The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Last summer I was taken on a private tour of the Vatican Museum and the highlight was to have an uninterrupted hour in the Sistine chapel looking up at its famous ceiling and its Last Judgement. Among the many thoughts and emotions I had, this one struck me: there are so many naked bodies! In this sacred place, the human body predominates; more figures than in a Greek temple. And of course, when it’s open to the public, the chapel is crammed with real human bodies. The Sistine chapel in Rome, then, is a monument to the human body. And this is especially fitting for us Christians.
Because the body is truly central to our Christian Faith. Just consider: we gather as members of the Body of Christ, and we worship as God one who was born of a woman with a human body. He lived, breathed, walked, ate, suffered and died and his body was buried. But this body did not remain entombed, but Jesus rose from the dead with his body still bearing the wounds of the Cross. And in his risen body he was seen by many others before his body ascended into heaven and he was taken from the sight of his Church. But not before he promised to remain with us in the Eucharist. So we gather as his Body to be fed with Christ’s own Body and Blood. As fr Timothy Radcliffe OP rightly observes, then, “it is in the body that we encounter God”. God comes into contact with us through the sacraments, using the interface, so to speak, of our bodily-ness, and also through our encounters with other people. As Tertullian put it so pithily and well: “Caro cardo salutis”, that is, the flesh or the body is the hinge of salvation.
In our history, problems always arise when we forget this and the body is trivialized or abused. We Dominicans, for example, were founded in the 13th-century to combat a dualistic heresy that believed that only the spiritual and immaterial was good and created by God; the body and all matter was evil. But this kind of dualistic heresy still persists and recurs in every age, whether in the so-called ‘mind-body problem’ of modern philosophy, or in the abuse of sex. As examples of the latter, consider the endemic problem of pornography, the shocking systemic sex abuse in Rotherham which we’ve been hearing about this week, and something The Guardian calls ‘everyday sexism’.
Except that it isn’t sexism at all. This project which calls on women to report their daily encounters with people who sexually harass them is actually about the age old vice of lust. And The Guardian can’t bring itself to recognize the cause of the problem which isn’t sexism, as such, but a lack of the virtue of chastity in our society. And yet, chastity is vital and indeed was a central hallmark of the Christian society and of how we lived as Christians from the very beginning. Because chastity is consistent with the Christian reverence for the human body, seeing the body as the locus of salvation, and seeing the human person, who is redeemed by Christ, as a temple of the Holy Spirit. As such, St Thomas observed that chastity is fundamentally linked to justice, about the dignity and reverence that is due another human being, and chastity affects the common good because it is about our relationships with one another as human beings in society.
With this in mind, we can look at today’s reading. St Paul says: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). It’s sometimes said that when Paul speaks of bodies he means the whole person, which in a sense he does, after all, the human person is essentially and always a unity of body and soul. So, when we speak of the human body we refer to the whole person. Nevertheless, if we look at the way St Paul writes, he means here very specifically the body, and he means that what we do with our bodies matters, and he wants us to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice.
From the earliest commentaries on this passage by Christians literate in Greek, this has been understood as a reference to chastity and virginity. St Jerome, for example, who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin said: “Our body, too, is a sacrifice when we chasten it by temperance, if we do so as we ought, for God’s sake”. Chastity, then, is the virtue of using our sexual faculties appropriately, about loving another person justly and well, about using our human reason to order our sexual desires and the enjoyment of its pleasures. It’s important to remember that chastity is not prudishness, not a fear or hatred of the body and sex – that would be a heresy. Rather, chastity is about a proper reverence for the body, for the power of human sexuality, which, as fr Herbert McCabe OP says is “dangerous [not because it is bad but] because it is sacred, powerful, capable if it is divorced from the world of love of destroying the personality as effectively as a drug, and equally capable of bringing us, through the power of Christ’s passion, to eternal union with God”.
The Sistine chapel, therefore, is not a pornographic exhibition but a sacred place in which we can delight in the beauty of the human person, in the human body as the hinge of salvation. But chastity is that virtue we need to allow us to see that beauty, to truly love a person as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and not to use him or her – or rather their bodies – for our pleasure. Chastity, therefore, enables us to love our neighbour rightly and to appreciate their beauty without the agitation of lust. Thus I once read online that the problem with pornography is not that we see too much of the naked person but that we don’t see enough of the human person. Therefore, as St Thomas said, chastity is the ordering of our sexuality according to reason, by which he meant “in accordance with the truth of real things”, the truth of the other as beloved by God. The Christian view of sex and the human person does differ from the prevailing culture just as it did in St Paul’s time. Hence he calls us to a “renewal of [our] mind” so that we are conformed to the mind of Christ and God’s will rather than to the world’s (cf Rom 12:2).
We can now begin to understand, I think, why St Paul says that presenting our bodies to God as a living sacrifice is a “reasonable service” (Rom 12:1). Now, our translation says “spiritual worship”, but I think this confuses the meaning of the Greek term ‘logikan latrian’. The latter word is clearly about praise and worship offered to God, but the word logikan means ‘according to the logos’, so, logical, or rational or reasoned-out, reasonable. What St Paul means, then (I think) is that he appeals to us to live chaste lives, that is to have our sexual desires and loves ordered by right reason, by a renewed mind. In this way, we offer our bodies, chastened by temperance, as a living sacrifice, a lived-out act of worship to God. This, then, is the Christian way of worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24): not just through Liturgy and ritual actions, but also through how we live our daily and especially our moral lives.
Many struggle with chastity and fail. So, what are we to do? St Paul rightly encourages us to depend on the “mercies of God” (Rom 12:1). As Pope Francis has said, God never tires of forgiving us, but it is we who tire of asking for mercy; we despair or give up. St Augustine, whose feast we celebrated last Thursday struggled with chastity for many years, and in his Confessions he speaks of the misery that his sins caused him. But his frailty and sin is what moves him to turn to Christ Crucified; chastity is only possible with much prayer and God’s grace. So, we look to the Cross where Christ in his wounded body has redeemed our bodies from all sin; he is victorious. With his grace, we can be victorious too, we can learn to love chastely and offer the sacrifice of a chaste life – and this applies to us whether we’re married or single – and so, do as he says in the Gospel: “Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
In today’s parable we see that everything that the servants have comes from the Master – without him they have nothing. Likewise, without God we have nothing and are nothing; every good thing that we have and do come from him as the fruit of his grace given to us. So, when the Master entrusts his property to his servants, he is giving them a share in something that is properly speaking his own. So, too, at our baptism, God entrusts to us his grace, giving each of us a share in his divine life. And God’s grace is so courteous, so gentle that it doesn’t destroy our human nature but perfects it if we choose to co-operate with it and use it. Hence the Master in the parable gives “to each according to his ability” (Mt 25:15).
Now, God’s grace is given to us so that we can belong to God as his adopted children, and he belongs to us. God, so to speak, invests his grace in us in order that we are no longer his servants but his friends (cf Jn 15:15) and, even, his co-heirs with Christ (cf Rom 8:17). And he does this not because we deserve it but because he loves us and wants us to enjoy true love in heaven.
However, one thing prevents us from acting as sons and daughters of God; one thing keeps us from using the grace God has given us: fear. Hence the servant who did not invest or use his talents says: “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (Mt 25:30). For where there is fear, then love cannot flourish. Conversely, as St John put it, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).
Because I think that the image of investment in today’s parable is about love. Financial investments are risky, and they can cost us; they require a sacrifice. So too do acts of love. Love is a risky business: it makes us vulnerable and there is a high likelihood that we will be hurt if we love. As C. S. Lewis said: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken”. Herbert McCabe went even further and said that if we love we will be killed because we’ll be taken to the Cross with Christ.
The servant fears all this, then, and we might well be sympathetic. However, today’s Gospel calls us to something greater that goes beyond our natural fears. We are called to something supernatural which is why divine grace is given to human hearts. God gives us his grace so that we can behave not like a servant but a friend, indeed like an heir, like a son; we’re called to become like the Son.
He, the Crucified One, bears the wounds of love and he chose to become lowly, weak, and foolish in the eyes of the world. And he has chosen to share his love with us, that is, to teach us with his grace to love as he does: sacrificially, selflessly, courageously. His perfect love casts out our fear, so let us trust in God’s mercy and goodness and love. He cares for us, and he satisfies our deepest longings; he shows us the way of love. If we co-operate with grace, using what is given us in the sacraments, so that we truly love then we who are poor are rich, the humble are exalted, and the unlearned are wise. For such sacrificial love makes people become like Jesus. And he is, as St Paul says, “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).
Today the lectionary begins its readings from St Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, one of the shorter Pauline epistles. The introduction opens with a standard greeting to the Christians in Thessalonica, and then we’re given the context in which the letter is written. It goes out to a community that is suffering persecution.
This context gives the letter a very contemporary tone, as we hold in our hearts all those Christian communities around the world, particularly in Iraq, who are suffering persecutions and afflictions. And recently, the charity, Aid to the Church in Need reported with pride, much as St Paul had for the Thessalonians, about the steadfast fidelity of the Christians of Iraq who hold on to their faith in Christ and practice charity even in such difficult times. With a similar pride, we are grateful to our Dominican sisters in Iraq for their witness of charity and faith.
Indeed, among the Thessalonions, St Paul finds all three of the theological virtues: their “faith is growing abundantly” and their “love… is increasing” (2 Thess 1:3), we’re told. And as for hope, it is implied in the “steadfastness and faith” that the Thessalonians show under persecution. But hope implies awaiting something, or someone. What are the Thessalonians hoping for?
Unfortunately, the editors of the Lectionary have cut out 5 verses from this opening section of St Paul’s letter, that is to say, almost half of the section. And this missing section tells us what the Thessalonians hoped for, which is to see God’s “righteous judgement” done. Verse 5 tells us that God’s justice will reward those who suffer for the sake of the Kingdom so that they will enjoy God’s presence. But what about those who are inflicting the suffering, who are persecuting God’s Church, and afflicting the Thessalonians?
Perhaps it is deemed un-politically correct to consider the righteous judgement of God which is due them, and that is a great shame. For the Scriptures are inspired in their entirety so the missing section of second Thessalonians ought to be heard and thought about; it is not for us to correct and censor the Word of God. So, here’s what verses 6-10 say.
"…Since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed" (2 Thess 1:6-10).
Now we can see clearly what it is that the persecuted Christians hoped for: they awaited God’s justice and deliverance. And so St Thomas says that while the saints do not enjoy the punishment of the wicked, they do rejoice in their deliverance and in God’s divine justice even if that entails the punishment of the wicked. But that, of course, is God’s righteous judgement. What befalls the wicked is, therefore, just and good and right. Who are we to judge and correct God?
If this situation worries us then we ought not to avoid thinking about it, as the editors of the Lectionary seem to want, but rather consider how it challenges us. Given that St Paul himself was once a persecutor of the Christian people, his life bears witness to the fact that those who afflict God’s Church can, by God’s grace, be converted and repent. So we should pray for the conversion of those who persecute Christians, and we should read this passage and make it known so that those who are tempted to do evil against God’s Church do not think, wrongly, that they can do so with impunity. Let all, therefore, turn from their wicked ways and seek God’s mercy and justice.
Daily we are reminded of the powers of death and destruction, of the havoc and horror wrought by wicked people. The evils of the Islamic State; the likelihood that terrorists could strike with similar brutality in our homeland; the threat of the Ebola virus: this has been a summer of death and anxiety. So one line in today’s Gospel, one promise, drew my attention. Jesus assures us: “The powers of death shall not prevail against” his Church.
This is not a promise that life will be easy, or even that we will not suffer or know pain. Nor is it a promise that we will not die. This is impossible since these are essential to our mortal human condition. However, it is a promise that the powers of death shall not prevail. What does this mean? For many death is simply the end; the power of death is precisely its finality. But Jesus assures Peter and thus, his whole Church – you and me – that death is not final. Death has been robbed of its dreadful power. And this is because of who Jesus is and what he has done for Mankind, for you and me, for his Body the Church.
With a divine insight, St Peter acknowledges that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. This is to say that Jesus is Anointed with divine power and authority, and that he is truly the Living One. So, guided by the Holy Spirit, St Peter is able to proclaim faith in the Resurrection. And today we’re being asked if we can do likewise. Indeed, every day we’re being asked to share this faith by affirming in our hearts who Jesus is. For even if the headlines were not as dire as they are, we are still tested by the trials of our frail and changeable human condition – by illness, cancer, emotional anguish, depression, crushing loneliness. Our faith is challenged by these as Peter’s was.
If we look at the next few verses right after today’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus explains to his disciples that he will need to go to Jerusalem and there “suffer many things… and be killed” (Mt 16:21). Peter takes Jesus aside and says “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). And Jesus famously rebukes Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23). What does all this mean?
It tells us that like Christ and with Christ we human beings will still need to suffer and die. Peter wants to avoid this, which is why Jesus rebukes him. Why is mortality necessary? Why? We do not know, but as St Paul says to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). That is one response of faith: faith in God’s wisdom and goodness. But faith gives us another more powerful response which we see in the courage and steadfastness of the Christians of Iraq and of countless martyrs over the centuries. It is faith in the Resurrection, faith that Jesus is the “Son of the Living God”. For by his death and resurrection, Jesus has overcome the powers of death; death’s terrible finality shall not prevail against Christ’s Body, the Church. Instead, the Body of Christ – that is, you and me – will be raised from the dead just as Jesus, our Head, was raised to eternal life and unending joy. This is the faith St Peter proclaims today, this is the faith of the Church and her martyrs, and this is our faith through baptism. Hence one of the Memorial Acclamations in the Mass says: “Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free”. Yes, Jesus has saved us and freed us from the powers of death. So our faith rests on the rock of who Jesus is: he is the Saviour of the world.
What would it mean if Jesus were not the Living One revealed by the Holy Spirit to St Peter and the Church? What does it imply to think that Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets, or John the Baptist, or Elijah?
"O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his love has no end" (Ps 106:1). How fitting this response is today as we gather to give thanks for twenty-five years of the Lord’s goodness made visible in the marriage of Mary and Michael – a union that participates even now in the one unending love of God.
And this response of thanksgiving is equally fitting as we celebrate Our Lady’s Queenship, as we give thanks to God for the singular graces given to Our Lady so that she could be Mother of God. And now God crowns those graces which have borne such sweet fruit in Mary by making her Queen of Heaven. So the psalm response, to my mind, also most aptly echoes the words of Our Lady in her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord… for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk 1:46, 49). And these are words are sung every evening by the Church, the Bride of Christ, to her divine Bridegroom because she is continually thankful, daily offering this Eucharistic sacrifice of thanks for the many great things God does for her and through her.
Each of us, whenever we offer the Mass in union with Christ acting in the person of his Priest, will have our own reasons for giving God thanks. But this evening, we’re especially united with the O’Duffins in giving thanks for the graces that have sustained Mary and Michael’s marriage and caused it to bear, also, such sweet fruit.
It is clear from the thought and effort that has gone into preparing for today’s Mass that the Eucharist is central to Mary and Michael’s lives – and what joy it is to celebrate the Mass with them here in this great Jesuit church, the spiritual home of the O’Duffins, and with us Dominicans, their spiritual confréres, present. Truly, the Eucharist is our sacrament of unity and charity! And the centrality of the Eucharist is thus vital to the vitality and joy of Mary and Michael’s marriage. For Christ himself is the cause of their loving union, and through the Eucharist Jesus draws all ever deeper into the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity: it is here that we are being schooled in unity and charity.
Christ famously sums up the Law as love of God and love of neighbour (cf Mt 22:37-39) as we hear in today’s Gospel. But, so familiar are we with this, that we often neglect the third party: we must also love ourselves (Mt 22:39). Indeed, I would say that this comes first. As St John says: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).
Hence it is in the Mass that we encounter our God who loved us first; who showed the depth of his love by becoming flesh and dying for us; our God who loves us so much that he remains here for us and with us under the humble ordinary forms of bread and wine. So, here we encounter love and we are schooled in this fundamental fact: God loves me. Is this not the one thing that is so lacking in our world today? So many of our contemporaries, made with this God-shaped hole that longs for love, just don’t know that God is here - he is waiting for us. So many, needlessly then, feel unloved. So, let many be called here and drawn here and led here to the Eucharist so that they can be loved. I know that this church is a great centre for ‘Nightfever’ which is well-loved by the O’Duffins – a beautiful way for many to know the love of God present in the Eucharist.
Knowing that God loves me, then, is fundamental. It makes the rest possible, and so, having the Eucharist central to Mary and Michael’s marriage is what makes these past twenty-five years (and, we pray many many more to come) possible! For when we encounter the God of Love here, and when we know we are loved, then we can begin to love God in return. We do this by offering to God the very best we have, exercising our intellects to seek him in Truth, engaging our wills to love him in Obedience, employing our talents and skills in his service. Something like this – a beautiful celebration of the sacred Liturgy – is the culminating expression of this offering of ourselves, our very best, to God. It truly is the “right and just” thing to do, to attend to the Liturgy with reverent and attentive devotion and with a care for its solemn beauty, if we want to love and thank God.
Then from this attention to the Liturgy, from an actual participation in the Eucharistic action of Christ who pours himself out in love for Mankind, we learn what it means to love another. As Pope Benedict XVI said: “The eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbour” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 88). For Michael and Mary, their first neighbour is one another, and then, of course, their boys and family. But we know that their heart, as a couple, is also opened toward countless others: the boys of St Aloysius’ College, the teachers and pupils they meet, and so many friends as well as strangers and passers-by. And of course, we Dominican friars and other priests are also their ‘boys’! This expansive love is characteristic of a Eucharistic heart; they have been expanded by grace to make room, indeed a home, for others.
Our Lady, by her generous Yes to the angel showed that her immaculate heart was just such a Eucharistic heart. For grace enabled her to not just become Mother of God, but your mother and my mother – Mother of the Church. Because of Our Lady whose immaculate heart beats as the heart of the Church, the Church is a home, a mother, a refuge for all. And this, too, is something our contemporaries long for: a Home in a world which has become such a wilderness. Many hearts have become weary, and life with its many worries and problems has become like the valley of death in which one lies like dry bones.
But here in Christ’s Church where Mary’s heart beats in tandem with the Eucharistic and Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ – here, there is life; new and everlasting life. Here, in the Eucharist, there is rest. Here, there is refreshment and joy. Here, there is Love and the Spirit to raise all up. Hence, “the Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come’!” (Apoc 22:17)
So, as we come together today to celebrate these twenty-five years of love which the Spirit has raised up, we go again to the Source of Mary and Michael’s love. We come to Love himself, made present and tangible and visible for us in the Most Holy Eucharist. We come to Our Lord Jesus Christ to be loved. By his Mother’s intercession, may our hearts, like Our Lady’s, be filled with love so that we can bring many thirsty souls to Christ, and may we come at last to that eternal marriage feast in heaven where Our Lady reigns with him as Queen.
Therefore, let us “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his love has no end”.
On 20 August 1914 – 100 years ago – Pope Pius X died, and he would become the first pope to be canonized since the 16th-century Dominican Pope St Pius V. In his 11 year pontificate, St Pius X set out to “restore all things in Christ” – that was his motto. With his many years of pastoral experience in parishes and seminary, in diocesan offices and finally as bishop and cardinal, Pope Pius X saw the need to reform the Church. So, he initiated reforms in papal elections, seminary life, Eucharistic practice, sacred music, Biblical studies, the breviary, catechesis, the organization of the Roman Curia, and Canon Law.
Now, the work of reforming the Church so that she can more faithfully carry out the mission given her by Christ is a graced work. For what is the task, indeed, the raison d’être of the Church? Pius X said in his first speech as pope in 1903: “The way to reach Christ is not hard to find: it is the Church… It was for this that Christ founded it, gaining it at the price of His blood, and made it the depositary of His doctrine and His laws, bestowing upon it at the same time an inexhaustible treasury of graces for the sanctification and salvation of men”.
Consequently, one can see in the labours of Pope St Pius X, then, a certain fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise. “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Eze 36:25). So, through his Vicar on earth, Christ is at work, cleansing, reforming, renewing his Church so that she may lead souls to himself. And the reform of spiritual practices, of Canon Law, and liturgical law, as it were, enables what Ezekiel says in verse 27: “I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances”.
St Pius X is often called the ‘Pope of the Eucharist’ because he lowered the age of first Holy Communion to 7 and he promoted frequent and daily Communion for those who were properly disposed, that is to say, “in a state of grace and approaches with a right intention”. Why did he encourage this practice? Because, like Pope Francis in our time, Pope Pius X said that the Eucharist is not a reward but a “remedy for human frailty… an antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sins”. Through the worthy reception of Holy Communion, then, we can say with Ezekiel that God puts a new heart and a new spirit in us. Indeed, God takes out of our flesh the heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh (cf Eze 36:26) – the Eucharistic flesh of his own Son, taken from Christ’s Sacred Heart – thus conforming us to Christ and uniting us more closely to him. The human person himself, then, becomes restored in Christ. We can see why the frequent and even daily reception of the Eucharist was such a key part of Pope St Pius X’s vision of reform and restoration.
But even as the soul is renewed, so must the mind be restored in Christ through a sound grasp of divine Truth, of revelation entrusted to the Church and contemplated in theology. Only with a good understanding of right doctrine can one reach Christ in and with his Church. Writing at the time of his death in 1914, The Tablet thus said that “The primary function of St Peter is to confirm his brethren [in the Faith]. It was in this, the highest and most essential of his duties — the defence of the Catholic faith — that Pius X stood before the Christian world as the vigilant and invincible guardian”.
So well did St Pius X carry out his vocation that he was canonized in 1954, and he was said by The Tablet to have been a “singularly lovable personality” who was “a man of God in whom we beheld all the power and the charm of apostolic honesty and simplicity”. May he pray for us, that we may be restored and reformed in the image of Christ and thus come to the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb with our wedding garments, that is, our baptismal faith, unstained (cf Mt 22:11-12).
Today we give thanks to God for one of the most influential saints of the 12th-century. An austere and reform-minded monk who galvanized the Cistercian Order; an eloquent preacher who wrote extensively to pope and kings; a mystic whose spiritual writings and Marian theology radiate warmth and beauty and sweetness so that he is called the ‘Mellifluous Doctor’; a man called the ‘Last of the Fathers’ because he drew so deeply on the thought of the Fathers of the Church.
And yet, one major event in his life seems to cast a shadow over him. St Bernard was also the great preacher of the Second Crusade, whose preaching tour undertaken for this cause throughout Europe gathered the largest international coalition of its time under kings and knights. But for many in our times the very idea of a crusade is anathema, and ultimately the Second Crusade failed.
However, recent events in our own times can help us, I think, to appreciate what motivated St Bernard. It’s not greed or bloodlust or warmongering. It is, rather, a shepherd’s heart; a deep love for the Church and for God’s suffering people. In the first reading, Ezekiel says: “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Eze 34:6). And in the 12th century this was the case. In December 1144 Edessa had fallen to the Turkish forces led by one Zengi, ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, dubbed “tamer of the infidels and the polytheists”. The entire population of the district of Edessa was either massacred or sold into slavery. This greatly alarmed the Christian world; they feared the subsequent loss of the Holy Land and the fall of Jerusalem to the Turks, with the subsequent slaughter of still more Christians.
History has a tendency to repeat itself. And so, once again today Christians are slaughtered by Islamists and the flock of God has scattered and fled to the mountains. Who will shepherd God’s people today? If we want to understand St Bernard’s stance, then we need to appreciate that sometimes a shepherd has to take strong, firm, and decisive action to protect his flock from the attack of the wild beasts, to stop them.
Hence, as is widely reported, on Monday Pope Francis said: “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor”. The Holy Father is not advocating war, as such, nor unilateral action on the part of one nation, but he knows that the evil being done in Iraq must be stopped. And if necessary, force will need to be used. As the Vatican ambassador to the UN has said: “Maybe military action is necessary at this moment.” More recently, our Dominican brother in Cairo, fr Jean-Jacques Pérennès, who has great love and respect for Islam and who has expended his life working for dialogue with Muslims, said this: “The respresentatives of the Church have evolved on this very question lately, and fatal blows must be administered to the Islamic State. The very idea of talking is not an option with people who impose either conversion to Islam, or exile, or death. And the Islam they preach is far from traditional Islam which the majority of Muslims denounced. One is not into war-mongering, but sometimes force is the only solution left”. At this desperate time, then, our shepherds are calling for action to stop the evils being done for “my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts” (Eze 34:8).
In the abbot St Bernard, then, we remember today a shepherd who stepped up and who “strove to bring order and concord” to Christ’s Church, as we say in the Offertory prayer. It’s always easier for us in retrospect to judge the actions of our forebears, and with hindsight we are now not in favour of the Crusades which was prone to the greed and sinfulness of individual crusaders. But the terrible actions of the Islamic State in these days bring to the fore the dilemma faced by Christians in the 12-century. Given that God’s flock was being devoured by “wild beasts” what is a shepherd to do? As Pope Francis has said: “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor”. And in St Bernard’s time this meant preaching the crusade to protect the Church in the Holy Land.
So, when we consider this aspect of St Bernard’s life we should consider, truly, his motivations: his love for God’s people, his shepherd’s heart, his saintly “zeal for [God’s] house” and the good of God’s people. And on his feast day, let us ask his intercession for our leaders today, for the persecuted Church, and for the prudence to make just decisions in these difficult times. May the sweet Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace and Help of Christians, pray for us all.
Scripture scholars like to debate what it means to speak of a camel passing through the eye of a needle; some even think that the needle was a gateway in the walls of Jerusalem. But surely the meaning of this image – a comical one, even – is rightly understood by Christ’s disciples. They are astonished because camels simply cannot pass through the eyes of needles. As Jesus says, “this is impossible” (Mt 19:26). For it is impossible for Man, by his own efforts, to be saved.
Salvation cannot be bought or earned. If it were, then, according to our human logic those who are first will enter the kingdom first.
But Christ points to the divine logic of love and mercy which is different. Salvation is a divine gift, and although all those who rely on God’s grace and co-operate with it will ultimately be saved, Christ expresses the gratuitousness of salvation and Man’s utter need of God’s grace with this saying: “Many that are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt 19:30). Clearly, a different logic, quite different from human calculations and ideas of mere fairness and justice is at play. For our being saved by Christ isn’t fair; salvation isn’t about justice because it is not naturally owed us. Rather, salvation shows us God’s mercy and goodness – it is sheer grace. Thus, the Preface in today’s Mass says: “When [Man] was justly condemned, in mercy [God] redeemed him through Christ our Lord”.
Still, what is needed on our part as sinners is a recognition of our complete need of God, our need of his mercy and grace and forgiveness; our need to repent and turn to him. The reason why this is especially hard for a rich man is spelt out in the first reading from Ezekiel. There the prophet says that “your heart has become proud in your wealth” (Eze 28:5), and the rich man is thus prone to thinking: “I am a god” (Eze 28:2). He has, therefore, no need of a Saviour. How often, in our technological age which has seen more riches than ever before, have we heard people say that God is irrelevant?
Moreover, the danger is that the rich, the clever, the gifted person thinks that he can master and manipulate most things, including, salvation. As such, salvation is no longer the gift of our Master but, rather, within Man’s mastery, something we can grasp and earn and acquire. This tendency can be seen when we think that we do things, like pray, or venerate the Eucharist, or go to Mass, for God’s sake. But of course we do these things for our sake because we are in such need of God and his grace. God has no need of us as such.
The perennial temptation which is to invert things, as Ezekiel says, and for sinful Man to deny his need for grace, is what Jesus warns us against in today’s Gospel. Hence, in the Mass, we turn again to the Lord, and we say: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. The Word spoken into our lives is Jesus Christ. He is our healer, our forgiveness, our God who saves. Thus, at his word, “all things are possible” (Mt 19:26) even for us camel-like sinners.
A taste of life at the once-a-decade jamboree organized by the International Union of European Guides and Scouts which I attended with our Edinburgh-based rover clan from 3-10 August in Normandy, France.
For more information about Eurojam, visit <http://www.eurojam.eu>, and to find out about the wonderful and grace-filled Scouting federation which organized it, visit this Vatican page about the Scouts & Guides of Europe.
Pope Francis sent a message to the 14,000 scouts and guides who’d gathered in a forest near Lisieux for the event.
From today, 31 July, I shall be setting off on a journey that will take me to Normandy, to the vicinity of Lisieux for the once-a-decade international gathering of the Federation of Guides and Scouts of Europe. The event is called Eurojam, and has as its theme ‘Come and See’; an invitation to youth to come away and spend time with Christ and one another as scouts and guides.
I shall be travelling with our Edinburgh Clan, the Clan of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, assembled under its newly-minted banner (above). We hope to imbibe the camaraderie and spirit of ‘scoutisme’,to make vital contacts and to network, and to be recognized as members of the Federation of Scouts d’Europe.
I shall be chaplain to one of the camps, encompassing 180 scouts, but we expect 11-12,000 scouts in total. Mass will be celebrated every morning in Latin, with plenty of chance for confession, adoration, fevorinos and a Pilgrimage to Lisieux.
The video below gives you (and me!) an idea of what to expect. Please pray for us all.