Sunday, April 7, 2024

Mercy and the Reign of God: Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday

 Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

For as long as I can remember I have looked forward to the second Sunday of Easter because of the first reading we heard today, the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. I have looked forward to this reading because it offers a powerful witness of what an authentic Christian community should look like:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.

There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

Those of you who are sharp will have realised that I have not excerpted all the words from the already short reading. On the contrary, I have excluded the following words:

With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favour was accorded them all.

This exclusion was not a mistake, but intentional, because it reflects the way in which I used to understand authentic Christian community. This was an understanding that rested on a material understanding of the text – the division of goods, the sharing of goods. This exclusion communicates a vision that shares much in common with the socialist, and even communist, vision of the earthly utopia. And to be honest, it was only today, when I read this selection again that I realised how much had shifted since this reading first caught my attention.

What changed then? I suspect it has been the five years of priestly formation where I have had time to meditate on the teachings of our Holy Mother Church. Teaching which directs us to think, not of the natural, material, and earthly realm alone, but of the supernatural, and heavenly. Teaching that directs our attention not to our own efforts, but to the operation of Grace. Another word for this grace would be Divine Mercy which we celebrate this Sunday.

Once aware of the operation of Divine Mercy, this first reading takes on a whole new dimension, and the portion that I excluded – which, perhaps not coincidentally, sits in the middle of the whole reading - comes to shine like a gem in its setting. But let us re-read this scripture with the lens of Divine Mercy to see what it reveals to us.

“The community of believers was of one heart and mind.” This “one heart and mind” has to be the heart and mind of God, which is a heart of mercy. And, as we know, dear brothers and sisters, this heart of mercy is not a mere metaphor, a pretty mental image, but an actual, physical, heart. It is the very human heart of our Lord Jesus Christ which was pierced by a lance. This is the heart of mercy that roars with the fire of love for us. A heart that gathers us, and in which we participate when we can manifest the actions of mercy that this reading testifies to. When we recognise our neighbours, and share our goods with them, we are motivated by Our Lord’s heart of mercy.

A reflection on this heart of mercy makes us aware that nothing of what we have, and not just our material goods, but even the talents and skills that we own, none of what we have is ours; or in the words from Acts “no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own”. But rather, all these possessions are what have been given to us through an overflowing of this heart of mercy. As such, it was never intended solely for our own personal use, but always for the common good.

In having everything in common, the scripture goes on to tell us that it was “With great power the apostles bore witness.” This power, is nothing, dear brothers and sisters, but the power of the Holy Spirit that motivated the early Church, just as it can motivate us if we give it the opportunity. When we are good, it is not merely our own efforts, but our own efforts, prompted and supported by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“and great favour was accorded them all.” Working with the grace of Divine Mercy, draws further and greater graces as our Lord promises us in Luke chap 6 verse 38:

give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6: 38)

We should bear in mind that this giving does not commence with us. Indeed, it was God who first gives, and forgives, and through His beating heart continues to pump mercy into our lives and world. Alive to this ever flowing river of divine mercy we should be bearers of the flux of life-giving water of mercy, for without mercy, this world is a harsh and cruel world.

What is the mark of the authentic church therefore? Reflecting on this reading from the Acts of the Apostles we realise that the authentic church is marked, not only by the sharing of material goods, but by the manifestation of mercy and action in the Spirit. A recognition that all we have comes from God, that our every good action emerges from the goodness that Christ feeds us with weekly at the altar, and from the movement of the Spirit that flows through the Church.

Let us repeat therefore, on this Sunday, and whenever we have empty minutes in our day:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

(A version of this homily was first preached to the congregation at Domus Australia, Rome, on Saturday 6 April 2024.)


Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Ut Unum Sint: An Ecumenism of Blood


Something curious took place in the Catholic world earlier this year. On Thursday, the fifteenth of February, the Catholic Church celebrated the feast of the twenty-one Coptic martyrs killed by ISIS in 2015. The image of their martyrdom should be familiar to most people; they were dressed in orange jumpsuits and beheaded by masked men on a beach and video footage of this massacre uploaded by ISIS. The Coptic church declared them martyrs within a week, and the Catholic church recognised this status in 2023.

What is curious about this feast is that the Catholic Church is notorious for taking ages to add persons to the Roman martyrology, the official list of the saints. The elevation of persons to the altar involves investigations, deliberations and can be an exhausting process. Furthermore, the Coptic Church is not even in communion with the See of Rome!

This recognition, and celebration, of their martyrdom was made possible thanks to the development of an interesting, and valuable, concept known as the “ecumenism of blood.” To appreciate this concept one could do no better than turn to the words of Pope Francis himself in his address to the participants in the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions, the international ecumenical association that meets annually in October. Before this, however, a brief excursus would be in order. The term ecumenism derives from the Greek word “oikoumene,” meaning “the whole inhabited world,” and refers to the promotion of cooperation and unity among Christians. The ecumenical movement takes inspiration from recognition of the fact that while there are many churches that are not in communion with each other, in fact, Christ founded but one Church and in His passion prayed that “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). This phrase is, and most certainly not coincidentally, also the episcopal motto of our Archbishop, Cardinal Patriarch Filipe Neri Ferrão.

Returning to the words of the Holy Father, speaking to the participants in the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions, Pope Francis indicated that:

‘[T]here is another form of ecumenism that typifies our age: that of blood. “When terrorists or world powers persecute Christian minorities or Christians”, he observed, “they do not ask: ‘Are you Lutheran? Are you Orthodox? Are you Catholic? Are you Reformed? Are you Pentecostal?’ No. ‘You are Christian’. They recognise one only: the Christian. The enemy is not wrong: he recognises where to find Jesus. And this is the ecumenism of blood. Nowadays we are witnesses to this, and I think of the Orthodox brethren beheaded on the beaches of Libya, for example: they are our brothers. They gave witness to Jesus and they died saying, ‘Jesus, help me!’. With His name: they confessed the name of Jesus”.’

The Catholic celebration of the martyrs of Libia is a concrete manifestation in the belief of the unity of those who died in odio Christi. Another concrete recognition of this belief is available on the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London. The abbey, which is currently an Anglican church, started its life as a Catholic establishment and was still Catholic when the plans for the West Door were drawn up. The Abbey took a couple of centuries to complete, and, as many would know, is in the Gothic style. This design sensibility is marked by a profusion of carving, with numerous niches for statues of the saints. The Reformation and the rise of Puritanism (unfortunately) intervened, however, and the Catholic tradition of the celebration of saints, especially through the erection of statues in their honour, and for the imitation of the faithful, fell out of favour. As a result, the ten niches in the façade of this West Door lay unutilised ever since its completion in the fifteenth century.  It was only when this façade was renovated in 1995 that it was decided it was now time to fill these niches. Recognising the twentieth century as the century of Christian martyrdom (a somewhat hasty assumption in my opinion, given that the twenty-first promises to offer a richer harvest of martyrs), the decision was taken to use the niches to commemorate Christian martyrs from across the various churches and continents. The ten martyrs who were commemorated include the Catholic St Maximilian Kolbe from Poland, Manche Masemola from South Africa who was martyred for her desire to be baptised, the Anglican Janani Luwum from Uganda martyred by General Idi Amin (a name well known to Goans), the Orthodox Grand Duchess Elizabeth from Russia, the famous Dr Martin Luther King Jr, St Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador, the German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer killed by the Nazis, the Anglican Lucian Tapiedi from Papua New Guinea,  and Wang Zhiming, a  Miao pastor killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Of all these names, it was that of Esther John from Pakistan which appealed to me, perhaps for the obvious reason of being from the same subcontinent as myself. Born Qamar Zia in pre-Partition British India she moved with her family to Pakistan after which, as a young adult, she converted to Christianity from Islam. An enthusiastic evangelizer working among the labouring women in the Punjab, she was found murdered in February 1960.

Reading about her, I could not help but think of Graham Staines, another Christian missionary who met his death, this time on the other side of the subcontinent. The story of Graham Staines is well known, an Australian citizen, he worked among lepers in Orissa until, along with his sons aged ten and six, he was burned to death by members of the Bajrang Dal.

For the longest time I wondered what ought to be the relation of myself – a Catholic – to this Evangelical missionary. The celebration of the feast of the Twenty-one Coptic martyrs of Libya offered a direction. His is a life of example to be venerated. He may not (yet) be recognised by the Catholic Church in Her martyrology, but this does not prevent me from venerating the memory of one who died for Christ. Further, it also offers another lesson to Christians in the subcontinent. While we may disagree on doctrine – and these disagreements are important and should not be dismissed – we ought not to attack one another. Rather, we need to recognise that we work for, and in these trying times may well have to suffer for, the one name. We must be kind to one another.

(A version of this text was first published in the O Heraldo dated 13 March 2024.

With thanks to Rev. Thomas Hiney and Rev. Lister Tonge for their inspiration.)

Friday, February 2, 2024

The Rise and Fall: Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord

"Presentation of Jesus in the Temple" (detail), Francesco Vittore Carpaccio, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. 

“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Lk 2: 34-35

The words of Simeon, that we hear in the Gospel today, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, are often understood as referring to the political, worldly, or material, fall of “many in Israel” – this could refer to the socio-political elite of the times, Herod, Pilate, the Temple elite. Indeed, some commentators point out that the sense of this text is similar to the verse from the Magnificat, that hymn of Our Lady, where she sings that “He [i.e. God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1: 52).

However, as I reflected on Simeon’s words this popular understanding of the text was tempered by Our Lord’s own revelation of Himself and His mission: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17), or in the Gospel of Luke, the very Gospel where we encounter the meeting between Simeon and the Holy Family; “for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”

So now, if Our Lord Himself suggests that He did not come to pull people down, but pull us up, to refine and purify us, as we read in the first reading from the Prophet Malachi, how are we to make sense of these words of Simeon, the words of Our Lady in the Magnificat, and reconcile them with the words of Our Lord Himself?

We do so by having regard to the fact that one of the central aspects of this feast is to highlight the meekness, and humility, of God. The point of the presentation (i.e. the appearance of the woman in the Temple) in the Mosaic law was that the child had to be redeemed, and the woman, who was considered impure after having given birth, had to be purified.  We have the incredible situation, here therefore, where both the Son of God  imagine the Redeemer of the world Himself has to be redeemed!  and His Holy Mother, herself born without sin, submit themselves before earthly authorities to fulfil the law in force – that their impurity and assumed sinfulness be corrected through sacrifice.

There is, also, another dimension, Christ even as infant, for having taken flesh, also takes on the sinful condition of humanity. Regard these words from the Apostle Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5: 21), or his words from that beautiful canticle in the letter to the Phillipians (2:6-8):

though he was in the form of God,
    [he] did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

The point of this feast is about the humility of God, and the revelation of the highly illogical idea that it is through the humbling of ourselves, through our embrace of meekness – to be meek is to submit ourselves to the will of God, even when that submission puts us in conflict with the world, conflict even to the point of death – it is through our meekness to the will of God and it has to be stressed that the virtues of meekness and humility are always in reference not to worldly authorities and powers but to God alone – that that we are raised, i.e. we grow in dignity. This salvific logic has been well-understood by our Holy Mother the Church. Consider, for a moment the Collect from the feast of St. Agnes that we celebrated just a few days ago: “O Almighty and everlasting God, you choose the weak things of the world to confound the strong.”

But perhaps precisely because it is a salvific logic, and not of this world that the world finds it difficult to appreciate, understand, or follow it. It is in this sense that Christ will be the sign that will be contradicted, precisely because this most Christian of logics is so difficult, or confounding, for the world to understand, it is the stumbling over this stone – that the builders rejected – that will reveal the thoughts of our hearts – offering us an opportunity to evaluate ourselves.

I leave you, therefore, with the counsel from St. James “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10).

Laudetur Jesus Christus, [semper laudetur].

(A version of this homily was first preached at the Pontificio Collegio Beda on 2 Feb 2024).