Sunday Reflection

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (29.10.17)

Identifying The Truth

People, when asking questions, reveal much about themselves. Jesus’ questioner in Matthew’s Gospel for the 30th Sunday (22:34-40) is a case in point. Jesus’ previous questioners demonstrated, either individually or collectively, a depth of antagonism as in last Sunday’s Gospel (Matt: 22:15-22). Their aggressive intentions may likely have revealed themselves in an insincerity of tone or manner, or both! Posture would also have played a part in revealing their irritation. A questioner may try to disguise his or her true feelings behind a smile or a false humility. Jesus had quickly become well experienced in reading the less obvious dispositions of many interrogators.
 
Several of our senses are involved whenever we listen with full attention. In addition to our hearing, our eyes look at and, in a sense, into the person posing the question. Our sense of smell may contribute to an overall evaluation of the questioner. Our sense of touch may be involved. Touch can be an informative means of communication telling us about our questioner’s disposition. These multiple points of information can happen simultaneously or over a short period of time. Either way, they should help us determine the manner of our response.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew tells us how a question from a Pharisee and scholar of the (Jewish) Law probed Jesus’ authenticity. Jesus’ response was entirely different from his previous encounter with the combined forces of Pharisees and Herodians whom he addressed as “You hypocrites!” To this questioner Jesus said:
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

Imagine how you would read aloud Jesus’ response for the benefit of your listeners. You surely wouldn’t shout or employ a stern voice and manner, would you? Jesus must have inwardly rejoiced that here was a genuine question from a genuine believer and moderated his response in word and in his manner accordingly.

Jesus was appealing to his questioner’s faith and religious knowledge. As in the case of Jesus, his questioner had been immersed since his infancy in the beliefs and culture of his people. Both would have lived their faith through their home and family relationships as well as with their synagogue communities. There was a wholeness to their lives that was deeply embedded in their relationship with God. For Jesus, the relationship with his heavenly Father was unique. For the young Pharisee and future scholar of the Law the path was through prayer and study.

Now, grown to adulthood and despite being strangers, the faith Jesus and the Pharisee valued and shared enabled them to communicate at a level those around were unable to appreciate or understand. Their faith united them, in a relatively short time, with one another at a level deeper than word and despite the hostilities of their surroundings.

The Pharisee and scholar of the Law heard not only the words that Jesus spoke to him but the truthfulness of the encouragement that Jesus offered as well as the love with which he communicated his teaching. The Pharisee did not ask for further clarification nor did he attempt to endorse what Jesus had said – as another Pharisee had once done (Mark 12:32) Moreover this Pharisee had addressed Jesus as “Teacher” and had done so without any hint of sarcasm or hypocrisy despite the hostile environment around him.

This particular communion of minds and hearts may not have lasted long, but it hadn’t needed to. Jesus had combined two Commandments from the Torah and in so doing had underlined the principles that govern the enactment of all the Commandments.

The first Commandment Jesus quoted (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) is an integral part of the Shema, the prayer a faithful Jew makes at the start of each day. Jesus then added a second Commandment giving it equal status with the first. Quoting Leviticus (19:18), Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The Book of Leviticus explains the love of neighbour as ‘right relationship’ which, for the Jew, is the meaning of justice.

Jesus had given a teaching full of incontrovertible Truth. His questioner was both satisfied and full of admiration. This ‘Teacher’ had given an equality of status to two of the Commandments and made them pivotal in the living of all the Commandments.  
 
From the writings of the time it is clear that there was constant controversy among scholars of the Law as to which of the 613 commandments of the Torah should be prioritized since no one could be expected to observe all 613 commandments. The two Commandments Jesus linked are at the core of all his teaching. The love of God and the love of one’s neighbour as oneself are the interpretive key to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus ‘cements’ his teaching in the last sentence of Matthew’s extract for this Sunday: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
 
Given the controversies that bedevil our world today and the incessant aggravation that stalks our streets, it is worth noting that the deep communion of minds and hearts between Jesus and the Pharisee, who was a scholar of the Law, took place in an aggressively charged setting.

Believing communicant Christians need to identify one another and draw strength from their oneness in faith. On the shop floor, in the office or staffroom Christians need not be in isolation. Nearby, even hidden within a controversial setting, can be another or others with whom there is a Baptismal link waiting to be made. Our Baptism calls us to be proactive in searching for other members of our Baptismal family – especially those who may have succumbed to weariness and fatigue.

This last Sunday of October has long been called “Reformation Sunday” by Protestant denominations. The Catholic Church, too, has shared in this the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We thank God for the progress already made in the long and winding path of Reconciliation and Mutual Understanding between the various Christian communities, especially since the Second Vatican Council.

It is important that Catholic Christians pay attention to this significant commemoration.  Firstly, to confess that, realistically, some of the Catholic Church’s own behaviour, at the time, contributed to it. And, secondly, to relaunch our prayer and work for Christian Unity.

Successive Popes since Pope John XXlll have said, without exception, that praying and working for Christian Unity is not an optional extra for the Catholic family. This Sunday’s Readings offer us an excellent opportunity to expound on what unites us as Christians by helping us focus on the essential aspects of discipleship and being willing to let go of whatever is not crucial or essential to Christian living.
 

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (22.10.17)

“You Hypocrites!”
 
Jesus is not a name-caller without reason. In this, as in each instance, he is motivated by the Truth. Matthew (22:15-22) provides our Gospel extract for this 29th.Sunday.
 
 The Pharisees were perhaps reeling from the impact of the three parables that Jesus had addressed to them in public revealing the mis-directedness of their faith.  In their anger, they concentrated their efforts to entrap Jesus hoping thereby to discredit him in the eyes of the people.

 The Pharisees’ depth of determination explains their collaboration, in this instance, with their bitter rivals the Herodians. Whereas the Pharisees claimed to be the supremely orthodox followers of Judaism, the Herodians, who equally were Jews, were the political agents of the Roman puppet-king Herod, king of Galilee, and were, like him, subservient to Rome.

In those days, as now, taxation was loathed. In Palestine the more so because, as an occupied territory, taxation was governed by the Roman Empire. For the Jew, the burning question was: "Is it lawful, under Jewish law, to pay tribute to Rome?"

The Roman Empire exacted three regular taxes. A ground tax; the payment to the government of one tenth of the grain, and one fifth of the oil and wine each produced; this tax was paid partly in kind, and partly in money. Then there was income tax. This amounted to one percent of a person’s income. And finally, a poll tax that had to be paid by every male person from the age of fourteen to the age of sixty-five, and by every female person from the age of twelve to sixty-five. It amounted to one denarius. It was what Jesus called the tribute coin being the equivalent of about 4p. Bear in mind that, in those days, 3p was the usual day's wage for a working-man.

It was the Poll Tax in which the Pharisees and Herodians chose to set their entrapment question. It posed Jesus a very real dilemma. If he said that it was unlawful to pay it, they would promptly report him to the Romans for promoting sedition and his arrest would follow. If Jesus said that it was lawful to pay the tax, he would stand discredited in the eyes of his own people. The Jews resented all the Roman taxes. But they resented the Poll Tax even more for religious reasons. For the Jews, God was their only king; their nation was a theocracy. Therefore, to pay tax to an earthly king was to insult God. The more orthodox of the Jews insisted that any tax paid to a foreign king was religiously offensive to God. The Pharisees and Herodians believed that whichever way Jesus answered their contrived question, he would lay himself open to a serious accusation.
 
By way of background it may be useful to remember that one of the first acts of each successive Roman Emperor, on gaining power, was to issue his own coinage as evidence of the reality of his authority. This official coinage was held to be the property of the Emperor. In asking his questioners to show him a denarius coin, Jesus was inviting them to condemn themselves.

Under Jewish law no orthodox Jew was allowed to carry anything of an idolatrous nature, including coinage because it bore the image of the Emperor. By providing Jesus with a denarius the orthodox Pharisees and their less orthodox Herodians showed themselves to be ‘unclean’ before the assembled people. It was for this reason, among others, that Jesus addressed them as: “You hypocrites!” They were themselves infringing the very Law with which they hoped to entrap Jesus!

Jesus asked his interrogators whose image the coin, that they had provided, bore? They answered: “Caesar’s”. Jesus then delivered his judgement, still quoted widely today – “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; and to God what belongs to God."

His interrogators’ hypocrisy had been defeated by The Truth speaking truth. Undiluted truth is the answer that cannot be gainsaid. Matthew tells us that on this occasion Jesus’ questioners were silenced and surprised and: “they left him alone and went away”. Truth is timeless and never goes out of date though it is always under devious attack from Satan and many fall victim to falsehood he confects.
 
Christians hold a double citizenship. They are citizens of the country of their domicile. This citizenship places them under a debt of obligation to act responsibly; failure to be upright earthly citizens is also a failure in Christian duty to God as well as to fellow citizens.

Christians are also ‘citizens’ of heaven. There are matters of religion and principle when the Christian’s responsibility to God takes precedence over their civil citizenship. It may well be that the two citizenships will never clash; they do not need to.

A Christian convinced that a particular principle is the will of God must uphold it even at the cost of her or his life. Equally, if a Christian is convinced that a civil law is against the will of God, they must resist it in all lawful ways and take no part in it. Where the boundaries between the two duties lie, Jesus does not say. That is for a person’s own informed conscience to test.

A Christian has the obligation to inform his/her conscience with a continuous updating that involves the grace of the Holy Spirit received through the Sacraments, an effective appreciation of the legitimate and authoritative teaching of The Church and the person’s own daily prayer. An informed conscience is a living entity. Unless it is continuously and correctly informed it is unreliable, subject to the infiltration of evil and therefore less fit for purpose that it should be.
 
The truth that Jesus lays down in this incident is how to determine to be, at one and the same time, a faithful citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and a true citizen of the country of one’s domicile. As St. Peter said, "Fear God. Honour the emperor", God comes first. ( 1 Peter 2:17 ).
 

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (15.10.17)

Parable’s Multiple Strands
 
Jesus appeals, again, to his people’s chief priests and elders. According to St. Matthew’s Gospel (22:1-14) for the 28th Sunday, this is Jesus’ third parable specifically for those in leadership.

Jesus weaves multiple strands of teaching into this one, or is it two, parable(s) perhaps to cover adequately the variety of attitude and understanding in his audience.  People who are familiar with diplomatic procedures will know the process for issuing a formal invitation to, say, a dinner.

The first intimation of an invitation would be in the form of a general enquiry as to whether a named person would be free to consider an invitation in a month or so. This general enquiry might also carry information about the reason for the proposed gathering, the likely number of people to be present and whom they may represent.

If a favourable response were to be received there would follow, later, a more specific invitation giving date and time. It may also indicate potential table companions. This would allow a guest to negotiate a possible change of table companions. Even closer to the date of the event, the host would circulate the full guest list inclusive of seating arrangements.
 
The chief priests and elders of the Jewish people listening to Jesus’ parable would have been familiar with the protocols of their time.  Having this background in mind may help us appreciate the detail of the first five sentences of chapter 22.

The treatment meted out to the king’s messengers is an indication of how little respect his people had for their king. The inference is clear, Jesus is setting the scene in the context of the damaged relationship between the Jewish elders and Jesus’ heavenly Father. God had sent successive emissaries to his chosen people over the preceding centuries many of whom had been persecuted. As Jesus developed his parable, we can imagine the level of anger rising in his audience. They were faced with, for them, an unpalatable truth that they could not contradict.
 
God never rescinds his invitation to humanity to share in the feast of heaven - the joy of his presence. This remains true even when people choose to ignore Him and maltreat his messengers. The parable also reminds us that what makes people turn away from God’s invitation are not necessarily bad in themselves. Matthew tells us that one man went to his business and another to his estate perhaps claiming administrative urgency. It is all too easy for any of us to be so preoccupied with the ‘here and now’ that we forget the necessary provisions for eternity. The noise of Satan’s world can drown out the gentle call of Christ. As someone said: ‘A man can be so busy making a living that he fails to make a life’.

The parable also prompts those who refuse or ignore the invitation to consider not so much the punishment as the joy of the ‘wedding feast’ which they will have foregone – for eternity!

God’s invitation is a ‘moment’ of grace. It cannot be merited or bought as indicated by those who were gathered in from the ‘highways and byways’. In their wildest dreams, they could never have expected an invitation to this wedding feast! It came to them from the ever open-hearted, generous hospitality of the king.
 
Verses 11 – 14 of this chapter 22 could almost be considered a separate, but connected, parable. What are we to make of the issue of the missing wedding garment?

We are aware of places, to which we may be invited, where we are required to put on protective clothing. This clothing is either to protect us or to protect the environment we are entering from any contamination we may carry. Just for a moment, let us imagine God’s grace as a form of clothing. God’s invitation is an outpouring of grace. We must choose to be clothed in that grace. To whom but the God of Forgiveness will we turn at the door of eternity? Our re-clothing in God’s grace commences from the moment of our Baptism. It is intended to be continuous. God will never withdraw from us but we, because we are sinners, may choose to clothe ourselves in something other than grace. His love is so profound and generous that God allows us to go back, repeatedly, pleading to be re-clothed in grace again.

In Jesus’s parable, it was the apparent unconcern of the guest without a wedding garment that brought his incarceration. He lacked the interior disposition of petition, the wedding garment, that he might be accorded the ‘Grace of Reconciliation’.

‘The weeping and gnashing of teeth’ reflects how, at the General Judgement everyone will be fully conscious of the wondrous joy and splendour of God’s presence (the “Wedding Banquet’). This reality all will keep undimmed for eternity. Those in heaven will experience it unendingly. Those who have chosen to forsake God will also know, for eternity, what they have chosen to forsake. In Jesus’ parable, the ‘weeping and gnashing’ of the one expelled was self-inflicted! It was not being done to him. It is said that remorse is the worst of all punishments because our culpability is inescapable.
 
We can also reflect that the second half of this parable has nothing to do with the clothes we wear to church and everything to do with the disposition with which we enter church! The parable challenges us, as it challenged the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. Are we in communion with the Lord, who longs to clothe us in his ‘wedding garment’ of graced reconciliation, or are we more conscious of church-going as a fashion parade?

Even some who attend church may arrive without those essential interior ‘garments’ of mind, heart and soul – humble confession, a desire to grow in faith and a sense of reverence for the holiness of God’s presence.

Jesus was not seeking to belittle the Jewish leaders but to draw them into choosing to be consecrated and clothed anew with God’s healing grace, as he is, continually, with us.  
 

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (01.10.17)

God Alone Is The Perfect Parent
 
The dysfunctionality of relationship is not uncommon among siblings. While psychiatrists and psychologists will have their theories as to the causes, Christians will trace such unhappiness to our first parents’ disobeying God. The fracture within the Divine / human relationship resulted in Adam and Eve’s son Cain murdering his brother Able. (Genesis 4: 3-9) The rest, as they say, is history.
 
Matthew’s Gospel for the 26th Sunday (21:28-32) also depicts two brothers. By use of a parable, Jesus was attempting the restoration of true faith in some of the chief priests and elders of his people. The son’s father, according to Jesus, asked his elder son to work in the vineyard. The youth refused but, later, reconsidered and went to work. The second son, on receiving the same message from his father, replied “Certainly, sir”, but did not go. Jesus asked the Jewish leaders, “Which of the two did his father's will?" They answered, "The first." The Leaders condemned themselves by recognising the validity of the elder son’s change of heart whereas they remained obstinately resistant when God manifested his will in the presence and teaching of his Son, Jesus.
 
Jesus gives no indication of the time lapse between the father’s request and the elder son’s change of heart. Nor is there an indication of whether another family member had played any part in the youth’s change of heart. What is clear is the elder son’s forthrightness of character which Jesus contrasts with the duplicity of the second son.
It is said that a couple’s first child can have a tougher upbringing than subsequent siblings. The parents are learning to be parental! A first child often sees his/her younger brothers and sisters accorded leniency for things for which he/she was punished! The resultant sense of injustice can last indefinitely causing damage to the parental/offspring relationship.
 
God alone is the perfect parent. Tragically, all God’s children, bar one, Mary the Immaculate Mother of God, are sinners. Humanity’s self-entrapment in sin, hereditary and personal, prevents any possibility of our being able to restore our broken relationship with God. This truth is as valid today as it was from the beginning. We are helpless unless Jesus Christ comes to our rescue. He can only come to us when we sincerely and truthfully call upon him with the same conversion of heart that was shown by the elder son in Jesus’ parable.
 
There’s a true story of a priest, many years ago, who was part of a missionary team in a parish in The Gorbals on the south bank of the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland. In the 1930s and beyond as many as 90,000 people were crammed into densely-crowded job-provided tenement housing without proper sanitation and often running water.

As the priest climbed to the top flat up a filthy staircase, a woman called out, “You shouldn’a bother yerself, Father. The one up there! She’s a woman of the night and won’t welcome ye disturbing her sleep!” Nevertheless, though he would have preferred not to have bothered, the priest knocked on the door. At length, a bedraggled youth appeared. The priest asked if he could speak with ------. He was shown to a disgustingly dirty and smelly tiny bedroom where a woman was sleeping. As he waited for her to be awakened he looked around. His eye was caught by one among many pictures on the walls by the bed. This one was out of keeping with the rest. It was a small ‘stampita’ (a holy picture cum prayer-card). It was of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in which Mary is depicted as holding and giving protection to the Infant Jesus who has run to her in fright.

That ‘woman of the night’, it turned out, had clung on to this tattered remnant of an earlier time in her afflicted life. In those depressing circumstances, she shed tears of joy when she received God’s Absolution from the priest. The next day, she came to the mission and received Holy Communion – much to the disapproval of some of her fellow communicants.

That one experience made the sheer slog and multiple disappointments of his priestly work on that Gorbal’s mission, and many more like it, worthwhile for that priest. He told the story. I heard it sixty years ago and, today, I rejoice to be able to pass it on to you.
 
It is quite possible that the father in Jesus’ parable shed many a tear when he discovered how his elder son had had such a change of heart. Who knows, maybe it was the first step of a reconciliation for which the father had long prayed without knowing how to apologise for his shortcomings as a dad!
 
Pope Francis had this to say about the Church he wants to see in the world of the 21st.Century:
The "thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle."
Pope Francis 24/09/13

The Pope has offered an image of the Church that is not only scripturally rich (cf. Mk 2:17) but one that should resonate with its members as well as with nonbelievers and those searching for a spiritual home.
 
Please God, we are more able not only to identify which son did his father’s will but to apply the truth in our own lives than were, apparently, the chief priests and elders who heard Jesus speak.
 
On August 9 2017 at a Wednesday General Audience, Pope Francis said:
“We, who are used to experiencing the forgiveness of sins, perhaps too “cheaply,” should at times remind ourselves how much we cost God’s love. Each one of us cost a lot: Jesus’ life!
He would have given it also for just one of us. Jesus didn’t go to the cross because He cured the sick, because He preached charity, because He proclaimed the Beatitudes. The Son of God went to the cross above all because He forgave sins, because He willed the total, definitive liberation of the human heart.”
 

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (24.09.17)

"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”
(Matt.19.30)

 
Almost no tourists and few pilgrims ever witness it. As dawn breaks over the city of Jerusalem, the area just outside the Jaffa Gate becomes a hubbub of activity. As you watch the parable, spoken by Jesus 2,000 yrs. previously, is brought to life in our 21st. century. This is no theatrical presentation, it is real, daily life, except for the Sabbath, in the city of perpetual tension, the meeting place of the three great religions of the world. Matthew recalls Jesus’ teaching for us (20:1-16) on the 25th Sunday of the Year.
 
Palestinian men, each carrying the tools of their trade, some water and a snack, jostle for position. Jewish landowners and contractors arrive in their pick-up trucks and drive slowly through the expansive area. They haggle briefly with the day-labourers before making their selection. Those hired climb into the open back of the trucks and so begins another day of work. There are no contracts, no union representatives, but the Jerusalem police are present in numbers should they be needed. A careful scrutiny of the archways high above the Jaffa Gate may even reveal some IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldiers with telescopic rifles. If you substitute mules and donkeys for pickup trucks and clad everyone in the garb of Jesus’ day and nothing much would have changed in two centuries. Instead of the IDF there would have been Roman mercenary soldiers.
 
People in the UK listening to the parable in 2017 may imagine Jesus describing an imaginary situation. Far from it! In fact, in the post 2nd World War major port cities of the UK, a similar scene was enacted daily at dock gates. Day-labourers queued from before dawn hoping to be picked to discharge cargoes from the endless stream of incoming merchant ships. Often it was a case of a day’s work only ‘if your face fitted’. To be unsuccessful in finding a day’s work in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, or the port city of Liverpool in the 20th century, meant hardship for all the family.
 
The truth of this parable goes to the very heart of the Christian Faith. There was a warning for Jesus’ disciples in his parable. It was as if he were saying to them: ‘You have the great privilege of becoming members of the Christian assembly from its inception. Later, others will come and you must not claim any honour because you were Christian before them. Every individual, no matter at what stage of their life they commit to Christ, is equally precious to God.
 
There are cradle Christians who develop a ‘proprietorial’ attitude towards their faith. Some resent, what they describe as, ‘11th Hour or deathbed converts’. They also resent the intrusion of a new generation whose outlook differs from theirs. In the Christian family seniority does not necessarily infer honour. Jesus’ disciples asked him who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven: Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt.18:2-5)
 
The parable also has a warning for the Jews who, conscious of being God’s ‘chosen people’ looked down upon Gentiles. The founding members of the Christian Church were all Jews who attempted to dictate that Gentiles could only become Christians if they first became Jews. “In God’s economy,” someone said, “there is no such thing as a most favoured nation clause.” It may be that long-established Christian communities, in say Western Europe, may well have to learn from younger Christian communities in other parts of the world.
 
This parable has lessons for today. The ‘comfort of God’ is extended to any person irrespective of at what state or stage of life that person commits them self to Christ. There is a saying: ‘Some enter the Kingdom in an hour; others hardly enter it in a lifetime’.
 
We live at a time of unprecedented migration often occasioned by dire circumstances of persecution and hunger. Unemployment caused by an absence of opportunity follows the migrants in all their wanderings. In the marketplace described by Jesus men stood waiting because no one had hired them. We do not know whether it was his compassion or the threat of imminent rain that prompted the landlord to take on more workers. Was he personally aware how continuous enforced unemployment can be utterly demoralising? This parable states implicitly two great truths at the very heart of Christianity -  everyone has a right to work and the right of every working person is to receive a just and living wage.  A ‘wage’ is not necessarily money. It may be a person’s contribution to the running, say, of a home and family or a communal enterprise such as a farm.
 
The love with which we serve matters more than the amount we give. We are called to give our all. We can neither earn nor merit the grace God gives us. God’s grace is not pay, nor is it a reward, it is pure gift.

This brings us to the supreme lesson of the parable. The spirit in which our work is contributed is more important than the work itself. The landlord, in the parable, entered into a contract with the first workers -  a day’s work for a day’s pay. Those who were taken on later -  especially the last comers – had no contract. All they wanted was the chance to work that they might feed their family. They trusted themselves to the landlord who knew the circumstances.

A person’s depth of commitment to Christianity maybe questionable if their first concern is material remuneration. Even Peter asked Jesus: “What about us, Lord, who have left everything to follow you?” Jesus’s response was to paint a word-picture of the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven where the first will be last and the last will be first.
 

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (17.09.17)

Ruled By Numbers
 
Numbers have always had a prominent place in our lives. As very small children we may been talked to count our tiny fingers and toes. We would certainly have learned our numerical position among our siblings and probably our wider family.
 
Catholics, of a certain age, will likely remember their religious life being ruled by numbers. When, for example, you were expected to go to Confession at least every two weeks. When you had to fast from food and drink (except water) from the preceding midnight if you intended to receive Holy Communion the following morning. Fast days were regulated by numbers. Depending on your teacher, you may have been told to eat no more than 4 ounces of food at breakfast and 6 ounces at supper. One meatless meal was allowed in the day. 21st century Catholics may think such measures to be unbelievable, but then 20th century Catholics found it hard to believe that their forebears had been expected to fast every day throughout Lent.

Of course, there were (as there still are) the casuists. For example, some believed in measuring out 4 ounces of, say, dry porridge oats.  By adding the water after weighing the oats, a more substantial breakfast was enjoyed!  The same casuistic reasoning was applied to dried vegetables!

Whenever mathematics hold sway in the living out of our faith, it would be fair to say that we had, to a worrying extent, lost our way.  St Peter, about whom we read in St Matthew’s Gospel for this 24th Sunday (18:21-35), quite likely felt that he was being magnanimous when he asked Jesus: “How often must I forgive my brother(sister)? As many as seven times?"

As a practising Jew, Peter would have been taught from his earliest years that he was required, under Jewish law, to forgive a person who sinned against him three times. (See the Book of Amos chapters 1 and 3) By asking Jesus if he should grant forgiveness seven times, Peter was doubling the required legal number for granting forgiveness to another and adding one! Once again, Jesus’s response would most likely have caught Peter by surprise: "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

More than a few scriptural scholars would contest the Jerusalem Bible translation. Instead of “seventy-seven” they believe that Jesus had said: “seventy times seven”. This would bring a total beyond comprehension – 70x7=490; 490x7=3430 and so on.  In other words, Jesus was indicating that, for him, forgiveness was unlimited. And if it was for him, then it will be so for his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is a Trinity of compassion and forgiveness when we, made in his image and likeness, open your heart and genuinely seek his forgiveness.

The Catholic Church’s preoccupation with numbers was particularly evident in the Sacrament of Reconciliation -  formerly called “Confession”.  The penitent was expected to state the time lapse since their last reception of the sacrament.  Individual sins where to be identified with a number corresponding to the number of commissions. In most cases the penance imposed by the priest was a set number of prayers such as the ‘Our Father’ and/or ‘Hail Mary’. Judaism’s preoccupation with numerical regulations found continuity in the structures of governance within the Roman Catholic Church!

The impulse to measure by numerical quantity is ingrained in our nature. It could be argued that without numeracy everyday life would become impossible. It could equally be argued that the Church, by incorporating the dominance of numeracy in its rules and regulations, strayed away from the example Jesus set.  There is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus used numeracy to determine how we should implement his teaching except by way of being generous. Jesus used multiplication to demonstrate that as God is generous so must we practice that virtue. In Matthew’s Gospel (5:40-42) we read: “…if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well; and if someone forces you to go one mile, go two with him. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.…” You may or may not be aware that in Jesus’ day a Roman soldier had the authority to make a Jew carry his burden for one mile.

Jesus emphasises his answer to Peter with a powerful parable exemplifying God’s generosity (18:23-35). It teaches a lesson – running through the entire New Testament – that we must forgive if we are to receive God’s forgiveness. "Blessed are the merciful," said Jesus, "for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt.5:7) As soon as Jesus had taught his chosen band his own prayer - the ‘Our Father’ - he directed their focus to one petition in particular namely, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  Jesus explained: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14-15).

Why this should be so is shown in the parable for this Sunday. Look at the contrast between the two debts. The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents. One talent in today’s money would approximately equal £240. Therefore, 10,000 talents would equate today to almost 2½ million pounds Sterling. The size of this servant’s debt becomes even more clear when you consider that the total annual budget for the province of Galilee, a wealthy province, was only 300 talents. By contrast, the debt of the fellow-servant was a mere trifle! 100 denarii would be less than £5.

Nothing that Jesus calls us to forgive can even remotely compare to all that our heavenly Father is willing to forgive us. His forgiveness of us is conditional upon our forgiveness of others.  We have been promised forgiveness for a debt that is beyond all repayment. The human race has brought about the death of God’s only Son and unless we forgive others we have no hope of finding mercy.

The ease with which we pray the ‘Our Father’ is born of constant repetition. It is a good thing that we have ready access to that prayer. However, if the words pass our lips with inadequate consideration then we are in danger of foregoing God’s forgiveness through a lack of attention to the specifics of God’s words. Did the penances that we were given in confession – say the ‘Our Father’ 10 times, for example -  really encourage our understanding of the prayer of Jesus?

The twin themes of mercy and forgiveness have found constant expression in both the spoken and written words of Pope Francis.  He is God’s emissary to a generation that sadly reflects the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“You will listen and listen again, but not understand,
See and see again, but not perceive.
For the heart of this nation has grown coarse.”
(Isaiah 6:9-10)
 This coarseness of heart is not medical but spiritual. The health of the human heart is affected by both internal and external factors -  for example: the clogging of the arteries or the lack of bodily exercise.

Spiritual coarseness of heart occurs when there is an absence of God’s grace. This occurs not because God refuses us his grace when we choose not to accept it. At first, this refusal of grace can be through procrastination – “Oh, I will get round to prayer etc later”.  Meanwhile, Satan edges ever closer to cleverly withdrawing us from God’s grace.

The remedy is in our own hands.  Jesus patiently and lovingly awaits us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
 

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (10.09.17)

Today we reflect on the pros and cons of speaking out.
 
In the Gospel Matthew talks about the duty of a Christian to correct an erring brother or sister.
But there is a way of doing this.
 
The advice is straightforward:-  “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves.”
Interestingly, the Gospel says that the offended party, not the offending one should seek reconciliation.
 
It counsels personal intervention and honest confrontation.
It encourages members of the Christian community to straighten things out with each other privately,
If that is at all possible.
 
As Fr. Denis McBride puts it so well: “Christians  ought to deal with each other candidly and personally ... no anonymous complaints to the Authorities ...no whisper campaigns...the purpose of confronting another
is not to humiliate but to be reconciled.”
 
If the offender repents, forgiveness must be warm and without limits or conditions.  Surely this is not too much to expect from one who is conscious of one’s own failings, and who has experienced God’s forgiveness.
 
If he proves intransigent and refuses to see the light, what then?
We could seek advice from some wise and trusted person, and if this does not work, we could consult a wider group of responsible people.
 
However, the whole aim of the exercise is not to score points against my brother, but to help be reconciled
with him.   As Christ Himself emphasises (CF Matthew 5: 23-24) to seek reconciliation is more important than to offer sacrifice.
 
Yes, reconciliation is not easy, and needs humility, just as practising Christianity in other ways is also difficult.  
 
To speak out means to speak for God.  Hence to remain silent when it could be interpreted as giving approval for wrong-doing is in itself wrong.
 
Paul tells us in today’s second reading that -  Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour.
If love faces the real, it cannot avoid facing conflict.
Where silence would permit greater division in a community, love must do something.
 
As Edmund Burke noted: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
 
Today’s Gospel then is very challenging.
 
So, when expressing our hurt, it is important to be aware of the listener, who may also have issues to be resolved, and needs a compassionate listening ear.
 
There must be “give and take” in any confrontation.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (03.09.17)

Ingrained Habits and Attitudes

How aware are we of deeply ingrained habits and attitudes? They may have become so enmeshed with our personality that we hardly realise the extent of the influence they bring to bear on our attitudes and daily decision-making. It may be only when we are unexpectedly challenged on an issue to which we have a deep attachment, that we become aware of how ingrained that attachment has become! Elections for either local or national government offices are a prime example. Religious affiliations, for a long time, used to be as ingrained as political affiliations but many believe this is no longer true.
 
 St Peter, in Matthew’s Gospel for the 22nd Sunday of the year (16: 21-27), gives us a first-class example. Just previously, responding to Peter’s Holy Spirit inspired proclamation of faith in his Divinity, Jesus had nominated Peter as the principal foundational member of the Apostolic College. When, later, Jesus startles his apostles by foretelling his approaching suffering, death and resurrection, Peter’s Jewish and deeply ingrained understanding of the promised Messiah takes over: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you,” Peter quietly says to Jesus.
The explosive nature of Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as do human beings” must have taken Peter by surprise and he falls silent.
 
The Jewish people are characteristically deeply aware of their history. Despite their previous experience of centuries of deportation and enslavement by other nations and, more recently, their subjugation by the Roman Army, the Jewish people still believed that God would keep his promise to their father Abraham. They believed that God would send a mighty warrior to lead them to the freedom they desired. That God-sent warrior would be their Messiah. This precious belief had handed on from generation to generation despite almost continuous persecution and terror.

Jesus was not asking his newly gathered disciples to make some minor adjustment to their inherited understanding of God’s promise. He was challenging them to completely rewrite their understanding. Peter was not alone in finding this challenge difficult to comprehend. No matter how often Jesus repeated his teaching: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me … whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it”, his words were met with bafflement and disbelief.

Are we, in the late 20th and early 21st century, seeing a minor refection of this incomprehension in the Catholic Church today? When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Church adopted his monarchical structure of governance. While empires and rulers have come and gone, the Catholic church has been the last absolute monarchy not only in the West but pretty much anywhere else in the world. Now, Roman Catholicism’s monarchical structure is imploding, a process that has been under way for some decades.
 
 Catholics continue to believe that The Truth, invested in his Church by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, remains whole and entire. What Catholics question is the manner of the Church’s presentation of this Revealed Truth, together with its consequent directives, to both believers and non-believers.

The election of the first-ever Jesuit pope is for many Catholics, throughout the world, a providential moment. Pope Francis is clearly allowing the crumbling of the present form of governance and organisational structure of the Catholic Church to continue. He clearly believes that it does not faithfully reflect the model of ecclesial life found in the New Testament and recorded in the early centuries of the Christian Church.

In his 2013 apostolic exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (The Joy of The Gospel), Pope Francis seeks to implement the principles and methods for his vision and his blueprint for  the renewal and reform of the Church. Francis is laying the foundations for the reformation of the government of the Church. The theologian and journalist Fr Thomas Reese S.J. has listed what he considers to be Pope Francis’ five great achievements:
1.  The Pope evangelises by emphasising compassion and mercy.
2.   He allows open discussion and debate in the Church. It is hard to exaggerate how extraordinary this is.
3.   He has moved the discussion of moral issues away from rules to discernment, relying on God’s grace in the lives of imperfect people.
4.   He has raised environmental issues to a central place in the Catholic faith.
5.   He has begun to reform the Curial structures of the Church. He is trying to change the attitude of all the clergy, especially that of bishops, that they are not princes but servants – as Jesus came to serve and not to be served.

By encouraging the use of synods in the dioceses as well as regions of the world-wide Church, the Pope is opening up the possibility for dialogue and discussion involving all God’s people and not just male clergy. He is making it possible for all voices to be heard through the process of discernment. This is clearly his aim for the 2018 Synod dedicated to Young People, vocations and the Faith. By way of preparation, the Pope has launched a worldwide on-line process of discernment, thus making it available to all young people, including non-Catholics. He wants them to share their hopes and concerns.

Jesus’ words to Peter and his subsequent explanation to the apostles of what lay ahead for him, as well as those who chose to follow him, was undoubtedly frightening. In a not totally dissimilar way, Pope Francis’s words and decisions have brought fear to some senior clergy and laity within the Church. These, like the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’s day, believe that they can stop the present implosion by a strict and rigid adherence to moralising norms and liturgical rubrics. They are obsessed by a needed to control and rule the Baptised through the ranks of Ordained ministers.

As we know from the Gospels, Jesus needed to repeat constantly his vision in the hearing of his apostles and the people at large. Despite doing so, we know that many of Jesus’ followers saw his crucifixion on Calvary as the end of the line. Perhaps this is a good moment to read it again and reflect upon Luke 24:13-35 – ‘The Road to Emmaus’. Let’s be clear, as Jesus walked with those two despondent disciples, so he walks today with his faithful people. We can equally be sure that he walks with his Vicar on Earth, Pope Francis.
 

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (27.08.17)

SETTINGS
 
The choice of a setting can make or break an occasion. Proposals with the potential to alter the course of life, be it individual or collective, are influenced by the choice the setting for their revelation. For example, the setting chosen for making a proposal of marriage or celebrating a wedding anniversary is chosen with care. The settings in which heart-warming and life-celebratory events unfold are imprinted on the memory. Conversely, such details are usually unrecorded when people receive less favourable personal news, such as a difficult medical diagnosis. You could experiment by recalling the settings you remember for the significant or challenging events in your life.
 
Matthew’s Gospel extract for the 21st Sunday (16:13-20) tells how Jesus, knowing his time was running out and faced with the increasing active animosity of the Jewish authorities, took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. These two semi-adjacent districts lay twenty-five miles from the Sea of Galilee and outside of the territory of the murderous Herod Antipas. Jesus needed a less stressful location than Jerusalem in which to teach the Twelve. There was much for them to learn from him in the short time available. But first, it would seem, Jesus had questions for the Twelve! Were there other reasons why Jesus chose the region of Caesarea Philippi?
 
This area was scattered with historic temples honouring the Syrian god Baal and other ancient pagan deities. Within this territory was a deep cave, claimed as the birthplace of the pagan god Pan, containing water said to be the source of the River Jordan. It was also the location for a glistening marble temple supporting the deification of the Caesars as an unsettling reminder of the established and greatly feared power of Rome.
 
Picture, if you will, in this setting of Caesarea Philippi, so full of the influence of earlier beliefs, the impact of the appearance of a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter become itinerant preacher, with twelve quite ordinary male disciples. Jesus had deliberately placed himself in this unfavourable setting of historic association with pagan religions that had ensnared his people in earlier times. In this discordant setting Jesus chose to ask the Twelve for their verdict on him.
 
There were more favourable settings Jesus could have chosen for his questions. For example, the remote site where he had involved the Twelve with feeding the five thousand plus with two small loaves and two fish. Equally, he could have taken them by boat to where, on the Sea of Galilee, he had calmed their fears and the storm by a word.
 
The setting of Caesarea Philippi would not of itself support the Apostles in giving Jesus the answers he most desired. Caesarea Philippi would have prepared them for the antipathetic conditions they would henceforth encounter if they committed themselves to their Apostolic calling.
 
Jesus’ opening question should have given the Apostles a steer, one that they may have missed - “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  The Twelve replied openly and without hesitation: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus then made the question quite specific by asking: “But, you, whom do you say that I am?”

It’s not difficult to imagine how each fell silent.  An increasingly deep stillness spread person to person in the group. Eyes, previously lively and bright as an accompaniment to a genial conversation, would have dropped to the floor in the uncomfortable atmosphere. Each Apostle, faced with such a direct and compelling question from Jesus, would have needed time to collect his deepest thoughts in a setting that provided only contradictory memories.
 
Who, among us, faced with such a direct question would not take refuge in an embarrassed silence of recollection, particularly if we found the setting challenging? At such moments we can become acutely, painfully even, aware of the discordance between our words and our tendency to compromise!
 
Try imagining how Jesus appeared to his stilled and silent Apostles. His expression and manner would have been gentle and encouraging with no hint of condemnation or criticism. Did Jesus himself know how the silence would end? How testing a time was it for Jesus when, approaching the end time for his ministry on earth, he was actively looking to see who would respond to his call for volunteer missionaries?
 
Peter broke the silence. From all accounts Peter did not fumble or mumble but in a clear voice exclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matt)  “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8.29). “You are the Christ of God.” (Luke 9.20). The word Messiah and the word Christ mean the same; the one is Hebrew and the other Greek for ‘The Anointed One’.
 
With the oppressive silence broken, Jesus rejoiced by thanking his heavenly Father for enabling Peter to make his public proclamation of Jesus as The Messiah, the Son of the Living God: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father”.
Peter’s proclamation provides food for thought:
1.     It makes clear that all pre-existent human categories were inadequate for describing Jesus as ‘God-made-Man’.
2.     It is doubtful that Peter could have given a theological explanation of what he meant when he said that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. His words were inspired by the Holy Spirit as Jesus’ response confirmed. What Peter did understand was that no merely human formula of words was capable of formatting a description of Jesus.
3.     This event in the early life of the Apostolic College tells us that each individual’s discovery of Jesus Christ has to be a personal journey.
4.     Our personal acknowledgement of Jesus can never be second-hand – “I was told …” “I am given to understand …” Jesus asks each of us individually and repeatedly: “Whom do you say that I am?”
 
In the daily life of the Baptised Christian will be numerous occasions when our loyalty to Jesus will be tested by the settings in which we find ourselves. Many such occasions will not be of our making. They will have the hallmark of Satan disguised under all manner of persuasive modern secularist thinking. For the committed Christian entrapment is everywhere. For some it stalks the streets under the flag of ISIS. For many more it lurks in the apparent obscurity of todays, so called,  ‘recreational’ activities that, in reality, are abuses of God’s gift of life. It isn’t Jesus who has led us into this conflict situation. We put ourselves here through the disobedience of our first parents now compounded by our own.
 
However, there will be some settings of singular importance – as you might say, ‘a matter of life and death’. They could be compared to the placing of The Twelve in Caesarea Philippi. Will we be overcome by the settings or, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, will we overcome their lure?  Our UK martyr forebears chose to surrender their lives in defence of Jesus, his teaching and his Church. We have even more faith-forebears, unrecorded by history but known to God, who surrendered their lives in a bloodless martyrdom to defend the same. Their successors accompany us on our pilgrimage of life today. People whom we may know personally, or know only by name, who value their faith in Jesus ahead of love, promotion and all manner of personal gain.
 
We are accompanied by martyrs in our world today. Women and men, even children, who choose to identify Jesus as they continue their cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit received at Baptism. They depend upon us, as we upon them, for accompaniment in the daily struggle? Together, our daily actions may speak louder than any words. This united impact may be subtle but persuasive, as our love for the Lord endures and our commitment holds true. We do not have to travel to find today’s equivalent of Caesarea Philippi. In Western Europe we are already living in it!
 
How do we reply to Jesus when, multiple times daily, he asks us personally: “Whom do you say I am?”
 

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (13.08.2017)

Danger Is Not Our Only Constant Companion
 
“Would Jesus have knowingly sent his disciples into danger?” A university student put this question in a Bible-share on this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33). Certainly a night crossing on the notoriously unpredictable Sea of Galilee would have its dangers.

Danger, specifically the unknown, is our constant companion. Since our first parents disobeyed God, thereby losing the peace and divine harmony of ‘The Garden of Eden’, humanity has been continuously endangered. The counterbalance to the presence of unknown danger is the declaration by God of his abiding love for us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

St. John, in his first letter (5:19) makes it clear that, while we belong to God, our world of exile is in the power of Satan. It will continue so until the Risen Lord returns as King and Judge of the Universe. Then, finally and forever, Satan’s grip on the world will be broken.

The ultimate danger for humanity is the loss of heaven, eternity with God. All other dangers, even the life-threatening variety, are relative. Just as God did not write-off our disobedient first parents neither does he write-off their descendants. The ultimate proof of this is that God the Father sent his only Son into our dangerous world. He knew that Satan’s power over this world would not triumph even when it inflicted crucifixion on his Son, Jesus.

St. Paul made this point strongly in Romans 5.20 “But however much sin increased, (God’s) grace was always greater; so that as sin’s reign brought death, so grace was to rule through the saving justice that leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Jesus knew the individual, as well as the collective, strengths of his disciples. Among them were experienced ‘Sea of Galilee’ fishermen. For them, sudden storms would have been nothing new. Matthew tells us that their boat was ‘battling with a strong headwind’, not sinking. There’s no mention of the disciples being in fear of the waves. Their terror came not from the storm but from the vision of Jesus walking on water. Sometimes in listening to the Gospel, as also at other times if our listening is distracted, we can insert our own preconceived interpretation on the words we hear. This can lead us to wrong conclusions and possibly faulty decisions.

Does this Gospel text challenge you and I to review and reassess the dangers, real or imaginary, we associate with our life? What do we see as the prime danger in our life? It should be any threat, from our self or from another, to our relationship with God. This always has to be our priority concern, even if the upholding of it costs our life here. The provenance for this assertion is the First Commandment – 

"YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD
WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL,
AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND"(Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Unless we give the preservation of our living relationship with God our ultimate and unchanging priority in life, then all our other judgements and evaluations become suspect. They could then, adapting words from the cigarette packet, ‘seriously damage our eternal health’.

To be a loyal disciple, follower of Jesus in this world has always been and remains for many today, dangerous.  Jesus himself said, “The birds of the air have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

To the careerist Zebedee brothers, James and John, Jesus posed the question, “Can you drink of the cup of suffering of which I am to drink?” (Mark 10:38 & Matthew 20:22) Their affirmative response, like Peter’s boast to Jesus (John 13:37) “I will lay down my life for you” had yet to pass the test of reality.

Our extract from Matthew’s Gospel offers us confirmation, as the actual event did for the disciples, that Jesus is always near, fully cognisant of what we are experiencing. Even the darkest of circumstances, symbolised by it being the fourth watch of the night 0300-0600 when Jesus appeared, cannot prevent the Light of Christ reaching us. Notice though that it is the disciples, in particular Peter, who engage Jesus not vice versa. Jesus never forces himself upon us. We have to invite him – as did the two utterly dispirited disciples on the ‘Road to Emmaus’ after Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 24:13-35) “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent.”

One of life’s tragic paradoxes is that while our media and billboards are packed with information to enhance and protect our life here on earth, there’s precious little to direct peoples’ attention to eternal life. That Jesus became visible to the disciples in their hour of need indicates that they had first, in their hearts and minds, individually and possibly collectively, turned to him.

In times of desperation people, in all languages, can be heard to invoke the name of ‘God’. Is it a prayer from a humbled and contrite source or has it become just another swear word? Only God and the individual know. That is what it comes down to in the end, the quality or otherwise of that one-to-one relationship which, for God, began even before we came into being in our mother’s womb.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
 (Jeremiah 1:5)

The sinking Peter’s cry for help in our Matthew passage, “Lord, save me!” was from a humbled and contrite heart yet one, like our own, still being formed.
 

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (03.08.14)

‘Previously’

Glacier explorers are always alert to the death-dealing danger of hidden, deep crevasses. These bottomless chasms have claimed countless lives over the centuries. A parallel can be drawn with the Church in Western Europe today. A chasm has opened up between the three Scripture readings at Sunday Mass and people’s weekday life. A homilist, unless truly charismatic, has an impossible task!

Just consider - entering a church for Sunday Mass - worshippers come from their electronically all-embracing 21st. century life to a setting, value system and vocabulary that has become, especially for upcoming generations, alien! Fewer and fewer young people speak ‘Christian’, which means having a mindset and a vocabulary resonating with Christian empathy!

Popular TV series insert ‘Previously’ segments before new episodes, even when just days apart, to help viewers’ recall. A combination of the visual and verbal triggers the memory, enabling the new segment to sit seamlessly with the habitual viewer.

Tragically, there’s no ‘Previously’ for congregations participating at Sunday Mass. Many have a six-day chasm of utterly different involvement with no meaningful remembrance of God’s Word from the previous Sunday. Moreover, the Sunday Scripture readings do not always ‘follow on’.

Through his prophet, Jeremiah, God addressed these words to his Old Testament people at a similar time of disconnect (14: 17-21)

“Therefore you shall say this word to them:
‘Let my eyes flow with tears night and day,

And let them not cease;


For the virgin daughter of my people
has been broken with a mighty stroke, with a very severe blow.
If I go out to the field,
then I behold, those slain with the sword!
And if I enter the city,
then behold, those sick from famine!


Yes, both prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land and have no knowledge.’”

An exception is this Saturday and Sunday, 2nd and 3rd August 2014. By coincidence, Matt 14: 1-12, the Gospel reading appointed for this Saturday, reveals the background that led to John the Baptist’s martyrdom. Multiple-murderer King Herod’s conscience proved to be his personal ‘previously’. Herod had beheaded John the Baptist rather than lose political face. Uncharacteristically this had disturbed him and he now believed Jesus to be the resurrected John the Baptist! A troubled conscience is, at least, a living conscience!

In Christian times, John the Baptist was a familiar name. The memory of a man clad in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey and with a fearless preaching style, would have endured. People would have recalled tales of his birth, mission and martyrdom to some degree. A street poll today would likely turn up few, if any, who could identify John the Baptist.

For centuries, parents gave their children the names of revered Christians. The Christian history of places was reflected in their name. This treasure chest of our noteworthy Christian antecedents has been replaced in people’s memories by the names of sports personalities and briefly enduring celebrities.

As we experience the world from an armchair or computer console, we are bombarded with more information than we can comfortably store. Experienced TV producers understand all too well the ever-shortening attention and retention periods of the human mind. ‘Soap’ producers need to refocus every twelve to fifteen seconds if they wish to retain the attention of their viewers. Maybe this says as much about the poverty of content as the state of the human mind!

Popular ‘soaps’ have weekly multiple episodes with full ‘watch-back’ facility. Sunday Mass, by comparison, is a one-day-a-week verbal-only event for the inside of an hour with no changing scenes and one male voice with readers making brief appearances. In times past, Sunday Mass was the gathering place of the local community followed by particular family get-togethers. Now, Sunday Mass has become the optional, often missed, ‘add-on’ to a busy weekend.

The reality of the six-day chasm (Monday to Saturday) means that many Sunday Mass-attending Catholics are progressively unable to link up with the Scripture extracts they hear. For there to be the essential, Scriptural connectedness, people would need a considerable time of pre-Mass acclimatization. Where once, daily life and Christian life were one and the same, now they bear no resemblance.

World Cup footballers and other sports stars are taken to expensive acclimatization locations well in advance of their professional events to ensure their fitness and readiness for the contests. There needs to be comparable preparation provided for the average Catholic who does make it to Sunday Mass.

The disconnect, now entrapping the Catholic laity in particular, has grown surreptitiously like the hidden glacial chasm. Sadly and tragically those who trek to Sunday Mass, unlike their glacier exploring counterparts, are largely unaware of the danger they are in. God’s Word is our essential lifeline for spiritual nourishment and fortification in our daily battle with Satan’s hidden entrapments. Without God’s Word alive and active, daily, within our souls and hearts we are not only a danger to ourselves but also to our companions. Jesus’ warning in John 15:5 comes to mind:

“I am the vine, you are the branches;
those who abide in Me with Me in them, bear much fruit,
for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Just today, the Bible Society sent me this appeal to support Bible literacy:

“We’re giving you the opportunity to help us teach more than half a million Chinese Christians to read the Bible. 

Han Xiao Lang from China learnt to read when she was 34. She was one of the first to sign up to Bible Society literacy classes in 2009 and said, ‘After the class I felt more hopeful, I could appreciate the message of God for me. I found it easier to hear his voice…’ (Han Xiao Lang, now 38)”


While I’m glad to support the promotion of the Bible in China, I’m alarmingly aware how many of the UK Baptised are sleepwalking into a disconnect with their Christian heritage. Unlike us, the Chinese are hungry for God’s Word. Perhaps it is all too easy to condemn Herod the Murderer forgetting that his conscience was at least functioning.

Matthew 15:14 is an appropriate quote for the spiritually unseeing who fail to appreciate the chasms under their very noses!

"They are blind guides of the blind!
And if a blind person guides a blind person,
both will fall into a pit."
Peter said to Jesus, "Explain the parable to us."…

The Gospel for this Sunday (Matt 14: 13-21) reveals Jesus’ wish to grieve privately when given news of his cousin, John the Baptist’s, martyrdom. But the pressing needs of the living called so loudly to Jesus that he stepped away from his grief to answer their cries. Jesus picked up John the Baptist’s baton adding it to his own mandate to establish a Kingdom whose hallmark was to be communion with his heavenly Father in the care of one’s neighbour. The crucial element is the depth of our connectivity with God. The Christian veneer over much of modern day Europe is as deceptive as the glacier with its hidden crevasses. In Matthew 13:21 Jesus warns about superficial Christianity:

“But since they have no root, they last only a short time.
When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word,
 they quickly fall away.”

Keeping to the glacial analogy, the last line could be amended to read, “they quickly fall victim to the crevasse”!

At Pentecost this year, Pope Francis spoke about the Christian disconnect:

“Christians without memory are not a true Christians: they are halfway along the road, imprisoned in the moment, who do not know how to value their history, who do not know how to read it or live it as a history of salvation. We, with the help of the Holy Spirit, are able to interpret the inner inspirations and events of life in the light of Jesus' words. And thus our knowledge of memory, the knowledge of the heart, that is a gift from the Spirit, grows in us”.   (Vatican 8 June 2014)

In the popular quiz show ‘I want to be a millionaire’, the lifelines are often crucial. Our Baptismal life, when functioning well, makes us wonderful spiritual lifelines for our family, friends and colleagues.