Saint Bernard

Today we honour the memory of Saint Bernard, the founder of the Cistercians, and perhaps the most notable religious character of the 12th century.  Bernard’s life and influence in the Church was more active than we can imagine possible today, even for a Cistercian monk.  His efforts at reconciliation between popes and princes produced far-reaching results.  But he knew that his efforts would have achieved little without the many hours of prayer and contemplation that brought him strength and direction.  His life was characterized by a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.  His sermons and books about Our Lady are still the standard of Marian theology today.  Saint Bernard died at Clairvaux in 1153 and was canonised in 1174.

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Today’s Gospel follows on from yesterdays in which we heard about the rich young man who earnestly asked Our Lord, “What good must I do to gain eternal life?”  He had only one obstacle to being a disciple: he was too attached to his possessions.  He loved his wealth to the point that it prevented him from accepting Our Lord’s invitation to follow him.  And yet, over the course of two thousand years, countless men and women have taken Our Lord’s call to heart, and have literally given up all they had to honour and serve him in the religious life.

There are many examples we could cite, including Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today.  His life was changed forever when he read Our Lord’s words to the rich young man: “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”.  He promptly obeyed, and the intensity of Saint Bernard’s commitment to the religious life changed the face of the Church, inspiring other men and women to follow in his footsteps.

But what do people like Saint Bernard have to say to us in the 21st century?  While not all of us are called to embrace absolute poverty as they did, their lives challenge us to examine whether our riches – whatever they may be – may be holding us back.  Has our comfort, our desire for more, and our abundance of goods closed us off from everything that God wants to give us?  Are there possessions—or even attitudes—that we can’t seem to let go of?  Our Lord asks us to leave behind whatever is weighing us down on our journey towards heaven.  His invitation to “sell” all that we have is not meant to be a burden, but a joy that leads us to the freedom of loving God without reservation.

Saint Bernard, pray for us.

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Monday of Week 20 in Ordinary Time

You may have heard the story about the chicken and the pig that lived on a farm.  One day they met by the kitchen door of the farmhouse as the farmer sat down to a breakfast of bacon and eggs.  The hen commented to the pig how proud she was that the farmer was eating eggs that she and her sisters had produced.  The pig turned a sad gaze away from the bacon and said to the hen, ‘Well you might have made a contribution, but I’ve made a commitment.’

Today’s gospel is all about the difference between dabbling in something and becoming truly committed to it.  The rich young man is captivated by Our Lord’s life and teaching.  It seems right to him.  Perhaps he hears an inner call to follow in Our Lord’s footsteps.  But we discover that he has a much stronger desire.  What do I need to do further? the rich man asks Jesus.  If you seek perfection, go and sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.  You will then have treasure in heaven.  After that, come back and follow me.  This was way too much for the young man because his possessions were many.

Sister Julie was faced with this challenge twenty-five years ago and she was able to make that transition from making a contribution to making a commitment to God and the Church.  I suppose, a bit like the rich young man, the young Sister Julie had it all: good health, an interesting job with prospects, a loving family, her own house, even money in the bank.  And yet faced with the challenge of the Gospel, she gave it all up to throw in her lot with the newly established Dominican Sisters of Saint Joseph.  Sister Julie, and indeed all the professed Sisters show us that it is possible to be faithful to one’s vocation, to be happy and fulfilled in a life devoted to God, the Church and the Order, and that to live a simple life in the 21st century, with no possessions to call ones own is not something to be feared and avoided, but something to embrace with great joy, simply because of the freedom it brings to devote oneself totally to God.

For more than two thousand years Christians have struggled with this basic message of Our Lord who tells us time and time again, and in very plain language, that material possessions can be a serious threat to our union with God.  And yet we are born into a material world, and we need the things of this world in order to survive.  Even our Franciscan brethren have to make some allowances as they seek to live lives of poverty in the 21st century.  The challenge of today’s gospel is the question each of us must ask ourselves: how many possessions do we truly need in order to live?  Just as the early Christians struggled to live their faith in a culture that demanded idol-worship, we today must struggle to live our faith in a culture that demands rampant materialism.  Now, I’m sorry to say there is no set answer to this challenge.  But each of us is called by the Gospel to struggle with it honestly.

Please spare a thought and a prayer for Sister Julie today, who even on her Silver Jubilee, gives herself to the community and to all of you gathered here for the Fanning the Flame Camp.  Sister Julie will be hard at it in the kitchen today preparing her always well-received signature dish Lasagne!  I think that’s the Monday evening offering.  All I ask is that you don’t eat it all, as I’ll get the leftovers for my lunch tomorrow!

But on a more serious note, I ask you to pause for a few moments today and reflect upon how Sister Julie has responded to God’s call to “Follow Me”, and ask yourselves, when it comes to your faith, are you like the chicken or the pig?

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Please pray for Sister Julie (Prioress) on her Silver Jubilee of Religious Profession

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Most of us are able to accept pain and suffering as one of the facts of life, just so long as we don’t have to get too physically or too emotionally involved in it.  But sooner or later pain and suffering get a little too close for comfort.  Unexpected and unwanted suffering can hit us hard, and when it does we get confused.  We begin to ask ‘why?’  Why is this happening to me?

Now, we may try to think it all out.  Maybe we start with the Old Testament idea that we are being punished for our sins.   From there we may go on to think of offering up our suffering in payment for those sins.  Now, when we begin to think like this we are making some progress, but we still have a long way to go.  We only realise just how far we have to go when we are faced with the suffering of the innocent, maybe a small child who is special to us.  Then we are left with the really big question of ‘why?’  Why is this happening?  And, more often than not, we look to heaven for an answer.

But there’s no need for us to raise our eyes as high as heaven; in fact, we need look no higher than the crucifix hanging on our wall.  The moment of suffering can be the moment we look on the crucified Christ for the millionth time and really see him for the first time.  For there, hanging on the Cross, is the Most Innocent One who has suffered the most.  And what suffering of ours can compare with the suffering endured by the Son of God as he hung on the Cross for our sins?

Saint Paul tells us it is where sin abounded that love has abounded even more.  Sin brought an abundance of suffering into the world.  But God the Father gave his innocent Son over to suffering in order to fill it with love; to make it no longer the path to death, but rather the gateway to life.

On that first Good Friday suffering, and especially the suffering of the innocent, became the way the world is redeemed and brought back into the love of God.  Suffering remains the evil fruit of sin and we are right to fight it with every moral means at our disposal.  But as long as there is sin in the world there will be suffering; and in the end it will be suffering, united in love with Our Lord’s own suffering, which will conquer sin once and for all.

In today’s second reading we are told that “Jesus endured the cross, disregarding the shamefulness of it, but now he has taken his place at the right of God’s throne”.  Our Lord has made it possible for us to suffer and die with him, so that we can live with him; which means we put the love he shares with us into that part of the world’s suffering that we ourselves must bear.  This is why the sick and the suffering have a very special role to play in the sanctification of our world.

Now it’s nonsense to think that suffering is actually measured out according to our sinfulness.  Suffering strikes rich and poor alike with all the inequality of the evil it is.  But when we suffer with Our Lord, we don’t suffer for ourselves alone, any more than he did.  What happened in his human body on the Cross happens in his body here on earth today, his body which is the Church.  The suffering, redeeming Christ is with his Church, as we suffer for one another.  And if we are to find him suffering among us, then surely he is there in the most innocent of those who suffer.

Obviously, we can only lift a corner of the veil of mystery that shrouds suffering.  Only in the next life, when we see what suffering has achieved, will we understand, and even thank God that we had some part in it.  But even in this life we get an occasional glimpse of the redeeming glory of suffering.  In the history of the Church we see the strength that has come to her in the very days that her children have suffered the most, and how, in the death of her martyrs the Church has found new life.  And all around us, if only we would look, we can see that those who are most Christ-like in their compassion and concern and understanding are those who have suffered: and through their suffering have learned to love like Christ.

May we all become more Christ-like through our suffering.

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Saint Hyacinth, O.P.

Saint Hyacinth joined the Order of Preachers after he witnessed a miracle performed by Saint Dominic.  He established the Order in his native Poland and preached the Gospel throughout Europe.  Hyacinth died in 1257 and was canonised in 1594.

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Even in a religious community we face many personal choices each day: like whether to obey the rising bell and get up on time in the morning, or try to sleep a little longer, which cereal to choose to eat for breakfast, what to tell someone seeking our advice.  Such choices do more than just express who we are.  They also help form our character.  Are we decisive or reluctant?  Are we impulsive or reflective?  Do our choices strengthen generosity or reinforce selfishness?  Occasionally we face a choice that is life-changing.  And all of these big decisions are influenced by every little choice we’ve made along the way.  They have helped form us into who we are.

It was the same for the ancient Hebrews.  At the end of his life, their leader Joshua called everyone together for a final exhortation.  Born in the wilderness, these people had followed Joshua across the Jordan into the Promised Land.  They had defeated one enemy after another by following his divinely-inspired battle tactics.  What would happen to them after Joshua died?

Joshua made it simple, he said to them: choose this day whom you will serve, the true God or one of the many pagan gods of the surrounding peoples.  Respecting their freedom to choose, he simply declared his own intentions: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

With one voice, the people promised to serve the God who had done such great things for them.  Sadly, the Scriptures reveal that this was not a wholehearted choice.  Just as the people had long practiced grumbling and complaining whenever things went wrong, they again turned away from God whenever a new problem or a new enemy threatened them.  They were fickle.

And so, let us pay attention to all the little choices we face today, making them with hearts generous and open to God.  By taking these little steps of faithfulness, we will find it much easier to make the bigger steps whenever we encounter them.

Friday of Week 19 in Ordinary Time

Some people say that repetition is the mother of learning.   Many teachers tell their students, who complain that they’ve heard all about the subject before, that it won’t hurt them to hear it again.

Joshua, as a teacher of the people, decided that it wouldn’t hurt them to hear again the story of God’s marvellous deeds on their behalf.  And it doesn’t hurt us either.  All of God’s actions throughout history reveal his wisdom and his love and this is a subject we should never grow weary of.

All these marvellous deeds of God reached a climax in the death and resurrection of his Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  This is the central event of all history because, as we hear in one of the memorial acclamations at Mass, in dying Jesus Christ destroyed our death, and in rising he restored our life.  No one can have a greater love than to lay down his life for others.  Our Lord laid down his life for us so that we may live forever.

If we could fix in our minds the fact that all God’s actions reveal his love for us, then maybe we could come to a better understanding of his laws, even difficult ones like the law about divorce in the Gospel we’ve just heard.  If we are convinced that everything God does is out of love for us, then we can see that his laws are not a burden or an affliction.   Now, of course, it goes without saying, that life is never simple or easy, but how we approach it is important.

We should never tire of hearing, and preaching, about God’s love for us; because if we are attentive, we shall see that every page of Sacred Scripture ultimately says the same thing: God loves us and all he asks of us is to love him in return.

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The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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The middle of August is always tinged with a few feelings of melancholy.  The summer holidays are drawing to a close, and for our children and for our schoolteachers it’s almost time to start thinking about going back to school.  In the countryside our farmers are preparing for the harvest, making the most of the good weather, such as it is, in anticipation of the shorter and cooler autumn days ahead.

The Solemnity of the Assumption marks the end of Our Lady’s earthly life.  It’s a feast day at the beginning of harvest time that has been celebrated for 14 centuries of the Church’s history.  And how appropriate this is, because Our Lady is the first fruits of the great harvest gathered by her blessed Son.  And where she has gone, we hope to follow.

The Assumption means that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven as the fulfilment of her eternal destiny, which she achieved by living a life of loving response to God’s will.  As a young woman she no doubt had her own plans and hopes for the future, but God put a different proposition to her when the angel Gabriel saluted her in tones of reverence: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”  As a carpenter’s wife, seemingly quite content with her lot, she considered herself unworthy of special treatment.  And in response to God’s will she humbly declared: “I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Today’s feast gives us an opportunity to reflect upon Our Lady, who was the great background figure in the life of Christ, always cooperating with her Son.  And, it shouldn’t be too difficult for us to apply the message of Our Lady’s life to our own lives, because like us she is not remote from real life.  She lived with the same ups and downs as we do every day.  Mary knew what suffering was as she stood by the Cross and cradled the body of her dead Son in her arms.

And yet this is a joyful feast, proclaiming for us the Good News of salvation.  And it’s a reminder for us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that like Mary we too are destined for glory; we are destined for eternal life with God in heaven.  In fact, we believe that what happened to Mary will happen to us.  One day we too shall enjoy the vision of God in heaven as whole people, body and soul.

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Saint Maximilian Kolbe

Today we honour the memory of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who was arrested by the Nazis in 1941 and sent to Auschwitz.  Following the escape of a prisoner the Nazis retaliated by randomly selecting ten men to starve to death.  Fr. Maximilian offered to take the place of a married man who had a family.  And because they were taking so long to die, he and three other men were injected with carbolic acid.  Fr. Maximilian’s witness and example shone like a bright light in a place of darkness, despair and death.  Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was canonised in 1982.

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Scholars reckon that Moses was eighty years old when he encountered God in the burning bush?  Talk about a late vocation.  He was already advanced in years when he began his relationship with God, and yet, he still accomplished much.  He led the Hebrews out of Egypt, acted as their ruler, judge, and travel guide as they wandered in the desert, and he became Israel’s greatest lawgiver.

So now here is Moses, awaiting death.  And even after all those years, his eyes and his faith remained “undimmed.”  What a wonderful way to describe someone who walked with God to the very end.

Moses is a good example of the fruit that our older brothers and sisters can bear.  He shows us that it’s never too late to start serving God and that those who serve him in old age can still find joy in their work and become a blessing for the people of God.

Older people, and in our particular case, older Religious have a tremendous amount to offer.  By being faithful to our vocation and taking part in the life of the community as best we can, we remind our fellow Sisters of God’s faithfulness.

In a world that treasures and promotes youthful energy and enthusiasm, and a Church that almost obsesses over ministering to the young, it can be easy to overlook the wisdom of God’s older servants.  There will always be an important place for the elderly among the people of God, just as there was for Moses.

And it’s important for the young to listen to the old, because they have gone through so much and have so many stories to tell and wisdom to impart.  We should make a point to ask them about their journey in faith and see how much we can learn from them.  Because, like Moses, with eyes “undimmed,” they have seen much.