Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Purgatory Mercy of God: Homily for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Purgatory" (detail), Lodovico Carraci, c.1610, Vatican Museums.
My dear brothers and sisters,

The refrain of the psalm this morning has us reaffirming that the Lord is clement and compassionate, and I would like to take cue from this refrain to speak about Purgatory as an example of God’s mercy and compassion.

To do so, let us first turn our attention to a tiny segment of the gospel for today which caught my attention as I contemplated the day's lectionary:

Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.

Now, we know that the crime of the wicked servant was that he did not show the same compassion to his fellow servant which the master had shown to him. Note, also, that when the master summoned the wicked servant for the first time and demanded the recovery of the debt, he simply had him summoned, and on realising that he could not pay, and turned him over to the due process of the law, the pagan law of the time , and thus – “ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.”

What does this wicked servant do when he encounters a servant who owes him a debt? Does he show his colleague the compassion that the master showed him? No! To the contrary, he seized him and began to choke him. This is to say he does not follow the due process of law, but engages in an extra-legal, illegal even, assault. Further, instead of recognising that thanks to the generosity of the master who had forgiven his debt entirely he was now in the possession of money that he had no right to, and instead of extending this grace to his colleague, he had the colleague thrown into prison until the debt he was due was paid back.

If you had been the master, what would have your reaction to this entire episode been? What does this servant deserve? Does he, or did he, deserve compassion? If one followed the pagan law of the time, some might suggest that the first servant deserved nothing less than death. And yet, what does the master do? He sends him off to prison and the torturers until he pays back his debt. Note, that the punishment that is meted out to him is not the sale of his wife, children and property as was the decision of the master in the first case. On the contrary, the punishment meted out to the wicked servant is the same punishment that the wicked servant had extended to his colleague.

Thus, we have the first example of God’s compassion and clemency, that he does not do to us what we deserve, for what we deserve may often be a hundred times worse. What the servant deserved was death, or perhaps a reprisal of the first sentence. Instead, what he got was in equal measure to his sins against his brother. Let us recall to mind the words from the Lord’s prayer “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. We are forgiven in the measure of the forgiveness that we extend to those who sin against us.

The clemency of God also extends to the fact that this punishment extended to the wicked servant was not for all eternity. On the contrary, it was for only “until he should pay back the whole debt.” In other words, he was obliged to be imprisoned only until he had repaid his debt, he was given the opportunity to eventually get out of jail and return to normal life. As you know, in the Bible life and death, are code for eternal life, and eternal damnation. The parable was speaking of heaven and hell, and the sentence that the wicked servant was handed out was not eternal damnation to hell, but only a temporary period outside of heaven.

But what do we make of the detail in the parable where the master makes to the punishment meted out to the wicked servant. Whereas the wicked servant merely turned his colleague over to the jail, the master now turns the wicked servant over to the torturers. This is hardly paying back in the same coin. On the contrary, this is a terrible punishment! How do we make sense of this?

It is here that I would like to point out how much this portion of the parable shares with the concept of purgatory that is a part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In Para 1030 of the Catechism, Holy Mother Church teaches that:

All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The subsequent paragraph affirms that “The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire” in Purgatory. The torturers in this case, then, are not a reference to pain inflicted on a person to obtain perverse pleasure, but in fact are a part of a cleansing, a purification so that we are given a chance to be purged of our sins, even after death, i.e. our time on earth. Listen to the words of Psalm 118:18

the LORD has chastened me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.

Or Proverbs 3:12

…the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.

It is, therefore, love that motivates the anger of God, the God who punishes us so that we may eventually be with Him and enjoy the beatific vision for all time.

It is with this understanding of God’s clemency, His compassion, and His love, that we can perhaps gain a deeper understanding of Jesus’s response to Peter, “I say to you, [forgive] not seven times but seventy-seven times.” God’s mercy and compassion extends not only to our time on earth, where we have been given the opportunity to hear the word of God and to respond to it wholly, but also after we have passed from this world. In other words, we are given a second chance! And bear in mind that the option for eternal life was bought at the price of the torture, the passion, and death of His only Son. Often, we are too casual with this fact. We are the wicked servant, who despite having benefited from the mercy of God, who gives us not the Hell that we deserve for our actions, but the opportunity of eternal life, do not show mercy in turn to those around us. On the contrary, what do we do? We hug wrath and anger tight! We demand vengeance. 

But you may ask, the first reading is plain about the problems with all of this, why have recourse to the idea of purgatory? The idea of purgatory is necessary because it is the last recourse of the persecuted of this world, which is so full of persons who go scot-free despite the great sins that they commit. Let us go back to the gospel:

Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.

The colleagues of the wicked servant represent the powerless of this world. With no way to find justice on this earth, they raise their voices to God, and it is a sign of the mercy of God that he assures them that the unjust too will find their reward. As God says to Cain in Genesis “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” 

We have been promised that the meek will inherit the earth and the rich and powerful shall be called to judgement. But note, my dear brothers and sisters, how eternal vengeance is not something that is perpetrated by God. On the contrary, after they pay for their sins and purify themselves, these sinners too, if they are open to the saving grace of God, may be given the beatific vision. And remember that in purgatory we pray not for ourselves, but for others, and we rely as much on the prayers of others for us as on our own prayers. There is, therefore, no space for vengeance in the Christian vision of the world, neither here on earth, no in the life to come.

And for this reason, my dear brothers and sisters, I make my own the words of the first reading which I address to you:

Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbour;
remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults.

(A version of this homily was first preached in Portuguese at the Capela do Rato, Lisbon, on 17 September 2023. )

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

The health of the Republic hangs by a name

 The recent invitation to the state banquet hosted by the President of the country for the leaders of the G20 has generated some amount of controversy. The invitation to the banquet indicated that the same was extended not by the President of India, as would normally be the case given the invitation was in English, but by the President of Bharat, the name for this country especially when using the Hindi language. This change of name has been read by many as indicative of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) desire to officially change the name of the country to Bharat alone.

Such a change, should it take place, would not be surprising and entirely in line with the desire manifested by the BJP to throw off what they see as vestiges of colonial rule and represent the authentic cultural core of the country, which to their minds is Sanskritic, Puranic, and Brahmanical – in other words upper caste Hindu – culture.

What was surprising about this whole episode was not the apparent desire of the BJP to change the name of the country, which is consistent with its past actions as well as its stated ideology. What was surprising was the outrage of the host of members of other electoral parties, as well as actors in the media. This outrage now is strange because there have been a host of changes to the names of cities in the country ostensibly to undo colonial bondage through the years, right from the time of independence. This trend seems to have picked up especially since 1995 when the city of Bombay was renamed exclusively as Mumbai, a trend that was followed in most metropolitan centres as well, with Madras renamed Chennai in 1996, Bangalore renamed Bengaluru in 2007, Calcutta renamed Kolkata in 2001. And these are examples of merely the metropolitan cities. A similar trend has been noticed for smaller cities as well, the neighbouring city of Belgaum, being respelled as Belgavi, for example. In all these cases, and in those of other cities, after some tiny opposition, the citizenry and the media had tamely fallen in line.

This timidity was a mistake then, and in fact should have been vociferously opposed at the time. What these name changes represented was the gathering of momentum of a force that now seems unstoppable. The pusillanimous citizens justified the changes of all these names, not only by the fact that there was a legislation justifying it – as if one is obliged to obey an unjust law - but especially by the silly response that colonial names will just not do in India. What the citizenry was effectively doing then, and barring a few exceptions continues to do now, is to support a logic that prohibits pluralism in the country, insisting that only one cultural vision was acceptable.

What we need to bear in mind is that this vision that found the colonial era names of cities unacceptable was, and continues to be, not just about the change of a name, but of blacklisting entire cultures associated with those names. Thus, the change of the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai, was also about delegitimizing the cultures that were associated with the name Bombay. The cultures of the Anglo-Indians, the multiple Christian communities, even the Parsis. The change of the name of the city of Bombay was part of an assertion of the Marathi speaking communities, over the city, to exclude all other communities; communities that had in fact been instrumental in building the city. The same holds true for all the other cities, where what was being erased with the change in names was the colonial culture of the city and the legitimacy of the native communities that embodied that culture.

Indeed, the erasure of colonial India has been an on-going project in the country and intimately tied to various strains of Indian nationalism. This project has acquired the unthinking support of vast segments of the citizenry because they have unthinkingly swallowed the nationalistic rhetoric that they learn in school, and through the media. What needs to be borne in mind, however, is that there is no India without the British Raj (and other European cultures). The India that was born via the Constitution was an India that was built primarily on a British understanding. It was British – essentially Christian – values that underwrote the entire project of Indian anti-imperial nationalism. The value of this British inflected India, which has been systematically under attack should be obvious to all who are able to see that what has replaced the colonial cultures is unable to sustain the happy cultural pluralism that we associated with India. Bear in mind, that the colonial cultures of India, or the Pax Britannica, did allow for indigenous cultures to coexist. This is simply not the case of the India that has been changing names. Indeed, it is not just cultural pluralism, but with the abandoning of the colonial, there has also been an abandoning of basic civility that was introduced into the country through colonial intervention.

The remedy to the potential change of the name of the country lies not just in protests, but in realising the politics that underlay the process of changing the names of cities began decades ago. The remedy lies in citizens actively reverting to the simultaneous use of the older names of the cities, Bombay, Bangalore, Madras, Belgaum, Poona, etc. Such a strategy would, in fact, be very much in line with our national history, where resistance to British rule involved Non-Cooperation and Boycott. What we need today is a social boycott of the logic that suggests that colonial names must go, and an embrace of these very names.

Indeed, our project must not stop with the simultaneous use of the city names of colonial vintage but must take seriously the role that language plays in sustaining the intolerance of Hindu nationalism. Take, for example, the way most Indians use the word “non-vegetarian” when referring to regular food. To use the word non-vegetarian is to assume that vegetarianism is the dietary norm of this country. And this is most certainly not true. Vast segments of this country eat meat as a norm. Thus, if we must indicate that vegetarianism is the aberration of a few, intolerant, groups in this country, it is necessary, no critical, that we stop using the word non-veg, and refer to vegetarian food as the options to regular food. For example, whenever a helpful waiter asks me “veg, non/veg” I smile brightly and say, “I will have the meat option”. Similarly, when faced with someone using the new names for cities. I look at them blankly, until I affirm that we are speaking about Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta. Had we not been speaking in English I don’t make a fuss about these words.

The current debates around the name of the country should make us realise that words and names are intrinsically linked to political options and to survival, and that a resistance to intolerance is in fact possible not necessarily through mass gatherings, but through small, persistent actions in our daily lives.

Language is important, the life of our Republic relies on it.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 13 Sept 2023.)

Sunday, September 10, 2023

How To Inherit the Earth: Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost


"The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and other Saints" Fra. Angelico, National Gallery, UK.

My dear brothers and sisters,

Meekness is the virtue that St Paul recommends to us today in this reading from his letter to the Galatians. However, meekness has not been in fashion since at least 1789, the year the French Revolution broke out. We have been living in revolutionary times ever since then; which is to say, our very way of thinking has become revolutionary. And meekness, is not counted as a virtue among revolutionaries. To revolutionaries, meekness is for the weak. The strong, they take things, they change things, by force. And bear in mind, revolutionaries don’t imagine that they are engaged in anything wrong. On the contrary, very often they may argue for things that objectively, seem very good, even desirable. The problem, however, lies in the fact that they then set out to achieve what they see as good by force. “Meekness is going to get you nowhere”, they argue.

And so, we live in a revolutionary world, where we are always rebelling, and trying to overthrow the systems that we do not like, the authorities that we are opposed to, things that we do not agree with. We know what a better world looks like, and how we can get there. But what this has done is only create more problems for us. Following Pope Benedict XVI, one could argue that this is because the revolutionaries, taking pride in their own strength, effectively usurp the powers of God. It is to God alone that the power to create utopia exists, and this is what revolutionaries seek to do, create a utopia, and perhaps without realising it become Gods in their world. In Christian terms, the revolutionary is a Pelagian. He does not believe in Grace, and it is for this reason that the revolutionary world, that is to say, the contemporary world, is so ugly. And do not imagine that the revolutionary is only some kind of leftist. On the contrary, all of us participate in this revolutionary thought and we need to beware of this tendency that we nurse within our hearts.

The self-imagined strength of the revolutionary, however, is in fact a weakness, because he relies on his own strength alone.  Indeed, it is the meek, who are in fact truly strong. Remember that being meek does not mean accepting everything and doing nothing. To be meek is not to be fatalist. On the contrary, as St. Paul urges us in his letter to the Galatians: “if a man be overtaken in any fault, you, who are spiritual, instruct such a one”. Do not forget that the spiritual works of mercy consist in instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, and bearing wrongs patiently. In other words, the meek are required to know the truth, and act according to the truth, counselling and even admonishing those who are in error, even if it hurts them. They are required to bear witness to the truth. If the consequences of these counsels and admonishments result in a distasteful situation for the meet, they have to deal with these situations patiently, sometimes even to the point of death as was the case with St. John the Baptist, and all the saints of our Holy Mother the Church. The meek may not know worldly success, but they are doing their bit to realise the kingdom of God, and it is eventually God who will take the decisions, in His own time, to realise His kingdom. As St Paul advises us “in due time we shall reap, not failing”.

And yet, how do we know that we shall reap? We know that we shall repeat because we will have been following the counsel of the true King of the world, Jesus Christ, who in the words of the alleluia is “Rex magnus super omnem terram” a great King over all the earth. A king, who, as we have read in the gospel today, has the power of life and death, and can give life even to the dead.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, it falls to each of us to be meek in this revolutionary world. Affirm what is just, what is true, regardless of the consequences. This is what it means to sow in the spirit. However, let us bear this in mind and never forget, that to sow in the spirit, we need to always pray for the grace of God for the strength to be meek. For this reason, let us turn to Our Lord and pray: Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto thine.

(A version of this homily was first preached in Portuguese at the Church of Conceição Velha, Lisbon for a congregation following the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, following the 1962 Missal.)