Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Cross of Christ for us is the Tree of Life: Homily for the First Sunday of Lent 2023

                                                    מדרש תמונה

Dear brothers and sisters, it is often the case that when we read, or listen to, the episode of the temptation of Adam and Eve, we focus on one tree – that of the knowledge of good and evil – and its fruit. To do so, however, is to perhaps continue to remain with the suggestion of The Tempter. The great achievement of The Tempter was to distract the attention of Eve from the fact that there was just one tree that was forbidden, and that all others were available to eat. The other, and perhaps greater achievement, is that The Tempter distracted her from the fact that there were two important trees; one I have already indicated, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, which I will simply call the Tree of Knowledge from now on, and the other was the Tree of Life. In fact, in the narrative from Genesis that we heard today, the tree of life is mentioned first, which suggests that this tree was the more important one, and indeed it is, as I will explain.

What do we know about this tree of life? From the book of Genesis, from which the first reading is taken, not much. But we do know a whole lot about it as a result of the life of Christ contained in the Gospels, because you see, the tree of life is nothing other than the Cross of Christ.

Before I proceed, I would like to draw your attention to another fact of our faith which often goes unnoticed. Christ was present at creation. Indeed, it was through him that the world was created. He did not exist in human form, which he took from the time of His conception in the Virgin Mary, but he was present in the world. His presence is discernible throughout the Bible. As the Fathers have taught us, the life of Christ is foreshadowed in the Old Testament; that is to say, His presence is always suggested in the Old Testament.

This is the case with the Tree of Life which we hear about in the reading from Genesis – Christ was already present in the Garden of Eden, the Cross is the Tree of life, and its fruit was, and is, the body of Christ.

Now that we have identified the Tree of Life, let us contrast these two trees. God forbade us to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, of the Tree of Life he says to us, everyday, and every time a Mass is celebrated “Take and eat”. Of the Tree of knowledge we know that “the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom”, and of the Tree of Life we know that it offers us grace, and the road to eternal life. Indeed, because we know of the value of this fruit, we know that while God prohibited consumption of the tree of knowledge, we know that through His Son he pleads with us “Take and eat”. This is no simple invitation, he is begging us to eat. We know that he is begging us to eat, because this fruit was obtained at great cost – not only through the death of an innocent man, but also through his torture and suffering on the cross. And this is no ordinary man, but God, who humbled himself. Think about this again, God, the biggest thing in the universe, chose to become like us, who are dust, or clay. All so that, as St. Paul teaches us in the letter to the Romans, sin that was introduced into the world by the greed of one man, may be dispelled through the grace purchased through the death of another.

Based on this knowledge, we also begin to appreciate the nature of the two fruits. The fruit of knowledge is good to eat, that is to say, it satisfied physical hunger; the fruit of the cross satisfies spiritual hunger. The fruit of knowledge is pleasing to the eye, the fruit of the cross is, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah “marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals” (IS 52: 14) this was while he was on the cross, and even as regards his everyday appearance Isaiah tells us that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). In other words, in terms of physical beauty, Jesus, the fruit of the cross, has nothing to compare with the Tree of knowledge, and yet, it is this ugly, or at the very least bland product that offers us eternal life. The reward of the fruit of knowledge on the other hand is sin, and thus death.

These contrasts between the two trees also tells us something about the way The Tempter operates. He does not give us the whole truth – this is of course Our Lord Jesus Christ – but only parts of the truth. He appeals to us, as he did to Christ during the temptation through our desires, our appetite – for pleasure, and power. Jesus on the other hand speaks to us, as he did to the prophet Elijah in a whisper, in silence.

And so, my dear brothers and sisters, at the start of this Lenten season I have the following suggestions that may add some value to this season, as well as our relationship with God.

First, spend time in silence before the Cross. Contemplate the cross. That is, sit, or ideally kneel, before the cross and stare at it in silence. Stare at it fixedly. I assure you that the cross will speak to you, not dramatically by the corpus moving its lips, but more affectively in the core of your heart.

Second, repeat, as often as we can, the phrase “The Cross of Christ has become for us the Tree of Life” and appreciate the way in which the teachings of Christ, and his Church, have made a positive difference in our lives. Give thanks for that.

Alternatively, repeat “We praise you O Christ and we bless you, for by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”

When I recommend repeating I don’t mean merely rote repetition, but also contemplate what the words mean. However, when one starts out, one will need to merely repeat it so that it gets under our skin, it becomes automatic. It is only then that we can begin to contemplate.

Third, ask ourselves how often we have succumbed to The Tempter. How often have we preferred worldly knowledge, instead of The Truth. How often have we privileged our material appetites over truth, or bowed down before false gods. This happens more often than we think, in small ways.

Fourth, go and make a confession. As the psalm today recommends to us, let us go before God with a pure heart. It requires reminded that merely communing is not sufficient, we need to have confessed our sins for the Eucharist to be effective in us.

And finally, contemplate Our Lady who stands sorrowful at the foot of the Cross, and pray that she may intercede for us this Lenten season.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Vote of Thanks for the Diaconal Ordination Mass

Vossa eminencia Dom Filipe Neri Ferrão, Cardeal-Patriarca das Índias Orientaes, Arcebispo de Goa e Damão, reverendos senhores padres, reverendas irmãs religiosas, excelentissimos senhoras e senhores, quem são em Cristo, nosso senhor, todos meus irmãs e irmãoes.

I could very well begin and conclude in a single line by thanking you all for being here on this special day for me. But I have an extended list of people to thank, a whole life to recount, and I promise you that this is going to be long, very long.

To begin with I must thank God, the God of my joy, for having called me to major orders, and hopefully, a little more than a year from now, the priesthood.

God the Father, gives his name to the family, and it is first to my family that I turn to give thanks. My mother laid the ground for a very sensible spirituality very early in my life. I recollect quite clearly my mother telling me that prayer is but a conversation with God and I could do it anytime, anywhere, and indeed, everywhere. This ensured early colloquies, and a conversational relationship, with God, and for this I cannot thank her enough. That, and the memory of her putting me to sleep by singing “Maiden Mother meek and mild, take oh take me for thy child”.

My poor brother Joel bore the brunt of my childish viciousness, as I would edge him out, kick his shins so that I got to ring the bell, or do other important stuff while we were altar servers in Panjim church. For your early, and dare I say continuing, patient suffering Joel, be assured that you have gained some spiritual credit in aiding a (potentially) priestly vocation.

My poor brother Joshua had his own fair share of weirdness to deal with as my fascination for liturgy took unusual forms as we were growing up. I realised that this had been traumatic for him when many years later, he saw me laden with ritualistic paraphernalia involuntarily shouted and slapped his forehead “oh no! not again!” Your patience too, dear Joshua, will – I have no doubt – stand you in credit at the time of judgement.

I come from two devout families and must thank them too. My paternal grandmother Armenia dos Remédios Fernandes wanted one of her sons to be a priest. As it turned out, none of them were called, and her great desire had to wait a generation until it has been partially fulfilled. Indeed, I credit her continuing prayers for having supported me thus far, and I hope in the future as well.

I recollect when we lived in Bangalore, when I was about 6 years old, I was blessed by the late Bishop of Mysore Dom Mathias Sebastião Fernandes, the cousin of my paternal grandparents, who remains an inspiration.

I am also grateful for the example of the venerable Carmelite friar Fr. Anastasio Gomes who was my father’s uncle. Padre Bottu once told my father “Blood is thicker than water.” Blood, is indeed thicker than water. Some years ago, while going through back issues of the Renovação I came across an argument which read like I had crafted it. “Who could this be?” I wondered, “anticipating my arguments by so many decades?” I kid you not, but my eyes pricked with tears when I read the name of the author Fr. Anastasio Gomes O.C.D.

Likewise, my mother’s family was not lacking in piety. We need to understand the context of Catholicism in Mangalore, where initially, the faithful were supported by certain more established families, who hosted chapels in their homes and around whom the community congregated. My grandmother, Martha Goveas came from one such family – the Souza Porobs, and perhaps also for this reason was a model of piety, and Christian charity. She was insistent when we went to Mangalore on holidays that we say the angelus in the evening. Then there is my aunt Winnie. I recollect from my holidays in Mangalore, that while I lazed in bed, one eye open, she would have woken up early spending some time upright in bed immediately after waking up while she made her devotions. Like her mother, she too has spent her life in devoted living for others. There was the example of the devout Coutinhos of Kalladka. The evening rosary in their house was like the opening scene of Visconti’s film Il Gattopardo. Above all, however, is the memory of my mother’s paternal uncle, the martyred Jesuit Fr. Alphonse Goveas, who was – through my mother’s talk about him – an inspiration that took me to Bihar and was instrumental in my early contemplation of the priesthood. Way back in 2000, soon after I graduated from the National Law School, I did contemplate the Jesuits, and in fact spent a year working there to check them out up close, but that route was not what God in His providence had in mind for me.

It takes more than a family to raise a child, however. It takes a village, and there are a few people, to the great injustice to many others, that I would like to give thanks to today. The first, my next-door neighbour, and fortunately for me a parishioner of Aldona today, Mrs Armida Alberto. I would practically live in her house on holidays and whenever I recite the angelus in the noon today – I have the image of her saying the angelus at noon time fixed firmly in my head. Another neighbour whose devout lifestyle impressed me early one was the wife of the late Maestro Antonio Figuereido.  It is for this reason that I have encouraged so many to bring children to this ordination mass – it allows them to fixate things in their subconscious, memories that will eventually bring them back into the church.

I went through something of a rebellious phase in my teens and thought that the most important part of the Mass was the homily (For those who still haven’t got the memo, it isn’t). A co-worker at the Goa Foundation, Nancy, on hearing this pronouncement gently responded “Really? Let him take his time, he will realise later on.” I have lost touch with Nancy, but thank her in absentia for this patient and kindly response, which, I have no doubt, got me thinking about the value of the mass itself.

He may have his critics, but the late Mons. Carmo da Silva, as parish priest of Panjim was an inspiration, and even now I can recollect the great dignity with which he vested and prepared for Mass. There were also other diocesan priests who have gone to their rest, and I think of, in particular, my very dear friend Fr. Francisco Caldeira, whom I thank for the wonderfully inspiring conversations we had! You see those of us Goans who become priests walk in the footsteps of the giants of our race – accomplished, erudite men who laid the foundations for a civilisation!

The community that gathered around the English language mass at Panjim church, and especially Guilhermine Vaz, her sisters and the others who were members of the choir, provided a spirited environment in which to grow. In fact, the hymn we heard at the offertory, was one that we sang on Mission Sunday many years ago. I was the prophet Samuel, and Vasco Dias, with his lovely baritone voice was God. That hymn just grabbed me then, and look where I am today!

And then I must thank the members of various Jesuit communities starting with the late Fr Austin Reinboth, Fr John De Mello, the late Fr. Paul Jackson of the Patna Province, who corresponded with me as a boy. Once again, I must thank my mother for making contact with them way back in the late 80s or early 90s. I remember also the late Fr. Keiss from the Goa province.

Another religious who was influential was the Salesian Fr. Ian Figuereido. Hearing him preach at the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Panjim, I would often think to myself, “I have a similar fire burning within me, and I want to be like that”! God willing, I can now set the world on fire with the Word.

Sometime after I settled down in Lisbon, say the year 2011, the thoughts of the priesthood returned and it is the Capela do Rato that offered me the port at which I could finally dock and nurture my relationship with Mother Church, as well as the vocation to the priesthood. For this I thank my friends Luis Mah, Marina Costa Lobo, and Ângela Barreto Xavier, who were all instrumental in my going to the Capela do Rato. Indeed, it is a particular delight for me to recognise the presence of Ângela, and her brother Carlos – who directs one of the choirs at the Capela – in the congregation here today! Thanks must also be rendered to Dom Tolentino Cardinal Mendonça who was chaplain at the time. It was at the Capela that I was confirmed as a Catholic, and I received excellent instruction from the late Deacon José Alberto Costa, who guided my pre-confirmation catechism and was wonderfully supportive of my vocation.  He promised to come to Goa to vest me at the diaconal ordination, and if he is not here today it is simply because he was called to his eternal rest first. I think of him every time I have the opportunity to return the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle. Following Dom Tolentino´s elevation, I found a friend in the succeeding chaplain Fr. António Martins, and once again I am grateful for his friendship.

And how can I forget Pe. Mario Rui Leal Pedras and Pe. Hugo Miguel dos Santos of the Igreja de São Nicolau in downtown Lisbon, effectively my parish church, and where I saw, and learned, how important good liturgy is. For those who are aware of the politics of the church in Lisbon, you will know that the Capela do Rato and São Nicolau represent two different tendencies within the Catholic Church, and many have wondered how I manage to embrace them both. But this is our calling as Catholics; to be bridge-builders. After all, isn’t this what Pope Francis is calling us to be through the synodal path? People who listen to each other, and walk together?

Another special moment of grace was the death of Pope Saint John Paul II and the election of the late Benedict XVI. At this moment I was called to actually read Benedict who was being vilified in the secular press. It was Solano da Silva who loaned me the first work of Cardinal Ratzinger and for this I am eternally grateful. In the writings of Ratzinger, and later Benedict XVI, I discovered the savant of our times who has proved something of a guiding light to me.

By the time I had finished my PhD in 2013 I was clear that I wanted to be a priest, and was clear that I wanted to serve in Goa, but the path forward did not seem quite clear. I knocked on many doors for advice. Finally, the Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel who I met at Georgetown University at Doha offered wonderful advice – “find a bishop who will understand your vocation”. That advice eventually took me to our Archbishop. I met our Archbishop because I wanted to discuss the proposal for a research centre in Goa, and midway through our conversation I realised “OMG! This is the man, the bishop, I am looking for!” I was right in my estimation of him that day and I am so glad for his support through this journey, and trust that it continues! His decision to send me to Rome, and the Pontifical Beda College, for formation was one that I am so grateful for since it allowed me to experience – to the extent that the pandemic allowed – the universal church.  

For those who are wondering why I have made such a big deal about a diaconal ordination, it is once again to our Archbishop that we must turn. Early last year he explained to me that it was at the diaconal ordination that one makes the vows of celibacy, prayer, obedience; and that the relationship one was entering into was like a nuptial relationship.

Well, if it was a nuptial relationship, given that I am being ordained alone, and I am not obliged to restrict numbers, why not give it the importance that it deserves? The diaconate is not simply a pit stop on the road to the priesthood. Fr. Philip Gillespie, the Rector of the Pontifical Beda College has repeated on numerous time that we should not see the priesthood as “the glittering prize”, but rather be attentive to the entire journey to the priesthood, and then beyond. Look at the priesthood as the glittering prize and be sure that you have misunderstood what the priesthood is about. This lovely book, The Heart of the Diaconate, by James Keating which I have been reading on the diaconate confirms that the diaconate is about imitating Christ the servant, the thrust of today’s liturgy, and it is an office that one holds throughout one’s life, even as a priest. Without the self-emptying of the diaconate in imitation of Christ, there is no effective priest. To undermine the diaconate, and focus only priestly ordination, would in some ways be to fall into the trap of clericalism, which so many good Goan priests have made a clarion call in the past few decades – some of them are sitting even now in the sanctuary and for their presence in my life as friends and mentors I am so grateful.

Through Fr Tom Michel whom I met at Doha I also met Fr. Damien Howard, now Jesuit Provincial of England and Wales, who has been a rock. More recently I also became indebted to Fr. Godwin Serrão of Dhyanashram at Mount St. Joseph in Bangalore who guided my month-long Ignatian retreat. There are many more Jesuits I should personally name, but I dare not for fear that you will genuinely run out of patience. I must not forget, however, my dear Jesuit friend Fr Richard de Souza who has accompanied me through discernment and priestly formation, and I hope will continue to be a reliable presence in my life when I need good advice.

More recently the Oratorians in Rome, the UK, and Toronto has been good friends as I have kept discerning just how my diocesan vocation will shape up. In particular I would like to single out Fr. Richard Duffield of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in York, who has been instrumental in opening many doors to me.

I have to particularly thank our diocesan ordinary for placing me in Aldona, where I was very warmly received and borne with much patience by the parish clergy, Fr. Tomás Lobo and Fr. Michael Fernandes. To the many good people of Aldona who have been so welcoming of me, my sincerest thanks and my assurances to always pray for the wellbeing of their community.

So many people are choosing Aldona and the surrounding villages as a home, or location for their second home. The beauty that attracts them is not a beauty that automatically comes from the landscape, but from the beautiful people who live here. This beauty in turn, comes not the influence from the Portuguese, but from Christ. As my time in Aldona showed me, a village with a significant Catholic presence is a precious thing. Indeed, it is a manifestation of what St. Augustine called civita dei, the city of God. Aldona may not be a perfect manifestation, of the city of God, but it is a very good attempt at embodying this ideal. To quote Christ himself, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.” My dear Aldoncars, “your light must shine in the sight of men, so that seeing your good work, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.”  I particularly pray that you continue to shine from this hill, because dark times are approaching, and we will need your shining example to see us through them.

To those wondering how much longer I am going to take, I have good news; I am almost done. I must also thank all those who have been involved in organising the ordination today. To my mind this ordination has not been a solo project but a community project – gathering friends, family, and parishioners. Many friends have helped put this liturgy together. I would like to thank the Cotta family, and my friend Franz Schubert Cotta, for lending their voices to the liturgy; Sonia Sirsat for the hymns she has offered; Fr. Ramiro Luis for being the MC; and the priests who have concelebrated; Alfred, Jessiel, Jocel, and Richard for being acolytes; to Nestlin, Adrian, and Maxie of the confraria for their participation and support; David Silva e Fernandes for designing the coat of arms to accompany my motto; Joannes for organising the livestream of the ordination; Juliana de Sa for singing the psalm; Conrad Fernandes whose use of elbow grease brought shine to the processional silver that has been used in today’s liturgy; Flavia who has catered for the tea this evening; Avani for laying out the booklet, and John Colaço for printing it; Deepa D’Sa for her efforts for the ordination cards and arranging – along with her family – for the photographer; Enid and Zeffrey for printing the ordination cards; to the many members of the Parish Council, the parish service team, the men’s team, and the parish staff who have helped – Michael, Gloria, Gracie, Peter, Bernard, Henrita, Philomena, Mathilda, Santan, and our sacristan Christopher. Finally, I am thankful to all of you, for your presence here today, and those online. Some of you have travelled across our state, some from across the country, and some, like my brothers, from halfway across the planet. I must remind you that it is the support and prayers of people like you that support and have supported me on my journey thus far.

For those of you wondering why I have spoken about everyone, except my father Amor it is because I have saved the best wine for last.

If my mother provided me the context within which to address my prayers, my father was responsible for the form.  Let me put it this way, if Mummy was Capela do Rato, Daddy was Igreja de São Nicolau! Daddy was a Catholic of the old Goan order, and like them he performed his piety – going down on his knees to pray, crossing himself when he passed a church, walking devoutly in processions, saying prayers for the anonymous dead. Above all, he was devoted to the rosary, and would carry one in his pocket, in the folds of his handkerchief, which he would pull out whenever he had the time. It is to this devotion that I owe my own fondness for the rosary, which I started to pray passionately after he passed away. I’d like to see this devotion to the rosary as a grace I received through his intervention.

Daddy had a deep desire that one of his sons be a priest, and I regret not telling him before his untimely death that I was close to committing. However, given I was still dithering at the time, and that I hadn’t found the right bishop, I didn’t want to give him false hopes. In any case, he knows now, and I also credit his prayers with supporting my vocation. One last thing, about my father before I move on. Toward the end of his life my father became so devout, that I am convinced that had my mother pre-deceased him, he would have either moved to become a priest, or joined a religious congregation. Which is why I would like to point out that it is never too late to contemplate religious or consecrated life. My own life is a case in point. If you are forty, and single, then do consider religious or consecrated life. There is no better life than one lived not for oneself, but for others.

At the end, I would like to thank our common Mother, and for this, I have asked my friend Sonia Sirsat to please sing an Ave Maria which I am particularly fond of. Once again, I thank you all for your presence, your prayers, and your attention.

Tumkam sogleank Dev borem korum.