.