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.
- preached to the Lay Dominican Fraternity in Edinburgh
Today we speak, rather unusually, of St Thomas and mean, not our brother Aquinas, but the apostle who first brought the Faith to Syria and Persia and then India; to this day Keralan Christians, still happily flourishing, are also called ‘Thomas Christians’. The Church in Syria, too, has survived until now and until recently Syria had, reputedly, the only village to still speak the mother tongue of Christ, Aramaic. But, it seems, no longer. The ancient Christian community in Syria is struggling now for its survival, and in the persecuted Christian communities of the Middle East, the Body of Christ is bleeding, wounded and raw.
We can see, if we choose to look on the internet – or occasionally in the mainstream Media when they’re interested – the wounds in Christ’s Mystical Body, the “print of the nails” (cf Jn 20:25), so to speak, imprinted in Syria and Iraq, as well as the former lands of Persia. These lands, which St Thomas had once evangelized, and so, united to the Body of Christ, are now scarred by persecution.
As Dominicans, we have even more reason to know this pain and suffering because we have family, brothers and sisters in St Dominic, who are trying to live out their Dominican vocation in Syria, in Iraq; indeed, they are trying to survive. You who will make profession tonight as lay Dominicans, or even you who will become a candidate, a ‘novice’, are joined to them.
In the words of St Paul, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19) – a fitting enough word, I suppose, given the oft-cited ‘democracy’ of our Order. But if you are no longer strangers, then ‘they’, those around the world who share your profession are no longer just ‘them’, either; not strangers any more but fellow Dominicans, brothers and sisters in St Dominic and, more fundamentally, in Christ. The blood that flows in our veins, as Christians, flows in theirs too: the precious blood of Christ. And Christ’s blood, now, doesn’t just flow but bleeds out from the wounds in his Body the Church, our Body.
The first challenge for us today, then, is to, as it were, see the wound in Christ’s side and put our finger in it (cf Jn 20:27). Many in our world, tired and perplexed, would turn their faces away, but we Dominicans must look and see the suffering of our brothers and sisters; must feel the pain and tragedy of the situation; and we need to be wounded by the injustice and outrage of what is happening to our fellow Christians – and not just in the Middle East but all over the world. As Pope Francis said recently, there are more martyrs and persecuted Christians in our day than at any other time in history. Only when we truly feel the enormity of what is happening can we be moved enough to act for justice and peace, both through socio-political action and through ardent prayer.
And because we pray and are a people of faith, we also believe that nothing is beyond our Lord and God’s power to save and raise up, even if from the grave. The situation in Syria and Iraq is grave, and we may well not see the way forward. But Jesus says: “Do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). At this time, then, we Christians are called to join with our persecuted brothers and sisters in a great act of faith and hope: to pray unfailingly. For we believe that although Christ died and was buried, he rose from the dead. For God did not allow the Body of Christ to suffer decay but he was raised to new life. Can not the same be said for Christ’s Mystical Body? God will also vindicate Christ’s Church in Persia, in Iraq, in Syria, and so on. Christ’s Mystical Body will rise from the dead, with the scars from the many wounds inflicted on her members in these places, but she will be, ultimately, victorious, forgiving, and bring peace.
For this is what the apostle St Thomas was a witness to. “Peace be with you”, the Risen Lord said (Jn 20:26). So, this was the Gospel that Thomas first preached in those lands: a Gospel of hope in the resurrection; a Gospel of peace through Christ’s saving death; a Gospel of the final triumph of divine love. May this Gospel sustain our brothers and sisters in faith and hope. May it move us Dominicans to action on their behalf, as a ‘holy preaching’ for the salvation of souls, and may St Thomas – both of them! – pray for us all.
It is by coincidence that today’s Gospel is being read on the eve of the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, but it is a most fitting preparation for this great feast. Because the celebration of the feast of the Sacred Heart actually has two elements: consecration and reparation. So, tomorrow we will hear of the depths of Christ’s love for all humanity, a sacrificial love that redeems us, and we are called to meditate on this saving love made visible in the Eucharist, and to consecrate ourselves to the Christ by acknowledging him as ‘Lord’.
And as today’s Gospel warns us, our consecration to Christ, our calling him ‘Lord’, cannot be just lip service. We need to do the Father’s will, which means that our heart will be transformed by grace until we, too, have a sacrificial heart of love like Christ’s. Because for Christ to do the Father’s will means that he freely offered himself on the Cross, in loving obedience to the Father’s will, for the sake of Mankind’s salvation. So, we are also called to offer our hearts, our lives, our whole will to God in obedience.
But how do we obey God and listen to the Father’s will? Only with Christ’s Church, only by listening to, seeking understanding, and, then, obeying her teachings for, as Pope Francis said yesterday, “to be Christians means belonging to the Church”, and so, we are committed to the faith and teaching of the Church in its entirety. As the Holy Father went on to say: “At times one hears someone say: “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, but I don’t care about the Church…”. How many times have we heard this? And this is wrong. There are those who believe they can maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations. These are, as the great Paul VI said, absurd dichotomies.”
So, what we heard in today’s Gospel, from Christ himself can be related to what his Vicar on earth said yesterday. For there are those who call Jesus ‘Lord’, and claim to do great things in his name – even taking ‘prophetic’ stances – but, by setting themselves and their own teachings up against Christ’s Church, they risk having these words from Jesus said to them: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:23)!
Here, then, is a call to repentance which is a necessary part of consecration to the Sacred Heart. It is a call to genuine reform which is to open our hearts and minds to the fullness of the Christian and Catholic Faith, and to give it our full assent. The one who hears this call to repentance and heeds it, Jesus says, “will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Mt 7:28). It’s not accidental that this image alludes to St Peter who built the house of the Church upon the rock of Christ. So, we Catholics are likewise called to heed the wisdom of Peter and all his successors, to be receptive to “the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium” (cf Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Bishops of England & Wales, 2010).
At the same time today’s Gospel can also refer to those of us who are priests and bishops, to the clergy who act in Christ’s name. We are being warned to practice what we preach, and to do the Father’s will faithfully and assiduously, to be close to Jesus and known to him through prayer and through a reverent attention to the sacred Liturgy; through love for the Eucharist. Thus, one of the key reasons for the feast of the Sacred Heart was to make reparation for the indifference and sins against the Eucharist of the clergy and religious especially, and then, more generally, to make reparation for the indifference and neglect of the Christian people towards the Eucharist.
It is this lukewarmness of the Christian heart that the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ablaze with love and mercy, seeks to inflame. May the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus have mercy on us all, and may he stir up in us the grace of repentance and conversion to love him more and more.
It’s the fiftieth and final day of the Easter season today but the Gospel takes us back to the first day, to the evening of Easter Sunday, when the Risen Christ first appeared to his apostles gathered together. So Christ comes to his Church and imparts his peace and mercy by giving the Holy Spirit, the grace of forgiveness for sins. Fifty days later, on Pentecost Sunday, the apostolic Church is gathered together again. Now, the Holy Spirit appears to the apostles, and gives to the Church the gift of tongues.
So, whereas on Easter Sunday, Christ the eternal Word breathes over the apostles, and gives the Holy Spirit, today on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit breathes over the apostles as they heard a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2), and the Spirit gives them the eternal Word. Hence, as soon as the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, the Church catholic, in many different languages, begins to preach “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). For this is what the Church is for: she exists to communicate to all peoples what God has done.
What God has done, his mighty works – this is crucial. Because, very often it can seem that we Christians are here to do good works, to carry out works of social justice, of education, health care and so on. It is true that the Catholic Church is still the single largest charitable organization delivering humanitarian services and aid in the world, and all this good work, we must say, comes ultimately from God as we human beings co-operate with his grace and live out his commandments. As St Paul says: “there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Cor 12:6).
But, as we know all too well, the Church – or, really, the Christian people – often also fails to do good works. In fact, we Catholics have been complicit in some very bad works. This week’s news from the recent history of the Irish Church – at least, as the Press widely reported it – shocked and dismayed me, as I am sure it would have horrified you and so many other people too. And so, as we gather today for Pentecost, for this feast which is often called “the birthday of the Church”, some might wonder if we have much cause to celebrate. What do we, a Church of sinners, have to say to our world especially on Pentecost Sunday?
I can never listen to this Gospel without squirming in my seat because it is possible for a priest, with his vestments and a friar, with his distinctive and striking habit, to keep company with the vainglorious scribes and Pharisees. Moreover, as Dominican preachers and teachers, it is all too easy for us to fail to practice what we preach! So, today’s Gospel always has a chastening effect for me, and it calls me to integrity of life, to a more authentic conversion to Christ and a purifying of my motives – and I am grateful for this, especially during Lent.
But, just as those with religious authority are warned not to draw attention to themselves but to God, so there is also a challenge for the rest of God’s people to heed God’s teaching. Jesus explicitly says in today’s Gospel that we are to “practice and observe whatever” is taught by those who “sit on Moses’ seat” (cf Mt 23:1-2) because their teaching comes, ultimately, from God who is the one Teacher. God alone is Rabbi and Christ alone is Master, but his teaching comes to us not in abstraction but is given to us concretely through certain people to whom a teaching office is entrusted. In the Church this teaching office is known by its Latin name, Magisterium. Hence, today’s Gospel has a chastening effect on us all, challenging all Catholics to heed the teaching of Christ that is given by the Magisterium. For as Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei: “the magisterium ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity” (§36).
Yet, a couple of months ago The Tablet said in its Editorial that “the willingness of ordinary Catholics to heed the teachings of the Magisterium has been gravely compromised by various scandals”. But why should the sinfulness of men affect the truth of Christ’s teaching in the Magisterium? Surely, it’s precisely because Christ’s teachings are true and binding that people can be said to sin and fail, and some of those sinners, scandalously, happen to be clergy too. Now, none of this excuses them, but neither does the scandal they cause excuse the rest of us from following Christ’s teachings and heeding the Magisterium. Thus Jesus says today: “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach” – and the implication is that they do indeed preach God’s truth and teachings – “but [they] do not practice” (Mt 23:3).
Moreover, while it is true that sinful clergy and hypocritical Christians have long been the largest stumbling block for faith, it is also true that the Church’s authority to teach infallibly in matters of faith and morals is not due to man’s worthiness or the fidelity and integrity of the clergy. Rather, the fact that the Church has a teaching authority and that the sacraments objectively confer grace is fundamentally due to God’s faithfulness to Man. For it is because humankind needs God’s grace and truth; because we need to know Christ’s Word and to be saved by it that he promises to teach us through his Church’s Magisterium. And all of us – clergy and laity – are thus united in discipleship as students of the one Teacher, as servants of Christ our Master; all called to be humble hearers and do-ers of his Word.
Hence, today’s Lenten Gospel calls one and all to a more authentic conversion to Christ. Is he truly our Teacher? If so, let us humble ourselves (cf Mt 23:12) and heed his Church’s infallible Magisterium. But if we prefer to listen instead to other teachers in matters of faith and morals; other authorities like academic theologians, journalists, scientists, the Media, or, our own fallible consciences, then let us recall what Jesus also said. Concerning those to whom he had given his authority, that is, those who exercised his Magisterium, Christ says: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16).
"The Gospel of the Lord", I said, which means: This is God’s Good News for us. And you said, "Thanks be to God". But did you mean it? Did what I’ve just read sound like good news to you? Was it something you were thankful for? Or did it sound like a burden, like an impossible demand, like yet more pressure? Should I have said: "The Bad News of the Lord"?!
But of course, the Gospel is not bad news. So, where’s the good news in today’s reading? Today’s passage is actually just part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three whole chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel; it’s quite significant. And the good news in the Sermon on the Mount is that it holds up a vision of who you and I are called to become.
It’s not surprising if you and I feel greatly challenged and somewhat disturbed by the Gospel today because we haven’t quite lived up to the Sermon on the Mount. Because the only person who has fulfilled the Law perfectly is Jesus Christ himself. Only Christ has loved so perfectly that he doesn’t just fulfill the external demands of the Law but the purity and goodness of heart, the love, that animates the Law. For the Law, ultimately, is fulfilled by Love, and Christ is Love incarnate.
So, when Jesus presents the New Law today, his Law of Love, he is also in effect saying: “Come, follow me” (cf 19:21). For Jesus Christ is who you and I as Christians are called to become. Now, this sounds impossible, and if it were, then today’s reading would be bad news. But in fact it is good news precisely because it isn’t impossible. I grant you it is not easy. It will require sacrifice – we will have to take up our cross and follow him (cf Mk 16:24) – but it is not impossible.
As Our Lady was told, “With God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1:37). And this is the point; here is the good news. Because of Christ’s Incarnation, God is with us; his grace is given us so that nothing will be impossible. So, if we co-operate with God’s grace then we will be re-made in the image and likeness of Christ; we will learn to love as he does, and so, fulfill Christ’s Law of Love. As St Thomas says: “What is primary in the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit, shown in faith working through love”. So, the good news today is that the Sermon on the Mount is a possibility because we have been given this grace of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it has become a reality in the lives of so many saints, and of countless other Christians whose lives of grace are still hidden. So, the vision that is held before us today by the Sermon on the Mount is the vision of Christian sanctity; of the triumph of God’s grace in the lives of his saints. As the Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers says: “The purpose of the Sermon is to show us what the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in our lives here and now through his grace, if we respond to him with the Yes of faith, with the eagerness of hope, and with the availability of love”. Hence St Augustine has said that the Sermon on the Mount is “a perfect model for Christian living”.
And yet, to many people – even those who call themselves Christians – the Sermon on the Mount seems too hard, too unrealistic; an unlive-able ideal, especially in the 21st-century. Hence, many pressurize the Church to abandon Christ’s teachings found here and elsewhere, such as his teaching on divorce or the grave sinfulness of lust. But the Church doesn’t invent teachings, and if she did why would she choose such unpopular ones? In truth, the Church’s sole task is to faithfully hand on the Gospel she has received from Jesus Christ even when it is difficult to do so, even when people say these teachings are “irrelevant” or “outmoded” or, in our age, impossible.
But the New Law is only impossible if God’s grace is futile; if the Holy Spirit is powerless; if Christ is without Wisdom and Truth. And the Church can never say this. So, we Christians can never abandon Christ’s teaching.
"In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions" (Col 1:24). But St Paul is not saying here that the Passion of Jesus was somehow incomplete, nor by any means lacking in power to redeem humanity. Rather, St Paul is speaking about the mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ; a body that is always united to her head, Jesus Christ: the totus Christus, "whole Christ" as St Augustine would put it. And this mystery of the Church was first revealed to Paul when he first encountered the risen Lord on the Damascus road. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4).
Thus Paul learns that Jesus Christ is so close to his Church, so united in the communion of the Holy Spirit to his Church, that, as St Paul says to the Romans: “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (12:5). So, in the Church, we are all united with Christ, and through him, with one another too. We, who are members of the Body of Christ, are held together in the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”.
This communion between Christ and his Church is such that we each benefit from Christ’s sufferings; the Passion of Christ is redemptive. As Isaiah says: “by his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:5). But we are not entirely passive in this work of redemption. For, the mystery of our communion with Christ is such that when Christians are suffering or persecuted – like St Paul was, or like so many of the sick and dying in our parishes and communities, for example – then, by God’s grace, they also participate and share in Christ’s redemptive suffering, taking up the cross of discipleship mentioned in yesterday’s Gospel (cf Lk 14:27). This is what St Paul means when he says that he, a persecuted and suffering Christian, a disciple who shares in Christ’s cross, completes “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body”. But this idea of redemptive suffering only makes sense because of who it is that St Paul encounters on the Damascus road: the Risen Christ. So, as the Second Vatican Council says: “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us” (Gaudium et spes, 22).
Our communion with one another in the Church is such that, as St Paul says to the Corinthians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26). This is what Christian solidarity entails. Moreover, Vatican II taught that “the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man [who suffers] the possibility of being associated with [Christ’s] paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes, 22). So, our solidarity is not just with other Christians but with all men and women of good will who suffer in our world.
Hence in these days we turn again to where St Paul first received this insight; to the Damascus road in Syria. There, the Body of Christ, our fellow men and women, are suffering greatly. So, let us continue to pray and work for peace in Syria and wherever there is violence, suffering, inhumanity, and injustice.
At the climax of today’s well-known parable is this sentence: “When he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him” (Lk 10:33). The Greek word translated as ‘compassion’ is splagnizomai, which is more like ‘gut-wrenching’; being so moved by something that you physically feel it in your depths. ‘Compassion’ doesn’t quite capture the bodily impact of the Greek word, although there is in the word ‘com–passio' the literal meaning of suffering-together-with someone. So, we need to hold in mind both these ideas: that compassion involves a suffering-together-with someone, and that compassion has a physical, bodily impact – it affects us deeply and moves us to act.
The kind of action that compassion elicits is risky, charged with danger, even and, so, reveals a willingness to sacrifice, to suffer with and for the sake of another. Hence, we see the Samaritan sacrificing all the resources available to him to help the wounded man. He uses up oil, wine, cloth, his own riding animal, time, energy and money. But, in addition, the Samaritan risks and endangers his own life. Because, if one’s community is in a vengeful feud with another’s, one is expected (even today in the Middle East) to leave the wounded at the city limits. To enter the city of one’s enemy was to court death even if you’re doing an errand of mercy. But what the compassionate Samaritan does is to take the stranger to an inn in Jericho and spend a night there caring for him. Jesus actually ends the parable with a cliff-hanger because we do not know what happens to the Samaritan after he pays and leaves the inn – there might have been a mob waiting outside to kill him! But it is this very possibility, this real risk of death that shows us the costliness of compassion. It entails being willing to even lay down one’s life for the other, and as Jesus says elsewhere, there is no greater love than this. (cf Jn 15:13).
In comparison, there are many who are unwilling to pay this cost; they just cannot stomach the price of love and mercy, and so, they ignore or avoid the pangs of gut-wrenching compassion. Thus, the priest and Levite both saw the man – just as the Samaritan had – but they both “passed by on the other side”, unwilling to come alongside and suffer-with the wounded man. In the case of the priest, he risked becoming ritually unclean if the man on the street had in fact been dead. Then he would have, at the very least, had to suffer the inconvenience (and waste-of-time) of going back to Jerusalem for a week-long purification ritual, which would, of course, have meant being unable to fulfill other appointments and duties. And had he tried to serve at the altar without being cleansed first, he would have punished by being beaten to death with clubs! In other words, he could have suffered the same fate as the man on the street. Thus, quite literally not wanting to suffer with him, the priest decided to keep a wide berth and hurried past the wounded man.
The Levite, who followed him, was probably the Temple priest’s assistant and follower. And so, he chose also to just follow the latter’s example. Thus the Levite abdicated the role of his own conscience to another and let his ‘superior’ or the ‘expert’ make the hard decisions. As such, he was personally untouched by the wounded man’s plight, not even having had to grapple with his conscience and make an active decision. But this kind of indifference to injustice is something we may be in danger of today. As Pope Francis said recently: “In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others – it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business”. And with just such an excuse the Levite felt justified to pass by on the other side.
But we, Christians, cannot be like the priest or the Levite; not if we are Christians. For the Christian is one who has experienced and knows the compassion of the invisible God, made visible in Christ (cf Col 1:15).
Jesus speaks in very dramatic language, employing hyperbole, to highlight the great damage that scandal does. Our translation of today’s Gospel doesn’t quite convey this, because the phrase translated as “causes you to sin” is really rendered from the Greek skandalon (cf Mk 9:42-47). And this carries the sense of an action or situation that causes another person to stumble or fall, which is what skandalon means. So, Jesus is pointing to the severe damage that sin does to another (and indeed, to ourselves), not least because it is the means by which one stumbles in their faith, or falls away and loses their faith in Christ altogether.
We are all too painfully aware of how true this is. Scandalous behaviour in the Church has affected us all as a body, and our trust in the Church and her teachings are affected, and many people have been put off the Church’s message of salvation, or have even left the Church because of scandal. And scandal, of course, disturbs the peace of the Christian community, and leaves us wounded, hurting, in pain. So, because of scandal, it is the Body of Christ, the Church, that is maimed and wounded. Members have cut themselves off from Christ’s Mystical Body because of scandal, and she is left wounded, bleeding, and open to infection. For if the wound of scandal is not healed, it can spread, leading to gangrene and further amputation.
Hence Jesus says that we need to be “salted with fire” (Mk 9:49). This is a rather arresting phrase, because it’s so odd. But we can apply it to our current situation. Salt, or a saline solution, sterilizes wounds and prevents infection. It purifies and promotes healing. So, the wounded Body of Christ, we, the Church, needs to be salted. We need to be purified and healed; the wound must not infect and spread. To do this, we’re to be salted with fire, meaning that the work of purifying and healing the Church of scandal will be done by the Holy Spirit. It is he who will bring healing and new life by revealing to us our sins, gracing us with true repentance, and leading us deeper into the Truth, i.e., converting us to a more authentic following of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be “salted with fire”.
But salt applied to a wound stings too. Hence the reforming action of the Holy Spirit, by which he purifies and disinfects the Church, will sting. However this salt of true conversion to Christ is necessary for our healing and spiritual health. “Every one”, Jesus says, needs to be “salted with fire”. Thus, we’re each being called, from the Pope down to the catechumen, to reform our life and to be more authentically converted to Christ and alive in the Holy Spirit. For we are all members of this one wounded Body. And it is only through a more perfect union with Christ, through this one Body being animated by the Spirit and drawing grace, life, and strength from Christ the Head, that we shall “have salt in [ourselves], and be at peace with one another” (Mk 9:50).
This conversion to Christ, being salted by fire, is the great call of this Year of Faith. So, let us pray to the Holy Spirit, and ask him to come so that we, the Church, can immerse ourselves in the Spirit’s saline solution and be made whole, indeed, holy.
in St Birinus’, Dorchester-on-Thames on 2 June 2011
Today is a day of paradoxes. It is a day of sorrow at the Lord’s departure from this earth, but also of great joy because he has gone into heaven to prepare a place for us. As the Preface puts it: He “was lifted up into heaven so that He might make us partakers of His divinity”. Today too, we are called to beChrist’s witnesses – something which normally involves firsthand knowledge through the senses – but today he is taken from our sight… That is to say, he is beyond the perceptivity of our senses. But although he is out of sight, he is not absent or unknowable. The Gospel of St Mark told us that after the Ascension, the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (16:20). And that is what the Lord is doing now in this sacred Liturgy. He is working with his Church, and confirming the Gospel that is being preached with signs, above all, the most sublime Sign of the Blessed Sacrament in which he is present.
If we think about the Eucharist, what the Liturgy calls the Mysterium Fidei, we can understand how we can still be witnesses to Christ, even though he is taken from our sight. Regarding the Eucharist, St Thomas says in the ‘Tantum ergo’: “Faith, for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail”. So, we recognize the presence of God, and know divine truth, not by sight, not by the senses, but by faith. As St Paul says: “We walk by faith and not by sight”. For Christ has been taken from our sight, but we can still come to know and love him, and to experience his living presence in the world through Faith. And faith is a power which is given to us only by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Hence in the reading we’ve just heard from Acts, the Lord says: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…” (1:8) What the virtue of faith gives us is an understanding of divine truth. It is a kind of firsthand knowledge that comes from an opening of the heart and mind to trust in what the Incarnate Word reveals, because Christ is God’s Word of Truth. As St Thomas says: “Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true”. So, with faith in Jesus Christ, the One whom the book of the Apocalypse calls “the faithful witness”, we too can become faithful witnesses to divine truth.
But to be faithful witnesses, our acts of faith have to be directed properly towards true and authentic objects of faith, and our most sure teacher of the Faith is the Church. For she is the Mystical Body of Christ, the visible presence of Christ in time until he returns in glory. United to her Head, she bears faithful witness to the truths he revealed in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
How does the Church bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ? I want to consider just two ways. Firstly, through her sacred Tradition, which is like a living memory of what Christ has done and handed on to his apostles. For the Church not only has her Scriptures, which are a written witness to the mystery of Christ. But the message is confirmed by signs; what the Dominican cardinal Yves Congar referred to as “witnesses of tradition” such as the Fathers and the Magisterium. In particular, he was convinced that “the liturgy is tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity”. Which is why the usus antiquior is such a precious gift to the entire Church. For it is the witness of tradition, an ancient sign which the Church has done in memory of Him, so that we can come to know and love Him, our Lord. So that we can become faithful witnesses ourselves when we partake of sacred Tradition.
The Church bears witness to Christ in another way – one which flows naturally from faith, and from participation in the Liturgy. This is the witness of Christian lives of holiness. The saints are pre-eminent witnesses to Christ, and they are signs of the power of faith, and of divine grace at work in the world. Resplendent in sanctity and charity, the saints are Christ’s work in the world, his signs that confirm the message of the Gospel.
How we behave, then, witnesses to the truth of what we believe in. We heard in St Mark’s Gospel that the disciples are to “preach the gospel to the whole creation”, which is an act of mercy and charity. But they are also to “cast out demons”, and heal the sick. So, the practical things that we might do to alleviate the spiritual and physical suffering of those around us are a sign to the world of Christ‘s presence and activity in the Church. And it is through her charity that the Church is more clearly seen to be a communion of saints, a “cloud of witnesses” (12:1), as the letter to the Hebrews says.
After today’s beautiful, heavenly liturgy, we might be feel like the Men of Galilee, gazing rapt into heaven. Like them, we are asked: “Why do you standlooking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). Because like them, we have the same mission. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we are to be the witnesses of Christ “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We are to manifest his presence in the world through charity, to attract others to Christ through the beauty of holiness, and through the holiness of beautiful, faithful preaching and signs. Then, enlightened by faith, others too might see - indeed, witness - Christ coming among them, living and acting in his Church…
Christ, our Eucharistic Lord, coming on clouds of incense, for every Liturgy is a Parousia, a coming of Jesus Christ in the midst of his disciples.
“Peace I leave you, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), says the Lord in today’s Gospel. And some might say that the pope we remember today, an Italian Dominican friar, wasn’t a man of peace. After all, Pope Pius V is remembered in England for excommunicating Elizabeth I and releasing Catholic subjects of their allegiance to the queen (in 1570), and he is also credited with having rallied the forces of Christendom, the so-called Holy League, in a great naval battle at Lepanto in 1571 against the Muslim Turks who threatened to overrun Europe.
And yet, St Pius V wasn’t really a belligerent man. He had been a shepherd before he joined the Dominicans, and he remained at heart a conscientious, austere and diligent shepherd, eager to maintain the safety and the peace of his flock. Even when he was serving as grand inquisitor under the previous pope, Paul IV, as Eamon Duffy notes, “he had fallen foul of Paul IV for excessive leniency”. And during the battle of Lepanto he had remained in Rome and gathered the people of the city in prayer, saying the Rosary. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on 7 October was instituted by Pope Pius V in thanksgiving for the victory at Lepanto, which he ascribed to Mary’s intercession.
For St Pius V’s primary concern wasn’t so much with the peace of the world – perhaps he felt this was not his duty. After all Christ had said: “Not as the world gives do I give [peace] to you” (Jn 14:27). Rather, Pius V’s concern and duty as pope, to whom Christ had entrusted his little flock, was to secure for God’s people the peace that only Jesus Christ could give; the peace that comes through a saving faith in him, through knowledge of the fullness of the Truth he taught, through a loving communion with Christ’s holy Church. So, as far as Pius V could see, Elizabeth I and the other Protestant leaders disrupted the peace and unity of the Church, and would prevent Catholics from practicing the fullness of the Christian faith in peace. This was even more certain with the Turkish forces who threatened the future of Christianity in Europe. Hence, St Pius bravely did what he felt he had to on these two fronts in order to secure peace for the Catholic faithful.
But even among his Catholic flock there was disturbance and turmoil brought about by moral laxity, poor theological formation, and corruption among the clergy. This seems to be a recurring theme in Church history, for the Church was once more in need of reform, and Pius V was elected in 1566 to implement the decrees of the reforming Council of Trent. In his six year pontificate, he radically reformed the Roman curia, reduced its costs, and disciplined wayward cardinals and clergy. Looking to the faith education of the laity and clergy, he published the Roman Catechism and promoted as a solid formation for seminarians the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas. He also promoted the unity and renewal of the Liturgy, putting in place an edition of the Roman Missal that remained essentially unchanged until Vatican II. Finally, he upheld the unity of theology in both the Eastern and Western Church.
All these works, which St Pius V laboured over until his death in 1572 were aimed at restoring unity and peace to Christ’s Church so that all within her Body might experience the unity and peace that Christ gave to his disciples. For Christ’s peace is found through the unity of faith, in the one saving Truth that Christ entrusted to his Church, and also in the consolation of her Liturgy and sacraments, for in these we encounter Jesus Christ who is our peace.
So, today, we give thanks to God for Pope St Pius V who shepherded Christ’s flock with such diligence and personal holiness of life, and we ask him to pray for the Church that she may be ever more united in the peace of Christ.