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Wednesday, 26 October 2016

What is Humility?

Recently, I was challenged for not posting as regularly as other bloggers. Although I explained to the person in question that my intention was never to post on a very regular basis, I did take the point that a period of a month or more can often elapse between posts.

For this reason, I will try my best to post more regularly this year. One thing I can do is to include my random spiritual musings in the form of homilies, which I have to prepare for a weekly Homiletics class at the Scots College. Most of these will be short, weekday homilies. Occasionally, they will be longer, Sunday homilies.

The first homily I was charged with preaching was for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C). First, it seems appropriate to include the Gospel passage:

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’

Whether you watch it or not, we all know that on the X-Factor, at least in theory, contestants are rewarded for performing well. They do the best they can so that the judges and the public will put them through to the next round. This is exactly what the Pharisee in today's Gospel does; he thinks that by listing his good works, he will be rewarded by God. The problem is, God isn't Simon Cowell.

Ironically, when most people read this passage from Luke's Gospel, myself included, we judge the Pharisee for being judgemental. We do not consider the good works that he has done, but instead we read about him in a self-righteous way because of how he relates to the tax collector.

The only way to avoid falling into this trap is to try to recognise ourselves in him. How often have we failed to humble ourselves? How often have we judged others? How often have we turned our backs on those in our communities? Suddenly, the Pharisee doesn't seem so bad; suddenly, he seems like a man who tried to do the right thing, but got lost somewhere along the way. He thought that his salvation depended only on his actions. He understands God as a judge - and rightly so - but he misunderstands divine mercy.

Let us also consider the tax collector. The way Jesus structures the parable makes us side with him almost immediately. However, surely Jesus would not hold up a man with no self-esteem as a model for us? We miss the point. The tax collector is a model of humility - real humility. That is, he sees himself as God sees him, in light of his role as a member of a community.

Consider, for a moment, the Second Reading (2 Timothy 4:6-18). Listen to what Paul says: "I have fought the good fight... I have run the race to the finish... I have kept the faith." Could these words not just as easily have come from the mouth of the Pharisee? In fact, they couldn't. The reason is simple. Paul goes on to say that he will attain the crown of righteousness from the Lord, along with all of those who have longed for His Appearing.

This is where the Pharisee gets it wrong, and where the tax collector gets it right. The Pharisee fails to recognise his place in the community, but the tax collector does not. However, it is important to remember that neither man is perfect. One carries out righteous acts, but in doing so, separates himself from others in the community; the other recognises his need for God's mercy, but only and precisely because he treats others in the community with contempt.

Christ teaches us today about real humility, which is seeing oneself with God's eyes, as a member of His Mystical Body. At the end of the passage, He tells His listeners that one man went home at rights with God, while the other did not. He also tells them that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and that those who humble themselves will be exalted. 

We must not rejoice when the proud are humbled, because in doing so, we exalt ourselves.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Year Ahead

At the beginning of a new academic year, I think it is useful to remind myself (and by extension, anyone who reads my blog) about the process of formation to the priesthood, and what it involves.

In some ways, it is hard to believe that I have come to the end of the second week of lectures in the new academic year. As I have no doubt said in the past, the days can often go by slowly in seminary; the weeks and months (and years), however, seem to fly by very quickly.

I am sure that the same will be true of this, my fourth year in Rome. For those who don't know about the formation process for seminarians, here is a quick reminder: each seminarian studies philosophy for two years (in English); after that, he will begin studying for his degree in sacred theology (in Italian or English), which takes three years; finally, in almost all cases, he will do a 'license' in some specialist area of philosophy or theology, which takes between two and four years to complete. Generally speaking, the seminarian will be ordained to the priesthood after seven years.

So, now that I am in my fourth year, I am beginning the second year of my degree. As I've said in the past, I'm studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where many great saints were educated (chance would be a fine thing). My courses in the first semester include Canon Law, Sacraments, Works of Saint Paul, Ecclesiology, Biblical Hebrew and Liturgy.

Of course, the formation of seminarians is not only intellectual. There are, in fact, four areas of formation in a seminary. Saint John Paul II, in Pastores dabo vobis ('I will give you shepherds') proposed them: human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation.

The first, the Pope said, is the foundation of the other three 'pillars'. Human formation is something that is ongoing in seminary. While it would be impossible to go into any great detail about any of the four areas of formation, it is important to realise that this first pillar is concerned with ensuring that the seminarian becomes a well-rounded human being; he must strive to be a 'people person', developing his interpersonal skills and learning how to become an effective member of the community in which he lives; he must give himself entirely to his studies so that he can understand the faith and explain it to others; he must be comfortable in solitude, continuing to develop a relationship with the Lord.

From this (very) brief explanation of human formation, it is easy to see how this pillar is the foundation for the other three. When a seminarian is committed to human formation, the results are pastoral, intellectual and spiritual. Ultimately, a commitment to the four pillars is necessary if the seminarian is to become a good, holy, knowledgeable priest for his people.

This year is an important one for me. As a seminarian progresses towards priesthood, he must be instituted as both a minister of the Word (a lector) and a minister of the Eucharist (an acolyte). Last year, I was instituted as a lector on the same day that I met the Holy Father. This year, God willing, I will be instituted as an acolyte. For this reason, my special focus this year will be on the Eucharist and the communion that is the Church. No doubt, this focus will have an impact on all aspects of my formation this year.

As I continue on my journey to the priesthood, with gratitude for your prayers and support in the past three years, I ask you to continue to pray for me and my brother seminarians at the Pontifical Scots College.

Oremus pro invicem.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Pilgrimage, Silence and Prayer

The new academic year at the Pontifical Scots College has started. The seminarians, priests and sisters have returned, and lectures begin on Monday at the Pontifical Universities and Institutes. Luckily, the weather has taken an earlier-than-usual turn for the cooler, and the number of tourists in the city is falling quite quickly.

As is our custom, we returned a couple of weeks early for a 'Pastoral Skills' week, followed by a retreat away from Rome. Speakers during the Pastoral Skills week included Brona McGee, from St Vincent's Hospice (Howwood), and Phil Sparke, Chief Executive of HCPT. Monsignor Hugh Bradley spoke to the seminarians about Scottish Church history, and Fr David Conroy spoke about chaplaincy in the Armed Forces.

The highlight of the past two weeks has certainly been the retreat. Due to a double booking, the usual destination of Bagnoregio, home of St Bonaventure, was out of the question. While this might have been upsetting news for the seminarians, the news that we would in fact be travelling to Assisi was met with a welcome response.

The retreat director was Fr Mark Butlin OSB, a Benedictine monk from Ampleforth. Being familiar with giving retreats in the hometown of St Francis and St Clare, he suggested that it might be better to call it a 'pilgrimage-retreat'; he believed that it is important to follow, as it were, in the footsteps of St Francis, celebrating Mass in various chapels around the town.

The result was that while we were in the house - Oasi Sacre Cuore - an atmosphere of sacred silence was to be maintained. This silence should be preserved, as much as possible, in our pilgrimages to various holy places around Assisi. These included the Basilicas of St Francis and St Clare, the hermitage on Mount Subasio, and the San Damiano monastery where Christ instructed Francis, from the crucifix, to "rebuild my church".

Without doubt, the most prayerful experience for me was when we visited San Damiano for Solemn Vespers, Adoration and Benediction with the Franciscan Friars. As if the experience would not have been prayerful enough, a large group of young people from Germany were also in attendance. Their knowledge of the various responses and prayers during Vespers, and their obvious reverence for the Blessed Sacrament exposed, were impressive, to say the least.

Another special moment for me came when I was able to pray, for the second time in my life, at the tomb of St Francis. The friar from Assisi is the patron saint of my home parish in Port Glasgow, and until last year I never believed that I would have a chance to visit his hometown and pray at his tomb. The Giotto frescoes in the main basilica, remarkable though they are, do not make the same impression of me as the tomb in the crypt of the lower basilica.

Fr Mark's conferences dealt with many important ideas. For me, the most relevant was his assertion that it is impossible to love Christ without knowing Him, and it is impossible to know Him without listening to Him in the scriptures. Although I have heard this said on a number of occasions, and in different ways, something about his dependence on the Word of God in his conferences really hit home for me. Here was a man who had been a monk for almost 65 years, and his relationship with Christ in the scriptures must only have gone from strength to strength.

We have now 'come down the mountain' and returned to Rome. A new academic year has begun, and lectures are around the corner. As always, I want to express my gratitude for your prayers, for me and for my brother seminarians. Please continue to pray for us, as we journey towards the Lord and His Priesthood.

Pax et bonum.