Blessed John Henry Newman

In the Dominican Calendar transferred from 9 October

Those of us who are converts to the Faith, especially converts from Anglicanism, can readily identify with Blessed John Henry Newman, who suffered when he discovered God was gently leading him into the fold of the Catholic Church.  After a lifetime of searching for the truth, Newman made that leap of faith and as a result lost his job, his friends and his position in society in order to embrace the Church Our Lord himself established with Peter as its head.  Newman had the courage to reject what was false and to embrace what was true.  May we follow his example and do the same.

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I read somewhere that common sense should really be called something else, because common sense is not really all that common.  For example, if you were walking down the lane and saw a man bruised and beaten, lying in his own blood, wouldn’t common sense tell you to help him?  What kind of person walks past a man in that condition?

Believe it or not, there were reasons to excuse the Levite and the priest.  Jewish law decreed that coming into contact with someone else’s blood rendered you ritually unclean for an entire week.  And if a priest or Levite were to become unclean, he wouldn’t be able to minister in the Temple until he had offered a sacrifice to purify himself.  But if you find yourself debating between ritual impurity and the life of a wounded man, there really should be no question.

Ironically, it’s the Samaritan who shows both common sense and compassion.  And the man he stops to help is most likely a Jew.  He helps one of the people who looked down on Samaritans as unworthy of their time or attention.  But none of that mattered. Someone was in need, and he knew he had to help.  Unlike the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side of the road, the Samaritan was willing to get his hands dirty in order to help someone in need.  He showed what it means to love our neighbour.  And in a sense, he reveals the truth behind Saint Peter’s saying that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

Our Lord wants to tell us today that our neighbour is everyone.  He wants to tell us that our love shouldn’t be limited only to those we like or get on with.  We should never be afraid to get our hands dirty as we manifest God’s love and truth to the people around us.

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27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In a religious community full of celibates even we can hardly ignore Our Lord’s teaching today on the Indissolubility of Marriage.  Had I the opportunity to take further specialised studies as a young priest I would have focused on Canon Law, with a special emphasis on Marriage, because as a parish priest I devoted more time to couples with marriage problems than to almost anything else, except perhaps paying bills.  For many years the Church has urged its priests and those who prepare couples for Marriage to give the most thorough instruction to men and women intending to marry, because the bond of marriage has been, and still is, the great icon of the union between God and his people.

One of the great puzzles in the Scriptures is why Our Lord gave such a demanding teaching on Marriage, nowhere is he more straightforward than this: ‘whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.’  And yet forbidding divorce flies in the face of human experience, especially today when divorce is so common, but it was also true two thousand years ago in the Roman Empire.  The Emperor Augustus enacted laws, hoping to prevent the breakup of marriages.  And he gave married couples pretty good financial incentives to stay together, but he had little success getting Roman citizens to focus on marriage and the family.  And, even among Jews, divorce was common, so much so that Moses had to set up procedures for divorce.  Our Lord went against a very common and widespread practice, and yet he point blank refused to recognise divorce.  He says that to divorce your spouse and marry another is the same thing as committing adultery.

Pope Benedict XVI helped us to understand Our Lord’s teaching on Marriage.  In his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) he writes that monogamous marriage corresponds to the image of a monotheistic God.  And Monotheism, as we all know, means there is only one God.  Christians, Jews and Muslims agree on that fundamental doctrine.  The Bible teaches that the one God loves us with the passion of a bridegroom for his bride.  In return he requires from us fidelity.  Before him we can have no false gods.  To go after a different god is adultery.  He calls us to love Him totally and exclusively.  Marriage is meant to be a sign, a sacrament of the love between God and his people.  Over and over again the prophets preached this same message.  And when the Son of God came, he announced that he was the Bridegroom in whose presence the disciples don’t fast, but celebrate.

In teaching the Indissolubility of Marriage, Our Lord was fully aware of human weakness.  He knew he was giving us an extremely difficult teaching.  And for two thousand years the Catholic Church has done its best to uphold that teaching.  And yet, because this teaching is so hard to live, it has been the subject of much confusion.  And so, perhaps this is a good opportunity to clear up three common misunderstandings.

First, and most important, the Catholic Church doesn’t have its own teaching on Marriage.  The only teaching we have is the one Our Lord gave us: that Marriage is a lifelong, unbreakable union between a man and a woman.

Second, there is often confusion about what constitutes a valid (or real) marriage.  For a Catholic to be validly married, the ceremony must take place in the presence of someone duly delegated by the bishop: usually a priest or a deacon.  If a Catholic gets married ‘outside the Church’ it is not a true and valid marriage.  Now, obviously two people who are not Catholic are not bound by that requirement.  The Church only legislates for its own children.  And for the sake of good order the Church recognises the marriages of all those who are not Catholics.  God gave marriage to all human beings when he created us male and female: For that reason a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife and the two become one flesh.

This leads to the third common confusion: The Catholic Church has no power to grant a divorce.  Sometimes you hear the word annulment bandied about, but the correct term is declaration of nullity.  That means that after a due investigation, it is determined that no true marriage existed.  Something was lacking which made the marriage null from the very beginning.  For example: suppose one or both of the parties entered the relationship with the intention of practicing birth control and of never having children.  That marriage is null.  It never existed even though the couple were married in church with the pope himself blessing the marriage.  Now that would be a fairly straightforward case; others are more complicated.  I know that people sometimes like to judge the Church’s marriage tribunal process.  All I can say is that more goes into a marriage case than you or I could know.  The tribunal has its human side, like everything in the Church, but I know of no better process which upholds Our Lord’s teaching and at the same time tries to take into account human realities.

We all know of couples whose marriages have broken apart.  This happens even after every effort to save their marriage has been made by one or both parties.  As a priest I’ve heard many heroic testimonies to continuing fidelity in spite of the choices their spouse made.  At the same time, there are others who enter into a second union outside the Church, and who do the best they can to worship God at Mass, even though they can’t receive Holy Communion.  Our human reality is well and truly messy.  It always has been and it always will be.  But that doesn’t mean we can change one of the fundamental teachings of Christ.  And it’s amazing how some of the protestant churches who take Our Lord’s word so literally have accommodated themselves to the reality of widespread marriage breakdowns and who happily remarry people, sometimes several times over, and even unite people of the same gender in a bizarre parody of a marital union.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my years as a priest is that very often the people who have had the roughest experiences of marriage are the first ones to recognise the beauty and the wisdom of Our Lord’s teaching.  Ultimately, and as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical, that teaching is about more than our human relationships.  It’s about the relationship of us to God and God to us: a passionate love which invites a total and exclusive response.  In that relationship above all else, what God has joined, no human being must separate.

When all is said and done, the Catholic Church is not in the business of issuing condemnations or heavy judgements; our task is to show the world a better way.  Our task is to show the Way that Christ teaches, and although this Way is difficult and challenging, it has very great rewards and it enhances our human dignity and our self-worth.  It is a way of sacrifice, and for some it is the Way of the Cross, but it is also a Way to true happiness and self-fulfilment.  It is the Way of Holiness.

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Saturday of Week 26 in Ordinary Time

I read an interesting article about Saint Thomas Aquinas, the renowned thirteenth-century Dominican friar, considered to be one of the greatest theologians of all time.  Apparently, after a mysterious encounter with God at the age of forty-eight, Saint Thomas retired from writing.  No one knows exactly what happened, only that one afternoon he returned from praying in the chapel having lost all motivation to write.  “All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me” was all he could say.

In a sense, what happened to Saint Thomas reflects what Job expresses in today’s first reading.  At the end of his trials, having experienced intense suffering, and taken part in a lengthy argument about how to understand his trials in the light of a loving God, Job receives his own vision of the Almighty.  Finally, he realises that it was never his role to figure everything out.

When Job says that the things of God are “too wonderful” for him, he isn’t saying he is too stupid to grasp or experience them (Job 42:3).  Rather, he is rejoicing in the rich and eternal love that God has for him.  Job is saying that God’s truth, beauty, and goodness are so vast that we’ll never fully understand or explain them.

God dramatically shook up Thomas Aquinas and Job.  For Saint Thomas, it happened as he was prayerfully going about his life.  For Job, it was as he asked God difficult, probing questions.  Life isn’t all that straightforward for any of us, and there’s nothing wrong in asking God questions, asking him to enlighten us as to his plan for us.  After all, it’s another opportunity for God to reveal himself to us, just as he did for Job and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

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Blessed Raymond of Capua, O.P.

Today we honour the memory of Blessed Raymond of Capua, considered to be the second founder of the Order.  When he was elected Master of the Order he introduced numerous reforms which demanded the strict following of the rules laid down by Saint Dominic.  Blessed Raymond died in 1399 and was beatified in 1899 to mark the fifth centenary of his death.  Today we ask Blessed Raymond’s intercession and protection for the Order and for our community in particular.

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In the Old Testament. idolatry was the worship of some god other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and it is the main sin to be avoided in the Old Testament.  The most obvious type of idolatry is represented by the golden calf fashioned by Aaron for the Hebrews, who thought Moses would never return from Mount Sinai.  But there is a more subtle form of idolatry: fashioning a god so carefully that this god can never challenge us, can never call us out of our ‘comfort zone’.

This is the kind of idolatry Our Lord denounces in today’s gospel.  Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were Jewish settlements on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee; and it seems Our Lord’s call to repentance fell on deaf ears in those cities.

One of the great benefits of having daily Mass is that we have many opportunities to hear God’s Word.  If we hear that Word with open minds and hearts, we will hear its challenge as well as its comfort.  As the old saying goes: Our Lord came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Full and active participation at Mass helps us avoid the temptation to keep God in our own comfort zone and to hear what we truly need to hear.

Saint Francis of Assisi

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I’m sure you have all read the account of Saint Francis of Assisi’s conversion experience.  As he was praying in a derelict chapel, he heard God speak to him: “Francis, go and repair my house; look, it is falling into ruins.”  It was only with hindsight that Francis realised that God wasn’t speaking about rebuilding that particular chapel; rather God was speaking about the challenges facing the whole Church at the time.  It took Francis time to realise this, but once he did, he and his fellow friars went out into the world and changed the course of human history.

In every age and for every generation, God calls his people to rebuild his Church.  No matter what the era, there has always been a need for renovation, for a return to our roots, and for addressing the challenges of the day.  In every age, God invites his people, not just to moan about the situation, but to address it and to rebuild the Church.

And it doesn’t have to be difficult.  Look at Saint Francis.  As soon as he heard God’s call, he grabbed his tool box and set to work.  God had told him to rebuild his Church, so that’s what he did.  Over time, though, God helped him become more certain about what the call really involved.

The very same thing happens to us when God calls us to serve him in the Church.  Given time, prayer, discernment, and advice and encouragement from people who know us, we make a decision about how we will put into practice Our Lord’s call to follow him.  For us, it was to offer ourselves for the Religious Life.

For many of us, and because life is so complicated in the 21st century, we may not have the certainty that Saint Francis had about his vocation.  But, like him, we all have to start somewhere.  We all have to take that first step.  We all began our religious life as a postulant, not knowing for sure where the road will eventually lead us.  And we all have to allow the Holy Spirit to gradually reveal to us what our vocation in life is to be.  If we respond generously to God’s call, then we may get a sense that we are doing exactly what we should be doing.  It may even be that the Holy Spirit will nudge us in a different direction in order to make us more effective.

Saint Francis and countless others, including ourselves, have responded to God’s call to vocation, we have discerned his will for us, and we try to make a difference.

Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us.

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Wednesday of Week 26 in Ordinary Time

Most of us may cringe when we hear those words of Our Lord to “Leave the dead to bury to their dead”, because they sound pretty extreme.  Now, we know Our Lord doesn’t expect us to boycott the funerals of those we know and love.  He often exaggerates his answers in order to make a point.  Just as he doesn’t really want us to chop off our hands or gouge out our eyes when we are tempted to sin, so he doesn’t really want us to abandon all our responsibilities in the name of discipleship.  What he does want us to do is take seriously his call to follow him.  This is why he uses extreme language – to get our attention and prompt us to do a little more self-examination.

As we progress in the religious life, self-examination can often suffer.  Once we get settled into a comfortable routine with our lives it gets all too easy to tell ourselves that we are too busy to sit down and reflect.  We can get so busy doing things and seeing people and going places that we forget sometimes why we entered the religious life in the first place.  We may even create our own little world within a world.  Each decision we make adds up, until we begin to think that Our Lord really isn’t so very important in our lives.  The apostolate takes over.  Now of course, we would never admit this so bluntly, but our actions often speak more honestly than our words.  This is why self-examination is so important.

I suppose like doctors and nurses, priests and religious don’t always follow the advice we give to other people.  It’s easy to preach, advise and direct, but we need to listen to our own advice.  Our Lord’s words today should provoke us all to ask a few questions about how we continue to respond to God’s call for us.

Age and experience inform us that it’s always best to start small.  If we set too lofty a goal for ourselves, we inevitably end up disappointed and discouraged when we fail.  But if we take small steps and do our best to be faithful, then we will become more dedicated followers of Christ who walks with us every step of the way.

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Guardian Angels

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Our Lord used a child to teach his Apostles about heaven.  They wanted to know who was the greatest in his kingdom.  In a childish way, they wondered if it was one of them.  They were coming to him almost as competitors, as if the one who did the most for God would win the prize.  But Our Lord showed them a child to let them know it’s the one who is childlike, the one who listens, obeys, and forgets himself, one who follows with innocence and intensity.  It is the childlike – not the childish – who treasure today’s feast, because they believe in and rely upon angelic help and protection.

We can easily fall into the same trap the Apostles did if we put serving Our Lord ahead of relating to him.  He wants us to put him first in our lives, but we can’t do that by running ourselves ragged here there and everywhere trying to keep up with a list of appointments and things to do.  Our Lord’s first concern is that we come to know him, and that we are filled with his life-giving Spirit.  That’s what will make us vessels of his mercy, doing his will and not worrying so much about the seating arrangement in heaven.

So how does true humility begin?  Not by asking Our Lord to knock us down to size, but by accepting his love for us.  We are all adopted members of his family, and he doesn’t favour one of us over another.  We become humble by focusing on his greatness, not on our smallness.  The best way to become sensitive to his grace is to spend more time with him: to give thanks to him for what he has done for us, and to learn of his ways.  The more we sit at his feet, like that little child in the gospel, the more prepared we will be for heaven—because that’s exactly what we’ll be doing for all eternity.

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