February 28, 2014


HOMILY for 7th Friday per annum (II)

James 5:9-12; Ps 102; Mark 10:1-12

A couple of days ago, Cardinal Muller re-affirmed that valid Christian marriages cannot be dissolved. Divorce is not possible, he said, since “Church dogma isn’t just some theory created by some theologians” but is “the word of Jesus Christ which is very clear”. He must have had today’s Gospel in mind when he said this. But when the Catholic News Service posted the Cardinal’s words on their Facebook page, it generated a huge and rather revealing debate. 

Now, we’re not speaking here of cases where a spouse is abandoned or abused. In such cases, the Church advocates separation. Hence the Catechism notes that “there is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (CCC 2386). Nevertheless, even where there is a valid marriage and where there is some fault, a good number of people commented on Facebook that this doctrine had to change. Which suggests that some Catholics believe that Man knows better than God, or at least, that Jesus was mistaken. Such was the original sin of Adam, so such hubris is not new. A few said that a celibate man had no right to lay down rules on marriage. It’s uncertain if they were referring to Jesus or Cardinal Muller; the latter, I suspect, which makes the comment all the more ironic. And some said we needed more love and less doctrine. Except, of course, the Gospel says that, “as was his custom”, Jesus “taught” the crowds, that is to say, he gave them doctrine (Mk 10:1). And teaching, too, is an act of love, isn’t it, especially if it leads one to Truth and to the Good? But just as some rejected Jesus’ teaching then, so it appears that some would reject it today. And this, too, is nothing new for every sin is a rejection of God’s wisdom in some way. 

But where is the Gospel, the good news, in all this, then? As always, the Gospel is found in a vision of what God’s grace makes possible, transcending what nature by itself can achieve. So, Jesus recalls that in the first place, men and women were both created with equal dignity. But because of Israel’s “hardness of heart”, that is, because of sin this unity was disrupted. Man obtained power over his wife as though she were chattel that he could just “put away” (Mk 10:4). But Jesus comes to restore what was lost through sin, and to elevate nature through grace to a new supernatural end. Hence Jesus repudiates the concession made to sin and says that in his restoration and re-creation of the cosmos through grace, husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:8). Indeed, Jesus then elevates marriage so that it becomes a sacrament, a sign of the new creation caused by grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, as St Paul says: “This mystery [of two becoming indissolubly one flesh] is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32).

However, we are still likely to find this teaching hard to grasp. So did the disciples, hence they “asked him again about this matter” privately (Mk 10:10). They wanted to be sure that they understood Jesus properly, and so he explains himself in even more blunt and plain language. It is in utmost fidelity to this explicit teaching of Jesus Christ that Christ’s disciples today, that is, his Church continues to teach that valid Christian marriages are indissoluble. We can do nothing else but be faithful to Jesus’ teaching.

But it’s not surprising that we should find this difficult. Because although Christ has given us his grace to live as his new creation, and although his Spirit dwells in our hearts, we still find ourselves very much attached to former habits, still very much surrounded and influenced by the old sinful self and its ways; we still struggle with sin. As St Paul says, then, we need to let our old selves die so that a new will arise with Christ (cf Rom 6). Hence, living the Christian call to holiness constitutes a cross, and discipleship means picking up our cross, dying to ourselves, and following Christ. 

For those who have chosen to marry, marriage is a central beam of that cross. It is one that was freely taken up and committed to for life. As St James said: “let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation” (5:12). So, having made this commitment, the married couple have to depend on Christ’s grace and take up their cross. This means having to work at the marital relationship, learning to forgive, and stretching one’s heart and mind and life so as to make space for another. It means, ultimately, learning to love, and this is never easy. There will be falls and mistakes but these have to overcome with grace and faith, as both husband and wife strive for holiness. Hence, Christ’s vision of marriage is certainly possible and even joyful if we co-operate with God’s grace – the witness of countless Christian couples down the centuries testify to this. However, as so many saintly married couples show, it is certainly easier and thus objectively better if both parties in a marriage desire holiness, and, so, as “one flesh” both desire to learn from Christ.  

The Church, then, is to be a facilitator of God’s grace and not an arbitrator (cf Evangelii Gaudium, §47). She exists to make it easier for us to co-operate with God’s grace and to grow in holiness. Hence Cardinal Muller says that “God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father”. If holiness is our goal – whatever our vocational state of life – then changing or removing Jesus’ teaching, or walking away from his Mystical Bride, the Church, certainly will not help.

January 31, 2014

HOMILY for the memorial of St John Bosco

2 Samuel 11:1-4,5-10,13-17; Ps 50; Mark 4:26-34

Today’s readings contrast two different crops with two fruit, both begin small - barely noticeable - and grow into something large and encompassing. 

David reaps a harvest of deception and death because of his sin with Bathsheba. It begins small, with a chance event. The prophet writes quite casually: “It happened, late one afternoon…” And David sees Bathsheba bathing. He could have looked away, but instead, he lingered and took pleasure in the sight of Bathsheba’s beauty. So, the seed of desire is planted. And he waters this seed by inquiring about her; he wants to possess more of her, beginning with knowledge of who she is. And once he has this, he abuses his royal power. As we read: “He sent messengers, and took her”. And so, the small seed of an impure glance, becomes sexual desire, which is fanned into adultery. And to complete his sin, and reap its harvest of death, David finally arranges for Uriah’s death, so that he could take Bathsheba as his wife, and she could bear his son legitimately. 

Our sins often start small, barely perceptible, but if we’re vigilant we can nip it in the bud, choosing to turn away rather than to entertain what begins as just a seemingly harmless glance. We can choose not to cultivate the crop of sin just as, at each stage, David could have done otherwise than to allow his impure desire to grow and develop until it bore the corrupt fruit of murder. 

The following words from today’s saint, John Bosco, who was a beloved and gentle educator of poor youth in 19th-century Italy, could have been said about king David: “Some people think that they can pacify evil passions by giving in to them. This is a mistake… Our evil inclinations are like snarling dogs, nothing will satisfy them. The more one panders them, the more they demand.” 

So, the Gospel today shows us that there is another crop we should cultivate. And it also begins small, and barely perceptible to begin with, but can grow enormous and change our lives, giving us eternal shelter within it. It is the seed of Christ’s grace planted in our hearts through the sacraments, and God’s grace grows so that we can rest in God’s goodness and enjoy his friendship. As St Paul says, “the kingdom of God… is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit” (Rom 14:17). 

We cultivate this crop and allow it to grow by weeding out the sinful desires and habits that would choke it, by not allowing the small seed of sin to grow. Thus St John Bosco said: “Do you want to banish evil thoughts? Control your sight, taste, and hearing. Give up certain kinds of talk and books. This is the only way you will still your passions, be victorious, and enjoy peace of mind.” Now, controlling our desires, changing our habits, will require effort on our part. But we should not rely just on our will power but rely even more on God’s grace. All we need to do is to go to Jesus in prayer, in humility, in faith, and receive the graces he wants to give us to help us root out sin and to grow in his love. 

As St John Bosco said: “Do you want Our Lord to give you many graces? Visit Him often. Do you want Him to give you few graces? Visit him seldom. Visits to the Blessed Sacrament are powerful and indispensable means of overcoming the attacks of the devil. Make frequent visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and the devil will be powerless against you.” Let us heed his advice!

December 29, 2013

HOMILY for the feast of the Holy Family (C)

Eccl 3:3-7. 14-17; Ps 127; Col 3:12-21; Matt 2:13-15. 19-23

It’s tempting and attractive to think that the birth of the “Prince of Peace” would put an end to all wars and violence. Or that, as the angels sang on Christmas night, peace would come to all people “of goodwill”. And yet, every Christmas, we’re reminded that this isn’t obviously so. This year, bombs went off near a church in Baghdad; in the previous two years bombs exploded in Nigeria. But it’s not just contemporary events which remind us of this. The Church’s liturgy also reminds us that Christ’s birth did not bring an immediate cessation of sin and violence. So, perhaps the peace that Jesus’ birth promises is not the end of human conflict and strife as such.

For God became Man, but in doing so God left intact our humanity with its greatest dignity, which is our freedom to choose good or, indeed, evil. Hence on the second day of Christmas, the liturgy recalled the killing of St Stephen the first martyr. While he chose to love and die for the truth, his executors chose otherwise. Yesterday, we recalled Herod’s cruel decision to massacre the newborns of Bethlehem because of his fear and lust for power. And today, we’re confronted again with the threat of violence – Man’s wickedness and cruelty to his fellow Man directed against Christ, the Son of Man. Thus God is with us, and experiences all that Man has to suffer. Hence the divine infancy is, from its first moments, overshadowed with sorrow, tragedy, and the difficulties of the human condition, of our mortality. 

In contrast to the cosy – and, even, splendidly grand – images of the Nativity that dominate our art and popular imagination, these words from the 17th-century poet Patrick Cary have remained with me: 

“Look, how he shakes for cold!

How pale his lips are grown!… 

He’s frozen everywhere: 

All th’heat he has

Joseph, alas,

Gives in a groan; 

or Mary in a tear”.

For Jesus is born in a cold dark cave – the kind of makeshift shelter that shepherds used when inclement weather suddenly arose. And Mary is a young inexperienced mother – anxious for her child, an amateur in every sense of the word. And Joseph’s greatest concern is to protect and safeguard his wife and the baby; this preoccupation even fills his sleep. Such is the Holy Family being presented to us today, with all the fears and anxieties, the needs and concerns, as well as the hopes and dreams, of every young family; it’s all very human.  

But at the same time, as Patrick Cary notes, there is in the parents’ concerns and anxieties, in the suffering groan and tear of Joseph and Mary, a true expression of love. This love is all the heat the Christ Child has. And, indeed, this love is something divine. For we are also being presented with the greatness of human freedom when it rises to its divine potential and chooses to love, to sacrifice, to care deeply for another’s wellbeing and good. Every family – mother, father, and child – at its best, exhibits this too. And, so, there is something holy about every family founded in love. But what distinguishes this family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as the Holy Family is that, throughout all the trials of this life – today we see how they are forced to flee as refugees – they always chose to love, to co-operate with God’s grace. 

Hence, it is with Mary and Joseph that Christ is most at home on earth. Because in the mutual giving and receiving of love between Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family mirrors the divine life of the Holy Trinity who is a perfect communion of love. So, whenever we co-operate with grace and choose to love, to create a communion of love on earth, we are, so to speak, building a home for Christ where he can live with us; where incarnate Love can dwell and be made visible. This is true of every family but also of our parish communities; of God’s holy Church. 

But there is another divine quality that is essential for our communities and families. It is a vital part of the suffering associated with genuine love. And the Holy Family, hounded into exile by Herod, would have known this also. So, St Paul says to Christian communities, and thus, to families too: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16). Now, Christ is Love made Man, so what is his word? What does Love say? On the Cross, Jesus says: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34); words repeated by St Stephen as he lay dying too. For love enables forgiveness, which is never easy. But it is necessary if we’re to receive the peace of Christ in this world. 

For peace in a world in which Mankind remains free means there is always the risk of sin, violence, and evil done to us – as well as the selfishness, thoughtlessness, and fears that wound and strain our human relationships. But, at the same time, we each remain free to rise to our divine potential, to co-operate with grace and so, to love and to forgive. Thus the peace of Christ is ours. Because, when we do love and forgive, we suffer alongside Christ but we also share in his divine freedom, and we experience the newness of his risen life. Hence, St Paul says: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13).

These words underpin an account I read recently in The Tablet. Maureen Greaves’ story is one of holiness in a family today. It illustrates how Christ’s love dwells in us, and gives rise to long-suffering forgiveness, but then, also, to the grace of new life and true peace. This is peace, as Jesus says, “not as the world gives” (Jn 14:27) but from the merciful and sacred heart of Jesus; peace as the Holy Family knows it. So, let Maureen’s story have the final word today:

On Christmas Eve last year, Maureen’s husband, Alan, was savagely attacked as he was walking to his local Anglican church for the midnight service. As he lay unconscious in hospital on Christmas day, Maureen says: “I… remembered how, all through our marriage, he had always been the one who found it easier to say sorry and to forgive others. And I also remembered that he’d been attacked at Christmas, and that Christmas is when Christ came to forgive our sin. And when I looked down at Alan, I knew that if he could speak to me, what he’d be saying is: please forgive them.” She prayed deeply, and it was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, she says, but that Christmas day, she forgave her husband’s two killers. Concerning them, she says: “I see them as two men – men who have done something immensely shocking, but men who were made in the image of God. I’ve always thought of them as two people who are loved by God… Forgiving them gave me a huge sense of relief. It’s allowed me to sleep at night, it’s allowed me to use up all my energy on helping my children to cope with what’s happened, rather than being eaten up with anger and hatred”. “If that had happened, she believes it would have been in a sense a double tragedy: first the tragedy of losing Alan, and then the tragedy of losing sight of the truth that’s been the centre of her life, and was at the centre of her and Alan’s life together, which is the importance of Christian forgiveness”. 

November 7, 2013

HOMILY for All Saints’ of the Order of Preachers

Why do we have a special feast of All Saints for our Order? Indeed, are there any Dominican saints in heaven? There is a good reason for saying that there aren’t any because our vows as Dominicans only last until death. As such, any saint in heaven is no longer a member of any religious Order. This is because the saints have already reached the goal, the aim, of religious life itself. For the sacraments, and religious Orders, and religious consecration are only meant for this life, to aid us in the Church Militant. They are meant to help us, the pilgrim Church on earth who are striving for perfection, to become saints. For, ultimately, holiness is the fundamental vocation of every Christian, and religious life, and being a Dominican, is just one way to reach that common goal of attaining salvation in Christ. As the Fundamental Constitution of the Order says, we friars are “intent on procuring [our] own and other people’s salvation”.

So, why celebrate All Saints of the Order? I suspect that part of the reason is to remind ourselves that our Dominican life works; that this way of life does procure our salvation by perfecting us in charity! And it is worth reminding ourselves that this is the aim of being a Dominican. Because it’s all too easy to for our life to become just about what we do. But Dominican life is not fundamentally about preaching beautiful sermons, or thinking profound thoughts like academics, or living together in a religious frat’ house where we sing psalms now and again. Rather, as the Fundamental Constitution says: “we consecrate ourselves entirely to God by profession” so as “to ensure that by following Christ in this way we would perfect our love of God and of our neighbour”. So, the perfection of charity both for ourselves and for others is our aim as Dominican brothers and sisters. By looking at the Dominican saints in this one celebration, we are reminded of this, and we are encouraged that so many have gone before us in this way of life and become saints because of it.

Hence St Thomas Aquinas says that the religious life is, objectively, the most direct way to Christian perfection because a life of poverty, chastity and obedience – which is the kind of life Jesus himself lived – “prepares the way for a safer and more perfect observance of the divine precepts”. That religious life makes saints may not seem apparent or all that obvious, especially if you’re using me as an example. But this is not because of any lack in the Order or the consecrated life as such, but due to a stubbornness on my part, I confess. So, another reason we celebrate today’s feast is to call on the Dominican saints to pray for us. At our profession we each asked for God’s mercy and the mercy of our brethren. Today we do that again, asking for God’s mercy for our failures to live up to our vocation, seeking the grace to renew our efforts to live the Dominican life, and asking for the mercy of our holy brothers and sisters that they will intercede for us, and teach us by their example.

In the words of a Responsory at Matins today: “Grant us, Lord, we pray, the forgiveness of our sins, and at the intercession of the saints whose feast we celebrate today grant us such devotion that we may deserve to join their company. May their merits help us, who are hindered by our own wickedness, may their intercession excuse us whom our acts accuse; and as you granted them the palm of heavenly triumph, do not deny us the forgiveness of our sins, that we may deserve to join their company”. Amen.

November 4, 2013


HOMILY for St Charles Borromeo

Rom 11:29-36; Ps 68; Luke 14:12-14

St Charles Borromeo is one of the great saints of the Catholic Reformation, renown for his tireless efforts in reforming the Archdiocese of Milan, of which he was made bishop at the age of 27. This fact alone tells us something about the Church in the 16th-century. It was a time when nepotism was common, and St Charles, being born of an influential noble family was given ecclesiastical preferment early in life; he was made cardinal-nephew at the age of 22. One might say that the popes then did the opposite of what Christ recommends in today’s Gospel. It was, alas, often precisely their “friends or… brothers or… kinsmen or rich neighbours” that were favoured and invited to high office and feasting!

But although Charles was born into such a milieu, he did not allow himself to be corrupted by it. So, for example, when at the age of 12 he became a titular abbot, and so, received the income of that abbey, he insisted (against his father’s wishes) that the income of that abbey was only used to prepare him for the priesthood, and that any surplus belonged to the poor and was not to be used for other purposes. This was a central motif in Charles’ life - he was personally austere and overturned the conventions of the day in order to benefit the poor and needy. In 1576 when a famine hit Milan and was struck with plague, he remained in the city when other men of power fled. As bishop he organised the relief of the sick and dying, cared for the hungry by organising the religious houses of his diocese to feed around 70,000 people daily, and he used up his own funds and even went into debt in his personal efforts to feed the poor. Here indeed was one who invited “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” when he gave a feast!

Such counter-cultural action – and every effort at reform is necessarily counter-cultural – required heroic bravery and perseverance from Charles. One of his biographers said that Charles Borromeo was “austere, dedicated, humourless and uncompromising”. And he said this with admiration. For St Charles met with great opposition from his family, his peers, government officials, and from within the Church. On one occasion, someone even tried to assassinate him. The inertia of people and institutions means that anyone who strives for reform has to be heroically single-minded and determined, with a clear vision of what he or she is aiming for. Above all, the reform of any institution or society begins with the reform of the individual whose gaze is fixed on Jesus Christ. It is this all-pervading love for the Lord that made Charles Borromeo a saint.

Very often we can speak of reform, and hope for change, whether in our world or in the Church, but the only person we can truly change is ourselves. Hence St Charles strived to conform his own life to Christ, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill his heart and renew him, as today’s Collect says. And slowly, he began to win over his own clergy. Thus, we prayed in the Collect that all of us, God’s Church, might also receive that same renewing Spirit, so that, like St Charles, we will each be reformed by grace into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

This is possible if we want it enough, and if we are docile to the Holy Spirit; if we take St Charles’ motto to heart, namely, ‘Humilitas’. For it is humility: the emptying of ourselves and our worldly loves; coming down to earth so that we are open to learning and receiving God’s mercy, teaching, and grace; and kneeling down to the ground to serve others that will lead us to sanctity.

At this time when our new Archbishop sets about to renew and reform this Archdiocese, and indeed, when our Pope sets about to do the same for the universal Church, may St Charles pray for them, for all clergy and seminarians, and for all of us, that we may be responsive to the grace of the Holy Spirit.

September 15, 2013


HOMILY for 24th Sunday per annum (C)

Ex 32:7-11. 13-14; Ps 50; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

I was tempted to read the shorter version of today’s Gospel, which omits the parable of the prodigal son, because this parable had already been read on the 4th Sunday of Lent (10 March 2013). Then, we could just focus on the two shorter parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. However, hearing the same parable twice within six months, and especially one as familiar and well-loved as this, offers us all a challenge, which is to look again at what Jesus says. We’re used to thinking that the prodigal son stands for all repentant sinners who will be joyfully welcomed and embraced by God. Hence, “there is joy… over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10). And this is true. But what else might this parable reveal about God?

Let’s look again at its context. The parable is unique to St Luke’s gospel and it is being told as a response to how the Pharisees and scribes react when they see Jesus eating with allthe tax collectors and sinners (Lk 15:1). The Pharisees are scandalized, thinking that tax collectors were unclean sinners, and so, to be avoided, lest they too become unclean. 

There is something of this sense of holiness as purity in the First Reading. God is far off on a high mountain, with Moses as his intermediary. God is unapproachable, almost as though to come close to sinners would contaminate him, or because mankind would be destroyed in the presence of the Holy One. Indeed, ideas about the necessary separation between the clean and unclean, the earth and the heavens, the material and the spiritual, holiness and sinners still persists even today. It sometimes gives rise to a kind of dualism that can foster deep feelings of ‘unworthiness’, or resentment about God and the Church, or the compartmentalization of faith from the rest of life.

But, in becoming Man, Jesus Christ reveals a deeper truth about God, about his relationship with creation, and the depths of his love and mercy. God doesn’t just relent and forgive as our First Reading says, but he goes in search of us as the first two parables of today’s Gospel shows. And in the third parable, that of the prodigal son, Jesus reveals just how extravagant God’s searching love is. 

In fact this parable elaborates on what Jesus has done, which so provokes the Pharisees.

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May 12, 2013

HOMILY for 7th Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 7:55-60; Ps 96; Apoc 22:12-14. 16-17. 20; John 17:20-26

One word recurs in our readings today: glory, from the Latin gloria. But what, really, do we mean by glory? Usually, I think this word evokes light, brilliance, and splendour. And these are related to the Greek word for glory, which is doxa. But if we look at the Scriptural origins of glory from the Hebrew word kabod we find something rather unexpected. Glory, coming from kabod is related to weight. So, in contrast with our association of glory with soaring flights of angels, light, and uplift, glory, coming from the Hebrew kabod, denotes a quality of being heavy with weight, wealth or nobility, or with exceptional goodness. Glory, in this sense, implies the wealth and power of the king, his riches and worth, because of what he has done. Or we can think of an Olympian or a soldier who has achieved glory in athletics or combat, and is weighed down with medals; their weightiness proclaim what he has achieved, they glorify him. 

If we translate this idea to God, then kabod, glory, signifies the wonderful work that God has done in creating all that is, and it tells of what Christ has achieved in dying, rising again and ascending into heaven. For God’s greatest work, his heaviest impact, his glory is seen in the salvation of sinful humanity; in our being brought from the death of sin to the fullness and abundance of new life in the risen Lord Jesus. Thus St Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is Man fully alive”. The glory of God is you and me, being re-born through grace as sons and daughters of God, sharing in the divine life of Christ, being one with him in the communion of love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf Jn 17:26). 

This tremendous work of God’s grace that lifts up a sinner to become a saint, beckoning Mankind to “Come” and enjoy freedom and life in the Trinity (cf Apoc 22:17), brings about the glory of God. And the effect of God’s grace is glorious, and this is probably why the word ‘glory’ has come to connote light, brilliance and uplift, because the effect of what God has done for us, what his grace causes, is to raise sinful Man up to share in God’s light and divine life.  

However, the idea of God’s glory, kabod, is still related to weightiness because each saint is like a shining medal glorifying God, signifying who he is – our Creator and Redeemer – and what he has done – united the saint to God’s self through grace. For each and every saint, beginning with St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, witnesses to the triumph of God’s grace. Stephen’s life and death testifies to what God has done for weak, frightened and sinful humanity through Jesus Christ, which is to re-make each human person in Christ’s image, strengthened with his virtues. Thus, Stephen’s death, which completes and seals his life’s work, is deliberately portrayed by St Luke as mirroring Jesus’ death: both innocently condemned, executed outside the city, and died forgiving their killers. 

The work of God’s grace that re-fashions us in Christ’s image is weighty, heavy business; the work of our sanctification and our salvation is impressive, world-impacting, life-changing. As such, it’s also glorious. And kabod does carry this notion of being heavy with goodness. In this sense, we might speak of the weight of our vocation as Christians. For we’re called to be holy, we’re made for glory, and this will involve a certain expectation of what we’re called to do. This gives a certain weightiness to the moral choices we make, and heavy sacrifices will be necessary. For love demands sacrifice, as the life of Christ and of St Stephen shows us, but it is only through love that we become like Christ, that we are united and become one with God who is love. 

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April 29, 2013


HOMILY for the Feast of St Catherine of Siena

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. 

March 14, 2013


HOMILY for Thu in Week 4 of Lent

Exodus 32:7-14; Ps 105; John 5:31-47

Several things might have struck us about our new Holy Father last night. Firstly, he chose his papal name in honour of St Francis of Assisi, a universally popular saint who appeals to Christians and non-Christians alike. A saint renowned for his love of holy poverty, simplicity and austerity of life, humility and a zeal for re-building Christ’s Church. And the man who appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s seemed to have these qualities. He, the first Jesuit pope appeared in the simple white papal cassock – said to have been modelled on the white Dominican habit – bearing the name Francis. And he spoke simply, prayerfully, and then bowed in humility before the crowds to receive their – our – blessing before he, in turn, blessed us. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness. Are these not qualities we associate with St Francis, which is why he is so loved? 

But, it seems to me, the reason why we are drawn to such qualities is because of who they point to ultimately: our God. These works, so to speak, bear witness to Jesus Christ, who in humility bowed down to earth and was born of the Virgin Mary; our God who shares our poverty, our sufferings, and our alienation; Emmanuel, God-with-us. As the works that Christ does bears witness to the truth, to who God truly is, so, the works that we do as Christians bears witness to Christ, testifies that God is love and mercy. Moses learns this by first having to be merciful and compassionate himself, pleading with God for clemency. It seems that only when we ourselves have learnt these ‘works’ of humility, mercy and love, which reflect God’s true glory, then we can understand who God is, and, as his witnesses, attract others to him. 

Hence, the work of rebuilding the Church, of restoring God’s glory to his Mystical Body, of witnessing to Christ and the saving truth of the Gospel does not belong to Pope Francis alone, or to saints like St Francis, but to each of us. And it begins with each of us learning, as Moses did, to be merciful and compassionate, interceding, praying, for others – much as Christ does, interceding at the right hand of the Father for us sinners. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness are to be our virtues, too and Pope Francis led the way for us last night. 

For, surely, one reason why so many people do not believe in Christ is because I – we – are often such poor witnesses? So, in this Year of Faith, the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, has exhorted us all, as Christ’s Church, to undertake an “authentic conversion” to the person of Jesus Christ so that we can be better witnesses. We can have no better model of radical conversion to Christ than St Francis, who (as Pope Benedict XVI has said) “simply wanted, through the word of God and the presence of the Lord [in the Eucharist], to renew the People of God, to call them back to listening to the word and to literal obedience to Christ”. 

Now the Holy Spirit has raised up another Francis. May he renew God’s People in the same way. Perhaps we have one little indication of how Pope Francis will act. St Francis of Assisi famously tore his rich garments, and left them at the feet of his merchant father as a sign of worldly renunciation. So, too, Pope Francis, in his letter for the start of Lent this year, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has referred to the tearing of garments, or, more properly of our hearts. His words raise a challenge for us individually and as a Church: 


“Rend your heart, not the clothing of artificial penance without [an eternal] future.  

Rend your heart, not the clothing of technical fasting of compliance that [only serves to keep us] satisfied.  

Rend your heart, not the clothing of egotistical and superficial prayer that does not reach the inmost part of [your] life to allow it to be touched by God.  

Rend your heart, that we may say with the Psalmist: ’We have sinned.’  

Rend your hearts, open your hearts, because only with [such a] heart can we allow the entry of the merciful love of the Father, who loves us and heals us… Changing our way of living is both a sign and fruit of a torn heart, reconciled by a love that overwhelms us”.

Rend your hearts to experience, in serene and silent prayer, the gentle tenderness of God.

Rend your hearts to hear the echo of so many torn lives, so that indifference [to suffering] does not paralyze us… Rend your hearts to be able to love with the love with which we are beloved, to console with the consolation with which we are consoled, and to share what we have received”.  


March 3, 2013


HOMILY for the 3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

Ex 3:1-8. 13-15; Ps 102; 1 Cor 10:1-6. 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

In our trek across the Lenten desert today, we encounter not just one but two bushes. For the parable in today’s Gospel can be juxtaposed with our First Reading, which recounts Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. For the early Christians, the burning bush came to be seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit but whose virginity remained untouched. But, by co-operating with God’s grace, Our Lady became most fruitful, and she bore the most beautiful fruit of all: Jesus Christ. 

In contrast, the parable presents a tree or bush which is barren; for three years it has produced no fruit at all. As such, it is fit only to be cut down and burnt up. This bush, I think, could well stand for us sinners if we do not co-operate with God’s grace. For although our loving God is ever-ready to save us from the barrenness of sin, God can only do so with us, and never without us. This means we have to engage our human freedom and act; we need to choose to co-operate with God’s grace. 

This involves a change of heart, acknowledging our need of God’s forgiveness. Co-operating with grace entails repentance and willing a conversion of life that is made concrete in the sacramental means that God has chosen. And for some, this means will be as strange and as startling as the burning bush! But, it is the way that God has established. So, it is ordinarily in the sacrament of Confession that we truly encounter the living God (as Moses did), and we come into contact with God’s purifying fire; we are opened to his transforming grace, and receive his mercy and forgiveness. In the holy ground of the confessional, God says to each of us: “I have seen your affliction and heard your cry, and I am here to deliver you”. And, like Moses, we can choose to go to the Lord. Or we can choose to turn away and not co-operate with God’s grace, remaining fruitless. But if we go as Moses did, then we will see a great sight, and experience the wonders of God.

But the transforming work of God’s grace is often slow and gradual, and sometimes hard and messy, too. It is like gardening, and we have to repeatedly return to the confessional just as we repeatedly dig up and weed our gardens, and even, pile on the manure. So, in the Gospel parable, a gardener asks for a year’s reprieve for the barren tree. Here, I’d suggest that the gardener is the divine Vinedresser, God himself, and the year given for the barren tree to bear fruit is our lifetime. As such, each day of our lives is God’s grace-filled time, in which he patiently cares for us and coaxes fruit from our barren, sinful state. 

God’s desire and plan is that, over a lifetime’s co-operation with his grace through repeatedly using the sacrament of reconciliation, we, the barren bush would become a burning bush. For, as we co-operate with grace, the Holy Spirit will inflame us with charity, divine love. And God’s grace is a holy fire that does not consume and destroy our human nature. Rather, grace perfects us and elevates our humanity. The result of co-operating with God’s grace is that we will flourish as human beings and flower in virtue, so that, we too, like Our Lady, will bear that most wonderful fruit, Jesus Christ. For grace transforms us so that we become Christ-like, partakers in the beauty and being of God.

Spring is a time for gardening, so, Lent (coming from the Old English word for spring) focuses our minds on God’s cultivation of grace in our hearts, and the vital role of confession in that, so that we are fruitful. The journey towards holiness, of course, takes not just forty days but the entire ‘year’ of our lives. But none of us knows how long that – our lifespan – will be. So, in the time we have, each precious day, let us make good use of the means God gives us, the sacraments, to receive his mercy and forgiveness, and to grow in his love. 

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