Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassatti

Today, in the Dominican Calendar, we honour the memory of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a Lay Dominican beatified by Pope John Paul II on 20th May 1990.  Blessed Pier Giorgio was a Catholic social activist who dedicated his short life to social justice issues, in order to better aid the poor and less fortunate people living in his hometown of Turin. Blessed Pier Giorgio contracted a severe case of polio, probably caught from the sick to whom he ministered, and he died, aged 23, on 4th July 1925.  Visiting his tomb in 1989, Pope John Paul II remarked that he had felt in his own youth “the beneficial influence of his example.”  “He left the world rather young,” he said, “but he made a mark upon our entire century.”  His process for canonisation continues.

Our life of faith as Catholics is not meant to be something we simply add to our regular, everyday life.  Catholicism is an entirely new way of living, it’s a culture.  It’s not a hobby or a set of options we can pick and choose from.  We can easily think that we have a life, and if we do certain things faithfully, it will become a better life: a Christian life.  But this isn’t what God wants.  God didn’t become a man and suffer the agony of the Cross just to give us a better life.  He did it so that we would receive a new life, complete with a new set of principles, a new centre, and a new source of hope and power.  In other words, God became man and died for us so that he could make us into a new creation.

To help his followers understand this fundamental truth, Our Lord spoke of patched clothing and old wineskins.  His listeners would have readily understood that a patch might change the appearance of an old cloak, and maybe improve its usefulness, but it would still be the same old cloak.  They also would have known that new wine was still fermenting and that its container had to be supple and flexible enough to expand with the gases the wine produced.  The old, inflexible wineskin simply wouldn’t be able to handle the demands or the changes made by the new wine.

When Our Lord died on the Cross, he carried our old life along with him.  What he offers us now is the ability to become a new creation filled with his own divine life.  And a great help to keeping us on course is the daily examination of conscience, which we do at Compline at the end of each day, when we ask, along with St. Paul: “Why do I do the very things I hate?” That’s the old life still squirming inside fighting to express itself.  As we deepen our conversion, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of God.   So, let us allow the Holy Spirit to have his way in us, so that we can become soft, flexible wineskins ready to accept more and more of his new wine.

SAINT THOMAS

Scripture scholars and theologians have no doubt debated about how Thomas first learned about Our Lord’s resurrection.  One would assume he heard it through his closest friends, his fellow apostles.  But he still found it hard to accept their words.  He had to see and touch Jesus for himself.  Now, you would think that after three years with these people: living, preaching, and growing in holiness with them, that they would have won his trust by now.  But something inside of Thomas still made him sceptical.

In his amazing Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason n.32) Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people”.  Despite the sound testimony presented to Thomas, something held him back.  And this is the same challenge we face today.  Some people think that faith is individual, personal, and even private; but that goes against God’s desire to have a body of people united to him and to one another and building one another up.  This body, the Church, isn’t just a structured institution or a building in which we gather; it’s the place where we meet Jesus Christ in one another.  The Church is a community of believers with whom we have the privilege of sharing our lives.

And the Church includes holy men and women like Saint Thomas, the “church triumphant” in heaven, whose lives continue to bear witness to Jesus.  The saints have experienced the struggle against doubt, and are constantly praying for us, the “church militant” who still fight the good fight of faith.

And so, we are not alone when we pray; we are not alone when we read the scriptures or preach and teach the Word.  God supports and honours everyone who seeks him with a sincere heart.  And he promises that the Holy Spirit will guide all of us into the Truth: a Truth that is as big as the Church itself.

Saint Thomas, pray for us.

Thursday of Week 13 in Ordinary Time

The prophet Amos had been warning the people of Israel that they needed to reform their ways, but no one wanted to hear him—especially not the king. So Amaziah the priest told Amos to leave the northern kingdom and go back to Judea and “there earn your bread by prophesying” (Amos 7:12). But Amos wasn’t a professional prophet like the ones surrounding the royal Temple in Bethel, who were paid for their services. He was just “a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores” (7:14).

Amos’ story shows us that God delights in calling the people we’d least expect to do his work. He chose David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons and a youth at the time, to be the future king of Israel. He chose a young woman and a carpenter from the small town of Nazareth to be the parents of his Son. He chose simple fishermen to become his apostles and lead the Church. Clearly, God looks beyond professional accomplishments and résumé items. He looks instead into the hearts of his people. He is always looking for faith-filled men and women who love him and are willing to be obedient to his call, whatever that may be.

So don’t be surprised if God calls you to do something for him that you don’t feel equipped to do. Maybe he is asking you to teach CCD in your parish or to actively promote legislation that honors life or to support a couple preparing for marriage. You might see only what you lack, but God sees what you already have: a willingness to serve him. Be assured that he won’t leave you on your own. He will give you the wisdom you need, he will lead you to the resources you are looking for, and he will send you people to help you. He will even supply you with courage and confidence.

One thing is for sure: if you are willing to do whatever God asks of you, he is certain to call you. So be alert to the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit. May we all be like Amos and respond to God’s call!

Saint Oliver Plunkett

Today we honour the memory of Saint Oliver Plunkett – the last Catholic to be martyred at Tyburn on 1st July 1681.  At a kangaroo court in London, the Archbishop of Armagh was found guilty of high treason, and to quote from the indictment against him: “for promoting the Catholic Faith”, and he was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  The feasts of the Apostles and martyrs we celebrate remind us that the Catholic Church is built on the witness of the Apostles and the blood of the martyrs.

When Jesus entered the region of Gadara, two men ran towards him; they no doubt had serious mental disorders, but St. Matthew describes them as being possessed by demons who saw Jesus as a threat to the hold they had over their victims.  By contrast, the disciples saw Jesus as the one who could keep them safe and protected.  The demons strug­gled to keep their dominion, but the disciples submitted to Jesus.  Ulti­mately, the disciples were saved, but the demons lost everything.

Haven’t we all done what the disciples and these two men did?  Haven’t we all run to Jesus at some point in our lives, implor­ing his help?  But while a crisis may bring us to Jesus, that alone won’t keep us by his side.  We still have to answer the everyday questions of how we will live and whom we will trust.  The issues may not be as dramatic as the one that sent us running to the Lord in the first place, but they are every bit as important.

In fact, it’s in these every­day challenges that the demons of our subconscious like to hide.  They work slowly and subtly, gradually chipping away at our com­mitment to God and to our vocation.  They whisper thoughts of resentment, pride, selfishness and condemnation, hoping to turn us in on ourselves.  This may be what happened with these two demo­niacs.  They didn’t go to sleep holy one night and wake up possessed the next morning.  It happened over time, as they wandered farther and farther away from God and his way. Whether we yield to good or to evil is always a matter of degrees, like the slow drip of a tap that eventu­ally fills a cup.  None of our choices is trivial.  Every single one matters.  And this is why we need to get in the habit of running to Jesus even with our little hopes and fears of the day.  We shouldn’t wait for the big crises to crop up.  We need to keep God close so that the demons in our lives can do us no harm.

Tuesday of Week 13 in Ordinary Time

The Prophet Amos had some hard things to say to the Hebrews: If evil befalls a city, has not the Lord caused it..?  The lion roars, who will not be afraid..?  Prepare to meet your God…  These words sound ominous, and yet they are set within the context of God’s relationship with his people: You alone have I favoured, more than all the families of the earth.

As chilling as the first reading may sound, we need to understand that God is not the direct cause of the evils we experience.  Although he set the laws of nature in place, he doesn’t directly intervene in their workings, and especially not for our harm.  Rather, much of the evil we experience is the result of human sinfulness and poor choices.

But that doesn’t mean that God is powerless.  Rather he is very much involved in this world and in our lives.  But unlike a puppeteer pulling strings he comes to us as a companion, guide, and friend, walking alongside us.  He offers us his grace to help us face our days with courage, hope, and trust.

When bad things happen, it’s natural to be fearful and angry, and we often ask the wrong questions like why is God letting this happen? Some things will always remain a mystery to us. When things go wrong in life, we don’t have to face them alone.  Instead we need to remember the prophet Amos’ words and prepare to meet your God and to walk in harmony with him.

Monday of Week 13 in Ordinary Time

“There’s no place like home.”  This well-worn saying strikes a chord with all of us.  We all need a place where we can go, shut the door, and be alone.  Even birds and foxes build shelters for themselves and their young.  Our Lord didn’t appear to have a base of operations; he was always on the move, and perhaps that’s why he challenged these two men we hear about in the Gospel today.  Our Lord wanted them to take a closer look at the job description before they signed up to be his disciples.

Now, it wasn’t that these men were insincere, they were quite keen on following Our Lord.  We are all aware that discipleship depends on commitment.  Discipleship may not require us to travel to the ends of the earth, or sever every family tie, but it does require something more difficult: to be a true disciple we need to surrender our will.  We may have the best of intentions and be very sincere, but we must also be willing to give up our attachments to this world’s values and comforts.  We can’t finish our journey with Jesus if we keep one foot on the shore just in case things get rough out at sea. The sacrifices we make for God are nothing compared to the rewards we receive from him.  When we die to ourselves and embrace the Cross, we find a new home in Jesus.  No matter what storms rage on around us, we have a place to lay our head.  And it’s so much better than any comfort this world can offer us.  Just as Our Lord did during his time on earth, when we are troubled or tired, we can call on God.  He will always refresh and strengthen us for the journey ahead.  When we walk with God, there really is “no place like home.”

The Apostles Peter & Paul

There is something inescapably Roman about today’s feast.  And it’s not just because we are Roman Catholics.  Few religions have such a strong association with a place, let alone an individual city.  Today we celebrate the feast of the two giants, the two princes of the Apostolic Church, who are forever united in the liturgy, but who, in life, didn’t always see eye to eye.  Both Saint Peter and Saint Paul were martyred in Rome, which became the administrative centre of the Church, built literally on the bones of Saint Peter.  But they both began from the same point too: it was their faith in Jesus Christ that motivated and drove them, but each went his own way, Saint Paul travelled far and wide to establish new churches and to preach the Gospel, while Saint Peter stayed closer to Jerusalem strengthening, encouraging and uniting the church there.  Having started at the same place, then gone their separate ways, they are brought back together once more when each is brought to Rome, and each is killed there in the persecutions ordered by the mad Emperor Nero.  This Roman flavour to the feast is continued to this day, because this is the feast on which new archbishops are called to Rome to receive the pallium.  Of course, that’s not happening this year because of the Coronavirus pandemic.  This is also the day on which Catholics throughout the world donate money – Peter’s Pence – to support the work of the Holy See, and the Pope’s charitable causes.  Interestingly, this is a practice which began here in England, and which quickly spread throughout Europe and the world, and which continues to this day.

Peter and Paul were brought to Rome, two ordinary men brought to the mighty city at the heart of the great Roman Empire.  Both were martyred in Rome in June 67 and their witness and their preaching established Rome as the headquarters and centre for the Church to this day.

Each year on this Solemnity my memories take me back, not so much to my three years as a student in Rome, but before that to a former life in which part of my job included the recruitment and selection of new staff and officers for the City of Bradford Metropolitan Council.  And I wonder if Our Lord had recruited his Apostles in the way many firms and businesses recruit their employees today, would Saint Peter and Saint Paul have been selected for the two top jobs in the Church.  Would they even have made the shortlist?

It’s true that Simon Peter had the qualities of a natural leader.  He was a man of action; he was self-confident and enthusiastic, even daring and outgoing.  And yet on the other hand, he could be impulsive, imprudent, and erratic. In today’s gospel we witness one of Peter’s more shining moments when he confesses Our Lord to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.  And yet only six short verses later, he expresses such opposition to God’s plans that Our Lord calls him not “a rock” but “an obstacle”.

And was Saul any more promising when the risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus?  This young man surely stood out for his fervour, his learning, and his single-minded commitment to the job in hand.  But he was using all his talents to destroy the Church, even though his former teacher, the respected Rabbi Gamaliel, had urged a wait-and-see approach.  But Saul was too zealous and too full of fire to follow such prudent advice.  He was dedicated and effective in rounding up all those who didn’t follow the party line.  But the achievements on Saul’s résumé fit the job description of a persecutor, not an apostle.

Our Lord never needed a personnel advisor to inform him about which workers to recruit and select.  Our Lord understood human nature all too well; he could see the capacity for heroic holiness that lies hidden beneath a person’s exterior strengths and weaknesses.  Our Lord saw that potential in both Peter and Paul, and he took a risk in choosing them.  Yes, it’s true that Peter wavered in his conviction and went on to deny even knowing Our Lord, not just once but three times.  And as for Paul, who would have guessed that someone who was so unswervingly headed in one direction could do a complete turnaround?  Yet in the end, both men accepted the grace of conversion and became the dedicated apostles Our Lord knew they could be.

In just the same way, Our Lord sees the potential in each of us as well.  Every moment of every day, Our Lord calls us to follow him.  Given our many weaknesses and failings we can only take the apostles Peter and Paul as our examples and models; like them we must have the humility and the generosity of spirit to accept Our Lord’s call to follow, and then allow his grace to make up what is lacking in our response.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, pray for us.

Saturday of Week 12 in Ordinary Time

The Roman centurion we’ve just heard about is an example to all of us, not least because we repeat his words of faith and confidence each day at Mass.  Sadly, we don’t even know his name; but he obviously cared for his servant so much that he was willing to go outside his comfort zone and ask a Jew for help.  It was his love and his faith that moved Our Lord to commend him so highly.

This man took a very bold step in coming to Jesus.  He probably knew there was a good chance he could be rebuffed because he was a Gentile and a soldier of rank in Rome’s occupying army.  But he conquered his doubts and inner objections and came to a position of confidence instead.  He believed that all Jesus had to do was speak the word, and his servant would be healed.  Now that’s an act of faith.

Every household, every family, and every community has some need for Our Lord’s healing touch.  But it seems rare that we hear of people praying with the confidence that this centurion had.  Somehow, we have accepted the false premise that we should just take life as it comes—the bad with the good—and not expect God to intervene to change a difficult situation.

And yet nothing could be further from the truth.  Our Lord wants to give us good gifts.  Over and over again, he tells us to ask, seek, and knock.  His ways may not always be our ways, but whether we can see it or not, he will act; and he may not always respond to our prayers in the way we expect him to.  But like the centurion we have to pray, and we won’t know how Our Lord wants to bless us unless we ask him in faith and trust. It’s a mystery why we don’t always seem to receive what we ask for; and we’ll never fully understand it.  But we should never let that mystery keep us from asking God for his intervention, whether it be spiritual, emotional, or physical.  We have a good and generous God, and we can be sure that he will always respond in the way which is best for us.

Friday of Week 12 in Ordinary Time

Living under Lockdown for the past three months we can sympathise with the man we’ve just heard about.  From the moment he exhibited signs of leprosy, this poor man was separated from his family and his whole life.  He had to ring a bell or shake a rattle and call out ‘unclean’ whenever a healthy person approached him.  Imagine the kind of life he was forced to lead.  Not only was he coping with the physical effects of a terrible illness, but he also had to deal with the guilt, stress, and sense of isolation that came with his exclusion.  And then there were the effects of knowing that so many people around him were now afraid of him.

There was a good reason for isolating lepers, people in the ancient Near East knew that leprosy was an incurable and highly contagious disease.  By approaching Jesus, the man risked infecting him, and making him ritually unclean as well.  To go ahead and do so anyway required both great courage and great faith.

Imagine the joy this man must have felt at being both physically healed and freed from the social constraints of his disease.  After getting approval from the rabbi, he could return home, get a job, and live with his family once again.  His whole life had changed because he dared to ask Jesus for help.

We may feel ‘unclean’ at times, or undeserving of the blessings that God wants to give us.  We may hesitate to ask God for help, to ask for forgiveness, or even to try going deeper in our faith or drawing closer to Christ.  We may avoid our prayers or the sacraments because we don’t believe God would speak to us there.  Or we might go to Confession, but doubt that God has truly forgiven our sins. Just as the leper courageously called out to Jesus and asked for healing, we can do the same.  He wants to give us his grace and healing power so that we too can be made clean.

Thursday of Week 12 in Ordinary Time

For a person of faith, the most important goal in life is to know God.  After all, we were made for eternal life, and all of us will face particular judgement on the day we enter that blessed state.

We could go through our lives deciding for ourselves what is good and evil, and perhaps be acclaimed as solid citizens; but unless we seek God’s Will and follow his Law, Our Lord will say to us: “I never knew you.”  It is for this reason that the Church has consistently pointed out the dangers of secular humanism or indeed any other ism which promises some kind of fulfilment which doesn’t have its source in God.  More often than not these attractive philosophies stand in subtle opposition to the Gospel.

How then can we be sure that we are doing the Father’s will?  Well, just the other day Our Lord explained what was truly necessary: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29).  This is the message we are left with at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount: Our Lord is everything.  Our belief in him transforms lives and brings us to know the Father.  Our daily experience of him in our prayer and particularly in the Mass lifts us out of the ordinary and into the blessedness of walking with the Holy Spirit as our guide. Our Lord wants us to know him.  He wants us to have a relationship of intimate trust and love with him.  All he asks is that we cry out to him in humility and say: “Lord I do believe, help thou my unbelief”.