Fr Peter’s newsletter notes - July 2005
Posted on July 1st 2005 in Weekly messages
Fourteenth Sunday of the Year - Sunday 3 July 2005
Over these last few years I seem to have begun a Mediterranean-wide ministry amongst former members of the Chaplaincy in Oxford. The 18 year-olds who arrived in trepidation at the University are now getting married and having children. It is a very pleasant ministry, and recently gave me the opportunity to visit the Herodian Fortress where John the Baptist was beheaded. This castle sits astride the crown of the barren mountains above the east bank of the Dead Sea, and there are still traces of the intricate procedures used to collect water from the hills behind. Sitting on top of the derelict cistern, on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, all I could think of is that this must have been a very lonely place to die.
It was very different at the Baptism site, where Jesus came to submit to the baptism of John. It was a moment of great joy, new life being initiated into the Church. As with every visit abroad for 'business', I could begin to see the Church through rose-tinted spectacles. It was a similar feeling to that generated all those years ago by attending large number of ordinations during the summer holidays from the seminary. The Church from this perspective looks to be thriving, but obviously a more profound analysis is required. The crowds at ordinations, catholic weddings and baptisms demonstrate that the faith is still strong and alive in places.
The present day crisis is to do with identity of the priesthood. The sad reality, I have discovered in talking to priests, is that their daily experience of parish and diocesan life can all too often be negative rather than of the positive. A recent report about widening the range of careers available to college leavers revealed that in 9 out of 10 manual vocational careers there was a higher job satisfaction than in many office-focused jobs, the unwitting destination of so many graduates. The only vocational career that did not fit this pattern was the priesthood.
It has always seemed to me sad that the priesthood receives such a poor press, both from within and without. This is not simply with regard to the obvious disgrace of child-abuse, but also with regard to its own self-understanding. Perhaps as a body we have temporarily lost sight of the added-value, to misuse a term from economics, that we bring to the practise of the faith. The priest is ordained to say Mass, and this should remain the focal point of his ministry, but the saying of Mass loses some of its meaning when it takes place in a vacuum, whether spiritual or communitarian. The last Supper was a purposeful moment where Jesus had collected the Twelve together. Prior to this Jesus had gathered the crowds together to teach and to feed them and, in His mission, had conducted an extensive table fellowship with the rich, poor and sinner alike. This was all highly purposeful. Jesus knew the reasons why He did what He did. The dynamic of divine love pushed Him forward.
Much of parish life seems to lack real purpose, whether it is saying Masses in empty churches or in the continual plea for volunteers for activities that have now lost their meaning. This lack of purpose is far more devastating than any opposition, because it is admitting that the motor of divine love, the Holy Spirit, has no meaning.
Up to now the response has been to reduce the number of Masses as if somehow this will save the priest some work. This is not the solution. Rather it is the rediscovery of the purposeful activity that makes the saying of Mass the essential parish work. Beneath this pinnacle must lie a strong foundation of faith, learning, spirituality, and community. This is the stuff of collaboration between the laity and the priesthood that makes the celebration of Mass the heart of parish life.
Fifteenth Sunday of the Year - Sunday 10 July 2005
The mood could not have been more different. Many Londoners were spending Wednesday evening contemplating victory in securing the bid for the 2012 Olympics, and the following day horrified at the carnage wreaked by Islamic terrorists. It was a tragic end to a short lived euphoria, and must be a bitter blow for those who worked so hard to secure the Olympic Games. The organisation of sport has always been one of the hallmarks of a truly human civilisation. In the world of ancient Greece, it was a way of avoiding war and of harnessing the competitive spirit of the individual and city-state by directing them to less fatal outcomes. There are disagreeable aspects of modern sport, especially with regard to some practices in football, but to deny the value of sport, and to take away its competitive edge, is to lose its civilising mission.
All forms of team sport rely on both individual prowess and a bond between players. In this way team sport is a microcosm of society in that it brings together both the individual and the group. Once the player knows the rules, he is charged with his own conduct. There is an analogy to this in life. Once the 'rules' of life are grasped, and at the heart of which is the natural law, 'do good and avoid evil', the Church's teaching on human conduct is that 'man is left to the power of his own counsel'. This is the concept of 'autonomy' used by the Church to explain the relationship between the human and divine will. God has given to humanity both the ability to recognise the rules and to 'play' them. The Church does not see there to be an essential clash between the will of God and that of man.
This position differs significantly from that of the secularist, who believes that God's will would inevitably deprecate the human will, and also from that of the religious fanatic, who claims direct access to God's will without the sense of responsibility engendered in the Christian vision of 'being left to one's own counsel'. The fanatic fails to grasp that God cannot will something that would break the natural law and be the direct cause of evil. The power of God does not lie in the ability to do anything, whatever its moral outcome. If this were so then God would not be rational. If He were by nature irrational, He would then not be ultimately understandable, even to someone of the greatest faith. Moreover, to the Christian the revelation of Jesus would become irrational and His teachings would have no, or only passing, meaning. The power of God lies in the ability to create, to sustain and bring to a conclusion, in other words to create an ordered universe. The mission of Christ is to bring order back into a fallen world, where humanity has wrought havoc through its sinfulness.
The contemporary religious fanatic, even with his or her emphasis on following God's will, makes no attempt to bring or recreate order. The aim is always to destroy. Some things have to be destroyed but certainly not innocent life. A programme that simply consists in destruction can hardly be in accord with God's will as He is the Creator of all that exists. The realisation of His divine will also involves humanity, as is revealed in the person Jesus Christ. It is also true for us. Our human nature is part of God's will in the created order. He has given us the rules, allowed us to make them our own, and now he wishes us participate, on an ultimately world-wide scale encompassing all humanity, to build His kingdom.
Sixteenth Sunday of the Year - Sunday 17 July 2005
There must be many people, including some of us, who can thank God for not being on those tubes or bus at that murderous moment last Thursday morning. The reality of what took place has now become personal, as one hears about the lives of those killed and injured, a sister of a Catholic teacher killed, a young Australian planning to marry in St Ethelreda's, Ely Place, who has lost both feet in the blasts. These, and numerous other tragic stories, are about the lives of those injured and bereaved that will be forever marked by the events last week.
The realisation that these bombers came from within our midst, born and brought up in these shores has shown all too clearly how we have lost sight of the country in which we live. In a spirit of multi-racial tolerance we have left things develop that should have no part of a civilised society, and our tolerance has bordered on the side of abandonment. The collapse of a civic sense and of economic activity in many of these northern towns has provided a fertile ground where the preachers of religious hatred can sow their 'darnel'.
However the economic circumstances are not the only ones that provide a feeding ground for such thoughts. Most of the members of the Red Brigades, a Italian terrorist cell, that spent the 1970s and 1980s, creating a 'strategy of tension' within Italy, a climate of fear that would provoke the government into authoritarian actions that would legitimise, to the Red Brigades' own mind, their course of action.
These bombers came from respectable middle class families, and who wanted for nothing, so it should come as no surprise that a similar situation holds today in Britain. The Italian bombers who blew up Bologna railways station in the early 1980s with loss of over 80 lives, could quote from Lord of the Rings, and used this text as their bible for a new world order.
The deeper reasons for such murderous actions are explained in this Sunday's Gospel about the parable of the darnel. The question Jesus raises is, 'who sowed the darnel in the field of wheat?' This is the question different Islamic leaders are now asking themselves, as must the distraught parents of the perpetrators. It is a question that other people, groups and countries, need to ask as well, and to admit whether their policies have made it easier to sow the darnel. The work of the devil, the 'father of lies' finds many willing advocates who through their progressive loss of humanity become the devil's more and more loyal servants. This loss is always personal, and cannot be blamed on the circumstances of life alone, but it must be recognised that certain circumstances of life and some victim-orientated cultures make the devil's work much easier.
The parable also makes clear that the darnel cannot be weeded out till the end of time. The world as constituted will always contain those eager to accept the darnel of the devil, but we hope, there are also those eager to accept the seed of the Word. This is not a counsel of despair, nor one of accepting fate with stoic calm. Instead it should be seen as a call to rescue our common humanity. The ministry of healing and forgiveness initiated by Jesus began with a restoration to humanity as the springboard into accepting His message, the seed, and in turn yielding a rich harvest. This county's civic and religious leaders speak of toleration, which in itself is not wrong, but to the Christian it remains an incomplete answer. The restoration of humanity is what is needed, not just a passive tolerance, that we have seen can so easily turn to indifference. This is the Church's special mission and it is our mission too. It should be preached and lived in the daily circumstances of life wherever it is needed, whether at home, in the workplace, in our civic life, or in the country as a whole. It is the Christian duty to restore man to value, in other words become like the Father to the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Seventeenth Sunday of the Year - Sunday 24 July 2005
The prospect of a summer holiday will come as a relief to many after the events of the last few weeks here in London. Even the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has given his imprimatur to the human need for a holiday as a time for the renewal of spirit, mind and body. Ten days ago I was celebrating the wedding of a young couple in the idyllic surroundings of the Amalfi coast. After the morning rehearsal I was able to visit the Villa Cimbrone, in Ravello, the small hilltop town where the wedding guests were staying. I had first been there with my parents twenty-six years ago, and with various other friends in subsequent years as a seminarian in the late 1980s. It is a remarkable spot where it is possible to gaze downwards over a thousand feet to the little villages nestling among the rocks on the seashore. The gardens had been laid out by a melancholic Englishmen at the turn of the 20th century. At the furthest point, along the trellis walkway lies the so-called 'terrace of the infinite'. Here the creator could contemplate the reasons for exiling himself far from England, and perhaps they were similar to the reasons given by those first patrician settlers who came to escape the collapse of Rome in the 6th/7th centuries.
It was to this terrace that I headed for a final bout of inspiration before delivering my sermon later that afternoon. However, to my great dismay, the little café underneath the terrace now boasted classical music echoing through cheap loudspeakers. The silence of the place, previously only interspersed by the occasional bursts of human chatter that were quickly silenced by the awesomeness of the scene, had now gone to be replaced by classical favourites, lest anyone be able to grasp, unaided, the beauty or uniqueness of the spot. The misguided attempt to add to what was almost perfect is an unfortunate human trait that exhibits a deep unease about oneself. The power of silence is that it lets one hear the quieter rhythms of life, the more subtle movements of the soul, and ultimately, for the religious person, the voice of the Holy Spirit.
A summer holiday is a good time to reflect on meaning of our human life, not simply in its brevity compared with that of the ancient landscapes of the Mediterranean shore, or wherever we may be travelling with family or friends, but also to the contribution each life should make in building up a civilisation of 'morality, civility and learning'. It is a much better time to establish a few resolutions than the New Year, when virtually the only issue most can think about is attempting a diet after the excesses of Christmas. These resolutions should be of a positive nature, of perhaps seeking to discover the richness of our Catholic faith, or to realise through our home parish, or our employer's social responsibility programme, that charitable spirit that should lie within every Catholic.
Wherever you are travelling this summer may I wish you all a very pleasant and relaxing holiday, both for the value of rest and friendship, and also for the many benefits it might bring to you and your families.
The Missionary discourse of Jesus: Matthew c.10
The preaching and healing of Jesus have been the subject matter of Chapters 8 and 9. Now St. Matthew gives us Jesus' missionary discourse (Chapter 10). Jesus has taken pity on the crowds, as He does us, and so He sends missionaries modelled on Himself to continue His work of salvation. The actions of these first disciples mirror that of His own, and thus the Church may be seen as essentially missionary in nature. This manifesto for action is as valid today as it was to those first disciples. The original scope of the mission was to the 'lost sheep of the House of Israel' and only later is the command given, to go and baptise all the nations. This mission still continues despite the centuries of mistrust and antagonism.
By the time that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel the primitive communities of Syria had already had experience of itinerant preachers and the instructions given in this chapter suggest that already perhaps more such preachers should follow the example of Christ a little more closely. The dynamic of mission is preaching and passing on the Word. Jesus emphasises that the message will not always be accepted. This is not the moment for human condemnation but of letting go, and leaving them to the judgement of God.
The qualities of the missionary, the purposeful homelessness, poverty and defencelessness, all mirror the behaviour of Jesus Christ. The disciple and master also share a common destiny: both will be persecuted, both will be delivered to the courts, both will take up their Cross and both will experience a violent death.
Jesus though does not simply speak just the negative side of being a disciple but also of the consolation of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the imminent coming of the Son of Man. Both are associated with the last days, and so there is a sense of urgency in their preaching, but also of God's expectant action to protect the missionary from the hardships of the task ahead.
The reception given to Jesus' activity: Matthew c.11-12
The Gospel account of St. Matthew follows the Sermon on the Mount, with an account of Jesus' teaching and healing. (c8 and 9) This is followed by the Missionary Discourse. The focus moves to the reception given by 'the first generation of listeners' to the person of Jesus. The motivations for belief and disbelief were also experienced by the first apostles in their preaching of the Gospel. The recognition of the true identity of Jesus was the closely related to the identity of John the Baptist.
When John the Baptist was languishing in prison he sent out emissaries to enquire of Jesus if he was 'the one who is to come'. Even to John, Jesus' mission seemed opaque, and not what he had originally expected. Jesus tells John's messengers to open their eyes and grasp the reality of His actions. The prophecies of Isaiah were being fulfilled. They return enlightened to encourage John about the truth.
John, however, remains a stumbling block to others' belief. John preached repentance and those who rejected this invitation would be unable to recognise the coming of Jesus. However, a true knowledge of John would lead to a better understanding of the message of Jesus Christ. The pattern of disbelief followed by rejection is repeated again with relation to the seaside towns of Galilee, Chorazin and Bethsaida. The local peoples' superficial understanding of their faith made them unable to grasp the 'newness' of Christ, an attitude that would not later be found in pagan towns.
The situation is not without hope. There are those who are invited and who do accept. What unites them together is a childlike trust in God, and a ready acceptance of Jesus Christ as the revealer of God's grace and mercy. To the simple minded, the actions of Jesus open a lasting entry nto the doctrine of the Trinity, a mystery of faith opaque to secular reason. The grasping of Jesus' true identity is also a matter of profound liberation as He shares our burdens, and removes all those worries experienced by the rootless and insecure.
The parables of the kingdom: Matthew c13
The previous two chapters (c11 and 12) have covered the varied responses, from acceptance to outright hostility, to Jesus' preaching. The present chapter (13) is composed of parables, spoken by Jesus about the coming of the kingdom, and give a theological answer to the apparent failure of His mission. The parables of the sower, its interpretation, and the parable of the darnel and its interpretation would help the disciples to understand the apparent failure. The failure of Jesus' mission, and consequent difficulties faced by the Church ever since, are not due to the insufficiency of the Word, but to the way in which it was, and is received. The establishment of the kingdom does not follow some pre-determined plan, but as will become apparent in the final judgement. The word has been sown, and it is the quality of our response that will determine our place in the kingdom. The parable of identifies the many ways in which one can squander the possibility of salvation.
The question over the refusal to listen opens up a more mysterious dimension, that of the role of the devil. When Jesus quotes Isaiah to explain the lack of acceptance, there is something greater at work than mere wilful refusal. The 'hardening of heart' has taken precedence over individual sinful choices, and for some this has become a vicious spiral. This spiral of decline can only be broken through the acceptance of Christ. The disciple who makes this divinely inspired choice is thus blessed by Jesus, because he has accepted the grace necessary to make such a choice.
The fulfilment of the kingdom is in one respect inevitable, as the mustard seed will turn into the largest tree, and as the yeast will leaven all the bread. This progression is neither smooth nor personally inevitable. The world, which includes ourselves, are the repository of the good and bad seed. The farmer will not intervene to weed out the darnel till the end, lest he damage the good growth. The sifting will take place at the final harvest, but in the meantime the believer has to struggle on despite the apparent flourishing of evil at present.
The parables of the kingdom: Matthew c.13 (conclusion)
Jesus concludes His explanation of the coming of the kingdom of God with a number of short parables. The treasure hidden in a field and the discovery of the fine pearl emphasise the totality of commitment as everything is sold to acquire the precious good. To enter is a life-changing event, not because the past was wrong, but that in the light of the kingdom everything prior takes on a provisional quality.
The preaching of Jesus, and later that of the missionary activity of the early Church, attracts many different types who accept the message for various reasons, some good, some self-serving. The initial preaching must always be generous, but this generosity must be reciprocated. If it is not then the self-serving believer has a fearful destiny ahead of him.
The disciples readily accept that they have understood the meaning of the parables, although their future conduct certainly shows otherwise. They have begun the process of understanding, and Jesus compares them to the traditional scribe, as they both understand the tradition, the pre-history of the Old Testament that points to Jesus, and the novelty of His preaching.
The news about the coming of the kingdom spreads quickly, and those who claim a superficial knowledge of Jesus cannot accept His teaching and remain a warning against a reliance on a merely superficial acquaintance. The incident gives meaning to the parable of the dragnet and the fate of the self-serving and superficial follower.
The Gospel writer now gives a retrospective look at John the Baptist before describing the next phase in Jesus' mission which involves the disciples in a more public role. The fate of John the Baptist indicates that the same fate will befall Jesus. The news of the Baptist's death made Jesus head to lonely parts, but in so doing He drew the people out towards Himself. The large crowds that gathered around Him were taught by Him and fed by Him, with the reluctant help of the disciples, but the structure of the account of the miraculous feeding is very similar to that of Mass, and shows Jesus preparing the disciples for their own mission after the Resurrection.