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 of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
I recently had to apply for some funding for some of the youth ministries I’m developing, and one of the things I had to do was to show the benefit received from the last lot of funding we’d received. So, I included some statements from a questionnaire I’d sent round saying things like: “This pilgrimage, this retreat, really helped me understand my faith better and I was encouraged to meet other young Catholics”. But the response came back, “Could you say by how much more they’d understood their faith better - 20%, 50%?”
In a sense, that’s the question raised when the apostles say to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”. How much faith does one have in the first place? A cup full? 30 units? A mustard seed? But faith, surely, isn’t really quantifiable or calculable – no more than friendship, or love is. Because faith is, like friendship and love, about a relationship between two persons. Any meaningful relationship is built on trust. Many of you will have made new friends by now, or are even sharing a flat with them. This requires mutual trust. Indeed, it requires faith in the other person. And this trust, this faith, is really rather mysterious but it is the basis of friendship and of love, the basis of most of our human dealings with one another. So, when we speak of faith, we speak of the act of trusting in another person, and in his or her word, an act that is really fundamental in our lives and relationships with one another. This, essentially, is what we mean by Faith, and the Person whom we trust and love as our Friend is God.
We can do this because, in the first place, our Christian story is the story of God’s faith in humanity, about his desire to befriend us. Hence Jesus says: “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15), and St John says: “We love, because he [God] first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). Thus, we say that faith is a gift because it is entirely God’s initiative to begin with, and if the prophets and above all, Jesus Christ, had not come to tell us about God’s love, we’d never have known it. In fact, I think many people still don’t realize that God is Man’s Friend, not his Enemy or Policeman. Which is where we come in. We Christians, who know God’s love and friendship, and who are Jesus’ friends, are called to bring others – our friends – to friendship with Jesus. This is what it means to be the Church, and this is what the Church is for. So, we, as a faith community can increase and we want to bring our friends here to St Albert’s, don’t we? But is this what it means to say: “increase our faith”?
Faith, like friendship and love, we’ve said, is a gift. But each of these gifts have to be nurtured, developed and increased. Just as friendships grow stronger and love deepens, so my faith in God can also increase. So, St Paul says to St Timothy: “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you”, or another translation says: “Fan into a flame the gift that God gave you” (2 Tim 1:6).
The ways in which this happens is strikingly similar to how we kindle our human relationships. As I see it, friends spend more time with one another, they do things together, and they just grow to love one another’s company; they want to be together, and wish to find out more about one another. In doing so, the initial spark of friendship, their love, grows. So, too, with God. But there is one major difference. When we invest in a friendship, there is the possibility that it is not reciprocated. But this risk doesn’t exist in our friendship with God. Because God already loves us infinitely, so, every increase of trust, friendship and love on our part, every opening of our heart to God’s friendship is matched and even surpassed by God’s complete faithfulness and love. And this is what Habakkuk is invited to learn. In time, as he is faithful, he discovers just who God is: the faithful and good one, Love itself.
But the problem with the apostles’ request, I think, is that perhaps they just wanted God to magically increase their faith and change them without them having to do anything. But this makes no sense if we understand that faith is not a thing, not measured in percentages, nor a bunch of rules and beliefs we sign up to. Rather, faith is a mutual loving relationship of trust. So, while God is doing all he can to love us, we also have to respond and act. God can’t believe for us, love for us, or choose for us. We have to engage our own will, and we have to want to increase our faith, and this means we need to make choices and do things to increase our faith. Just as with our human friendships, so we also need to spend time with God, and grow in friendship with him until we experience the fire of the Holy Spirit, “a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7), St Paul says.
Otherwise, if we do the bare minimum and wait for God to magically increase our faith without any risk or sacrifice on our part, then what we have with God is not friendship but servitude. Many people can go to church weekly out of a sense of duty and obligation, and they might find this a dry and thankless task. This is not surprising because they’re behaving like servants who are just doing their duty. But this is not what Jesus wants. This is not who you and I are called to be. Jesus says to us: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). And friends do more than just the minimum, more than just their obligations. They love to spend time together, and learn more about the other.
When Pope Francis was reported to have said earlier this week that “proselytism is solemn nonsense”, many reacted with consternation. But, of course, what the Holy Father meant by using the word ‘proselytism’ was that one could not hope to convert souls to Christ by the use of threats, or ultimatums, or force. Rather, as Pope Benedict had said: the Church “does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’… just as Christ draws all to himself by the power of his love.”
The idea of evangelization through attraction is vital, and it is a key note for the New Evangelization. We find a hint of this in today’s Gospel. Jesus says that he sends his apostles out as “lambs in the midst of wolves” (10:3). And the one thing we expect is that these lambs would look delicious, that is, attractive, to the hungry wolves. The problem with ‘proselytism’ is that the lambs are not attractive, and so, the wolves are not hungry either. They do not desire to devour the lambs, that is, the apostles and their Gospel message.
Thus, the Gospel has to be good news. And the lambs, the bearers of the Gospel, that is to say, you and I, have to become fattened and therefore appetising, delicious, attractive to the world’s wolves. How are we to be fattened? Nehemiah tells us that having heard God’s Word, the people were to “eat the fat and drink sweet wine”(8:10). So, we, who encounter the living Word, Jesus Christ, are to be fattened on God’s grace and sweetened by the sacraments. God’s statutes, today’s psalm tells us, is “sweeter than honey”, so, we’re also sweetened by living our lives in accordance to God’s commandments.
Thus fattened and sweetened by grace, by Word and sacrament, we become like the Lamb, Christ himself, and thus, we become attractive, as he is. Then, the wolves of our world, that is, all of humanity, will see and recognise their great hunger for Christ, for grace, for love. Then, the wolves will naturally do as hungry wolves do, and devour the lambs and their Gospel of salvation.
No force or fear or threats are necessary; no proselytism. Just the natural attraction of Man to the Good, to Truth, and to Beauty which is evident in the lives of those lambs who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (cf Rev 14:4).
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.
Traditionally, a martyr is a witness to the Christian faith, which is fundamentally a witness to faith in the risen Christ, for only faith in Christ’s resurrection would have justified the martyr willingly sacrificing his own life. Thus, the martyr dies for the sake of the faith, killed in odium Fidei, out of hatred for the Faith. And yet, if we look at the King of Martyrs, Christ himself, we see that he lays down his life out of love. His death is a witness to the depth of God’s love for us whom he calls his friends. As today’s Communion antiphon reminds us: “Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). The martyr, then, is not just one who is killed by those who hate the Faith, but also, one who willingly gives his life out of love for another, for his friends. For this is the example given us by Jesus on the Cross.
So, in the 20th century, in a place of great evil and darkness, a place of power, violence, and inhumanity, a veritable Calvary, another Cross is raised up. And on this Cross, a Polish Franciscan, prisoner 16670, lays down his life for another prisoner condemned to die for trying to escape. The name of the place is Auschwitz, and the Franciscan’s name is Maximilian Kolbe. In July 1941 when Franciszek Gajowniczek is condemned to death by starvation, St Maximilian says to the Nazi commander: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children”. And so, in the darkness of Auschwitz, this Golgotha, the light of love, of divine charity, of the beauty of the Crucified One shines. And St Maximilian Kolbe gives an eloquent witness of Christian faith, hope, and love.
St Maximilian had dedicated much of his life to working with the media to spread the Gospel and devotion to the Immaculate Virgin Mary. He had founded friaries in Nagasaki and India, and the friars he established just west of Warsaw would eventually house over 700 Franciscans and printed 11 periodicals with a circulation of over 1 million, as well as a daily newspaper. But of all the sermons he preached, and the many publications he had, and all the media communications he engaged in, St Maximilian’s most eloquent words were spoken in the secret of a concentration camp. “Let me take his place”.
And later, many survivors including Franciszek came forward to bear witness to Christ among them in the person of his priest. From May 1941 when he was put in Auschwitz, St Maximilian witnessed to Christ’s mercy and love for all: sharing his meagre rations with others, gently preaching forgiveness, hearing confessions. So, his offer to take the place of a condemned man was just the culmination of an on-going witness, martyrdom, for the sake of Christian charity. On 14 August 1941, the eve of the Assumption, this son and servant of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, was executed by lethal injection, and so, he gave his life for his friends.
As one survivor said, St Maximilian’s death was “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength… It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp”. At his canonization in 1982, he was proclaimed patron saint of the suffering 20th century, and he is patron of drug addicts. May St Maximilian Kolbe’s Christ-like sacrifice of love and his intercession bring hope and light to the many who suffer in the darkness of their personal Golgothas. Through his prayers, may we all come to share in the victory of the Immaculate Mother of God who was assumed into the glory of heaven.
preached at a Youth Festival in Castlerigg Manor, Keswick
Jesus tells his disciples about his death and resurrection. But the response is a “great sadness”. Is it not the same for us? We may have heard the Easter story many times, and heard again and again that God loves us. But, then, when bad things happen; when we’re confronted by death, illness, and suffering, we’re overwhelmed by grief, filled with great sadness. Or, maybe we’ve been telling our friends about Jesus and what he’s done for them, but somehow, the message of the resurrection just doesn’t get through. So, we’re like the disciples in today’s Gospel. Jesus himself is telling them about his death and resurrection, and they respond with sadness. Why?
Maybe because the Resurrection has become like an abstract theory we just talk about, or a theological and philosophical problem to be solved. But it’s first of all a divine reality that needs to be experienced in our earthly lives. The Church, our parishes and communities, you and I need to have really experienced the Risen Lord Jesus if we’re to be authentic witnesses of the resurrection. If we’re to have faith in the resurrection, then we must experience something of what Easter is; we need to have touched the risen Lord just as St Thomas did on the Sunday after Easter. Like him, we need to have touched the Divine Mercy of God. And the people we reach out to must also be able to do this too: to come into contact with the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, and through her – through us, you and me – to touch God’s mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and unfailing love. Only then will the resurrection we hear about and preach become something experienced; a love that brings joy in sorrow, comfort in distress, and hope in times of grief.
And where do we encounter this love? Where is Jesus’ death and resurrection revealed? How can we touch the Divine Mercy, the Body of Christ? In his recent letter, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis says that it is in the sacraments that we encounter God (cf §40). So, if we really want to come into contact with Christ, we need to pay attention to the sacraments, to the Liturgy and what God is doing here through visible signs.
It is especially in the Eucharist that Christ comes to us and gives himself to us. On Easter Sunday, the opening verses of the Mass are: “I have risen, and I am still with you”. For it is in the Mass that the Risen Lord is with us; he is the Living Bread which comes down from heaven. The first Mass, we recall, was celebrated on a night of deep sorrow, just before the Crucifixion and death of Christ, but, even then, it was full of the promise of the resurrection. So it is for us today. Our times of sorrow and grief can be lightened by the promise and comfort of the Resurrection, when Jesus comes to us in the Mass; Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
So the Mass is firstly an experience of the Incarnation. Because, customarily Mankind is separated from God by our bodiliness; our mortality which brings with it human sickness, pain, and sorrow as well as its many pleasures and joys. But because he loves us so much, our God bridges this gap, becoming Man in Jesus Christ. The Immortal One shares our mortality, even to the point of suffering and dying for us, and with us. So, we hear in the Mass: “This is my Body, which will be given up for you”.
But God does even more. Christ’s incarnation and death on the Cross bridges an even greater gap which is the alienation between God and Man caused by sin. For even when Jesus suffers the violence, hatred and destruction of humanity’s sin, his love for sinful Man is not extinguished. No, God’s love rises from the grave, and Jesus befriends us, inviting his disciples – you and me – to touch his wounded side. Such divine mercy; such trust in humanity’s goodness; such undying love is what redeems us, and gives us new life. To touch the Divine Mercy, which is what we do when Jesus entrusts himself to us in Holy Communion, is to experience the resurrection, and to live anew in the love and friendship of God. Ultimately, this is an experience of being forgiven, of being loved, and so, being allowed to love in return. Hence St John Chrysostom says: “Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave”.
But we live in an unforgiving world, and mercy is all too rare. Even in the Church, this can sometimes seem to be the case. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, if, without an experience of God’s mercy and love, our message of Easter faith doesn’t bring joy but indifference or even sorrow! People react like the disciples today: they hear but they do not understand because they have not seen and experienced the resurrection.
Which is why our Holy Father keeps reminding us, especially if we’re to newly evangelize our communities and nation, that we need to be agents of God’s love and mercy. But first we need to have experienced it for ourselves. So, go to Christ in the sacraments, in confession and in the Eucharist. Come, and, as Pope Francis says: “Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.”
So, today’s First Reading calls us to love God, and to “love the stranger” and to “see justice done for the orphan and the widow”. This means, like Christ, our God who came to be with us, we’re called to go to the margins, to love those we find strange and difficult, to befriend the alienated. As Pope Francis says: “We shouldn’t just wait for the wounded to come to us, we need to go out and search for them”. So, we Christians are members of God’s ‘search and rescue team’, and God wants us to become executors of his justice for the orphan and widow.
Yes, literally, but also, consider: so many of our contemporaries, our peers, our friends, are orphaned, because they do not know the love of God as their Father. And our contemporaries are widows, too, for so many in our society think that God is dead. God, who has wedded himself to Man through Jesus Christ, they think is dead. But he isn’t. As Jesus says: “they will put him to death, and on the third day he will be raised to life again”.
So, we are called to be witnesses to the resurrection; called to show our contemporaries that Jesus is risen, that God is alive! All people will know this, and have the joy of Easter when they touch God’s divine mercy. When, through us – through how we treat others and live together – they experience a new life, a new civilization, a holy communion arising from forgiveness, compassion, and unfailing love.
Every journey begins with a destination. When we book a ticket, we need to input our destination. Then, when we get to the airport or station, we look for our check-in desk, or departure gate or platform based on that destination. And on Friday night, when I boarded the Easyjet plane from Stansted, the steward asked to see my boarding pass but he didn’t want to check my name against my passport – he wanted to check I was on the right plane bound for Edinburgh because, he said, many passengers boarded the wrong plane headed for the wrong destination! So, every journey, it seems, requires a destination and the would be traveller needs to know what that is.
If so, then Abraham wasn’t a very good traveller. After all, Hebrews says that “he went out, not knowing where he was to go” (Heb 11:8b). But Abraham wasn’t a self-determining traveller like us, who goes to a website and chooses from a list of destinations. Abraham was a pilgrim. And this means that he is called out by Another, he entrusts himself to the wisdom of Another, and he knows that he will be cared for by Another.
We’re just returned from our Province’s Year of Faith Pilgrimage to Lourdes, and to be a pilgrim is to become like Abraham, trusting in Another. Many of our pilgrims had never been to Lourdes, and they didn’t really know what to expect, or what would happen. But they trusted that the Dominicans – that Fr Dermot – who had invited them to go on the Pilgrimage did. One of the questions people asked me most frequently was “How often have you come to Lourdes?” In part, I think this question was to reassure oneself that someone who knew better was leading the way!
And as the pilgrims went along, or (in the case of those in wheelchairs) were pushed along, they were taken from one event to another. First a talk from the Provincial, then a visit to the Grotto, then an official photograph, followed by lunch (again, the 3 or 4-course menu was predetermined). And then, a visit to the Baths, a Rosary with meditations from youth and fellow pilgrims, an International Mass in French, and so on with a different programme of events each day. But this programme was only gradually made clear to us, a few hours at a time. And sometimes, maybe, there was confusion and frustration when we felt we’d lost sight of what was coming next.
But always, in fact, all was being catered for, every event planned and scheduled, and every thing graciously unfolded in good time. Thus, the happy pilgrim had to just have faith.
Abraham is called our “father in faith” because he set out on a journey, a pilgrimage. Called out in faith, not knowing where he was headed, as such, he went out nevertheless because he trusted the One who led him forth. Abraham had complete faith in God because of who God is. God is Truth, and so he will not deceive us and can be trusted. And God is Life. So, he is our destination, the One to whom all living beings tend.
But Abraham’s faith began a pilgrimage that is not yet completely ended.
As the Festival starts up in Edinburgh, and the holiday season goes into full swing, many of us will say that it’s good and right in the summer to “relax, enjoy ourselves, and have a good time”. But the Church seems to be a kill-joy when she offers us these readings today during the height of the summer revelries. Or is she?
After all, Qoheleth (the Preacher) seems to be complaining that our work is too burdensome, and that all that we earn we have to leave to another. So, perhaps he’s encouraging us to relax, spend, and enjoy life when we can. And as proof that Qoheleth might think this, you only have to look at the next verse omitted from today’s reading by our puritanical Church. For Qoheleth says in verse 24: “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil”. This sounds like the rich man in today’s parable who says: “Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (Lk 12:19).
But ultimately Qoheleth thinks there is nothing beyond these pleasures; “all is vanity” (Eccles 1:2); there is no meaning and purpose to life, so let’s enjoy ourselves while we live. The name Qoheleth means, one who speaks to the congregation or Assembly, hence ‘The Preacher’. But he is a preacher of a rather despondent, existentialist philosophy, and one which, perhaps, sums up our zeitgeist. Likewise, the rich man in the parable is a man of our times, whom many will empathize with. Effectively, he’s won the lottery, and he thinks to store away his winnings so that he can enjoy the rest of his life in comfort. Many people, I suspect, will see this as ‘normal’ and ‘sensible’. And we would, too, if we were paid-up members of Qoheleth’s assembly, and if he was our Preacher.
But we’re not, are we? We Christians follow the voice of a different preacher. And his Logic is different, penetrating beyond what Qoheleth or any philosopher was capable of. For our Preacher is the Preacher, the Word who “was life” (Jn 1:4). And he has gone beyond the grave – he died and rose again and is “above… seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1).
So, whereas Qoheleth leaves us with many questions and a feeling, ultimately, of empty meaninglessness, Jesus answers humanity’s search for meaning, and for the good. Whereas Qoheleth and the rich man might say that our longing for happiness can be satisfied by the human goods and pleasures of food, drink, power, sex, material riches, the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, speaks for all Christians when he says: “Certainly, possessions, money and power can give a momentary thrill, the illusion of being happy, but they end up possessing us and making us always want to have more, never satisfied”. And whereas this drives Qoheleth to say: “All is vanity”, we Christians say with St Paul: “Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11). Because, for many, this world and its pleasures are all there is; the universe has no meaning, and material things and even other people have no other purpose than to give me relief and happiness here and now. But the Christian says that in Christ, through whom all things were made, there is a deeper meaning and purpose to creation. It is good, and it exists so that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).
So, why does the Church present these readings to us? Is it to stop us from enjoying ourselves?
Sometimes it seems that atheism is on the rise. But the opposite is the case. We have too many gods, and we believe in too many silly things. The latest diet fad, so-called news in the Media, the latest technology and gadgets, or anything else that the priests of our material culture and prophets of advertising preach to us. These things and ideas – “stuff” – which we obtain in exchange for so much of our gold have become our gods, our idols. As Chesterton said with his usual astuteness: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.”
There needs to be a conversion, then, from our polytheistic faith in so many false gods, in the stuff we create, to faith in the one true God, who sustains all stuff itself with his love. For it’s not that we live in a faithless generation; we can’t be absolutely faithless because it’s inherently human to believe. Rather, we live in a generation with much confusion and misplaced faith; a kind of consumerist impatience, I think. Because we’d much rather put our faith in something that Mankind makes, the origin of which we think we know, than in Another. Hence corporations invest heavily in PR and branding, to win consumer trust, or should I say, faith. It seems that, like the Israelites, we prefer stuff, which we can control, to relationship, to Love, which is much more risky and complex, and demands patience and room for the Other. As Pope Francis said in his encyclical, Lumen Fidei, “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands”.
But ultimately, only One is worth believing in, worth trusting, worth placing our faith in, and that One has to be true, and so, able to give us the good of everlasting happiness. Otherwise we search in vain, serially serving one created god after another, but never satisfied, never really happy. The One True God is not a thing of this material world, nor stuff we fashion for ourselves, nor the super-ego. He is Uncreated, Other from all that is, and is its Life. God is Love.
So, when the first Christians, such as St Martha, professed their faith in Jesus Christ they recognized him to be this One, to be Love incarnate. For he is “coming into the world” (Jn 11:27), and so is not a part of his creation but the One who sustains all being in his love, and love survives even death. Jesus thus says he is the “Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25).
To believe that Christ is as he says is to make a radical choice, converting from the idols of our ancestors and the false gods of the prevailing culture. Hence the early Christians were denounced by Romans and Greeks as atheists. Yes, we Christians are atheists if we turn away from the gods proposed by our society and world, the gods of our own false ideas and images, the god of myself – of the ego. But what we do, in this conversion, this movement of faith, is to turn towards the Truth, towards Life, and Hope; we turn to Love.
As Pope Francis said, our Christian faith “breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history”.
This is what St Martha does as she serves the true God and says to him: “Yes, Lord; I believe”. Will you and I do the same?
- preached at a retreat focussed on the Encyclical, Lumen Fidei
Prayer is fundamentally an act of faith, and we exercise that faith by praying, that is, by asking, seeking, and knocking. This does not mean simply asking for whatever we want and expecting God to do as he’s told. Rather, it means having persistent confidence in God’s ability to grant whatever we ask, but at the same time, trusting that God is our loving Father, who will always give to us, his children, whatever he chooses for our greatest good. So, we should pray persistently, asking God always for what we need.
But it is likely that God, who knows all things and always wills the best for us, will answer our prayers in ways we don’t expect, that are more creative than our solutions, and that bring about our deepest joy and greater freedom. Or sometimes, we have pray persistently because it is thus that we learn what we truly desire. For what we see in our First Reading is an extraordinary dialogue between God and Abraham. As he seems to bargain with God, there is, in fact, a testing of Abraham’s faith and of his desires, so that, through prayer, Man learns to ask for what humanity truly needs, which is to see God’s justice and mercy, to experience compassion and love. And God does answer humanity’s longing for mercy, not immediately. Not even definitively through Abraham, but through Christ. Because it is when Christ becomes Man, and hangs on the Cross, that we see God acting most perfectly to save the whole world – every sinner. And he does so for the sake of just one righteous Man: Jesus Christ. For Christ is God’s final answer to Abraham’s prayers, and indeed, the prayers of every human person.
As we read in Lumen Fidei: “the life of Jesus now appears as the locus of God’s definitive intervention, the supreme manifestation of his love for us. The word which God speaks to us in Jesus is not simply one word among many, but his eternal Word (cf. Heb 1:1-2). God can give no greater guarantee of his love, as Saint Paul reminds us (cf. Rom 8:31-39)” (§15).
So, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they are asking to share in his perfect confidence in God’s love, to enter into that same relationship of love that is between the Son and the Father. Hence, Jesus teaches us that prayer is an act of faith, of trusting in the Father’s love and care for us. And we can rely on God because he has given us his Son, who offered himself on the Cross for the salvation of all. So, Pope Francis says: “Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely [and] Christ’s death discloses the utter reliability of God’s love above all in the light of his resurrection” (Lumen Fidei, §16, 17).
As such, our Christian faith is a resurrection faith. This means that we trust in God’s activity in the world and in our lives, with the sure and certain hope that our God of Love is bringing good to fruition, even when things seem difficult and challenging. For Jesus reveals that ours is a God of the Living, a God who brings Life out of death, and whose creative Love is more powerful and liberating than sin, evil and suffering. There are many questions that we and our contemporaries may have, but faith means that we trust that Jesus Christ shines a light on these difficulties, and that in him – in his life, death, and resurrection, we find an answer to the deepest longings and questions of humanity. Hence, Lumen Fidei says: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (§57).
So, we need to continue to seek those answers by remaining close to Christ and contemplating his life and words, putting our questions to him, with the confidence that he will bring light to our darkness - not instantly, but in God’s good time. This requires of us a patient endurance, a contemplative hope like Our Lady’s, waiting for God’s to reveal his good plan in time. And as Pope Francis says: “time propels [us] towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope”.
And we have this hope because of what Jesus, who is Truth and Love, has promised us: “The one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him”. So, let us turn to him in persistent prayer, asking, seeking, knocking. May the door of Faith be opened even wider for us so that we may enter, through it, into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In many ways St Bridget seems an obvious candidate for one of Europe’s six patron saints. She was born into a Swedish noble family, happily married with eight children. She and her husband were both Franciscan tertiaries, thus aligning themselves with one of the great movements of 14th-century Europe, and she would work tirelessly for the unity of Europe and the reform of the Church. During her lifetime she travelled from the edge of Europe to what was regarded as the centre of the world, Jerusalem, and she also made pilgrimages to Europe’s most popular shrines: Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and Assisi. If not patroness of Europe, she could certainly be patron saint of religious tourism!
But there is a more poignant side to St Bridget’s biography. She was widowed at the age of 31, and, like so many women of her time, experienced the sorrow of seeing two of her children die in infancy. No wonder she had a special devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, and she found consolation in Christ, sharing deeply in his Passion, and being “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20) as St Paul said. At the age of 41, she was called by Christ in a vision to found a new religious congregation primarily of women to revive the Church. She dedicated it to the Most Holy Saviour, and, with support from the Swedish king, began to establish a monastery in Vadstena. But she never saw this monastery completed. Neither did she see a single nun clothed in the distinctive habit shown her by Christ in a vision. She herself longed to be a nun, but she was never consecrated as one.
Because in 1349, her share in Christ’s Passion meant that she was told by the Lord to go to Rome and stay there until the Pope returned from Avignon. She arrived on time for the Holy Year of 1350, and her plan was to seek papal approval for the Rule of her budding congregation. Little did she expect to stay for over two decades until her death today in 1373, never again to see Sweden, nor almost all her children, nor her religious congregation. Moreover, the pope returned to Rome in 1367 but quit for Avignon again in 1370. The Avignon papacy would only end 4 years after St Bridget’s death, a task seen to completion by another patron of Europe, the Dominican saint Catherine of Siena.
So, some have noted that St Bridget could well also be patron saint of failures or disappointments. For much of what she’d set out to do remained unfulfilled. But, if so, she has an especially relevant message for us today. Many of us are defined by what we achieve and what we do in our lives. We’re so defined by our work that, with so many in Europe and especially among the youth currently going jobless, millions have lost their sense of identity, of direction, belonging, and of self-worth. St Bridget, stranded in a desolate non-papal Rome, left without husband, family or cloister, never quite accomplishing her mission, could be said to share in this too; in some sense, ‘jobless’ and even ‘failed’ at the one task she had.
But hers can only be called failure in the way the world might regard the Crucifixion of Christ a failure. For St Bridget spent her life in Rome urging all to conversion to Christ; he was her goal and direction. At her death, she was renown for her kindness and love, and this is what defined her – not what she did, or accomplished, as such, but who she became by the grace of Christ. St Bridget was defined by Love – the divine love that took Christ to the Cross. And because we’re made for love, St Bridget was fulfilled, and most gainfully employed in loving others. Thus, she was sanctified, and declared a saint in 1391.
Hence, today’s patron saint has a particular resonance for contemporary Europe, I think. She reminds us that our worth and our dignity comes not so much from what society makes of us, or what we accomplish in terms of worldly success, or what jobs we have. Employment is vital and necessary, of course, but for those who feel lost, uprooted and far from home, for the many economic migrants throughout Europe, St Bridget’s witness is that wherever we find ourselves, we can abide in a lasting home and bear everlasting fruit if we are rooted in Christ. For his grace produces in us the sweet fruit of charity, and leads us to our eternal home with God.