22 August 2012

'Do you also wish to go away?' Sunday Reflections, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Main Altar, Monastery of Miraflores, Burgos, Gil de Siloé (1496-99)

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA) 

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa) 

Gospel John 6:60-69 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

Many of the disciples of Jesus, when they heard it, said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." 

Alexey Venetsianov, 19th century

Some time before Easter 1993 when I was in the relatively remote parish of Lianga, Surigao del Sur, on the east coast of Mindanao, one of our volunteer catechists came on a Saturday afternoon to tell me that her father was asking for the Bread of Life. She told me he was fully conscious. I went immediately to the house, heard his confession, gave him the Sacrament of the Sick and Holy Communion in the presence of his family. The man himself participated fully and joyfully.

I discovered that his family was somewhat unusual. He had been widowed twice and married three times. There were children from his three marriages there, some with their children, including a babe in arms.

At the end of the celebration of the three sacraments I asked those who were closest to the sick person to lay hands on him so that we could continue with our own prayer over him. But he turned this into something far more beautiful. He took his youngest grandchild to his breast and embraced him before embracing each of his family who were present. It was an occasion where the joy was tangible.

It is not usual in the Philippines to offer the priest something to eat when he goes on a sick call. But on this occasion the family did and it was fitting.

Next morning, before Sunday Mass, the catechist came to tell me that her father had just died. along with her sadness she felt greatly consoled because her father had received the Bread of Life as his last meal before he died.

During these last five Sundays the Church has been proclaiming Chapter Six of St John's Gospel when Jesus teaches us very clearly that he is the Bread of Life. The Church has always understood that each time we celebrate the Eucharist the bread and wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit working in the priest, who is called to be an alter Christus, another Christ, become the Body and Blood of Christ. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church No 1374 teaches, In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist 'the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained'.

There were many listening to Jesus who couldn't accept his teaching. This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? many asked. They walked away, probably in good faith. But when Jesus asked the twelve, Do you also wish to go away? Peter answered on behalf of the group, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.

Our faith is pure gift from God, not a reward for 'being good'. It is a gift that a person may lose. It is a gift that a whole community may lose. It would seem that in the last few decades that gift has been lost by many in the Western world, places such as Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Quebec, all of them sending missionaries to the ends of the earth until recently and now with their seminaries empty and their churches bereft of young people on Sundays.

Our faith, especially our faith in the Eucharist, is something we must thank God for each day.  In my Reflections for the 15th Sunday I featured a video of an 87-year-old priest, Fr Ralph Beiting, preaching on a street last summer in Kentucky. I learned only last Sunday that Father Beiting died after a short illness on 9 August. On the website of the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center there is a recording of him saying, It’s not been an easy road. It’s been for a little  hardship, headaches, anxieties and the desire to quit. But the joy has been overwhelming, to be able to say Mass every day in these hills and offer it up for the good and benefit of its people. That gives me power that I never have any other way.

Father Beiting made his own the choice his bishop made for him more than 60 years ago when he assigned the young priest to an area as big as the state of Rhode Island in eastern Kentucky, an area where there was widespread poverty among both black and white people, an area where there were only a handful of Catholics, an area where there was great ignorance about Catholics. Father Beiting once told me that when he built the church in Mount Vernon, where I served during Holy Week and Easter Week in 1970, he deliberately had clear windows from the ground up so that people could see that Catholics didn't sacrifice children, that they didn't have cloven hooves. I think that those days have long gone, largely because of the daily choices Father Beiting made to be a faithful priest, working for all the people, working so that each family could put bread on the table each day, working so that the Catholics could receive the Bread of Life every Sunday, working so that others might see the truth of the Catholic faith.

The first reading today is about making a choice for God. Jesus asks each of us directly to make a choice: Do you also wish to go away? My parishioner in an out of the way place in the Philippines knew the choice he should make before he died: to ask for the Bread of Life.


Qui manducat carnem meam

et bibit sanguinem meum
in me maneat, et eo in ego, dicit Dominus.

Communion Antiphon  Cf John 6:54

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life, says the Lord,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

1 comment:

Ruth Ann Pilney said...

This is a very beautiful reflection about our holy sacrament, which can bring such consolation. Thank you for being a priest and bringing the sacrament to that dying man from your parish. What a wonderful family he had!