26 March 2019

'I will get up and go to my father.' Sunday Reflections, 4th Sunday of Lent, Year C

The Return of the Prodigal Son, 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 Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable:
‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”’

The Gospel in Filipino Sign Language

A priest-friend, now deceased, told me a story about three priests whom he knew in his own country. I'll call them Father Andy, Father Bert and Father Chris. Father Chris, younger than the other two who were quite well on in years, no longer used the title 'Father' as he had left the priesthood.

Father Andy was in hospital and knew he was nearing death. Father Bert went to visit him. The dying man asked his friend for his blessing. But he got a response that he had never expected. 'When you forgive Chris, then I will bless you'. Father Bert knew that his dying friend had been deeply hurt when Father Chris had left the priesthood. He also knew that he still carried resentment in his heart towards the younger man.

The tears welled up in Father Andy's eyes and he asked his friend to invite Chris to visit him. He let go of his hurt and resentment, was fully reconciled with Chris - and received from Father Bert the blessing he had asked for, a blessing far greater than he ever could have imagined.

Part of the genius of this parable of Jesus is that it doesn't have an ending, but an invitation. We don't know whether or not the older, dutiful son joined the celebration. He can  only see at this moment the wasted life of his younger brother and the immense suffering this had brought to their father, suffering that Rembrandt captures so movingly

The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail)
Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

The father doesn't argue with his older son. He is well aware of that son's sense of responsibility. The father also hears his angry and dismissive 'this son of yours'. He gently points out, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.

The invitation in the parable is not only to the older son. It is to me. Is the Father inviting me to let go of sins that have separated me from him, a separation that he doesn't want, by asking his pardon, especially in the sacrament of confession? Or is the Father inviting me to let go of my self-righteousness, my lack of humility, my lack of gratitude for daily blessings, even though I am conscientious in doing what is right?

The Father has reserved a place for each of us at the celebration.

Pope Francis on the Sacrament of Confession

St John Paul II on the Sacrament of Confession

Reconciliation and Penance, No 31, IV and V

First of all, it must be emphasized that nothing is more personal and intimate that this sacrament, in which the sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance and trust. No one can repent in his place or ask forgiveness in his name. There is a certain solitude of the sinner in his sin, and this can be seen dramatically represented in Cain with sin "crouching at his door," as the Book of Genesis says so effectively, and with the distinctive mark on his forehead; in David, admonished by the prophet Nathan; or in the prodigal son when he realizes the condition to which he has reduced himself by staying away from his father and decides to return to him.

Everything takes place between the individual alone and God. But at the same time one cannot deny the social nature of this sacrament, in which the whole church-militant, suffering and glorious in heaven- comes to the aid of the penitent and welcomes him again into her bosom, especially as it was the whole church which had been offended and wounded by his sin. As the minister of penance, the priest by virtue of his sacred office appears as the witness and representative of this ecclesial nature of the sacrament. The individual nature and ecclesial nature are two complementary aspects of the sacrament which the progressive reform of the Rite of Penance, especially that contained in the Ordo Paenitentiae promulgated by Paul VI, has sought to emphasize and to make more meaningful in its celebration.

Second, it must be emphasized that the most precious result of the forgiveness obtained in the sacrament of penance consists in reconciliation with God, which takes place in the inmost heart of the son who was lost and found again, which every penitent is. But it has to be added that this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations which repair the breaches caused by sin. The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his own true identity. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way attacked and wounded. He is reconciled with the church. He is reconciled with all creation.

As a result of an awareness of this, at the end of the celebration there arises in the penitent a sense of gratitude to God for the gift of divine mercy received, and the church invites the penitent to have this sense of gratitude.

Every confessional is a special and blessed place from which, with divisions wiped away, there is born new and uncontaminated a reconciled individual-a reconciled world!

St John Paul II [Wikipedia]

20 March 2019

'If it bears fruit next year, well and good.' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C

Moses Before the Burning Bush, Domenico Fetti [Web Gallery of Art]

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15, First Reading

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

Gospel Luke 13:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’

The Gospel in Filipino Sign Language
The parable in today's gospel reminds me of an incident on Thursday of Easter Week 1970 in Mount Vernon, Kentucky. I had driven the 1,200 or so kms from New York on Wednesday of Holy Week with a group of students from Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York, where I was studying music at the time. My car was an old Nash Rambler that I had bought for one dollar from Irish friends, Doug and Maeve Devlin, the previous year when they moved back to Dublin. (They now live in Nova Scotia, Canada, where I'm preparing this.) The car was more than 15 years on the road and the doors didn't lock. But it had a great engine.

Our Lady of Mount Vernon Church
However, the day before we were about to drive back to New York something was preventing the car from going at more than about 30 kph. I took it to a local garage. The mechanics tried for an hour or so trying to loosen what was too tight, without success. I was almost resigned, somewhat like the owner of the fig tree, to leaving the car, forgetting about it and travelling by bus back to New York. However, the 'vinedresser' in me said to the mechanics, 'Try just once more'. They did. And whatever the problem was, it disappeared.

A few months later I gave the car to my mechanic in White Plains, New York, a Belgian named Joe Brody. When I had first brought the car to Joe the previous year he said, 'This is OK for driving around town'. 'I'm driving to Kentucky tomorrow', I told him. And the car, which I jokingly called 'The Irish Rover', served me well in its latter days.

1952 Nash Rambler Custom station wagon  [Wikipedia]

The parable of Jesus doesn't tell us whether or not the tree bore fruit the following year, just as the parable of the prodigal son, read at Mass on Saturday of the Second Week of Lent doesn't tell us whether or not the older brother joined the celebration.

What the parable does tell us is that God doesn't give up on us.

It also tells us that what is 'waste' in our lives - our sins, our failures to cooperate with God's grace and so on - can bring about fruitfulness when we let go of it. Manure is bodily waste - but it has the potential to bring about new life in plants.

The first part of the gospel reminds us starkly that we can perish unless we repent. God has given us free will. We can choose to accept God's love or we can choose to reject it. God will not give up on us till our dying breath.

But Lent is a special grace to the whole Church and to each member so that we won't leave it till our dying breath to turn away from sin.

We have many examples of saints who were once far from God. Perhaps St Augustine is the best known of these. But his very 'past' has been a grace to the Church ever since he turned back to God, largely because of the prayers of his mother St Monica. Not only did God not give up on St Augustine but he called him to be a source of hope to other sinners. And he called St Monica to be a source of hope to persons close to God who suffer as they see their loved ones far from God, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son.

St Augustine's wasted years are not really wasted. They are part of the 'manure' that a loving God uses to nurture life in others leading fruitless lives. 

The fig tree in the parable didn't have a will of its own but each of us has. It is possible for us to choose to reject God's love. The Catechism of the Catholic ChurchNo 1033,  says:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: 'He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.' Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'.

Pope Benedict XVI [Wikipedia]

And in a homily on 25 March 2007 in the Roman parish of St Felicity and her Children, Martyrs, where there are many Filipino parishioners as he noted, Pope Benedict, preaching on the gospel of the woman caught in adultery, said: 

Jesus does not enter into a theoretical discussion with his interlocutors on this section of Mosaic Law; he is not concerned with winning an academic dispute about an interpretation of Mosaic Law, but his goal is to save a soul and reveal that salvation is only found in God's love. This is why he came down to the earth, this is why he was to die on the Cross and why the Father was to raise him on the third day. Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in Paradise and that hell, about which little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love.

Pope Benedict added:  Dear brothers and sisters, on the Lenten journey we are taking, which is rapidly reaching its end, we are accompanied by the certainty that God never abandons us and that his love is a source of joy and peace; it is a powerful force that impels us on the path of holiness, if necessary even to martyrdom. This is what happened to the children and then to their brave mother, Felicity, the patron Saints of your Parish.

May we never take God's love for granted but may we never lose hope in his unconditional love for each of us.

A postscript 

Main Street, Mount Vernon, Kentucky [Wikipedia]

The church in Mount Vernon was still very new when I went there. In earlier years Mass had been celebrated in the home of Mom and Pop Reynolds. At the time there was only a handful of Catholics in the area and many people had strange ideas about them. When I arrived in Holy Week 1970 I discovered that Mom Reynolds, an elderly woman, had been bedridden for months due to a broken hip.  She hadn't received the Sacrament of the Sick and I asked her if she would like to. She was delighted. Her husband was present and looked as fit as the proverbial fiddle. I brought Holy Communion almost every day to Mrs Reynolds.

On Friday of Easter Week as I was having lunch just before we were to drive back to New York Mom Reynolds phoned to tell me that her husband had been taken to hospital and asked me if I could give him the last rites. I went immediately. He was in a coma and I anointed him. 

When I came back the following summer to Mount Vernon I went to the home of the Reynolds couple, but only Mom was there. She told me that her husband had died shortly after I had left for New York. She also told me that he had felt 'left out' when I had anointed her during Holy Week! I was a young priest at the time and it was still very soon after Vatican II and the notion that the Sacrament of the Sick was only for the dying was still prevalent, as I learned from 95-year-old Mrs Murphy in the same parish. She was housebound but when I suggested the Sacrament of the Sick she nearly threw me out! However, she was very happy to receive Holy Communion almost every day while I was there.

God showed his love to Pop Reynolds in a very 'thoughtful' way at the end of his life. And this gave great consolation to his wife. Both of them had been faithful Catholics all their years and, in a very real way, missionaries by their faithfulness and by making their home available for Mass in a community that to some extent was hostile to Catholics. (By the time I was there that hostility had nearly disappeared.)

Antiphona ad introitum  Entrance Antiphon Ps 25:15-16

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum,
My eyes are always on the Lord,
quia ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos:
for he rescues my feet from the snare.
respice in me, et miserere mei, 
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
quoniam unicus et pauper sum ego
for I am alone and poor.

Ad te, Domine, levavi animam meam: 
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
Deus meus, in te confido, non erubescam.
O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame.
Gloria Patri et Filii et Spiritui sancto
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper 
As it was in the beginning, is now
Et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
And will be for ever. Amen.

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum,
My eyes are always on the Lord,
quia ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos:
for he rescues my feet from the snare.
respice in me, et miserere mei, 
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
quoniam unicus et pauper sum ego. 
for I am alone and poor.

The video has the longer version of the Entrance Antiphon, in Latin and English, as used in the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, often referred to as 'The Traditional Latin Mass' or 'TLM'. The text used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, the 'New Mass', is in bold.   

14 March 2019

'This is my Son, my Chosen.' Sunday Reflections, 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C

Transfiguration, Blessed Fra Angelico [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 Luke 9:28b-36 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Starry Night, Van Gogh [Web Gallery of Art]
[The LORD] brought [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 
(From First Reading, Gen 15:5, NRSVACE)


By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

The deacon or priest says these words quietly as he pours wine and a little water into the chalice during the Offertory of the Mass. In today's gospel Jesus, who humbled himself to share in our humanity, allowed Peter, James and John to get a glimpse of his divinity. Moses and Elijah spoke of what Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. That was not only his death but his Resurrection and glorification.

Jesus calls us to share in his Resurrection and glorification, to share in the divinity that is his.

We don't share in the Resurrection, glorification and divinity of Jesus Christ only after death but also, as Peter, James and John did in the Transfiguration, in this life when we experience the gift of God's love in events that can transform us here and now.

My Australian fellow Columban, Fr Warren Kinne, who worked in Mindanao, Philippines, for a long time before spending many years in China, tells the story of Xiao Ai, who was in her early days a 'non-person'. But through the love and care of strangers, Chinese and foreign, she now has possibilities open to her that she never could have imagined. And Father Warren, who has some Chinese ancestry, sees her story as encapsulating in some ways the meaning of Lent and Easter. Here's how he tells it. It's taken from the January-February 2013 issue of MISYONonline.com, the Columban online magazine I used to edit in the Philippines. It is also on the website of the Columbans in Australia and New Zealand. 

Xiao Ai

by Fr Warren Kinne

Before the great Feast of Easter when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Church goes through a period of preparation by prayer and fasting. We call this Lent. In the northern hemisphere, where Christianity started, it was celebrated in spring and slowly, throughout that time, the dead of winter burst forth into the luxuriance of new growth, signifying life and the resurrection.

Xiao Ai is a young friend of mine. She was left at the steps of a convent about 2004 or 2005 in a remote village of Shan Xi Province, China. She was born with clubbed feet and abandoned. Xiao was brought to Shanghai where a group of foreigners provided money and logistical support for multiple operations.

During that period she was taken in by a family who took great care of her and eventually wanted to adopt her as their own. However there were many hurdles to be overcome. Xiao Ai did not have any identification as the convent was not a registered orphanage and so was not in a position to register her.
Indeed people could only guess at her actual birth date. She was really a ‘non-person’.

After years of effort Xiao Ai has had all her paperwork completed and she now has a Chinese passport that will allow her to travel with her adopted family to Singapore. What happiness followed the long and anxious wait where a wonderful outcome was hoped for rather than expected.

Xiao Ai and Fr Warren Kinne
For the Lord takes delight in his people 
(Psalm 149:4, Grail translation)

Xiao’s struggle to me is a Lenten story that has become an Easter story; a fast that turned into a feast; a long journey in a desert that ended in freedom; a near death that heralded a resurrection, a new life.
Shanghai is a city of tinsel and glitter. Most people recognize the image of its iconic buildings and towering structures along the Huang Pu River. There are myriad neon signs and a ‘yuppie’ lifestyle for many expatriates who ride the wave of economic frenzy. But it has its under-belly.
The construction of this city has been done on the backs of migrant workers - currently seven million - who have travelled to the city to find work. They left their villages and often their families in order to make a little money on construction sites and in restaurants and factories.
These people do not have residency permits in Shanghai and so they cannot settle down where they work. Often they leave their children back in the village in the care of grandparents and may only get home once a year – during the Chinese New Year – to see how the family is going.
Children can resent their absence and may not appreciate the sacrifice of the parent or parents in order to better the whole family economically.
In the cities where they work they do not have equal access to medical and educational opportunities that are open to the local population.
Their sacrifice is a sort of ‘Lent’ lived in the hope of a better future for their family. Like Xiao Ai’s adopting parents or the migrant parents, they in fact live the admonition of God in Isaiah 58: 6-7: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him’.
God brought the slaves out of the land of Egypt where they had made bricks for the ostentatious buildings of the Pharaohs. This same God made a covenant with them and subsequently with us that we might treat each other differently because in one way or another we have all been freed. The worship of the market and the God of money has caused many to suffer. May we all have the courage to live a Lent that will usher in true life for the world.
Xiao Ai in 2016

With Fr Kinne in 2016

Kyrie eleison
Mass of Pope John Paul II by Henryk Jan Botor