Saint Jerome

Today we honour the memory of Saint Jerome, the Church’s first scripture scholar.  This year we mark the 1600th anniversary of his death and today’s memorial also brings to an end The Year of the God who Speaks.  It was Jerome who translated the Scriptures into Latin, known as the Vulgate and it’s still used today by serious scripture scholars.  After spending his early years in Rome as a lawyer and a priest, Jerome spent the last 34 years of his life as a semi-recluse in the Holy Land where he translated many important documents which are still in use today.  Saint Jerome is honoured as one of the four great Latin Fathers of the Church.  His remains are preserved in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.

Many of us may cringe when we hear those words of Our Lord to “Leave the dead to bury to their dead”, because they sound pretty extreme.  Now, we know Our Lord doesn’t expect us to boycott the funerals of those we know and love.  He often exaggerates his answers in order to make a point.  Just as he doesn’t really want us to chop off our hands or gouge out our eyes when we are tempted to sin, so he doesn’t really want us to abandon all our responsibilities in the name of discipleship.  What Our Lord does want us to do is take seriously his call to follow him.  This is why he uses extreme language, to get our attention and prompt us to do a little more self-examination.

As we progress in the religious life, self-examination can often suffer.  Once we get settled into a comfortable routine with our lives it gets all too easy to tell ourselves that we are too busy to sit down and reflect.  We can get so busy doing things and seeing people and going places that we forget sometimes why we entered the religious life in the first place.  We may even create our own little world within a world.  Each decision we make adds up, until we begin to think that Our Lord really isn’t so very important in our lives.  The apostolate takes over.  Now of course, we would never admit this so bluntly, but our actions often speak more honestly than our words.  This is why self-examination is so important.  And this period of isolation is a good opportunity to reflect on why we came here and what our true purpose is.

I suppose like doctors and nurses, priests and religious don’t always follow the advice we give to other people.  It’s easy to preach, advise and direct, but we need to listen to our own advice.  Our Lord’s words today should provoke us all to ask a few questions about how we continue to respond to God’s call for us. Age and experience inform us that it’s always best to start small.  If we set too lofty a goal for ourselves, we inevitably end up disappointed and discouraged when we fail.  But if we take small steps and do our best to be faithful, then we will become more dedicated followers of Christ who walks with us every step of the way.

Feast of the Archangels

Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe?  It’s a question often asked, and people like to entertain the idea that there might be.  Most science fiction depends on a positive answer to the question.

The Bible and the Christian tradition, as well as many other religious traditions, also give a positive answer to the question: yes, there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe.  Now, we may take elsewhere to mean geography: there might be other planets, other galaxies, in which other creatures with intelligence will be found.  The Bible gives us no clear answer about this.  But if elsewhere means metaphysics, then the Bible’s answer is very clear: there are other intelligent creatures, on other levels of being, apart from those we know about through our senses.

There is much nostalgia for an enchanted world, testified to by the great quantity of books and films about other beings and other possibilities of being.  It is a nostalgia for the angels, we can say, an implicit recognition that the beauty and power of God are infinite and so there is no end to the number and kind of creatures that might reflect that beauty and power.  In our lifetimes we have seen the spiritual landscape of the world denuded and depopulated, often reduced to the human being either alone with his spirituality, or seeking to relate, however uncertainly, with God.  The Feast of the Archangels recalls us to something much richer, more interesting, and more profound.

The angels help us to know where we are in the Universe, they help us to find and to know our place.  Raphael does this most explicitly, guiding the young Tobias along his way, so that he finds love and joy through his trust and faith in God.  Gabriel too gives guidance, explaining to Zechariah and to Our Lady the missions God has for each of them.  Michael is the protector of God’s people and the guardian of the boundaries of their worlds.

It can be argued that one of the great weaknesses of modern thought is its narrow understanding of the human being, a kind of angel-ism for which the human being is a soul in a body.  The human being came to be defined in terms of his rationality over and against nature, even the nature that is closest to him, his own body.  And here is another way in which the angels help us to know who we are.  We are not pure intelligences and we are not the brightest of God’s creatures.  We are rational animals created in the image of God.  But the image of God in us, as Saint Thomas says, is fuller than it is in the angels precisely because we are rational animals and not trapped angels.  As animals we reproduce, reflecting God’s ability to generate in which the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit from the Father and the Son.  As animals we are composite creatures with a soul that animates every part of the body.  This fact about us reflects the presence of God in His creation everywhere and not just in some special places.

All we know about the angels is in reference to the mystery of Christ and human salvation.  It’s likely that there is a lot more about angels, and perhaps about other creatures also, of which we are completely ignorant.  We know about them to the extent that they are involved with us and with our salvation.  They are messengers, as Saint Gregory the Great says, even preachers, as Saint Augustine says, carrying to us something of the light and intelligence of God.  However, it is Christ who is the head of the angels, just as he is the head of human beings, made lower than the angels in becoming human, but raised higher in being given the name that is above every other name. All creation is centred on Christ, the Lamb who stands at the centre of the great visions of the Apocalypse.  He is the Son of Man on whom the angels ascend and descend.  The elders, the living creatures, the angels gathered for the festival, everything on earth, under the earth, and above the earth: all is through him and for him.

The Dominican Martyrs of Japan

Today we honour the memory of Blessed Alphonsus Navarette and his Companions who were martyred for preaching the Gospel in Japan during the early 17th century.  Over one hundred members of the Dominican family have been recognized as martyrs by the Church.  Their sacrifice helped establish a small yet significant Christian community in Japan.  May we follow the example of the Dominican Martyrs and proclaim our faith in a world which is still hostile to it.

The world of the rich and powerful appears to be a glitzy affair.  Rich people seem to have it all: beautiful wives, handsome husbands, money, popularity, lovely homes on ocean beaches or in mountain hideaways.  They are the envy of many.  But every so often, one hears of suicide, drug and drink abuse, marital violence.  Those who seem to have it all only seem to have it all.  What happened to all that ‘happiness’ that money is supposed to buy?

In the first reading Satan tells God, “Of course Job loves you.  He has everything.”  Job is happy because he has it all.  But take all the stuff away, let him suffer like everybody else, and Satan is certain that Job’s love for God would show itself as superficial.  And so, Job’s trial begins.

But Job had everything because he had the one thing that mattered most of all: faith in a God who was there regardless of the ups and downs of his life.  God proves Satan wrong through Job: hopelessness and despair knows no economic boundaries.  Rich and poor alike suffer from the same hopelessness, and they can rejoice in the same consolation, that at the end of the day you’ve either got faith or you don’t. Notice in the Gospel, that even the disciples are tempted to add to what they already have: titles, status and levels of greatness.  Through experience, we have learned the hard lesson that it’s not all about what we have.  That goes for the people around us who have millions and those who have nothing.  Having everything can’t be measured by pound signs, but only by having the one thing that can see us through everything that happens in our life: faith in a God who transcends all the stuff and raises us above it all.  Instead of pointing fingers, comparing bank balances, or saying that things will be better when we win the lottery, Job calls us to look at the basics.  Do we believe in Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?  What could ever stand in the way of our faith in him and his providence?  Do we have to lose everything in order to discover what we really have?

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Our Holy Father Augustine is important to Dominicans, as he is to Canons Regular, because we follow his Rule of life.  But Saint Augustine was drawn to God’s glory and holiness long before he took action to actually commit himself to the truth and to change his life.  As a young man, he heard God’s invitation to holiness and responded with those memorable words: “Yes Lord, but not just yet.”  Later on, after overcoming his hesitancy, and of course aided by the prayers and encouragement of his mother Saint Monica, Augustine embarked upon an adventure with God that led him to become one of the greatest saints and wisest men the world has ever known.  Saint Augustine was a prolific writer and preacher, but it is the holiness of his life which has drawn countless souls to Christ for more than 1600 years.

In the parable we have just heard, Our Lord teaches us about commitment to God and to His kingdom.  The son who says “yes” when the father asks him to go out to the vineyard and begin the day’s work, loves his father only with his words, and not with his heart and actions as well.  He is false and deceives his father, for after saying “yes”, he really means “no” and he doesn’t go to the vineyard, and he doesn’t honour his word and his promise to the father.  On the other hand, the other son, who initially says “no”, appears to be the worst of the two brothers, for by his word he denies his father to his face in a way that the first son did not.  And yet, because he later repents of his words and obeys the will of the father, he is assured a place in the kingdom.

Our Lord came to fulfil the Jewish Law and the preaching of the Prophets, and he commanded the people to do as the Pharisees taught according to the Law.  But he also warned against following their example, for he knew them to be hypocrites, preaching one thing and doing another.  In this respect, we should be like the first son and say “yes” just as he did, but we must also be like the second son who obeyed the father, even though at first he refused.

Too many people today profess to be scandalised by the hypocrites, backbiters, gossips and slanderers who go to church each week, citing this as an excuse for their refusal to worship and participate in the life of the Church.  After reading the newspapers this morning one can at least begin to understand their point of view.  Such pharisaical scandal is what Our Lord attacks in his parable addressed to the chief priests, the Pharisees, and the elders of the people.  Those who are in charge.  These men prided themselves on their strict observance of the external rubrics of the Law; they were puffed up with pride, as “whited sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones.”  We are all sinners, and we must, with humility, recognise that it is God who justifies us, and the Law is his gift that we may live as members of the kingdom.

Sadly, too many people of faith today find themselves in the same position as the ancient Pharisees.  They stand up and profess their faith, but don’t put that faith into practice in their daily lives.  Like the first son in the parable, they say one thing and do another.  I suppose we are all hypocrites to a greater or lesser extent.  And yet for those who keep on trying, for those who persevere in their resolve, and do their best to develop their relationship with God, and who attend Mass faithfully and are honest about their sinfulness, and who persevere in doing the Father’s will, despite their shortcomings and the temptations and distractions all around us, these are the ones who will be invited to the eternal banquet in heaven.  Those are the more pleasing to Christ, who though they are like the second son in the parable, and may very often say “no”, yet they share in the kingdom by means of repentance, conversion of heart and obedience.

We are the adopted children of a Father who is above all fathers, a Father who has adopted us in Christ so that we may share his life, and who likewise calls us to labour for him as loving sons and daughters.  Many times, we say “yes” to the Father’s will, but I dare say we do not as many times respond with commitment, love, and perseverance.  Through selfishness, pride, laziness, and sin we tell the Father to his face that we love him, but we speak otherwise in our actions.  What a great gift, then, is our repentance; a grace given to us by the Father which is always met by His abundant mercy. Let us always be like that second son who, though he may have been false in his words, returned to love the father in his sorrow for sin and in his amended life.  As we meet the Lord in the Sacrament of Confession, we do just this.  We examine our lives and we confess our sins.  We also promise that, because we love the Father, we will, in the future, try to avoid the near occasions that led us to sin; saying “yes” with our voices, but saying “no” by our actions.  This same sacrament was God’s instrument which transformed Our Holy Father Augustine from a sinner into a saint, in whom many have and still do meet Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saturday of the 25th Week in Ordinary Time

If you have ever visited Washington D.C., you may have visited the National Gallery of Art.  You may even have seen four paintings by Thomas Cole who was born in Lancashire and emigrated to the United States with his family.  These paintings entitled The Voyage of Life trace the journey of one man through life.  They depict the wonder of childhood, the confidence of youth, the uncertain trials of adulthood, and the surrender of old age.  Taken together, Cole’s paintings invite viewers to meditate on their own lives and to ask how they are responding to the various stages they have experienced.

Today’s first reading also paints a picture that invites us to ponder the course and meaning of our lives.  Qoheleth presents a picture of carefree youth, which progresses into grief-filled adulthood.  Hope appears to be dashed by disappointment, and death seems to arrive before anyone can make sense of life.  No afterlife is mentioned either, no reward for being good or consequences for sin.  And yet, in the midst of this troubling depiction, Qoheleth tells us that God is still worthy of our devotion and that his commands are the noblest way to live.  He seems to be telling us: Keep Calm!  Keep your chin up.  Duty is its own reward.

But just imagine if Qoheleth had had a peek at what was to be revealed by Christ.  If he had a look, as Thomas Cole’s old man did, at the heavenly home being prepared for him, he might well have painted a different picture.  Joy and hope would have replaced resignation as he saw that life was more than “vanity of vanities”. It’s true that we all have our share of difficulties.  We all face troubles and even tragedies that seem to make no sense to us.  But as we journey toward our heavenly home, we can choose to focus more on the difficulties or on the hope of heaven.  Doesn’t it make more sense to place our confidence in God?  Even if the world tries to tell us that this is all there is, we can still choose to lift our eyes to heaven and rejoice in the eternal, purposeful life God has given us.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life (National Gallery of Art)

Friday of the 25th Week in Ordinary Time

Would you believe that in three months it will be Christmas Day!  2020 has turned out to be a very challenging year for everyone.  The Coronavirus has turned our lives upside down.  What we used to take for granted, we suddenly can’t assume any more.  Hugging or shaking hands in greeting has been replaced with a simple nod of the head from a safe distance.  2020 has been a year of social distancing from relatives and friends, but of drawing closer to the people with whom we share our immediate lives.  And may I just say to all our friends who used to join us regularly for Daily and Sunday Mass, and now tune in on the internet each day, that you are not forgotten, we miss you all and we look forward to the day when we can see each other again and worship together and get back to normal.

I said yesterday that the Book of Ecclesiastes is full of down to earth everyday wisdom; and isn’t it remarkable how appropriate today’s reading is for this particular moment in human history?  Qoheleth describes the common ups and downs of life, but it takes on a special resonance for us this past year.  This has been a time of fear and suffering for those sickened by the virus, a time of mourning when loved ones have died, and a time of gratitude for those who remain healthy.

And yet despite all the uncertainty and confusion, we know that God is still in charge of the situation.  Right now, we can’t see the bigger picture, but as Qoheleth tells us today, God has “made everything appropriate to its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  God is with us in this pandemic, just as he has been with us in all our other trials throughout history.  And because God is with us, he continues to pour out his blessings, even amid the challenges.  God gives us the grace to deal with the obstacles we face.  He invites us to unite our sufferings to his on the Cross.  And he holds out the promise of new life, both now and forever.

We need to acknowledge what we have all been through during this difficult year, both the ups and the downs, the moments of joy and the moments of sorrow.  God understands the discomfort and distress of having our lives disrupted in so many ways.  We should be used to it as it is part and parcel of our lives on this planet.  As people of faith we can turn to God for help and strength, and as Qoheleth so wisely tells us, he will accompany us day by day through this appointed time (3:1).  God wants to heal and unite us to himself; and while embracing our friends is difficult during this time, we know that we can always rest in God’s embrace.  May God continue to bless and support us as we go forward in faith during these difficult days.

Our Lady of Walsingham

I am always pleased when we start reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, because I’ve always thought that the book is one of the great works of world literature.  Like the biblical Books of Wisdom and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes contains many wise sayings assembled by an unknown author.  But unlike Wisdom and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes makes a dramatic declaration about the futility of human efforts, and it’s all summed up in just three little words: All Is Vanity.  Everything we attempt is placed on the scale and found wanting.  Now we may wonder how the Book of Ecclesiastes made it into the canon of Scripture.  And yet the unknown author can be considered a hero of faith.  It’s not until the very end of the book that Qoheleth, the nickname the author gives himself, gives us a lesson to take from all this despair.  “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” he urges, “lest we live for fleeting pleasures and face judgment for our disobedience” (12:1, 13-14).

The Book of Ecclesiastes offers wisdom gathered over many years.  I can just imagine the author sat in front of his fire on dark winter evenings scribbling down the wisdom he has accrued over a lifetime.  Qoheleth warns the young not to prize too highly the transient rewards that seem so important in life.  Empires and kingdoms rise and fall, as do global corporations and businesses in our own day, and every one of us will die.  So, nothing that we gain will really remain ours in the end.  What we prized so highly we will have to leave for someone else to value or discard.

And yet in the midst of Qoheleth’s litany on the futility of all things, there is one constant that we can count on, one thing that gives true wisdom and a firm foundation: God.  God is the “one shepherd,” the one source of true, lasting wisdom, who will reward every one of us for what we have done (12:11, 14).

This wisdom certainly still holds today.  Ecclesiastes warns us against trying to replace God with any other source of meaning.  “If I get my PhD,” “if I get this promotion,” “if I find the right spouse,” then I will be happy and find purpose.  Yet none of these things, no matter how good or satisfying or noble, can replace God.  “All things are vanity!” (1:2). And so, in these troubled and confusing times, let us take to heart the wise warnings of Ecclesiastes.  Let’s allow the enduring wisdom of God contained in this book to wake us up.  And let’s keep in mind the prayer of St. Teresa of Ávila who said: “All things pass, but God remains.  He who has God lacks nothing.  God alone is enough.”

St Pius of Pietrelcina

Today we honour the memory of Saint Pius of Pietrelcina.  Like him we have all been called to holiness.  It wasn’t because of the extraordinary things that characterised his life that Padre Pio was declared a saint; rather it was the day-in day-out fidelity of living the Christian life of discipleship that Padre Pio has become Saint Pio.  We shouldn’t think that in order to be holy there must be some extraordinary manifestation of the supernatural in our life.  Rather it’s by the daily fidelity to prayer, to the Mass and the sacraments, to our chosen way of life, to respect and love for our neighbours that we remain true disciples of Christ.

In the first reading we heard words that should strike a chord with those of us who are Religious, and for those who have to be careful how to make ends meet on a fixed income: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need.”  (Proverbs 30:8)

The author of the Book of Proverbs asks God to keep him from being either rich or poor so that he could focus on God and not on money.  He wanted nothing, neither poverty nor riches, to jeopardise his relationship with God.  While most people today fear poverty because of the hardship it could bring to their lives, this chap wanted to avoid it because it could lead him away from a sincere devotion to God.  And what’s even more amazing is that while most people would love to have more money, he saw the potential in it for self-sufficiency.

Those who have lots of money shouldn’t feel guilty that God has blessed them with material wealth, nor should we feel abandoned or hard done by if he has not.  No matter what our circumstances, God wants us to see him as our provider, our source for everything, material and spiritual. 

Regardless of our circumstances, it is our attitude towards money and possessions that is important.  If we view everything as a gift from God, then it won’t matter whether we have a little or a lot.

And so, let us thank God for whatever he has given us and let us keep our eyes fixed on him as our provider. 

Tuesday of Week 25 in Ordinary Time

My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.  (Luke 8:21)  Did Jesus really reject his relatives? Was he really telling his own mother to let him be?  Of course not; nor did he really want his followers to pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands.  Our Lord often used verbal exaggeration to teach his listeners an important lesson.  In Jewish tribal culture, family bonds were vital to a person’s identity, social standing, and even legal status.  Without these connections, a Jew was pretty much alone and adrift in the world.

Because he seemed to be publicly denying his own family, Jesus got the crowd’s attention.  Our Lord was teaching something new and he wanted to spell it out for them clearly, so they fully understood what he was saying.  He was forging a new path for Israel, showing them how closely related he was to God.  To be in Our Lord’s tribe: to be united to him as family, means to listen attentively to the word of God and then to take action.  It’s not enough simply to know what God’s will is.  Faith is not an academic exercise.  We must also embrace his will with all our heart, and then act on it in our daily lives.  To practice what we preach.

Our Lord’s mother already had this attachment to God and would follow her son into the Father’s embrace after his death and resurrection.  The question for his listeners was whether they wanted to do the same thing.  Was a relationship with God attractive enough for them to want to direct their whole lives towards doing his will? Remembering that Our Lord often used exaggeration to make his point, we should examine our own relationship with God.  Are we hearing his word and acting on it?  Let’s also examine our relationship with those with whom we share our lives.  We shouldn’t use this passage as a loophole to distance ourselves from difficult people.  Embracing God’s will is the surest path to healing and unity.  God wants to guide all of us into life-giving relationships so that we are truly free to follow him and build up his kingdom.

Saint Matthew

Matthew was a Jew who worked for the Roman occupa­tion forces in Palestine.  Often corrupt and unjust, tax collectors were known to cheat their own people, lining their pockets with the extra money the Romans allowed them to collect as a personal perk.  Regarded as a traitor by his fellow Jews, Matthew was placed in the same category as prostitutes and other public sinners.

But all of this changed when Matthew answered Our Lord’s call to follow him.  Over time, Matthew underwent a profound conversion and became a power­ful evangelist.  He devoted himself to bringing the Gospel message to the same Jews he had once alien­ated and scandalized.  Even today, his preaching continues to touch hearts through the gospel that bears his name.

It’s interesting that today’s gospel pairs Matthew with the Pharisees who struggled to understand and accept Our Lord’s teachings.   Our Lord knew how devoted the Pharisees were, but he still urged them to go further by stretching their conception of mercy and compassion.  In a sense, Our Lord extends the same call to the Pharisees as he did to Matthew.

Clearly, holiness is not just a choice that we make once and for all, such as when we are confirmed or decide to attend Mass regularly, or offer ourselves for the priesthood or the religious life.

There is no end to the call to holiness, at least not in this life. And that’s not because we’re so hope­lessly sinful; the call never ends because our lives keep changing.  Matthew’s decision to follow Jesus as a new disciple was far different from his decision to follow Jesus as an experienced Apostle.

Some of us are old hands in trying to become more holy, but we can all ask ourselves today how Our Lord is asking us to advance a little further along the path of holiness.  And in this we are wise to take Saint Matthew as our example.

Saint Matthew, pray for us.