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.
We live in an age that is distrustful of power and institutions; wary of the Establishment and elite. All too often our trust in those in authority has been betrayed, and so we are, rightly I suppose, reticent to believe. For some time now, the Gospel has been proposed and taught from a position of power and influence, by a Church that is allied to the organs of Government and authority. And for our contemporaries who are wary of power and its abuse, then the Gospel and its preaching, which is the raison d’être of the Church, can be perceived as a kind of myth that perpetuates the hold of these power institutions over ordinary folk. In this way of perceiving things, science and reason are held up as great liberating forces to break the stranglehold of a credulous Church, its medieval myths, and its lust for power over consciences.
But this, in fact, is the myth of our age; a fundamentally false one.
For during this Easter Octave, we have not encountered credulous apostles. On the contrary, these men are unbelieving, hard of heart, and slow to believe. They’re a rather skeptical bunch – the kind of incredulous reasonable people that our modern-day Dawkins-fan would be proud of. Nor have we encountered powerful and manipulative institutions, out to perpetrate a myth of Christ’s Resurrection so as to control the poor masses. Au contraire, the apostles are “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). Moreover, the first witness of the Risen Lord is a woman, whose witness was typically scorned and disregarded by those in power in 1st-century Palestine. And the next two witnesses were two deserters, fleeing Jerusalem for the country; country bumpkins, even, we might say. So, Christianity’s key event, without which the whole Faith implodes, relies on the witness of poor ordinary disorganized folk. This truly grassroots movement, so removed from the power and elitism and smug certitude of certain modern-day academics, thinkers and scientists, began among the powerless, the un-respectable, the ignored; little people.
And yet those first eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, beginning with Mary Magdalene and other women, then the Two headed to Emmaus, then the Eleven remaining apostles, and some other common folk, simply would not be ignored. No earthly power, not even the might of imperial Rome, could silence them. These little people made a big claim.
Because they pro-claimed Truth. As St Peter, speaking for the whole Church and for subsequent generations of Christians said, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Even today, the powerful Media would silence the voices of the little people, of our brothers and sisters, the persecuted Christians of Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan and countless other places besides. But they, like St Peter and St John, cannot be silenced. Their willing suffering and martyrdom eloquently proclaim that “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who [the authorities had] crucified, God [has] raised from the dead” (cf Acts 4:10). This is the simple Truth they – and we – must proclaim. This is not so much a doctrine, but a person. We preach the Risen Lord whom we encounter above all in the Eucharist.
But, if we’ve truly encountered Christ in the Mass, then the way we “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Lk 16:15) will reflect our Eucharistic Lord. He comes to us in humility and gentleness, with mercy, compassion and love. Thus our preaching goes forth. And not with power or institutional force or arrogant triumphalism either, but with the unstoppable boldness and urgency that comes from having seen and heard the Living Lord. Hence St Paul says, we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:5).
We human beings encounter the reality of the world around us, we know, through the senses; through our sight, touch, hearing, and taste. Hence in today’s Gospel Jesus invites his disciples to encounter the reality of who he is – that he is the Risen One – through the human senses. They hear him speaking to them, and he says, “See my hands and my feet”; “Handle me” (Lk 24:39); and then, he eats a piece of broiled fish. Thus, all four senses of sight, touch, hearing and taste are used to verify the reality, the truth, of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. He invites them to know that “it is I myself”, Jesus himself and not some simulacrum of him. This was how Jesus made himself known to his disciples that first Easter Sunday.
But now for us, Jesus makes himself known to us, in the way that he once did when he encountered the two disciples in Emmaus. As St Luke says: “they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Lk 24:35). Why does Jesus choose this mode of being present to us, his disciples? Because we are on the road too. We, too, are like the Israelites who celebrated the Passover with unleavened bread, prepared for travel. We, too, are like these two disciples, on the road. For we are a pilgrim Church, a people on the road, making our way through life towards our home and destination, which is heaven. Hence, Jesus is present for us, and makes himself known to us as he once did to the disciples in Emmaus: in the breaking of bread; in the Eucharist which becomes our Bread for the journey or, as Tolkien put it, Waybread.
The Eucharist, though, is truly the Mysterium Fidei, the Mystery or Sacrament of Faith. In it, once more, the Risen Lord Jesus is encountered and not some simulacrum of him. “It is I myself”, Jesus says, which is why the Eucharist is consecrated by Christ’s Priest in the first person: “This is my Body; This is my Blood”. However, unlike the disciples in today’s Gospel, we cannot rely on our senses of sight, touch, or taste to encounter this reality. As St Thomas says, “Seeing, touching, tasting fail to discern Thee”. But rather, we rely purely on the sense of hearing, or to be more precise, we rely on faith, believing in the Word of God whom we hear speaking. So, St Thomas puts it like this: “How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed. What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true”. Hence, we believe that the Risen Lord is wholly present in the Eucharist; he makes himself known to us in the breaking of Bread because he has promised to do so. “I it is myself”. For we human beings know not just through our senses but through faith in God’s Word.
But this just seems too good to be true, sometimes. St Luke uses a rather strange and unique phrase in today’s Gospel for this. The apostles “disbelieved for joy” (Lk 24:41). So, too, when we encounter the Risen Lord in the Eucharist, we can find ourselves disbelieving for joy. Not because we doubt Christ’s Word or the salvific truth taught by his Church, but rather because the Eucharist is just such a marvel of divine love, such a daily miracle of God’s faithfulness to humanity, such a sign of divine mercy and humility, that we can’t fully grasp the depth of this great Mystery of Faith. As St John Vianney said: “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.”
What we can do, however, is to just be present here in the Mass, and worship. So, as he once did for the disciples, we ask Jesus to open our minds (cf Lk 24:45), and to make us his witnesses – evangelizers of the joy we have in knowing the risen Lord Jesus Christ through the gift of faith.
St Matthew’s Gospel is emphatic that the risen Lord Jesus first appears to women. Two women, in fact, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Mt 1:28), “mother of James and Joseph” (Mt 27:56). The fact that there were two of them is significant because, as St Paul (echoing Jewish law) says, “any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor 13:1). So, there must be at least two witnesses to establish a fact. However, Jewish tradition did not allow women to serve as witnesses in court. Neither were slaves, or children, or the deaf and blind, or notorious sinners admitted as witnesses.
But the Risen Lord comes to these two women, and reveals himself to them, and allows them to touch his glorified body. For as Jesus had said and shown through his ministry in Galilee, he was born for sinners; he came to heal the deaf and blind, to bring freedom to slaves, and he called children to him. In Christ God had come to reach out to the weakest and marginalized of society; those whom society and men of law and power reject, Jesus calls and embraces.
So, after his Resurrection, Christ comes again to these women who stand for all those whom official society had marginalized or held as weak and not-good-enough. And as God had reached out to them in Jesus, so now they reach out to Jesus. They “took his feet and worshipped him” as God (Mt 28:9). Hence, you and I who are sinners, who were blind and deaf because of sin have been healed by Christ’s grace and mercy shown on the Cross. And we, who are reborn in baptism are like little children, who can now approach and embrace the risen Christ “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:14).
Let nobody, then, feel too weak or sinful or small or unworthy to reach out to Christ. Let no one be afraid. For the Risen Lord comes in search of such people – not of the proud and self-righteous – but of the humble and weak. Of those, perhaps, who feel they’ve not kept a very good Lent, or are still tempted and sinful. These are the ones the Risen Lord seeks, and he says to us, to you and to me: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:10). He comes to us today in the Eucharist, and he allows us to reach out to him, to touch him, and receive his healing mercy and grace.
And to those of us who come here to worship Jesus as God, and who have encountered the Risen Lord in these Easter sacraments, Christ gives us a command: “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Mt 28:10). Because Jesus is for ever God and Man, so his brethren refer not just to the apostles but to all of Mankind. So the women, that is, we, are told by the Risen Lord to tell all peoples that we have encountered him. And we’re to tell them to “go to Galilee” where they will see him too. What might this mean? Galilee, as I’ve suggested, was where Jesus first ministered to the little ones, to the needy and poor and unloved of society. So, we Christians are to go out among the marginalized and poor. As St Matthew’s Gospel says we will see Christ among the least (Mt 25:40).
However, we’re also to go among those who are sinners, who are still blind and deaf to Faith and to Christ’s Word. And we’re to tell them the Gospel of salvation, to open their eyes to God’s love in Christ, so that they, our fellow sinners, can also see the Risen Lord Jesus. “There they will see me” (Mt 28:10). For where he is needed most – in the despairing and skeptical hearts of 21st-century men and women – in our modern-day Galilee, the Risen Lord will be there. He reaches out to his brothers and sisters, made so deaf by false philosophies, so blind by Rationalism, so poor by lack of Faith. But he relies on you and me to tell them the Good News that he is risen, so that they, too, can see the risen Lord, and reach out to touch him, and worship.
With language that is strongly reminiscent of the Song of Songs, the prophet Hosea closes with a love song, a passionate plea from God for Israel to return to him. There is something almost plaintive about the way God appeals to his Beloved people. But God is not just speaking to Israel. Today, he speaks to every human soul, to you and to me. For God is in love with Mankind.
As such, St Catherine of Siena called God a “mad Lover”, and she said to him: “Are you indeed in need of your creature? It seems to me you are for you behave as if you could not live without her… Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk for her salvation. She runs for you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity and nearer than that you could not have come”. So, the ultimate sign of God’s mad love for us is the Incarnation, which we celebrated on Tuesday, the feast of the Annunciation.
We need to dwell on this beautiful mystery; to marvel in God’s mad love for us, and to know in faith that Christ’s Incarnation is prolonged in the Eucharist. For our “mad Lover” clothes himself not just in our humanity, but even in bread and wine so that he can come so close to us, and be intimately united to us. This is the total love of God for us, that he gives us his whole Self – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the holy Eucharist.
Lent, which comes from the Old English word for Spring, is thus a time for us to listen for God’s love song again; a time to allow the divine Lover to woo us and seduce us; a time to soak up God’s grace, which falls like gentle dew so that we will “blossom as the lily” (Hos 14:5) and “flourish as a garden” (Hos 14:7). Lent is thus an opportune season to revel and grow in God’s love, which is why the feast of the Annunciation fittingly (often) falls in our Lenten springtime, to remind us of this. Praying before the Eucharist, coming to Mass, meditating on the Incarnation: these are ways to contemplate that ours is a God who loves us with his whole heart, his soul, his mind and strength.
Only when we know this can we love God in return. Only when we know God’s abiding love for us can we love ourselves. And only then can we love our neighbour too. It’s often said that the Lenten exercises of prayer, fasting and almgiving are about loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbour. And this is true. But first of all – and we can never have enough of this – Lent invites us to pray and come here to Mass so that, as Hosea says, God can “heal [our] faithlessness [and] love [us] freely”. We are here to be loved.
Do you know others who are not here, who long for love? Then call them to come: Come here to Christ in the Eucharist; come here to be loved. As Pope Francis says: “[M]ay this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to… the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ”. For this is how we can love our neighbour as ourselves: by bringing others here so that they can know and experience the love of Jesus Christ too.
Perhaps we can begin by considering what Jesus did not say in today’s Gospel. He does not say: “He who is not against us is with us”. So, there is still a distinction between those who are explicitly following Christ such as the Twelve, and those who are not.
Rather what Jesus says is: “He that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), and that the lone exorcist has been doing “a mighty work in my name” (Mk 9:39). This suggests that God’s grace is not limited to the Twelve, who stand for the Church. Rather God is free to grant his good gifts to all people, whether or not they are explicitly following Christ; whether or not they are Christians, therefore. As we were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel, our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Hence, the Second Vatican Council could teach that “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, §16).
So, Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the apostles should not forbid the good that the man is doing in his name. For any goodness and truth comes from God. As we heard in St James’ letter last week: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).
But because there is still a distinction between those who do explicitly follow Christ and those who don’t, it doesn’t follow that the man who does mighty works in Christ’s name should not subsequently become a follower of Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Church is to encourage all good and truth, and bring forth still more graces, then it needs to lead all men and women of good will to an explicit faith in Christ. Hence Vatican II goes on to say: “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (ibid.).
It is in this light that the Holy Father said in Evangelii Gaudium, that “frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (§47). For this was what the apostles wanted to do: forbid the good being done, and thus control God’s grace. We’re not to do this. Rather, Christ’s Church has to facilitate God’s grace, that is to say, make it easier for people to grow in grace and virtue, to find the truth and good that every human heart naturally desires and seeks after. As such, the Church must evangelize, must bring all from merely being “for us” to being “with us” as explicit followers of Jesus Christ, visible members of his Body, the Church. Why? Because united with Christ in the Church we have easier ‘access’, so to speak, to God’s grace; more ready and sure means of growing in knowledge and love of God, and so, of being intimately united to One who alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart.
Thus, Pope Francis also said: “It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize” (EG, §266).
HOMILY for the 10th Anniversary Mass of Fr John Saward Matt 25:1-13
The memorial of Saint Lucy, virgin & martyr
We might think that the virgins in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins carried lamps so that they could see in the dark. But it has been observed that under the clear skies of Middle Eastern villages, women out on the village streets at night can see adequately by moonlight and starlight. Nevertheless, they all carry lamps, not so much to see by as to be seen. For they carry the lamps directly in front of their faces so that “all can witness who they are and where they are going”. So, too, in Swedish culture, processions are held on St Lucy’s day, and the girl playing Lucia famously wears a crown of candles, which serve not to illumine the path but the face.
As a virgin and a martyr, St Lucy is doubly crowned, and the virtues of chaste purity and courage shed light on her face so that all can witness who she is. She is one who, as the Dominican bishop Blessed James of Voragine says, “radiated charity without any impure love”. But the virgin martyr, and indeed, every Christian, is not just witnessed but is seen to be a witness. In The Golden Legend St Lucy thus points to the source of her virtues, saying: “Those who live chaste lives are temples of the Holy Spirit”. Hence, it is God, dwelling in her through grace, who causes her to radiate charity.
As such, we can think of St Lucy like a lamp that is filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit, filled with God’s grace which energizes her to shine with virtue. And virtue, which is shown through good works, sheds a brilliance that, ultimately, glorifies not the saint herself, but, rather, God who is the cause of all good. Thus our Lord says earlier in St Matthew’s Gospel: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16).
Therefore, at our baptism a lit candle is entrusted to us, and we hold this light before our faces not in order that we can be seen, but in order that God’s face can be seen. For each of us are called to co-operate with grace, and, so, radiate charity like St Lucy. Indeed, we are called, as Christians, to be as Christ dwelling among Men; we’re sent to show forth God’s mercy and compassion in the world; we’re needed to shine Christ’s light in the dark places of society. And in the Holy Father’s recent Apostolic Exhortation, we’re reminded that we’re each called, whatever our vocation, to bring the joy of the Gospel to all our contemporaries. So, Pope Francis challenges you and me to “appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet. [For] it is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’”, just as one is attracted to the light.
Hence, some will be drawn by the joyful witness of saintly lives like St Lucy’s. As we hear in the Offertorium, “her neighbours shall be brought to God with gladness and rejoicing”. Others will be drawn by beauty, such as is found in the sacred Liturgy and the Church’s treasury of sacred music and art. And others still will be attracted by the Truth expounded in sacra doctrina, in theology, which is laid out like a delicious banquet.
Tonight, especially, we thank God for the ways in which he has enabled Fr John Saward to be a co-worker of the Truth; to draw so many by the light of his life of service as a priest and theologian, as an academic and a lecturer, but also as a husband, a father, and most of all, a Christian man, to Christ, the Light of the World. May “he who began a good work in you… bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (cf Phil 1:6).
The Byzantine church calls today’s saint the Protokletos, the first-called. Because St Andrew was the first apostle to respond to Christ’s call to follow him. This is not as apparent in the Gospel we’ve just heard but in St John’s Gospel, we learn that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, and that he was drawn to Jesus when St John pointed to the Lord and said: “Behold, the Lamb of God”. Together with an unnamed disciple, they went to Jesus and stayed with him (cf Jn 1:35-40).
Today, we find ourselves in the place of that unnamed disciple. We hear those words, “Behold the Lamb of God”, and we are invited to go with St Andrew to Christ. But here in the Eucharist, Jesus comes under our roof; it is the Lord who condescends to come to us, to stays and remain with us. Through this sacrament, God dwells in us so that we can abide in him. So, although St Andrew is the first to be called, and the first to respond, each day we too are called; we’re also being invited to respond to God’s grace and do as St Andrew did: to follow Christ and stay close to him. And it is this on-going response, a daily ‘Yes’ to Christ that matters most. For what is remarkable about St Andrew is not so much that he was the first to go to Christ, although this requires great courage and faith. But rather, it is the fact that Andrew remained close to Jesus for the rest of his days, and continued to live with such courage and faith that he willingly suffered the same kind of death as the Lord – crucifixion. In a 6th-century text, The Passion of St Andrew, the apostle says: “Hail, O Cross, inaugurated by the Body of Christ… I come to you, therefore, confident and joyful, so that you too may receive me exultant as a disciple of the One who was hung upon you”.
Those words “confident and joyful” bring us back to today’s Gospel. St Matthew is not so much concerned about who was the first to go to Christ, but he concentrates on what being with Christ does. What does following Christ entail? “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). So, it seems that going to Christ and remaining close to him, being friends of Christ, makes us fishers of men, that is to say, evangelizers; people who draw others to Christ. And St Andrew does so with confidence and joy.
This is something Pope Francis spells out at length in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. A Christian is someone who has encountered the person of Jesus Christ; someone who has, therefore, experienced the personal love and mercy of God – this is what it means for us to recognize, with St Andrew, that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God’. The Christian disciple thus has his life transformed by love and mercy, and his heart is filled with joy, a joy which cannot be contained but must be preached to others as life-changing, transforming good news. So, Pope Francis asks us: “[I]f we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (§8).
But to become a fisher of men means that one has to patiently, gently attract people to Christ. We fish, not with dynamite, but with light in the dark waters. As Pope Francis (citing Pope Benedict) says: “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, [Christians] should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction” (§15).
So, today, we have been called with St Andrew to go to Christ. We are being invited to taste the goodness of God here in this sacred banquet, to witness the beauty and wisdom of Christ in the Scriptures, and so to be filled with the confidence and joy of an apostle. For each and every one of us has been called, like Andrew, to follow Christ, to remain close to him, and so, to draw others – the people of Scotland – into the joy of friendship with God.
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, and so, we tend to think of it as commemorating something new, as marking a beginning, a birth. But in fact, if we consider what the Jewish feast of Pentecost, also called the feast of the First Fruits, was about, we can look at it differently. Pentecost was the the completion of a seven-week long celebration begun just after the Passover, and it marked the harvest season, when the first fruits of a new harvest were offered to God in thanksgiving. As such, Pentecost was a day of expectation and a culmination; it marks the kind of ending that harvesting implies rather than the beginning that is implied in sowing.
Hence the great signs of Pentecost when the Spirit descends on the Church are also evocative of harvesting: wind, as from a winnowing fan to separate the wheat from the chaff (cf Mt 3:12), and fire, as in traditional harvesting methods to bring fertility and new life to the harvested land. So, at Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit comes as the harvester and he comes to “renew the face of the earth” (Ps 103:30).
But this Pentecostal harvesting is the culmination of what began fifty days earlier on Easter Sunday. For the risen Christ is, as St Paul says, the “first fruits” of a new creation (cf 1 Cor 15:20). And it is he, as first fruits, who was offered to the Father, being taken up into heaven at his Ascension. And now, on the fiftieth day, the climax of the Paschal celebrations, the Spirit comes to harvest and offer up to the Father those first fruits of Christ’s new creation, namely, Christ’s holy Church who stand for a humanity renewed and transformed by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Thus, the Spirit comes to harvest you and me, we who are baptized into Christ. And, so, we are being offered with Christ as first fruits to the Father; we’re being raised up by the Spirit to new and everlasting life with God. As St Paul put it: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom 8:11).
However, if the day of Pentecost was the great moment of God’s harvesting, then this is a moment which continues to this day. For the Church, who is animated by the Holy Spirit, lives ever in the Pentecostal moment, called in every age to renew and transform the whole world through the preaching and living out of the Gospel. Time and again, Christians have failed in this calling, but the Spirit comes as wind and fire to separate wheat from chaff, to burn out impurities with God’s fiery love, and to renew the face of the Church. Thus, the Church, and each of us individually, must call out each day: “Lord, send forth your Spirit, and renew us”.
And the Spirit who comes, and who renews us by bringing to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught us (cf Jn 14:26b), will also send us out as labourers into God’s harvest. This missionary imperative was put into action on Pentecost day. The tongues of flame loosened the tongues of the disciples so that they could preach the Gospel to all nations. It is in this sense that we can speak of the birthday of the Church. Because the Church was born for mission. She exists to “bring to remembrance” before all peoples what Jesus said and did. You and I, as members of the Church, are here for others, for the good of the world; we exist as a Church to be sent out to serve our brothers and sisters by bringing them the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI said: “[The Church] exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection”. Our chapel, which looks out onto the world, and with the Altar of Christ’s sacrifice and the tabernacle of God’s dwelling with us so visible to all passers-by, is a constant reminder of this: that we, the Church, exist to evangelize. We’re here in order to go out into God’s harvest, into the world, as labourers, collaborating with the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth”.
But what does this renewal, this collaboration with God, mean concretely? Let us look again to the Biblical origins of Pentecost.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI did an unprecedented thing. He declared not one but two women saints to be Doctors of the universal Church, and we celebrate the feast of one of those women today: the lay Dominican saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, who is also patroness of Europe.
St Catherine lived in the turbulent 14th-century when there was much warfare among the Christian states of Europe, and under the influence of the powerful French monarchy, the pope no longer lived in Rome but in Avignon. This came to a climax in 1377 when French and Italian factions competed for the papacy and cardinals under their influence ended up electing two popes, thus bringing about the Great Western Schism that lasted until 1417. But this schism could only have happened because the Church was in serious need of reform: the clergy was corrupt, beset by scandals, and the laity were morally and doctrinally lax.
Hence, through deep prayer, penitential austerity and mystical experiences, Catherine was called by God in 1370 to care for the spiritual sickness that was then afflicting the Body of Christ. She was to be a doctor to the Church, called to heal the Church’s disunity and corruption which, in her words, disfigured the beautiful face of Christ’s Bride with leprosy. The disunity of the Church and the sins of her members – lay and clerical alike – were a great wound to Christ’s Body, and St Catherine bore this wound in her own body. For in 1375 she received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – and she bore these invisibly until her death in 1380, when she would die at the same age as Christ, thirty-three.
For the last decade of her life, Catherine wore herself out travelling throughout Italy and France speaking and pleading with influential people, writing almost 400 letters to urge Christians to seek peace and unity, and imploring the pope to reform the clergy and to return to Rome – the symbol of the Church’s unity – which Gregory XI did in 1377. But his death shortly afterwards led to the schism, which weighed heavily on St Catherine.
So, she’d laboured to heal the Church’s disunity but she seems to have failed at the end of her short life. Yet, she is a Doctor of the Church because in her saintly life she taught us a most important lesson, and one which is ever relevant, especially today.
St Catherine knew that the reform of the Church was not primarily about politics and structures and bureaucracies. Rather, the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and so, she has to be healed spiritually, made whole by God’s love first. Hence, St Catherine offered her whole life of austerity, penance, fasting and prayer, as well as her ministries out in the world, for the love of God’s Church. So, Jesus promised her that “With these prayers, sweat and tears, I shall wash the face of my spouse, the holy Church”.
For Catherine knew, too, that reform was not ‘out there’ or the problem of the Roman Curia, or the warring cardinals. There can be much hand-wringing about the need for institutional reform, but St Catherine knew, rather, that the problems were also very much hers. As she put it “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”.
Thus, Doctor saint Catherine’s remedy for the sins of the Church was to look to her own sins, and to repent and change her ways. Because she knew that the only soul she could change and cause to co-operate with God’s grace, to conform to Christ’s will, was her own. So, reform of Christ’s Church comes through each of us as members of the Body of Christ striving to be faithful to Christ and our Christian vocation; each of us allowing Christ the divine Doctor to heal us so that we can play our proper part within his holy Body. Hence, through the “prayers, sweat and tears” of the saints, Christ himself will purify and reform his Bride; it is his Church.
With this fundamental knowledge and faith in Christ, and love for Christ’s Mystical Body, St Catherine became a saint, and so can we today. May she pray for us, for God’s Holy Church, especially in Europe, and for our lay Dominicans for whom she is patroness.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). The last time we would have heard these words in the Liturgy would be on Maundy Thursday in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, just before the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. These words, then, re-enforce what was heard in the Gospel of Maundy Thursday: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). Hence, it is rightly understood that Christ’s commandment that we love one another is borne out in serving one another, in works of social justice.
Therefore, our parish embarked on a charitable project this Lent that sought to serve the needy and poor – not so much to wash their feet as to help provide feet, in the form of prosthetic limbs. We have raised about £3500 for Olivia Giles’ ‘500 Miles’ project through a variety of initiatives. And as Olivia suggested on Friday night when we presented a cheque to her, it is through such acts of generosity and love in a Christian community that we demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. For the Lord says: “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
But this understanding of love as social justice is not new. It is already found in the Old Testament, and it is rooted in the Jewish prophets. For example, Micah 6:8 says: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” What is different is that the New Testament adds a mystical dimension to this because in serving the marginalized and oppressed it is our poor, naked, hungry God, Jesus Christ himself, whom we serve and love.
However, vital though it is, there is more to Christian love than just social justice. Hence, our Liturgy re-visits these words of Christ, his new commandment to us, in the light of the resurrection. What has changed? Christ has risen from the dead, and so, destroyed death. He has put an end to the hold that sin, evil, and death had over Mankind. He has made “all things new” (Apoc 21:5a), re-creating the heavens and the earth. Because of Christ’s resurrection, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Apoc 21:4). The disciples of Jesus Christ, who touched and saw and heard the risen Lord, knew all this to be true. Through faith, we also experience the risen Lord and know his Word to be true.
With an Easter faith, then, how is Christian love expressed? What more needs to be done in addition to serving one another and doing justice? Love is expressed through bringing hope to others: hope in the resurrection; hope that comes from faith in the new creation brought about by the risen Jesus; hope in God’s mercies that are ever new.
Therefore, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us how we’re called to love one another as disciples of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Love impels the first disciples to travel far and wide, risking the perils of the journey, to preach the Gospel. They could have been content to just keep the faith to themselves, or considered it too risky and imprudent to stand up against the Jewish authorities and the mighty Roman empire. And, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, after the Crucifixion, they were full of fear and confusion. But once the Holy Spirit had descended on them there was no stopping them.