The Christmas lights were switched on this last Friday in Canterbury. Preparations for Christmas are now upon us and we have 35 days before the beginning of the Christmas season. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. This Sunday and next Sunday in the Liturgy we consider the end of time and readings from the apocalyptic book of Daniel before we begin the new liturgical year. It is only after reflecting on the end times that we begin our new liturgical year and celebrate the four weeks of Advent. As we consider the end times or the second coming of Christ, the question for us now is not at what hour or day will Jesus come but am I ready to meet Jesus? So for now it is a good time to consider our own mortality. We need to appreciate the precious gift of our limited time on earth. We pass through times of growth, and maturity and then we decline. We are on our way to be at one with the loving Father. The Canadian priest, Ronald Rolheiser in his column in the Catholic Herald last week wrote that our death is meant to be met and respected as a normal human experience and not as a medical failure. “Death and its inevitability in our lives are to be understood as a growth point, a necessary maturation, something to which we are organically and spiritually destined and not an aberration or unnatural intrusion into the life cycle.” So how are we preparing for our death? You will find lots of practical advice on making a will, having a funeral plan and the like, but I am not talking about this aspect. We come to the inevitability of our death by being ready, by being awake. It is essential for us to live in the present moment and see each day as a gift from God. The way we prepare is to live life with great thankfulness and joy. Perhaps as we wake each morning we could pray these words from Psalm 15. Preserve me God, I take refuge in you. My happiness lies in you alone. You are my portion and cup, you yourself are my prize. I keep you ever in my sight, even at night you direct my heart. With you at my right hand, I shall stand firm. And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad. For you will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever.
This Sunday, 11th November, is Armistice Day and is also known as Remembrance Day. It marks the day World War One ended, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918. Nowadays, we remember those who were lost in the war by holding a two-minute silence and by wearing a red poppy. The act of remembering is important. We are people who keep anniversaries and remember the past. The act of remembrance helps us to understand the events of the past and learn from them. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 41 million. World War II fatality statistics vary, with estimates of total deaths ranging from 50 million to more than 80 million. The higher figure of over 80 million includes deaths from war-related disease and famine. Civilians killed totalled 50 to 55 million, including 19 to 28 million from war-related disease and famine. These staggering statistics impel us to foster a deep desire to work and pray for real and lasting peace. In many Catholic churches a requiem Mass is celebrated for the dead of the two world wars on this day. When we celebrate a requiem Mass we commend the dead to God’s merciful love and plead for the forgiveness of their sins. As a Christian community we affirm and express the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints. Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth and benefit from their prayers and intercession. In this way we recognises the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and we proclaim our belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more. So we remember and we pray for those killed through war and we pray for peace today.
“Let us, then, pray with all fervour for this peace which our divine Redeemer came to bring us. May He banish from the souls of men whatever might endanger peace. May He transform all men into witnesses of truth, justice and brotherly love. May He illumine with His light the minds of rulers, so that, besides caring for the proper material welfare of their peoples, they may also guarantee them the fairest gift of peace.” St Pope John XXIII
On Wednesday night Fr Sylvester and I were at the Mass of Welcome of Fr Hans Puthiakulangara as the Pastoral Administrator of the parish St Simon Stock, South Ashford. He was asked a series of questions by Monsignor Matthew Dickens the Chancellor of the Diocese. The first was “It is the duty of the priest to proclaim the word of God. He must study the bible and meditate on its message; believe what he reads; teach what he believes and practice what he teaches. Are you willing to co-operate with your bishop in preaching Christ in season and out of season, explaining to all the word of God? “ It reminded me of the Vatican II document on priestly life that clearly states that the primary duty of the priest is to proclaim the Gospel of God to all. I am sure that if you asking many people, when asked what is the primary duty of the priest they would answer “to celebrate Mass”. When we affirm that “the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” we are not denying that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. I remember a priest working in Chile said that his one aim as a parish priest was to get people to read and love the Scriptures.
The Mass and the sacraments mean little to anyone who does not know Jesus. We can come to a deep and initiate knowledge of Jesus through the Gospels especially. We as a parish are called to be missionary. We need to ask ourselves “How important is Scripture in my life?” At the end of Mass, the priest says’ Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. We are better able to to do this if it the gospels are part of our life.
Pope Francis, speaking to young people of Argentina earlier this year, said:
“But to travel this path of helping to lift up others, let us not forget, we need personal encounters with Jesus, moments of prayer, adoration and, above all, listening. The word of God; I ask you: how many of you read two minutes of the Gospel each day? Two minutes! Keep a little copy of the Gospel in your pocket, in your wallet … While you are on the bus, while you are on the subway, on the train or you stop and sit at home, open it and read it for two minutes. Try, and you will see how your life changes. Why? Because you will meet Jesus. You will meet Him with the Word”.
Painfully at this time in the Church we are having to deal with sexual abuse of children by some priests. We need to give priority to the special pastoral care to all those effected by this abuse.
This abuse has changed many peoples attitude towards priests. There are those who say that abuse has been allowed to go unchallenged because of clericalism within the Church. I believe that clericalism has been allowed to happen when we disassociate Holy Orders from Baptism. It is when we forget the connection to the baptised. I must remember that I exist as a priest only to serve the baptised. For me my baptism is more fundamental than my ordination. Holy Orders serves the baptised and when you forget that then you have clericalism. Clericalism happens when we cling to honour, power and prestige as a priest. It happens when there is an obsession with holy orders in itself. We all must never forget that the priesthood is a ministry of service. A priest is here to help people become holy. “When we forget that, we become caved in on ourselves, as St Augustine says.” (Bishop Robert Barron)
In the gospel for this Sunday Jesus says: “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Pope Francis said, “We must never see our ministry as a source of self-gain; rather our sacred ministry has to be the means of our self-giving”. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston wrote, “In the life of the priest and deacon, there can be no dichotomy between our cultic role and the humble service we must give as in washing the feet of our brothers and sisters. The towel should be as emblematic as the stole for our priests and deacons, where humble service must reflect the humble and loving service of the Good Shepherd.” Please continue to pray for vocations to the priesthood. We need men who are willing to embrace a life of humble service of the baptised.
Another person was added to the list, late in the day. He is an Italian man of 19 years, Nunzio Sulprizio, who was beatified in 1963. Nunzio is a little known apprentice blacksmith. Both his parents died while he was a child, and so his uncle took charge of him. Unfortunately, his uncle mistreated him in many ways, including forced labor in a blacksmith shop where on Nunzio’s shoulders enormous weights had to be carried over vast expanses. Nunzio eventually contracted gangrene and was sent to a hospital in Naples. He suffered immensely but found sustenance in the Eucharist. He eventually recovered, and then dedicated himself to be of service to other patients before cancer took his life just before his 20th birthday. Daniele Palmer who reflects on his life in this weeks “Tablet”, points out he did nothing exceptional in the church, he did not found a community. His short life was full of pain and suffering. “He was a simple man, a young Catholic who became ill doing his job; whose hardships were met by prayers; whose faith was not an escape but an anchor that held him firm.” This is fitting as the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” is in full swing. It is giving us a clear message that holiness is not restricted to priests, sisters, bishops and popes. Holiness is a call we all receive. I think that it is harder to grow in holiness as a priest, nun or bishop because there is more in your life to make you complacent. There is always the temptation to think, “I’m alright Jack.” Holiness is living the ordinary life extraordinarily well. We are only able to do this if we rely on God’s grace, his power. St Paul says that he makes his weakness his special boast so the power of Christ may stay over him. “For when I am weak then I am strong.” We thank God for the witness to holiness of great men like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI but also the great witness of the ordinary folk, like Nunzio Sulprizio.
I was visiting Oxford last week and went to the chapel of New College. In the antechapel under the West window depicting a nativity scene based on a design by Sir Joshua Reynolds stand a large sculpture of Lazarus by Jacob Epstein that he carved in 1951. It stands about 12 feet high. It is said that Khrushchev, after a visit here, claimed that the memory of this haunting work kept him awake at night. Lazarus is still wrapped in the bands and his head is twisted halfway round so that his chin touches his shoulder. The wrists are bound tightly to the thighs. But the arms and elbows project away from the body.
Do I belong to Christ or do I belong to the rubbish dump of life?
This is a question that Sylvester O’Flynn O.F.M. Cap.posed in his reflection on this Sunday’s gospel. Mark’s gospel gives us some challenging imagery of cutting off hands, feet, tearing out eyes should they cause us to sin. Jesus is not advocating self mutilation in a literal sense. Sin does not reside in our hand or eye which might be its instrument. Sin is in the will. It is better to ask what these organs represent. Our hands are for welcoming and greeting, for serving and giving, healing and caressing, reconciling and uniting, praising the Lord in work and prayer. Such hands belong to Christ. But hands can be cold and withdrawn: closed and off-putting, thieving and deluding: violent and hurtful: destructive and sinful. Such hands are already cut off from Christ. Feet are for going and mission: for standing firm in storm and trial: for bringing the good news. Such feet belong to Christ. But feet are also used for running away from responsibility: shifting with every passing wind or fad: marching with menace, terror or destruction. Such feet do not belong to Christ.
Eyes are windows of the soul: they let in God’s heavenly light and fill us with wonder, goodness and praise: windows that shine out with the love of God which is in the heart, through attentiveness caring and sharing. But these same eyes may be smudged and darkened. Those who do evil hate the light and avoid it less their actions should be exposed. Eyes can be darkly fascinated by lust and violence. Dark shifty eyes express hatred, prejudice and coldness.
Thus our hands, feet and eyes are made for God’s service. They are consecrated in baptism to be members of Christ’s body on earth today. But if we live contrary to Christ’s way, then we do not belong to him. We deserve the rubbish dump. That is the meaning of what is translated as hell.
The word in the Greek text of Mark is Gehenna. This was a steep ravine on the Western and Southern sides of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times the valley was the setting for idolatrous worship (Jeremiah 7:31) and child sacrifice to the pagan God Moloch. It now served as a rubbish dump. A rubbish dump is never without a fire and the maggots and bacteria are ever busily decomposing all matter there. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna as a place of everlasting punishment, he was using imagery familiar to his listeners. As the commentator Fr Sylvester O’Flynn says”Preachers and artists down the centuries have exaggerated the image of fire beyond all proposition and context. Here it means the rubbish dump of wasted life and talent. Belonging to Christ or to the rubbish dump? Where does my life, every part of it, stand?
Attitudes have changed since the time of Christ to children. In first century Palestine society a child would symbolise not so much innocence, as a lack of social status and legal rights. In other words, a child was seen as a non person, totally dependant on others for nurture and protection. You were not expected to gain anything socially or materially from showing kindness to a child. So when Jesus took the child and embraced him he was correcting and instructing his disciples who were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus, by putting the child in the middle of these men, was saying that this child, who is a social nonentity, is worthy of respect and care. Jesus is clearly saying that even the most apparently insignificant people are important because they too carry the name of Jesus and belong to him.
Jesus is challenging us today by showing us what true greatness is. He is calling us to humble service of others. We need to find Him and the Father in the most insignificant people. What the world sees as the important and significant people we need to listen to and take note of are not necessarily worthy of our attention and time.
This is not for me an easy lesson to hear. Jesus has a message that says;”triumph comes through suffering and humility” Jesus talks about his coming passion and death but the disciples are not listening. It is not what they want to hear. This was the powerful message given to us by the life and work of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She said: “The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved – they are Jesus in disguise.” She also said: “Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.” Forget about being famous for fifteen minutes. Forgot about try to win the admiration and adulation of others. This is what Mother Teresa suggests should be our way of life. “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can only live your life radiating that love.”