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Thursday, April 24, 2008

HOPE BEYOND SUFFERING

Seventh Sunday of Easter – Year A
May 4, 2008

Readings: Acts 1:12-14 / 1 Pt 4:13-16 / Jn 17:1-11

N.B. I am advancing this post as I will be traveling from May 1 to June 8. I hope to be able to continue on the postings from where I will find myself in all this time. Thanks for your continued patronage.

We live in a world fraught with suffering and pain. It is enough to see the TV, read the papers, and hear the radio. As of this time, food insecurity is on top of the list of the woes and worries, particularly of the poorest among us. Given the unabated rise in the prices of everything, including primary necessities, like food, people all over the world cannot but ask themselves and the Lord: “how long, O Lord, must we keep waiting?”

And yet, Sunday in and Sunday out, we gather together in Church, as we do today. We even proclaimed heartily in response to the first reading today: “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living” (Responsorial Psalm). Despite being surrounded by what Robinson (2004) calls “the contours of hopelessness,” we join Pope Benedict XVI in proclaiming that the basis of our hope is God and only God, “not just any god, but a God who showed His human face in Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Spe Salvi).

Although the words of our responsorial psalm today (Ps 27), almost sounds like wishful thinking for the man or woman who has no faith, we hold on with courage to the promise of the psalmist’s reassuring words: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?”

There is no rhyme nor reason to suffering and pain. There is no cogent explanation that will ease away suffering, especially when it strikes close to home base. Only the person in extreme denial can talk away pain, and glibly explain it away facetiously with a few well phrased syllogisms. No … suffering is real … pain is something that cannot be thought out of existence. It cannot wished away, much like a child wishing that rain would go away and come back another day.

We have just celebrated Ascension day last Thursday. As you know, it is part and parcel of the whole Paschal Mystery, the whole Easter package of Christ’s glorification, even as next Sunday’s solemnity of the Pentecost is part of the whole Easter mystery. But the resurrection of the Lord, His Ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, we all know very well, was preceded by the painful and ignominious suffering and death on the Cross. We are “surprised by joy” by Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. But joy, as C.S. Lewis long ago said, is but sorrow unmasked. And the whole package of joy includes the mystery of pain, of suffering, and that if joy were to be compared to a stone lying on the ground, when one turns it over, underneath lies the ineluctable component of pain. If we accept joy in our lives, we ought to be prepared for what comes along with the package – with the reality of pain, of sorrow, of suffering.

This must be the context of the disciples gathered in the upper room as we glean from the first reading. They were huddled together. There is no reason why we should not think that one of the reasons could have been fear, and uncertainty that comes along with fear. But fear can bring out the best in us, as it did to the disciples. We are told that “they devoted themselves to constant prayer.” And we also know that that fear and uncertainty eventually brought them out of that upper room on Pentecost day, to proclaim to the whole world, the effects of, and the reasons for, the hope that they had kept in their hearts even as they withdrew from the world in silence and prayer.


But today, too, Peter who knows what it means to be part of that huddled group up in the Upper Room tells us to hold up our heads high despite the suffering and fear and uncertainty: “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings. When his glory is revealed, you will rejoice exultantly.”

But take note, that Peter speaks not just of any suffering. He refers not to neurotic suffering that is self-inflicted, the kind of suffering that is born of sin, of selfishness, and pride – the kind that we inevitably heap on ourselves for reasons as many as there are people. This is avoidable pain. It is also called unnecessary pain, the kind that we ought not revel in, but the kind we ought to banish from our life and our world.

But Peter speaks of “sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” This the kind that one “suffers for being a Christian,” not because one is a “murderer, a thief, a malefactor, or a destroyer of another’s rights.” This suffering is not neurotic or self-inflicted, but a type of suffering that comes unbidden, that gets to your nerves even if you did not work for it. This is redemptive suffering – the same kind that Christ underwent, the very same suffering that led him from gory to glory, from calvary to the mountain of the ascension.

But there is more from today’s good news. The gospel passage is what is known as Jesus’ High Priestly prayer. He prays for us and on our behalf. As high priest about to offer the supreme sacrifice of himself up on Calvary, he not only bids good-bye to his flock. He also, and more importantly, prepares them for the trials up ahead. In his hour of glorification, he took up the cudgels for us, his flock, and prays for us with a prayer so passionate and so selfless, as to pray “not for the world, but for these you have given me.” This was no ordinary prayer. This was prayer of intercession, so pregnant with love and solicitude, as to be tantamount to being what Pope Benedict XVI calls no less than akin to the “divine eros” (Deus Caritas Est). It is God in Jesus Christ showing His love and compassion for his beloved people.


This Sunday immediately precedes Pentecost Sunday, the day of commemoration of the sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It gives an appropriate setting and framework to what will happen on Pentecost Day – the fulfillment of the promised sending of the Paraclete. But the promise would not have meaning if it were not framed in the context of God’s divine eros, His loving solicitude for us His people. And this setting is what we reflect on today – the passionate prayer of the Lord for his beloved flock.

I started with some kind of bad news in this reflection – the contours of hopelessness that surround us like the air we breathe. But I have no hesitation to end as I usually do as preacher – in the spirit of faith and hope.

Suffering is, indeed, part and parcel of our Christian and human lives. But sufferings that share in those of Christ are meaningful and redemptive. This is, at bottom, a message of hope in concrete, a continuation of my reflection on Ascension Day, that reminds us, as did the late John Paul II, never to be afraid. “Do not be afraid.”

Pope Benedict XVI is right. At the end of the day, the real foundation of our hope cannot be science and technology, or philosophy or sophistry of any kind. The real foundation is a God, who suffers with us in Christ, a Savior who did not hesitate to take up the cudgels for us, and die a shameful death up on the cross. Glory be to Him for ever.

“I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.”

DVMI House of Prayer
Tagaytay City, Cavite, Philippines
April 23, 2008

JUST AS WE HAVE SEEN HIM ASCEND

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
Ascension of the Lord - Year A

Power, promise, and presence take center stage in our celebration of the Lord’s ascension today, 40 days after the resurrection (plus two in many dioceses all over the world). That power, referred to by the letter to the Ephesians as “the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,” (2nd reading) is echoed by our response after the first reading: “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.”

That power, however, is born of a promise. It is not power for its own sake bestowed on oneself; not worldly and political power; not military might, nor power that accrues from a deep need to lord it over others, but a power proffered from above – a power for a purpose … “he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (1st reading)

The power that today’s liturgy speaks of has to do more with presence, invigorating and empowering presence, that ironically, can only take place after a formal leave-taking by the Risen Lord, that is the Ascension into heaven. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

We speak about a presence that was fulfillment of last Sunday’s promise: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you … And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” (Jn 14:15-21)

This power from above becomes prophecy – the power to proclaim: “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

This divinely bestowed power also becomes priestly: “baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This power from God also becomes kingly: “make disciples of all nations.”

This power shines out, and is summed up, in powerful presence: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:16-20)

This power is mediated for us by one mediator; “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

Lastly, this power has as indispensable element, a clear purpose: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” It is power, not only with a purpose. It is power meant to be for service, designed by the heavenly giver to be at the service of his saving presence, at the service of what commentators call “the great commission,” ultimately, at the service of Christ’s prophethood, priesthood, and kingship.

Servanthood and power are two concepts that remind us more of oil and water. The two can’t – and won’t – mix. The world understands power not in terms of service, but of authority. The world sees power as an end in itself, a value that, for many people, might be referred to as a terminal value, not a means value, and thus, something worth pursuing in itself, and for itself. The fact that many nations, most especially the Philippines, still wallow in the mire of rampant graft and corruption in and out of government, shows just how coveted the goods attached to power, prestige, and position are. Being the second most corrupt nation in Asia, powerful positions are seen, not as avenues for service, but as stepping stones to more wealth, more influence, and more clout, in a society populated mostly by poor, easily manipulated people.

Eighteen years after the historic Second Plenary Council of the whole Philippine local Church, which raised a rousing call to servant leadership, liberative evangelization, and a movement towards a spirituality of social transformation, the sad reality of a Church and people deeply steeped in a culture of power and position as honor rather than onus (latin for “burden”), social status, rather than selfless service, remains. Ours is a Church that still has to focus more on evangelization and less on administration; more on mission and less on maintenance of the status quo. We belong to a people and government still sorely wanting in the ideals of social justice, solidarity, and responsible and honest citizenship deeply steeped in sound environmental awareness.

Eighteen years after the historic Plenary Council II, we stand witness, to our utter shame as a Church and people, to the dismal failure of evangelization. Twenty nine years after the urgent and rousing call from Pope John Paul II for a “new evangelization,” both clergy and laity alike (at least in the Philippines), have not yet even understood, let alone fulfill, the call of Redemptoris Missio (1979 Encyclical of John Paul II on the need for new evangelization). Clergy are as busy as ever with ritual and sacramental dispensation, along with purely administrative concerns. Rectors and superiors of communities running so-called “catholic schools” are preoccupied with routine “maintenance,” rather than “mission” tasks. For the most part, the teaching of “religion” becomes relegated to ill prepared catechists and “value education” teachers who are hired for the purpose often because they can teach nothing else but religion. Living “middle class” lives, quite apart and a little removed from the lives of the great majority of their constituents, clergy and religious fall into the trap of a pervading mental attitude that believes that “managing for mission” translates automatically to “engagement in mission.”

They take easily to the “kingly” role, but miss out terribly on their “prophetic” role. School managers and technocrats, they may run efficient schools (although, by any standards, this, too, is highly contestable), but they fail dismally as “ministers” who “educate by evangelizing, and evangelize by educating,” as our Salesian documents of more than 30 years would describe our mission as Salesians. The ordained in our midst do well as dispensers of “holy goods” like the sacraments. They celebrate daily Masses and sit down to hear endless confessions. But they are not alarmed at the reality that a good number of our graduates end up becoming ‘born again” Christians in less than two years after they move out of our schools. They are not alarmed, too, of the fact that a great percentage of our graduates appear unconcerned and unbothered by the constant and rapid depredation of the country’s natural resources, if not direct participants in a culture and economy that are predatory and abusive of the rapidly dwindling natural resources.

Again, they take almost naturally to their “priestly” role. But they miss out on the more important “prophetic” role.

What, then, do we make of today’s Good News? Where, then, do we go from here? My readers are supposedly those who belong to the “front lines,” those who are among the ranks of the more influential, endowed by God with more gifts, graces, and more human, spiritual, and material resources. Like me, like many of my readers who belong to the ranks of the ordained, who share in Christ’s prieshood, prophethood, and kingship, “more is expected of us, since more has been given to us.” Even those of you who are not ordained, but who nevertheless are tasked with the same call to ministry by virtue of our baptism and our sharing in the royal priesthood of the laity, are also recipients of today’s good news.

And what should we focus on, among others, in today’s liturgy? I suggest simply this. I suggest that the Lord’ Ascension to heaven, based on the readings, is really all about power from God. It is power that we ought to translate into presence. It is power that we all ought to translate into proclamation – into evangelization. It is a presence that engenders hope. And it brings about hope because it is presence born out of a promise: “I will be with you all days, even to the end of the age.”

The Ascension is not all about departure and leave-taking. It is all about an empowering promise of presence. What the Lord promises, He does. What he teaches, he witnesses to. Just like Pope John Paul II and his battle cry, “Do not be afraid,” he lived it always, all the way! … to the very end … faithful, faith-filled, hope-filled, and full of courage. “I have run the race, put up a good fight, and kept the faith.” This, the Lord, promises us today. This, the same Lord, challenges us today … just as he has ascended … just as we have seen him ascend …

What, then, are we waiting for? What are we looking out for? What more do we want? “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”(Acts 1:11)

Ascension is, then, all about hope and courage… for you and me. His presence, his power, his promise are what sustain our hope … Just as we have seen him ascend, so shall we … like St. Paul, like St. Peter, like Pope John Paul II … like Christ ….just as we have seen him ascend…

Monday, April 21, 2008

COMPANION, COUNSEL, CHAMPION!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
6th Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 27, 2008

Today’s liturgy is dedicated to power. It has to do with the power to penetrate barriers; the power from above that makes individuals and persons go counter-cultural, and do the unexpected and the ordinarily unthinkable. Like Christ, who deemed it worth his time to talk about salvation with a Samaritan woman, Philip, one of the seven proto-deacons, “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed Christ to them.” (1st Reading) That power from the “laying on of hands” after which “they received the Holy Spirit,” enabled him to give “great joy to the city,” on account of the many signs he did.

We see power also behind proclamation; power behind Peter’s “confession;” power that shines through one’s ability “to give an explanation to anyone who asks […] for a reason for […] hope.” This is the same power that enables one “to suffer for doing good,” to suffer even death, for, through the outpouring of the Spirit, one can say along with Peter: “Put to death in the flesh, [Christ] was brought to life in the Spirit.” (2nd reading)

We see this same power behind the ability to love. This power of love is linked closely with powerful manifestations. Firstly, we are told that the power of love shows itself in presence – saving presence. Philip showed this loving presence in marginalized and hated Samaria, whose inhabitants ordinarily would have been shunned by any self-respecting Jew from Galilee and Judea. But love knows no barriers. Love mobilizes not only Philip, but the whole Church acting in the persons of the apostles, who sent “Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit.”

Secondly, this same power of love is manifested in hopeful and courageous proclamation and witnessing, in constant readiness to explain the hope that is in one’s heart, even despite suffering, “for Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God,” as St. Peter tells us.

Thirdly, this power of love is linked with obedience, a powerful and unmistakable sign and consequence of love: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

But this power, as the three readings today tell us, is always connected with our being “gifted,” our being “accompanied,” our being united and related meaningfully. This power we speak of, has to do with our being recipients of an outpouring from above, with being prayed over and laid hands on.

This power is none other than the indwelling presence of God in the Spirit, as sent by the Son. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.”
The times and the world we live in are wanting in courage. Among many other factors, I would like to suggest that the very strong cultures of individualism, hedonism, minimalism, and materialism – all pointing to a very strong narcissistic trend in the world today, produce a whole lot of isolation, loneliness, and consequently, a sore lack of meaningful connectedness between and among peoples and nations.

In this self-absorbed and self-centered society, we see an increasing number of people living alone, uncommitted, unrelated, and, worse, alienated. If we go by the alarming trend in North America alone, the fact that 50 % of marriages end up in divorce within the period of about 7 years, seems to point to the increasing phenomenon of people living lives devoid of meaningful, deep, and salutary connectedness. Add to this the glaring fact of families having to separate from each other due to labor migration, especially in third world countries like the Philippines, and one sees a picture of loneliness and unwanted solitude and isolation in the lives of millions of people in both developed and underdeveloped countries.

People who can afford, but who have no one to give them company, or who are not meaningfully connected, hire and pay for the services of other people who go under various appellations: caregivers, geishas, Girl Fridays, escorts, and the like. Therapists and counselors are paid handsomely for them to basically provide a willing and empathic listening ear. Tired of dealing with impersonal gadgets like answering machines, PDAs, cellphones, and webcams that provide instant connectivity, lonely people all over the world are looking for company, counsel, and some other persons to champion their seemingly hopeless cause.

We live in a world that could use a lot of the courage and the hope that the late Pope John Paul II spoke of so often, and witnessed to so heroically in his life and in his death. No one amongst us here today, can ever forget the stentorian voice of a sprightly and youthful Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II which challenged the whole world at the start of his pontificate: “Be not afraid!” Nor ought we to forget and gloss over what he said to the teeming suffering masses of poor people all across Latin America at Puebla in Mexico one year after becoming Pope: “Be not afraid!” Be not afraid of God. Be not afraid of man. Be not afraid of the Church. Be not afraid. Period. His words, his life, his dying, and his death all proved to us just how much he believed, how much he personally hoped, and how much courage he had as a man, as a priest, bishop, and Pope – nay more, as a plain Christian believer, beloved, gifted, accompanied, counseled, and championed by God’s gracious gift of the Spirit in and through Christ the Risen Lord!

I would like to take my cue from Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s reflections on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death more than 40 years after. He speaks about the need to do our own “Passover” in a world populated by new oppressive Pharaohs and his powerful cohorts. He counsels us as follows:

“We must reawaken our covenant with the God who spoke through the burning bush to say, ‘I am the God you have always known, the God of your forebears. But not only that. For I am also that One whose name is this: I will be who I will be; I am always becoming.’”

Today, in our Christian liturgy of hope, this 6th Sunday of Easter, God does not just reawaken our memories of a promised covenant. God fulfills His promise in Christ His Son. Christ now reawakens hope as he tells us: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.”

In this world of bewildering loneliness and alienation, marred by so much hopelessness and discouragement, God gifts us with his abiding presence – the Spirit’s saving presence. As we wander through our own wilderness of painful isolation, we have now the power to become sons of God, the power to become sharers in the glorious liberty of the children of God!

In John Paul II, in the shining examples and witnessing to courage and hope of thousands upon thousands of saints and martyrs, the Spirit makes Himself present, known and experienced. He is the power behind all our “joys, hopes, anxieties, fears” – and even the pains of our human existence – the same power that opens us all up to glorious possibilities attached to our being sons and daughters of God.

The Spirit is our gentle companion in hope. He is our counsel as we go through the welter of our life here on earth, with all its questions and mysteries. He is our champion as we go through our small victories towards the greatest victory of them all – the power “ to walk that patch across the river – to build and grow and enter and become the Promised Land” (Waskow).

Let all the earth cry out to God with joy! (Responsorial Psalm)

Monday, April 14, 2008

CHOICE, FREEDOM, PROMISE!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
5th Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 20, 2008

Diversity, divergence, disputations, and displacements of various forms characterize our readings today. Two big rival groups from among the ranks of believers, the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews” open up the scene marked by complaints of neglect and what may sound like modern-day “favoritism” and “political patronage.” Widows were being shunted aside. In the 1st Letter of Peter, displaced – and therefore – disgruntled Christians were being exhorted and uplifted to a sense of Christian transcendence, with a message of hope that has their Master’s experience as proof, pledge, and promise: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.”

The Gospel report from John, for its part, presents two seemingly dissenting disciples, who dispute Jesus’ discourse of encouragement with two questions. One comes from the same Thomas who, three weeks ago, desisted from falling easily for the reports of his fellow disciples with his doubts and all. “Unless I see … unless I touch … I will not believe.” “Master, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” The other comes from the winsome and person-oriented Philip, who has a knack for searching and finding, and who minced no words as he told the Lord pointblank: “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us!”

How much clearer can the Christian Scriptures get when it comes to painting the reality of our lives, the reality of what John Paul II calls the “modern anxieties of our times?” How timelier could Luke and his writings on the Acts become for us, enmeshed as we are, too, in our own stories of division and dispute, tension and even eventual treason! (Nicholas, one of the seven laid hands on, eventually started a breakaway heretical group, called the Nicolaitans!)

Problems beset disciples … then and now. Tension gripped the Church … then and now. But the mystery of God’s choice and the gracious gift of Christian freedom get the upper hand … then and even more so, NOW!

The Liturgy that we celebrate points to an event that we not only narrate, but more so, proclaim as an ongoing, unfolding saving event. The Liturgy that we “do in memory of him” who suffered, died, and rose is the making real and the making present of the workings of the same God whose Spirit continues to infuse His Church, and continues to raise new members and servants, sent to keep alive His promise: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”

God’s choice is clear. God’s will is definite. No, He does not want us to wallow in dispute, division, and despondency. “Coming to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, we are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Yes! This theme of election, this theme of God’s choice, of God’s predilection and prevenient love for us, His beloved sons and daughters, is the foundation of our freedom. “We share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

In our times, owing to the erosion of authentic and genuine autonomy, pulled and pushed as people are everywhere by the siren songs of individualism, hedonism, and materialism, which make minimalists out of people, and leads them to become reductionists, reducing everything, including life in this world, to an endless search for sordid, material gain, we all tend to lose sight of the fact that we are chosen, precious, and FREE. Contemporary experts from the world of sociology, political scientists, cultural anthropologists, and social psychologists seem to be one in decrying the loss of personal responsibility in today’s postmodern culture. The buck does not stop with me. Nor does it stop in anyone else’s doorstep. Everyone is a mere victim of circumstances, of bad parenting, of ill-conceived laws, or of uncontrollable impulses and urges. In such a culture, it is no wonder the famous film “Ocean’s 11,” done and redone in 1960 and 2001, respectively, shows different endings. The original thieves of 1960 did not get to keep the stolen money. Their younger, more recent versions, got to keep it – with impunity!

This is the ground upon which the seeds of today’s Word need to be implanted. This is the arena, that, following the late Pope John Paul II, we may call the modern-day “Areopagus” in which the good news needs to be proclaimed (Redemptoris Missio), whether popular or not, whether appealing or otherwise.

God’s choice, man’s freedom, and God’s promises are no respecter of times and seasons. What the liturgy speaks of today, what the early Christians experienced of yore, what Thomas and Phillip, in their honesty and sincerity asked for from the Lord, is what we also, perhaps even in our faltering faith and wavering hope, now ask from the God of promises: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.” (Responsorial Psalm).

We live in the worst of times. Nicholas and his ilk abound in our midst – members and even leaders in the Church we love whose prophetic passion and prominence do not seem to go beyond decrying the “cultural and doctrinal backwardness” of the institutional Church. “They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.” They teach that the task of the Holy Father is to change the Church to comply with the world’s views, and contemporary society’s expectations and desires.

We live in the worst of times. In an age where all authority is held in suspicion, where all that smacks of dogma is rejected and denied, where the culture of narcissism and self-absorption, the rise of celebrity worship and entitlement (the showbiz and bongga culture in Philippine setting, with apologies to my American readers), all combined with the distraction provided by the so-called “war on terrorism,” the stage is set for people to complain, as Thomas did, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

But today, like Charles Dickens said, I venture to add, we live in the best of times. We live in times rife with promise from above. We live in the best of times when believers, sorely tested and tried, can have the rare opportunity to claim their right to the glorious liberty of the children of God, when they can lay claim to personal autonomy and to Christian authenticity.

We live in the best of times. Besieged on all fronts by an erosion of the culture of personal responsibility, followers of Christ can learn to transcend their fears at the expression of the Lord’s tender concern for all of us: “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places … I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you also may be.”

Sometimes, as in Thomas’ experience, we may not know the way, or we may feign ignorance of the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Philip, our visions may become blurred: “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

But it is precisely in those times when we can, like Thomas and Philip, acknowledge and name where lies our deepest need and longing, when we can put the same into words as poignant and pointed as those of the two disciples, when we can gather up the concerns, fears, and woundedness of the world, that all our disputes, divisions, and displacements can begin to see the rare but graced opportunity to be transformed into hope.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The prayers of Thomas and Philip occasioned a personal revelation from the Lord. Their deepest “holy longing,” to use Rolheiser’s famous phrase, was answered more than sufficiently.

We live in the best of times. We live in an age of hope and courage. Even as we mourn the passing of a great Pope, we celebrate a life spent “announcing the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Like him, we are challenged in the midst of hopelessness and fears, to take part in the exaltation of Jesus. This we do, like the early Christians did, by transforming disputation and division into a community of reconciliation. This we also do by proclaiming “obedience to the faith,” by spreading the good news to a world deeply steeped in the bad news of the worst dispute of them all – war by whatever appellation, for whatever reason, for whatever purpose. I end with a slightly paraphrased Opening Prayer for today:

God our Father, you have looked upon us with love, chose us, and redeemed us in Christ. Give us true freedom and bring us to the inheritance that was your promise. Through Christ our Lord.

Monday, April 7, 2008

HOME, HAVEN, HEAVEN: FRUITS OF A SHEPHERD'S CARE

Catholic Homily/ Sunday Reflection
4th Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 13, 2008

Confidence and utter trust in God’s care and loving solicitude come out as primary messages in today’s liturgy. The Opening Prayer would have us beg God for “new strength” that comes “from the courage of Christ our Shepherd.” The alternative prayer is addressed to the same God who is “helper in time of distress.” Echoing the words of Psalm 23, it speaks about believers not having to “fear,” though they may “walk in the valley of darkness,” for “they follow in faith the call of the shepherd whom [God] has sent for their hope and strength.”

There is something very real and truly existential in what the liturgy would have us focus on today. All around us, events and concrete realities in everyday life speak to us of hopelessness and despondency. In the midst of what George Weigel refers to as “all the awfulness of this [past] century,” in a world that is inundated by a swell tide of secularism that threatens to consign traditional ethics and timeless doctrine to oblivion, living as I do, in a country that enjoys the unsavory reputation of being the second most corrupt nation in Asia (while also being the only predominantly Christian nation in the same region), there is, from the purely human viewpoint, precious little to hold on in terms of hope, courage, strength, and optimism with regards to the future.

As believers and as followers of Christ, the true shepherd, we are all mired in the “difficulties of life” that the introduction to the Collect refers to. We are all tested to the core, hard pressed on all sides, perhaps even overwhelmed, by the conflicting and widely contrasting pull of divergent ideologies and schools of thought, even in the context of the Church we all belong to, and, love.

Why, even the Church as both a human and divine institution, is painted by the world’s lively press and the mass media of communications, as a purely human institution wracked by intrigues, politicking, and factionalisms! In the heels of the demise of a saintly and well-loved Pope, people are at their wits’ end, trying to put forward each their own candidate, whom, they hope, would be “more attuned to the times,” and would be “less conservative,” and would pull all the stops to the Church’s perceived bigotry, doctrinal rigidity, and “cultural backwardness.”

The Church – and the world we love is in the midst of all sorts of difficulties. On the home front, we, too, are immersed in various forms and varying levels of difficulties and problems. In this world marked by ethical and doctrinal relativism, with people everywhere wrapped up in what Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, referred to as the “major anxieties of our time,” (Dives in Misericordia, 1980), it is all too easy for so many of us in and out of the institutional Church, to sell out to the arbitrariness of modern society, and to comply to the world’s views, succumb to the world’s expectations, and give in to all the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to adapt and conform to the powerful gospel of godless materialism and ethical liberalism.

We want to have a shepherd, patterned not after God’s own heart, but one “created in our own image and likeness.” We want a shepherd alright in replacement of John Paul II, but we want a shepherd who could be pressured to comply to the world’s current standards and norms, who would capitulate to what John Paul II referred to as the godless world’s “culture of death,” We want a leader alright, but we want one who could be led to do what current, contemporary, postmodern culture dictates.

I would like to veer a little off course today and follow a less trodden path for a change. The readings speak a lot about the shepherd, his protective nature, and his self-imposed task of guiding, guarding, and nurturing his sheep. In the gospel, in a rare case of mixed metaphors, Jesus calls himself both as “shepherd” and as “gate for the sheep.” In either case, the allusion is clear. Jesus Christ, the shepherd and the gate for the sheep, has nothing but the welfare of his sheep in mind. As shepherd, Jesus’ voice is what we hear and follow. As gate for the sheep, Jesus’ figure offers authentic leadership that is basically characterized by authority understood primarily as service. His leadership is not primarily one of honor, but as “onus,” (the Latin world for “burden” or “load”), that is, one of selfless service to others.

I would like us to look at the other side of the fence, as it were, and see the corresponding role of the “sheep” who “hear his voice,” and who “follow him, because they recognize his voice.” What type of “sheep” could we be? Or do we, if ever at all, identify ourselves as sheep? Are we sheep that are willing to “hear the shepherd’s voice” and are willing to obey? Are we sheep that are ready to pass through the gate and not among those who “climb over elsewhere?” Are we that type of sheep, who, on account of our unwillingness to “hear” and “obey” end up clueless as to where to go and what to do? Are we that type of sheep, who, instead of listening to only one voice, end up getting blinded by the so many conflicting and contrasting voices of dissent and disobedience to the voice of the true and authentic shepherd in our midst? Could we be among those sheep who make it all but impossible for other sheep to hear the voice of faith and reason, the voice of faith seeking understanding, because, pride has established its own criterion of truth? Could we be sheep for whom the Word of God now means nothing, unable as it is to penetrate through a thick wall of prideful attachment to its own brand of truth?

Or are we the strayed, lost, hapless, and hopeless sheep who are simply, and sincerely baffled and clueless as to what to do and where to go from here? Honestly in search for God and His saving mercy, some of us may be lost in the welter of so many conflicting ideologies and teachings from all sides, from the oversimplified New Age doctrine, to the seemingly attractive and “dogma-free” Biblical fundamentalism and raucous evangelism.

Or to push our question to the extreme, are we sheep who simply have ceased to care owing to the fact that, thanks to a sinful, selfish, and uncaring world, we have for so long been “walking through the valley of darkness,” one after another, with no apparent reprieve in sight?

Whichever group we may belong, this Sunday’s message is for us. Today belongs to all the lost, questioning, questing, hopeless, and scattered sheep of Christ’s sheepfold all over the world. Today belongs to clueless and helpless sheep who need to be cared for, and who feel the pull and the call towards home where we all belong.

Our erstwhile shepherd of 26 years has shown us the way. Shepherd for us as fellow believer, priest, bishop, and Pope in life, he is now sheep with us, by us, together with us, in his death. In life, he called us and beckoned us to hear the “good shepherd’s” voice, the voice of Christ, whom he represented on earth. In a firm, clear, unflinching, and unwavering voice, Pope John Paul II told us over and over again, to “be not afraid,” never to lose hope, to journey on through life’s difficulties with courage. In his dying and in his death, he spoke to us all the more, that being sheep himself like us, who heard the call of Christ the Supreme Shepherd, to suffering and sacrifice, to fidelity in service and love for Christ and His Mystical Body, the Church, there is hope, unwavering hope. As Weigel puts it, “more than any other, he embodied the Christian vision of the greatness of the human possibility.”

It is now three years since Pope John Paul II has gone home to the Father. As shepherd, he continues to lead us to the ultimate haven of hope. He is now in heaven which is our earthly hope’s ultimate object of concern. As searching sheep together with us, his life and death, have now become a pledge and promise of the salvific fruits of the shepherd’s care of him who, today, once more declares: “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Let us all together join in prayer for ourselves and for the Church all over the world:

Father God, though your people walk in the valley of darkness, no evil should they fear; for they follow in faith the call of the shepherd whom you have sent for their hope and strength.

Attune our minds to the sound of his voice, lead our steps in the path he has shown, that we may know the strength of his outstretched arm and enjoy the light of your presence for ever.

Giovanni Paolo, santo … prega per noi!