October 11, 2014

HOMILY for 27th Sat per annum (II)

Gal 3:22-29; Ps 104; Luke 11:27f

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Gal 3:28). This verse of Scripture has sometimes been used for modern political purposes, whether to argue against racism or slavery or gender equality. Although these are important concerns and things we should be interested in, Scripture should not be misappropriated and made to say what it doesn’t in fact say. For St Paul is not so much concerned with the temporal and social order, with earthly things but with heavenly things, in particular the question of who has the potential to attain eternal salvation.  

He is arguing against certain people who have been telling the Christians in Galatia that they need to become observant Jews who keep the Law. St Paul strongly rejects this, and his concern is to stress that neither the Jewish Law, nor a particular race, or social status, or gender are necessary for access to salvation; the Law and so on do not privilege one in God’s eyes. Rather, all – so long as they are human beings! – have equal access, equal opportunity to salvation. All that is necessary is that one has faith in Jesus Christ and believes that he is the Son of God, the Saviour who rose from the dead so that Mankind need not suffer eternal death  anymore but can now share in his divine identity. Hence St Paul says, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26).

A similar point is being made in the Gospel. Our Lady isn’t privileged when it comes to eternal salvation because she gave birth to him and nursed him. She, too, has equal access and equal opportunity with every other human person to salvation. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ, that is hearing him, the Word of God and keeping his Word, that is, believing in who he is. Our Lady, of course, is pre-eminent above all other Christians in her faith in God’s Word, and her belief in Christ as her Saviour. However, the point of today’s Gospel, like St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is not to diminish Our Lady’s holiness but to stress the fundamental equality of every human person for being saved and being made holy. Thanks to Christ, salvation is now possible for all regardless of who one is, or what one has done, or what one’s social and political status is. Thanks to the Holy Spirit and the gift of sanctifying grace, this potential is actualised so that one becomes a saint, can be made holy – one just needs to “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27). 

Therefore, let this Gospel, this good news of equal opportunity for all to attain salvation and holiness, be preached and made known to all peoples. And for those of us who have received the Gospel, let us listen to Christ’s Word and live according to his teachings and commandments. Thus shall we become blessed, that is, have eternal happiness in heaven. 

If we have this in mind, and have heaven as our goal and prime concern and interest, then earthly and political concerns soon fade away – not because they’re unimportant in themselves, but because they pale in comparison to our quest for holiness and the joy that lasts for ever. This is the proper order of things, for we can otherwise become so preoccupied with earthly temporal matters that we ignore the vital questions concerning our salvation, our eternal life. Thus, St Paul expressed his principal concern when he told the Colossians: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).

September 13, 2014

HOMILY for St John Chrysostom

1 Cor 10:14-22; Ps 115; Luke 6:43-49

In an age, and particularly at this time, perhaps, when we are enundated by words – by political spin, politically-correct jargon, advertising slogans, and professionally-managed speeches – we can, perhaps, become wary of words and eloquence. The worth of fine words and orations that promise so much is more like pyrite, fool’s gold, than true gold. So, we look for integrity in the speaker – can he live as he preaches, and deliver what he promises?

Hence today we honour a 4th-century bishop of Constantinople who was not only hailed as chrysostom, the golden-mouthed one, because of his eloquence and great sermons, but more importantly he lived a life of integrity and steadfastness to Christ. Thus, we hail him as a saint. For as Christ says in today’s Gospel: “the good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good… for out of the abundance of his heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). 

For beautiful words and clever thoughts are not what brings one closer to the Lord but rather a life lived in obedience to his Word, in conformity with the one who is Good. As we would say, “actions speak louder than words”. So, the integrity of St John’s life is shown in “the experience of suffering” he endured for preaching the truth, and for his “invincible patience” in exercising his duties as a bishop, as today’s Collect says.

So, as Patriarch of Constantinople, the corrupt and lavish imperial capital of the Byzantine empire, St John called on the courtiers and the rich to turn from vanity and ambition and to have a care for the poor. He also reformed the clergy and reprimanded them for their moral laxity, and he disciplined the monks who wandered the streets and made a nuisance of themselves. As bishop, he lived an austere and simple life, and fed the homeless and cared for the sick. But his sermons won him enemies among the powerful and rich – both in the Church and in the court. In particular the Empress Eudoxia was disturbed by his moral exhortations, and so she conspired to have him deposed as bishop, and finally exiled. Despite attempts by the Pope to save him, St John was exiled on a long march to the furthest end of the empire where he finally died of exhaustion in 407, a martyr for preaching and teaching the truth. 

But St John never relented, never sought the expedience of keeping his mouth shut even in the face of such formidable opposition. Why? Because his heart was filled with Christ’s Word – this was the good treasure of his heart – and from this abundance he spoke. It was an abundance of love for the salvation of souls that moved him to rebuke clergy and courtiers for their immorality; an abundance of love for the poor that moved him to speak up for the vulnerable and forgotten destitute, but above all, an abundance of love for Jesus Christ and his will. Hence in one of his most famous sermons, St John Chrysostom says: “Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honour Christ as he desires. For a person being honoured finds greatest pleasure in the honour he desires, not in the honour we think best”. Or as Our Lord says in today’s Gospel: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46). 

So, let us do as Jesus tells us. We do this today by celebrating the Eucharist which he tells us to do in memory of him. As we do so, and receive Communion worthily, we are filled with the abundance of his grace, a great treasure is laid in our hearts. As it did for St John Chrysostom, so too may this grace transform our hearts that it may produce good – both in deed and in word – making us more like Christ who alone is Good.

September 6, 2014

HOMILY for 22nd Sat per annum (II)

1 Cor 4:6-15; Ps 26; Luke 6:1-5

What does it means for Jesus to be “lord of the sabbath” (Lk 6:5)? The Sabbath, we know, is God’s gift to Mankind, that he might not become a slave to work. Indeed, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, for the Sabbath rest to be commanded by God means that “we serve God through work as well as rest”. And this is a beautiful thought. If you’re anything like me, you may feel a little guilty when resting, especially when others are working – I always feel there’s something more ‘productive’ that I ought to be doing, or perhaps I should be working too. And yet, Sabbath means that we can and must serve God through rest as well as our work. 

Now, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath because, of course, he is the One, our God, in whom our restless hearts can rest and find joy, peace, fulfillment. He, the Sabbath personified, comes and calls us who labour and are weary to rest in him. So, it is that on Sundays we rest in God when we come to Holy Mass and at the same time we render him service, for we serve God through rest. The laudable practice of daily Mass, it seems to me, is about finding that necessary rest during the week too, whether at lunchtime as we pause between tasks, or at the eve of the working day; to just come away to church and rest in Christ, with Christ, our Sabbath Lord.   

However, as Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, the question this raises is whether he is Lord of our Sabbath? What do we do for rest and relaxation, and do we find God in our rest; do we rest in and with him? It’s not unusual for ‘down’ time and vacations to become time without God, or we neglect our prayer life and so on. Or what we read, and watch, and listen to on the internet, iPlayer, cinema, radio, YouTube etc – what we call media and entertainment – is it the kind of thing that schools us in virtue, leads us closer to Christ and his ways? Or is it rather, a daily indoctrination in worldly ways that thus renders us indifferent or schizophernic about the demands of the Gospel and the way of Christian discipleship?

What do we do with our rest time? That is the question that the term ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ poses for me. Rabbi Sacks has this to say about how to benefit from the Sabbath, from resting with and in God. He says the Sabbath is “the still point in the turning world, the moment at which we renew our attachment to family and community, during which we live the truth that the world is not wholly ours to bend to our will but something given to us in trust to conserve for future generations… The Jewish writer Achad Ha“am was surely correct when he said that more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. It was and is the one day in seven in which we live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured in the daily rush of events; the day in which we stop making a living and learn instead simply how to live”. 

So, I would suggest that Sundays, and also the moments of rest that we take during the week should be treasured and measured in the light of Christ who is its Lord. In our resting, we serve him, we can become more truly who he has called us to be. For in those times of rest, as well as in our work, we can indeed learn how to live – how to live as Christian disciples, and so, how to love God and neighbour and ourselves more deeply.

September 4, 2014

HOMILY for St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne

1 Cor 3:18-23; Ps 23; Luke 5:1-11

preached at the Mercy Convent in Edinburgh

"They left everything and followed him" (Lk 5:11). So it was that today’s saint, the 7th-century Apostle of the North, left his life first as a shepherd near Melrose, then as a soldier for the Christian kingdom of Northumbria which was being attacked by the neighbouring pagan king, and he became a monk of Melrose Abbey. 

When a monastery was established in Ripon, Cuthbert was sent there as guest-master but he returned to Melrose Abbey because the monks at Ripon decided to adopt the Roman liturgical customs rather than the Celtic customs that he had grown up with. Even so, when the Synod of Whitby decided in 664 to adopt the Roman customs, St Cuthbert accepted the decision and saw the wisdom of the Synod’s decision. So he was sent to be Prior of Lindisfarne, a great monastery which had been established from the great Celtic Christian centre of Iona. His task in Lindisfarne was to ease the community there into celebrating and living the monastic life according to the Roman discipline. St Bede the Venerable says there was some resistence to this change but “he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view”. His holiness of life not only drew the monks in his care to his side, but the people around Lindisfarne Abbey also flocked to him to hear his teaching, and many were converted to the Faith. 

Thus, St Cuthbert was not just a shepherd but also a “fisher of men” (Lk 5:10), and he did both these tasks so well because he “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4) through fervent prayer, through austere living, and through obedience to Christ. As St Paul said, the apostle, the disciple, “belong[s] to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:23), and so, he is used by our Lord to draw people to himself. 

But for a lover of God, closeness to God stirs up a desire for still greater intimacy. So, in 676 St Cuthbert was allowed to retreat to one of the Farne Islands as a hermit so that he could spend more time in prayer and contemplation. However, holiness attracts people for Mankind is made for God, and delights in the beauty and goodness of divine things. Hence St Cuthbert could not be left in peace but was called to become Bishop of Lindisfarne; he was consecrated in York at Easter in 685. 

Two years later he died on one of the Farne Islands, and after his death many miracles took place at his tomb; he became called the ‘Wonder-Worker’ and his body was discovered to be incorrupt. In 875, his relics were carried onto the mainland as the monks fled Lindisfarne which was being attacked by the Vikings. They moved to Chester-le-Street, then Ripon, and finally to Durham where a great cathedral was raised over his shrine. Here he is believed to rest behind the High Altar, with St Bede at the other end of the cathedral. 

The ease with which this 7th-century saint moved between what we now call Scotland and England as he carried out Christ’s saving mission, and the patient and gentle manner with which he reconciled and mediated between two Christian cultures are worth keeping in mind at this time. As arguments and debates proliferate about the political future of the United Kingdom, perhaps we Christians can keep in mind who we belong to first of all: Jesus Christ. So, St Paul says: “God is not convinced by the arguments of the wise. So there is nothing to boast about in anything human: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life and death, the present and the future, are all your servants; but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:19-23). 

So, whatever happens, this is of paramount importance: that we belong to Christ, and show this to be true by what we say and do. Then, like St Cuthbert, we too can be fishers of men. May he pray for us.

July 23, 2014

HOMILY for St Bridget of Sweden

Gal 2:19-20; Ps 33; Jn 15:1-8


Today’s saint was the only woman to have founded a religious Order, that is a family of consecrated life with both men and women. The Bridgittines were established in Vadstena in 1346 which became the heart of Swedish Catholicism. She was a mystic and received revelations of Christ’s Passion known as the ‘Fifteen Prayers of St Bridget’. She was consulted by theologians and kings, and like St Catherine of Siena, wrote to the popes in Avignon to try and persuade them to return the Papacy to Rome. She travelled the breadth of Europe, going on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem, and finally to Rome where she died in 1373 at the age of 70.

For these reasons, St Bridget is a worthy Patron of Europe; one of six. But most of this St Bridget did in her years of widowhood from 1344, what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “second period” of her life. Today I wish to just draw attention, instead, to the first period of her life, which is no less saintly, no less worthy of emulation by Christians today.

St Bridget had been happily married for 28 years to Ulf Gudmarsson, a governor of an important district of the Kingdom of Sweden. So, she lived a courtly life, and she had been born into the Swedish royal clan. With the wealth and influence at her disposal she built a hospital, engaged in charitable works for the good of the poor, and was invited by the Swedish king to go to court and introduce his French queen to Swedish culture. We often see this pattern of holiness for courtly women of this time. St Margaret of Scotland, St Elizabeth of Hungary and other such royal saints follow the same pattern. What they teach us today is that money and power are not obstacles to holiness. Rather, they can be a means to sanctity if we use what we have for the good of others, for God’s work. I am reminded of Mrs Charlotte Jefferson-Tytus, for example, who in her widowhood was encouraged by fr Bede Jarrett OP to become benefactress to the Order. Together with him she was the foundress of Blackfriars Oxford, and even of this Edinburgh priory. 

However, charity begins at home. Hence, St Bridget’s goodness also had a positive effect on her husband and children. Through her influence, Ulf began to take his faith more seriously and with her he became a Franciscan tertiary. They went on pilgrimage to Compostela, and towards the end of his life, he retired to a Cistercian monastery, having agreed with Bridget to live as ‘brother and sister’. In the context of its time, this is seen as a deepening of one’s desire for God, and so St Bridget offers us an example of a Christian wife, who thus helps her husband to grow in holiness. In this way she loves God and her first neighbour, her spouse, and she shows us how the vocation of marriage is a path of sanctification.

St Bridget was also a mother. With Ulf, she had four boys and four girls. One of her daughters, Catherine (Karin) would travel with her to Rome and is also a canonized saint, and this can be seen as a mark of how effective a teacher she was, how positive the influence of this saintly woman. From St Bridget, then, we learn how beautiful and important the work of a mother and a wife is; how vital mothers are for handing on the Faith, for their civilizing effect, and making a domestic Church, a home. We are grateful!

But all this can make St Bridget’s life seem quite charmed and fortunate. However the lady who founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, with a special devotion to the Lord in his Passion, and who first received a vision of the Crucified Lord when she was just 7 was no stranger to suffering. At the age of 12 her mother died, so she had to be given into the care of an aunt. Her four sons died young, two of them while on Crusade. And when her husband died, when she was just 41, she grieved deeply for the one whom she said she’d loved “like my own body”. So many wives endure widowhood, and so many mothers know the pain of losing a child. St Bridget, then, shares their experience and sorrow. How did she cope? By abiding in Christ’s love. As we hear in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). Thus, as the Gospel says, we are filled with Christ’s joy, with faith in the Resurrection which St Bridget knew would follow on after she’d suffered the Cross with Christ. 

June 21, 2014

HOMILY for St Aloysius Gonzaga

2 Chr 24:17-25; Ps 88; Matt 6:24-34


As we heard in yesterday’s first reading, king Joash, in his youth, was quite a rebel. Indeed, he made possible the overthrow of the idolatrous queen Athaliah and, together with the priest Jehoida, returned Judah to the worship of God. But now, decades later, Joash has lost the rebelliousness of youth, and he goes with the flow. Despite the advice from another young rebel, Zechariah ben Jehoida, the king capitulates to the majority view, wrong though it is, and so, Judah lapses back into idolatry which is the cause of its downfall. 

Today’s saint who died at the young age of 23 in 1591, also tells of the rebelliousness of youth. Like the young king Joash he rebelled against the spirit of his age to turn to God, to truth and a life of virtue. As the heir to a Mantuan noble family, he was being prepared for warfare and political intrigue even from the age of 4. But from the age of 7 he would rise early to say the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and many other prayers and devotions which he’d learnt from St Charles Borromeo and St Robert Bellarmine, both great reforming saints of his time whom he’d met. Soon, he began teaching catechism classes to younger children, and it was clear that he disliked the courtly life of his time. So, he rebelled against his parents’ wishes; he rebelled against the military life and politicking that was expected of a nobleman; he rebelled against the sinful conventions of his time and embraced God and virtue. He told his family he wanted to become a missionary priest. Thus he wanted to serve God alone, and not money or any other worldly thing (cf Mt 6:24f).

But his parents tried all kinds of ways to persuade him otherwise, including getting bishops to try and dissuade him, and sending him on an 18-month tour of Europe so he could see what he was missing out on. But St Aloysius was adamant, and at the age of 17 he renounced his inheritance and went to Rome to join the Jesuits. His father gave in, and said in his letter to the Jesuit Provincial that he was handing over “the most precious thing I possess in all the world”. 

However, St Aloysius’ rebellion was not only societal, and did not only challenge the mindset of his times. His rebellion was also personal, and it touches humanity in every age because it was about our passions. From the age of 9, St Aloysius vowed perpetual virginity to God. Now, every adolescent knows the temptations of the flesh, and St Aloysius, it seemed, was no exception. His own writings showed that, like any teenager, he experienced strong sexual passions, but unlike most adolescents, he did not give in to them. The majority in our world would have us think that abstinence and virginity and chastity is impossible. But this is what St Paul, in his letter to another young man, St Titus, called being “slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). In our time, especially, many young people – and the not so young – experience enslavement to pornography. And this, too, is a serving of a master other than God.

St Aloysius, then, inspires all with his youthful rebelliousness against the slavery of sin and unchastity. For true freedom comes from having the courage and strength to go against one’s own sinful desires and to do what is right and pleasing to God; to have God alone as Master. Hence, St Aloysius undertook significant acts of penance like fasting and sleeping in a cold room on the hard floor, and he continued a life of deep prayer. For the work of sanctification, of giving one’s whole life and being to God, is only possible through discipling one’s will so that one co-operates with God’s grace, and learns to live a life worthy of our Christian vocation. For this reason, St Aloysius is patron saint of youth who teaches us that penance – the disciplining of our desires is necessary if we’re to live chastely, that is, if we’re to love whole-heartedly and purely.

Hence, unlike king Joash, St Aloysius never turned away from God but through penance clung to God and his ways. Thus, he did not suffer a tragic downfall but rather rose to heights of holiness through works of charity and self-sacrifice. For St Aloysius eventually died as a result of heroically nursing plague victims in Rome. For this reason he is also patron saint of both of AIDS sufferers and their caregivers. 

So, St Aloysius’ is the kind of holy rebelliousness that I think Pope Francis had in mind when he told millions of youth at World Youth Day last summer to make a “lìo”, a disturbance, a noise in our society. May he pray for us, for all young people, and for his brother Jesuits that we may rebel against sin and serve God as our one Master.

May 21, 2014


HOMILY for 5th Wed of Easter

Acts 15:1-6; Ps 121; John 15:1-8

Circumcision “according to the custom of Moses” (Acts 15:1), thankfully, is not necessary for salvation. However, this does not mean nothing has to be cut away. For as Jesus points out in today’s Gospel, God the Father will prune; he will cut away whatever keeps us from bearing fruit as Christians. 

The Christian is one who is united to Christ through grace. His precious Blood, which we drink in the Mass, flows in our veins. As sap courses through a plant and gives it life, so we draw our strength and nourishment, our share in the divine life from the true Vine. Apart from him, we can do nothing (cf Jn 15:5); indeed, we are nothing. 

Now, to be fruitful as Christians means, as Pope Francis likes to remind us, that we are filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. This is not mere external happiness and superficial smiles, but  the deep joy of belonging to God, of being united to Christ in love, of being Christian; the kind of joy that enables countless Christians down the centuries to this day to faithfully endure even suffering and the chalice of martyrdom. For the wine of the Eucharist which comes from the true Vine has intoxicated us and gives true joy. But this wine is Christ’s saving blood. Thus all who drink deeply from Christ’s chalice, who really share in the fruit of the true Vine, will also experience the deep joy of sacrificial love, of being poured out for the good of others. 

In this, in acts of love, we find salvation. Not through circumcision, then, do we find salvation, but through union with Christ who is Love. Then, the fruit of joy is ripened by love so that others can taste and see the sweetness and goodness of God at work in our lives. This, then, is how we are saved – by allowing God’s good grace to sweeten us, and his Love to ripen us so that we abide in Christ, and Christ in us (cf Jn 15:4); his saving Blood flows in our veins.  

But for Christ’s Blood and grace to flow in us so that we are fruitful, so that we can love as he loves, certain things will need to be cut out. St Paul, echoing Deuteronomy, thus speaks of a circumcision, not according to the custom of Moses, but of the heart. St Paul says: “real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Hence, we need to be pruned by the divine Vinedresser, co-operating with God’s grace to cut out of our lives all that separates us from God, all the sinful desires, attitudes and addictions that obstruct the flow of God’s love in our lives. 

So, let us examine our lives and consider: What do we need to cut out? And then, let us offer them to the Father, asking for his mercy and grace. We need to let God prune us and to ask him to give us the courage and generosity to accept the pain of this pruning, so that we will bear fruit in joy and ripen in acts of Christ-like love. For while the circumcision of Moses is not necessary for salvation, this one, the truer spiritual kind which makes us abide in Jesus Christ, is.

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”. 

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