25 February 2017

'I want my life, my character, my actions to speak of me and say that I am following Jesus Christ.' Sunday Reflections, 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Rest on the Flight into Egypt (detail), Caravaggio [Web Gallery of Art]

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:14-15. First Reading).

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

Jesus said to his disciples:

 ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Thursday 2 March is the sixth anniversary of the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, seen with Pope Benedict in the video above during an audience in September 2010. He was assassinated in Islamabad, Pakistan, shortly after leaving his mother's home. Mr Bhatti, a Catholic, was the first Christian to be appointed to the Cabinet in Pakistan and was responsible for minorities. The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for his death.

Sandro Magister, one of the leading journalists covering the Vatican, wrote about the death of Shahbaz Bhatti on 14 April 2011 in A Lesson of Holiness from Remote Pakistan. [The link to this no longer works.] Magister writes:

The Bible that Shahbaz always had with him is now in Rome in the memorial for the martyrs of the past century, in the basilica of Saint Bartholomew on the Isola Tiberina.

One of the most informative and concerned articles on what his murder has meant in Pakistan and in the whole world is without a doubt the one published in La Civiltà Cattolica dated April 2, 2011.

An article that is all the more significant given that this magazine of the Rome Jesuits is printed after inspection and authorization by the Vatican secretariat of state. So it reflects the thinking of the Holy See in this regard.

In Pakistan, out of a population of 185 million inhabitants, Christians are 2 percent, one million of them Catholic. But among the Muslims as well there are minorities in danger: Shiites, Sufis, Ismaili, Ahmadis.

Clement Shahbaz Bhatti شہباز بھٹی
(9 September 1968 – 2 March 2011)

'I do not want popularity, I do not want positions of power. I only want a place at the feet of Jesus. I want my life, my character, my actions to speak of me and say that I am following Jesus Christ.'

The article in La Civiltà Cattolica was written by Fr Luciano Larivera SJ and includes most of The spiritual testament of Shahbaz BhattiI have highlighted parts of this.

'My name is Shahbaz Bhatti. I was born into a Catholic family. My father, a retired teacher, and my mother, a housewife, raised me according to Christian values and the teachings of the Bible, which influenced my childhood. Since I was a child, I was accustomed to going to church and finding profound inspiration in the teachings, the sacrifice, and the crucifixion of Jesus. It was his love that led me to offer my service to the Church.

'The frightening conditions into which the Christians of Pakistan had fallen disturbed me. I remember one Good Friday when I was just thirteen years old: I heard a homily on the sacrifice of Jesus for our redemption and for the salvation of the world. And I thought of responding to his love by giving love to my brothers and sisters, placing myself at the service of Christians, especially of the poor, the needy, and the persecuted who live in this Islamic country.

'I have been asked to put an end to my battle, but I have always refused, even at the risk of my own life. My response has always been the same. I do not want popularity, I do not want positions of power. I only want a place at the feet of Jesus. I want my life, my character, my actions to speak of me and say that I am following Jesus Christ.

'This desire is so strong in me that I consider myself privileged whenever - in my combative effort to help the needy, the poor, the persecuted Christians of Pakistan - Jesus should wish to accept the sacrifice of my life. I want to live for Christ and it is for Him that I want to die. I do not feel any fear in this country. Many times the extremists have wanted to kill me, imprison me; they have threatened me, persecuted me, and terrorized my family.
'I say that, as long as I am alive, until the last breath, I will continue to serve Jesus and this poor, suffering humanity, the Christians, the needy, the poor. I believe that the Christians of the world who have reached out to the Muslims hit by the tragedy of the earthquake of 2005 have built bridges of solidarity, of love, of comprehension, and of tolerance between the two religions. If these efforts continue, I am convinced that we will succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the extremists. This will produce a change for the better: the people will not hate, will not kill in the name of religion, but will love each other, will bring harmony, will cultivate peace and comprehension in this region.
'I believe that the needy, the poor, the orphans, whatever their religion, must be considered above all as human beings. I think that these persons are part of my body in Christ, that they are the persecuted and needy part of the body of Christ. If we bring this mission to its conclusion, then we will have won a place at the feet of Jesus, and I will be able to look at him without feeling shame.'

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Vermeer [Web Gallery of Art]

Can anyone fail to be moved by the testament of Shahbaz Bhatti who saw his vocation as a Christian to serve his people as a politician but whose only desire was to have a place at the feet of Jesus? This is a member of a small, often despised minority, living out his Christian vocation as a politician and who can say I want to live for Christ and it is for Him that I want to die.

The British band Ooberfuse whose lead singerCherrie Anderson, is the daughter of a Filipina mother, wrote the song above for the first death anniversary of the death of Shahbaz Bhatti and sang it at a prayer rally organised by Christian Pakistanis in Britain and held in Trafalgar Square, London. They incorporated part of the last televised interview in English that Shahbaz Bhatti gave in which he said I know what is the meaning of [the] Cross.

The song above was written by Eric Sindhu who knew Shahbaz Bhatti. Fr Finbar Maxwell, a Columban who served in Pakistan for many years and is now here in the Philippines told me that the song is in Urdu and is in the traditional 'dirge' form of singing.  The lyrics refer to  Christian faith of Shahbaz, to his blood spilled, and to the 'book' of his life. Father Finbar echoed my own comment when he wrote: The tone, sentiment and beauty of the song indeed transcend the need for translation

Fr Tomás King and Gerard Bhatti

Fr Tomás King, an Irish Columban priest in Pakistan, met Gerard Bhatti, a brother of Shahbaz and wrote Shahbaz Bhatti: 'I know what is the meaning of Cross.' 

After the death of Shahbaz the Pakistani government offered his position in the Cabinet to the family who decided that Paul, another brother, should take it. He is a medical doctor who worked for some years in Italy. He too has been receiving death threats.

No one can serve two masters, Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel. Shahbaz Bhatti described his Master in detail: I believe that the needy, the poor, the orphans, whatever their religion, must be considered above all as human beings. I think that these persons are part of my body in Christ, that they are the persecuted and needy part of the body of Christ

In his Mass in the chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae on Monday 16 September 2013 Pope Francis asked us to Pray for politicians that they govern us well. One politician I don't pray for but pray to regularly is this Pakistani martyr for the justice that our Catholic Christian faith demands is Clement Shahbaz Bhatti. I truly believe that he has won a place at the feet of Jesus.

16 February 2017

'But I say to you, Love your enemies . . .' Sunday Reflections, 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

The Inspiration of St Matthew, Caravaggio [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

Jesus said to his disciples:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Columban Fr Rufus Halley (1944 - 28 August 2001) 

Father Rufus Halley was one year behind me in the Columban seminary in Ireland. We were close friends. He came to the Philippines in 1969, two years before I did. He spent his early years in the country in Tagalog-speaking parishes in an area of the Archdiocese of Manila south of the metropolitan area, now the Diocese of Antipolo. He was fluent in the language. He began to feel a clear call from God to leave the security of working in an area overwhelmingly Christian and mostly Catholic to a part of Mindanao where Columbans had worked for many years that is overwhelmingly Muslim, the Prelature of Marawi. There he became fluent in two more Filipino languages, Meranao, spoken by the majority of Muslims in the area, and Cebuano, spoken by most of the Christians.

Both Muslims and Christians saw Father Rufus as a man of prayer, a man of peace, a man of God. Over the years he earned the trust of some Muslim leaders despite the long history of distrust between Muslims and Christians that sometimes led to outright conflict. Because of the trust he had built up he got an extraordinary request: to mediate in a feud between two groups of Meranaos. He was a foreigner, a Christian and a Catholic priest.

Father Rufus saw this as another call from God and agreed. He also sought the advice of a Muslim elder who wasn't involved in the conflict. Over a period of many weeks he was going back and forth between the leaders of the two factions until eventually they agreed to meed. The morning of the meeting was filled with tension but when the leaders arrived they agreed to end the feud.

A week or so later Father Rufus dropped into the house of one of the leaders of the conflict and, to his delight, saw a leader of the other faction having coffee with him, the two men engaged in a lively, friendly conversation into which they invited the Irish priest.

Father Rufus used to speak about this event as the highlight of the twenty years he spent living among Muslims, a period when tension was seldom absent from his life and where there was often danger. Though a person who had a naturally optimistic disposition - five minutes in his company would get rid of any 'blues' you might feel - that didn't keep him going. His Christian hope and faith did.

Father Rufus with young friends

On the afternoon of 29 August 2001 while returning on his motorcycle from an inter-faith meeting in Balabagan, Lanao del Sur, to Malabang, maybe five or six kilometres away and where he was assigned, Father Rufus was ambushed by a group of men who happened to be Muslims and shot dead.

Both Christians and Muslims were devastated by his death.

Father Rufus came from a privileged background and could have entered any profession. But he chose to answer God's call to be a missionary priest. Our Columban superiors sent him to the Philippines.

He later chose, in answer to God's call and with the blessing of our superiors, to go to a very difficult mission. That choice led to twenty years of joyful service there to Catholics and Muslims, and to his death.

Father Rufus wasn't the enemy of anyone. Because of that and because they saw him as a man of God, two groups of Muslims who were enemies accepted him as a mediator. He wasn't a man to greet only your brothers and sisters but one who crossed barriers and who brought people together out of a desire to do God's will.

St Thérèse of Lisieux aged 15 [Wikipedia]

The closing words of Jesus in today's gospel are Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. For years my understanding of becoming perfect in this sense was of a blueprint like that of an architect. If you found this blueprint and built according to its specifications then you'd have a perfect product.

But a building is inanimate. 

However, I found a very different image of perfection in Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St Thérèse of Lisieux: Perfection consists simply in doing his will, and being just what he wants us to be. This is an image of a living being, of a unique being. God's will gradually unfolded in the life of Father Rufus, as a flower unfolds, the growth being silent and hardly noticeable most of the time.

I see in the stages of the life of Father Rufus, whose baptismal name was Michael, a testimony of the truth of the words of St Thérèse and a model of how we can follow the words of Jesus. Through his daily prayer, his daily faithfulness, his responding to God's will at crucial moments in his life, he became what God willed him to be: a Catholic priest who as he laid in death on the side of a road in a remote area of the southern Philippines, became an even stronger bridge between Christians and Muslims, a man who in life and death showed the true face of Jesus Christ, God who became Man out of love for all of us. 

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

New American Bible (Philippines, USA)

09 February 2017

'But I say to you . . .' Sunday Reflections, 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Young Jew as Christ, Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

Gospel Matthew 5: 17-37 [20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37] (New Revised  Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition) 

For the shorter reading everything in [square brackets] may be omitted.

Jesus said to his disciples:

[‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.] For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; [and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.]
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.]
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, [either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.] Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Entrance Antiphon   Antiphona ad introitum

Be my protector, O God, a mighty stronghold to save me.
Esto mihi in Deum protectorem, et in locum refugii, ut salvem me facias.
For your are my rock, my stronghold!
Quoniam firmamentum meum et refugium meum es tu,
Lead me, guide me, for the sake of your name.
et propter nomen tuum dux mihi eris, et enutries me.

Ps. ibid. In you, 0 Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
In te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum: 
In your justice rescue me and deliver me. 
in iustitia tua Iibera me, et eripe me
Glory be to the Father.
Gloria Patri . . .

Be my protector, O God, a mighty stronghold to save me.
Esto mihi in Deum protectorem, et in locum refugii, ut salvem me facias.
For your are my rock, my stronghold!
Quoniam firmamentum meum et refugium meum es tu,
Lead me, guide me, for the sake of your name.
et propter nomen tuum dux mihi eris, et enutries me.

The text in bold is used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, the full text in the Extraordinary Form, though it may also be used in the Ordinary Form.

The Marriage at Cana, Martin de Vos [Web Gallery of Art]

More than thirty-five years ago I spent part of a summer working in a parish near New York City. One day when I was on duty I answered the phone. The man calling gave me his name, which I wrote down. He told me he was living in an irregular situation, having been divorced from his wife. He was asking what the Church could do for him in that situation. I tried to tell him about programmes that the Church had in the diocese for Catholics who were divorced and re-married civilly or living with someone else. The latter situation wasn't nearly as common then as it is now.

I was able to find his mailing address easily and wrote him a letter letting him know that I had understood his situation and the reason for his anger and frustration. Again, I informed him of the ways the Church was trying to be with those who found themselves in situations such as his.

The following day I had another phone call from the man. He thanked me profusely for my letter, for having listened to him and for having heard what he was trying to say. He also acknowledged that he was in a situation that he himself had created.

Today's Gospel shows us a Jesus who is somewhat different from the 'domesticated' meek and mild Jesus that we often imagine or create. He speaks of hard things: the consequences of breaking God's law, the necessity of forgiving and accepting forgiveness, the fruits of anger - not the feeling, which is something spontaneous, but the decision to remain angry/to hate - and the effects of adultery. Some of the most difficult parts of the gospel may be omitted and probably will be by many priests, for various reasons.

The media at the moment are giving lots of coverage to how the Church approaches those who are living with someone not their spouse. One might be led to think that the Church is being harsh for the sake of being harsh, imposing impossible difficulties on some of its members and failing to be 'merciful' and 'pastoral'.

On 11 February 2014 Fr Edward McNamara LC, who writes for the Catholic news agency Zenitreplied to a question about this very matter. He quotes from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos 1650 and 1651. The latter says, Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons: 'They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace.

I have close friends in such situations and in visiting parishes in Britain to do mission appeals for the Columbans I've met couples in irregular situations who are very much involved in their parishes, but who accept the teaching of Jesus, expressed through his Church, and live with that painful reality which they know they have created for themselves, for whatever reasons.

[I wrote this reflection three years ago but right now this very question is causing quite a bit of distress, division and confusion in the Church in the context of one part of Amoris Laetitia, the document by Pope Francis on love in the family published last year.]

Christ and the woman taken in adultery, Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) we find this exchange at the end:

Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

Jesus shows the woman the greatest respect. Part of that respect is not denying that she had sinned. She knew that she had. God alone knew what had been going on in her heart. Jesus restored her dignity to her, gave her hope: Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

Jesus has taught us very clearly what marriage is: Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?' He answered, 'Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning "made them male and female," and said, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.' (Matthew 19:3-6)

This is a hard saying. Many utterly reject it, even the part about male and female. Others wrestle with the consequences of not accepting the teaching of Jesus when they find themselves in difficult situations.

Some think, wrongly, that the Church does not allow persons who are divorced to receive Holy Communion. That is not true. An ongoing seriously sinful situation is created when two persons, at least one of whom is married in the eyes of the Church, choose to live together whether after a civil wedding or otherwise. The same, of course, applies to any two persons not married to each other who live together in a sexually intimate relationship. That is a choice people make. But if a divorced person lives a chaste life he or she isn't living in a sinful situation.

The First Reading makes it very clear that God gives us the freedom to choose - and that there are consequences to the choices we make:

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
    and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
    stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
 Before each person are life and death,
    and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
    he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him,
    and he knows every human action.
 He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,  
    he has not given anyone permission to sin.

Responsorial Psalm (NAB Lectionary, Philippines, USA)

The response in the responsorial psalm, which is an echo of the first reading, is Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord! (NAB). This is taken from Psalm 119 [118], as are the verses used in the responsorial psalm. this is the longest psalm, 176 verses in groups of eight in praise of God's law as something that makes us free.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus challenges us in every aspect of our lives. He challenges us to think with a new mindset. St Paul expresses it well: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

That means taking to heart the words that Jesus repeated a number of times in the Sermon on the Mount: You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .

God So Loved the World (from Stainer’s ’The Crucifixion’)
Words: Text compiled by William John Sparrow-Simpson
Music: God So Loved the World (from Stainer’s 'The Crucifixion’) John Stainer
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,
That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish,
But have everlasting life.
For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world,
But that the world through Him might be saved.

Communion Antiphon (John 3:16)

God so loved the world 
that he gave his Only Begotten Son, 
so that all who believe in him may not perish, 
but may have eternal life.