29 November 2017

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.' Sunday Reflections, 1st Sunday of Advent, Year B

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)

Jesus said to his disciples:

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Liam Whelan  (1 April 1935 - 5 February 1958)

If this is the end, then I'm ready for it

These were the last words of Liam Whelan who died in a plane crash at Munich Airport on 6 February 1958 along with other members of the Manchester United football (soccer) team as they were returning from a match in Belgrade. About seven years ago I learned from a friend named Brendan whom I have known for more than 50 years that, when they were both aged 14 or so, Liam rescued him when he got into difficulties in a swimming pool in their area. And last year I discovered that another friend, who was a classmate of mine for five years in secondary school and for two years in the seminary, also named Liam, that this talented young footballer had been a neighbour of his and that even when he had achieved fame as a professional footballer he would still play knockabout football on the street with the local boys whenever he would come home.

The average age of Manchester United's players at the time of the accident was only 22. These young men were earning only £15 a week, about 25 percent more than a tradesman could earn. Endorsements could bring in a little more income for a few talented players whose career would end for most at 35, if not earlier. 

There was snow on the ground at Munich Airport and the plane made three attempts to take off. Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper for Manchester United and who also played in that position for Northern Ireland's international team, was sitting near Liam Whelan. He survived uninjured and helped save a number of people from death. He has often told the story of Liam Whelan's last words: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.

Clearly young Liam had his life focused on what was most important. He was ready to meet death. I have often spoken about him at Mass and in giving retreats. 

Those who knew him describe Liam Whelan as 'a devout Catholic’. I know that he sent his mother some money for her to go to Lourdes. 11 February 1958 was the centennial of the first apparition of our Blessed Mother to St Bernadette. Mrs Whelan, a widow since 1943 when Liam was 8, used the money instead towards a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes over the grave of her son. I pass it each time I visit my parents’ grave.

Liam Whelan's grave (right)

I vividly remember the dark, late afternoon I heard about the crash from a street-singer whom I knew by sight and who was running around agitatedly telling people of the crash. I didn't know whether to believe him or not but the news on the radio confirmed that it really had happened. It was the first time in my life to experience what has been called a 'public-private moment', a public happening, usually a tragedy, that becomes a very personal one for those who learn of it, one that is seared in the memory and often in the heart.

Liam Whelan grew up in the next parish to my own and I remember going to Christ the King Church the evening his remains were brought there. I was outside the church with countless others. An article by John Scally in the February 2008 issue of The Word, the magazine of the Divine Word Missionaries in Ireland that is no longer published, described what many experienced: Their funerals were like no other. Most funerals are a burial of someone or something already gone. These young deaths pointed in exactly the opposite direction and were therefore the more poignant. Normally we bury the past but in burying Liam Whelan and his colleagues, in some deep and gnawing way we buried the future.

I still feel some pain at the deaths of Liam Whelan and his colleagues nearly 60 years after they died but the story of Liam's preparedness for his sudden death is one that continues to inspire me.

Liam's last words, If this is the end, then I'm ready for it, are a perfect response to today's gospel. Jesus is not trying to frighten us but he is telling us starkly to be prepared always for the moment of our death, to do everything with that in mind. Advent is a time when we prepare not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, but to become much more aware of his daily coming into our lives, and to prepare, as individuals and as a Christian community to welcome him when he returns at the end of time in a way that we won't be ashamed.

What would we say if he asked us in the Philippines where I spent most of my life, for example, Have children who have been abused had their court cases finished quickly? I have heard that young Maria, who has gone to the court five or six times for a hearing, something that is quite upsetting for her, has been told on each occasion that the defence lawyer isn't yet ready.

What would we say if Jesus said, I have been told that many forests have been cut down for profit and that this has resulted in many deaths in Leyte, for example, in 1991 and 2003. Is this true?

Tropical Storm Thelma (Uring) [Wikipedia]

More than 5,000 died in a flash flood in Ormoc City, Leyte, on 5 November 1991. Deforestation was blamed as a primary cause of the devastation.

The gospel this Sunday is, literally, a 'wake up call'. Beware, keep alert . . . Therefore, keep awake . . . And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

May the response of Liam Whelan, a young professional footballer who took these words to heart, inspire us and give us a desire to be always prepared to meet the Lord, in this life and in the next: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.

This was recorded on St Columban's Day, 23 November 2011, in the Abbey of St Columban, Bobbio, Italy, where the saint died and is buried.

Antiphona ad introitum  Entrance Antiphon  Cf Ps 24 [25]:1-3

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Ps 24 [24]:4. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstri mihi; et semitas tuas edoce me.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

The longer version is sung or recited when the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated.

[I have told the story of Liam Whelan on this blog a number of times before, originally here.]

23 November 2017

'Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Sunday Reflections, Christ the King, Year A

The Last Judgement, Michelangelo [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:

 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

St Elizabeth of HungarySándor Liezen-Mayer [Web Gallery of Art]

In November 1974 some members of the Praesidium of the Legion of Mary of which I was spiritual director came to me and told me of two starving children, a brother and sister, that they had come across on home visitation. The Legionaries were students in the college department of what was then Immaculate Conception College, Ozamiz City, where I was chaplain. At the time ICC was run by the Columban Sisters. It is now La Salle University, under the care of the De La Salle Brothers.

We arranged with the parents to take the two children to the local government hospital. When I saw Linda, as I will call her, I thought she was a malnourished eight year old. I was utterly shocked when I learned that she was twelve. Her brother, whom I'll call Nonoy, was five. His ribs were sticking out and his stomach severely bloated. The eldest in the family, a girl aged 13 or 14, showed no signs of malnutrition. This was the first time I had ever met anyone with signs of starvation. I never discovered why the children were in such a state.

After a few days Linda began to shyly smile and slowly got a little better, due to the nourishment and attention she was getting. But Nonoy showed no signs of improvement. He died two days before Christmas, without once smiling. We buried him on Christmas Eve.

Linda was able to go home and on at least once occasion we took her on an outing. She was still very small for her age but always cheerful whenever we met her. However, the severe malnutrition had taken its toll and she died in September 1975 while I was at home in Ireland.

St Martin and the Beggar, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]

 Today's Gospel makes me both fearful and hopeful. 

Fearful, because Jesus speaks such harsh language: You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angelsThis is not 'the Church of nice'.

Hopeful, because Linda and Nonoy will be there at the Last Judgment to speak in my behalf.

St Martin de Porres OP [Wikipedia]

This portrait was painted during his lifetime or very soon after his death, hence it is probably the most true to his appearance.

During November the Church honours three saints noted for their extraordinary love for the poor, St Martin de Porres (1579 - 1639) on the 3rd, St Martin of Tours (316 - 397) on the 11th and St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207 - 1231) on the 17th. These three gave of their very self. These exemplified in their lives what Jesus is teaching us in today's gospel.

El Greco is one of many artists who have depicted the scene of St Martin of Tours, then a young soldier and preparing for baptism, giving half of his cloak in the depths of winter to a beggar clad only in rags. The following night, the story continues, Martin in his sleep saw Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels, and dressed in the half of the cloak he had given away. A voice bade him look at it well and say whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say to the angels, 'Martin, as yet only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.' Sulpicius Severus, the saint's friend and biographer, says that as a consequence of this vision Martin 'flew to be baptized'.

Sándor Liezen-Mayer in his painting of St Elizabeth of Hungary above, shows her protecting a young mother and baby with her cloak. The saint herself was a young mother. She married at 14, bore three children and was widowed at 20. The painting reminds me of a beautiful Irish blessing, Faoi bhrat Mhuire thú/sibh ('May thou/you be protected by the cloak of Mary'). The young saint, who was only 24 when she died, followed the example of St Francis, with the blessing of her husband, lived very simply and served the poor and the sick each day personally and ate with them at the same table.

Shrine of St Martin de Porres in Lima [Wikipedia]

St Martin de Porres, born outside of marriage and of mixed blood, learned some of the medical arts by working with a barber/surgeon in his young days. He devoted his life as a Dominican lay brother to caring for the sick, whether they were rich or poor. It was mostly the latter who came to him and whom he went looking for. Like St Francis he had a special closeness to animals and people brought these to him to be healed. He is often depicted carrying a broom, with a dog, a cat and a mouse at his feet eating from the same plate. 

These three saints from different social backgrounds wrestled with situations we wrestle with today. They spent themselves in bringing about the Kingdom of God by serving the very poorest. St Martin of Tours, who like St Elizabeth was born in Hungary, asked himself as a soldier if it was proper to engage in battle, where he would kill others. Wikipedia tells usRegardless of whether or not he remained in the army, academic opinion holds that just before a battle with the Gauls at Borbetomagus (now Worms, Germany), Martin determined that his faith prohibited him from fighting, saying, 'I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.' He was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response to the charge, he volunteered to go unarmed to the front of the troops. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was released from military service.

Conscientious objection doesn't only concern those called to join an army. A Swedish midwife,  Ellinor Grimmark, was fired in 2014 for refusing to do abortions. This is an area where, more and more, individuals will have to make choices that may involve losing their jobs, or even worse. (This year a Swedish court ruled against Ellinor Grimmark).

The world is still overwhelmed with the needs of those trapped in poverty, victims of wars, of natural calamities. Pope Francis has spoken of the Church as being 'a field hospital'. He has asked priests and others to know 'the smell of the sheep'. St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Martin de Porres immersed themselves in that every day, seeing in each one they served Jesus Christ himself. And those they took care of, whether they were aware of it or not, were being served by Jesus himself through those saints and through the many others down the centuries who have been doing the same.

I am certain that Linda and Nonoy will hear Jesus say to them, Come, you that are blessed by my Father . . . I hope and pray that they and others like them who have crossed my path down the years will put in a good word for me so that I will hear Jesus say the same to me.

Christus Vincit! Christus Regnat! Christus Imperat!
Christ Conquers! Christ Rules! Christ Commands!

This very ancient Latin hymn, which is a litany, is also known as Laudes Regiae. In the video above it is sung in St Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo.

16 November 2017

'Enter into the joy of your master.' Sunday Reflections, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Woman Sewing, Van Gogh [Web Gallery of Art]

She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands. 
(Proverbs 31:13, First Reading)

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

Gospel Matthew 25:14-30 [Shorter form, 14-15, 19-21] (New Revised  Standard Version, Anglicised CatholicEdition) 

Jesus told his disciples this parable:

 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. [The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.] After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” [And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”]

Jesse Robredo 
(27 May 1958 - 18 August 2012) [Wikipedia]

There was real sorrow throughout the Philippines when news broke that the small plane in which Jesse Robredo, Secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) in the administration of President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines had crashed offshore while trying to make and emergency landing on Masbate Island. Secretary Robredo had been on official business in Cebu but wanted to be present at a swimming competition in which his daughter was taking part in their home town, Naga City in the heart of the Bicol Region at the southern end of Luzon. So he hired a small plane to fly from Cebu to Naga City.

Naga City, Camarines Sur [Wikipedia]

During his six terms as elected Mayor of Naga City Jesse Robredo was noted for being close to ordinary people and for working for the improvement of the lives of all Nagueños. He saw his role as one of service.

Shortly after the Secretary's death Fr Lucio Rosaroso, a chaplain to the Philippine National Police (PNP), spoke in a homily at a Mass for the soul of Jesse Robredo of the sense of service that he had:  Service is a time-honored value, however, the span of time in service does not matter — it may be long or short. What is more important is how much love one puts into his or her service.

The late Secretary Robredo, though his service to our country was cut short due to his untimely demise, but that is not what matters. What matters most is the LOVE that he put into his service. By that he gives us the best example of servant-leadership, he stressed.

Fr Rosaroso continued: Robredo’s heart was after the heart of the Good Shepherd. He was not only a good public servant but first and foremost a father to his very own family.

I remember reading at the time of his death that Jesse Robredo, who was based in Manila during his time as Secretary of the DILG, made a point of going home each weekend to Naga City to be with his family. By air this takes about 45 minutes but by road maybe six or seven hours, as I recall from going there from Manila a number of times in the 1990s when I was a vocation director of the Columbans. It's never easy for a politician or someone in public service to balance family life with public responsibilities. But Jesse Robredo made his wife and three daughters a priority.

Our Lady of Peñafrancia [Wikipedia]
The shrine of Our Lady of Peñafrancia is in Naga City.

I remember reading too that the day before his death Jesse Robredo went to confession at a church run by the Divine Word Missionaries in Quezon City, the largest component in area and size in Metro Manila. Fr Rosarosa of the PNP in his homily testified to the fact the DILG Secretary confessed regularly: The late secretary used to come here in Crame Church. In fact, every week he would go to confession. We are six priests here in Camp Crame and each one of us experienced being asked by the late secretary to administer to him the Sacrament of Reconciliation from time to time. He really believed in the sanctifying graces of the sacraments. He was a practicing and devout Catholic. He was a holy man in our midst!

Jesse Robredo's confession the day before he died is a powerful example of what St Paul speaks about in today's Second Reading: For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night . . . But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief (1 Thess 5:1-6).

The shorter version of the Gospel has a specific focus: You have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master. Because President Aquino saw how well Jesse Robredo had managed Naga City he made him responsible for local government throughout the Philippines. 

The longer version shows how harshly the master dealt with the servant who simply buried what had been given to him. The investigation into the accident that killed Jesse Robredo suggests that three people lost their lives because others were not trustworthy in a few things.

The parable of the talents reminds us that whatever gifts God has given each of are not just for ourselves but are meant to be used in the service of others. What we do with them has consequences in the lives of others. Jesse Robredo, whose Catholic faith was at the centre of his life, used his talents in serving the people of Naga City from the time he was elected Mayor at the age of 29 and later in serving the people of the Philippines. He gave his wife and children first priority. The reason for his wanting to fly from Cebu to Naga, a journey that ended in his death, is a testimony to this.

The failure of some to use their talents, to carry out the responsibilities they were given, led to unnecessary deaths.

When the Lord will come like a thief in the night which words do we wish to hear from him: As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth - harsh words that call us to be responsible for what God has given us - or you have been trustworthy in a few things . . . enter into the joy of your master?

Antiphona ad communionem   Communion Antiphon  Mk 11:23-24

Amen dico vobis, quidquid orantes petitis,
credite quia accepietis, et fiet vobis.

Amen, I say to you, Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive, and it shall be given to you, says the Lord.

This is also the Communion Antiphon for Mass in the Extraordinary Form on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost.