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Friday, 4 November 2016

A Duty and a Privilege

Last week, for homily class, I was asked to preach on the readings for the feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude, the Apostles. Before I share my thoughts with you, let’s have a look at the Gospel passage:

Gospel: Luke 6:12-16
Jesus went out into the hills to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God. When day came, he summoned his disciples and picked out twelve of them; he called them ‘apostles’: Simon whom he called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot who became a traitor.

Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon, Jude and Judas: the Twelve. Except for Judas, these men would bring the Good News to the ends of the earth. We proudly call ourselves members of the apostolic Church, and yet, if we are honest, do we ever find ourselves thinking about these men?
True, as Catholics, we often talk about Peter when thinking about the pope; as Scots, we think often about his brother Andrew; as Catholics who go to Mass regularly, we might even find ourselves thinking about John and Matthew the evangelists.  However, do we ever think about each of these men as members of an all-important community?

Last week, I watched the relatively new film ‘Risen’, starring Joseph Fiennes. The film follows the story of Pontius Pilate’s tribune, the soldier tasked with finding the apparently stolen body of Jesus. What I found most enjoyable – if not a little surprising – was not that the film remains faithful to the Gospel message (Jesus does indeed rise from the dead), but that for the first time, I was confronted with the very human community of the apostles. These men, and the wider community of early disciples, are confronted with persecution from the moment that the discovery of an empty tomb is made. They face imprisonment and more, and yet they are not afraid. From the time that they encounter Jesus, no earthly power can deter them from spreading the Good News of the Resurrection.

It made me think. We are confronted with the Risen Christ daily in the Eucharist; are we as joyful in our faith as these earliest Christians were? If not, then why not? Our society is no doubt different, but it is no more hostile to the Gospel than that of the apostles. The Successor of Peter said as much to the seminarians of the Pontifical Scots College in April of this year, at a private audience in the Vatican.

Like those men whom Jesus called apostles, Christ has called us, and He has sent us out. We have a responsibility to bring Him to the world in our daily lives. This responsibility, however, cannot be understood as something that weighs down on us. To be effective evangelists, we must live in that joy of the Gospel that Simon, Jude and the other apostles experienced.

Christ is risen, and He lives. It is our duty and our privilege to go out and tell the world.

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.