25 February 2016

'Let it alone for one more year . . .' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C

Moses before the Burning Bush, Domenico Fetti, 1613-14
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna [Web Gallery of Art]

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15, First Reading

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Sycamore fig tree [Wikipedia]

The parable in today's gospel reminds me of an incident on Thursday of Easter Week 1970 in Mount Vernon, Kentucky. I had driven the 800 or so kms from New York on Wednesday of Holy Week with a group of students from Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York, where I was studying music at the time. My car was an old Nash Rambler that I had bought for one dollar from Irish friends, Doug and Maeve Devlin, the previous year when they moved back to Dublin. The car was more than 15 years on the road and the doors didn't lock. But it had a great engine.

However, the day before we were about to drive back to New York something was preventing the car from going at more than about 30 kph. I took it to a local garage. The mechanics tried for an hour or so trying to loosen what was too tight, without success. I was almost resigned, somewhat like the owner of the fig tree, to leaving the car, forgetting about it and travelling by bus back to New York. However, the 'vinedresser' in me said to the mechanics, 'Try just once more'. They did. And whatever the problem was, it disappeared.

A few months later I gave the car to my mechanic in White Plains, New York, a Belgian named Joe Brody. When I had first brought the car to Joe the previous year he said, 'This is OK for driving around town'. 'I'm driving to Kentucky tomorrow', I told him. And the car, which I jokingly called 'The Irish Rover', served me well in its latter days.

1952 Nash Rambler Custom station wagon  [Wikipedia]

The parable of Jesus doesn't tell us whether or not the tree bore fruit the following year, just as the parable of the prodigal son, read at Mass on Saturday of the Second Week of Lent doesn't tell us whether or not the older brother joined the celebration.

What the parable does tell us is that God doesn't give up on us.

It also tells us that what is 'waste' in our lives - our sins, our failures to cooperate with God's grace and so on - can bring about fruitfulness when we let go of it. Manure is bodily waste - but it has the potential to bring about new life in plants.

The first part of the gospel reminds us starkly that we can perish unless we repent. God has given us free will. We can choose to accept God's love or we can choose to reject it. God will not give up on us till our dying breath.

But Lent is a special grace to the whole Church and to each member so that we won't leave it till our dying breath to turn away from sin.

We have many examples of saints who were once far from God. Perhaps St Augustine is the best known of these. But his very 'past' has been a grace to the Church ever since he turned back to God, largely because of the prayers of his mother St Monica. Not only did God not give up on St Augustine but he called him to be a source of hope to other sinners. And he called St Monica to be a source of hope to persons close to God who suffer as they see their loved ones far from God, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son.

St Augustine's wasted years are not really wasted. They are part of the 'manure' that a loving God uses to nurture life in others leading fruitless lives. 

The fig tree in the parable didn't have a will of its own but each of us has. It is possible for us to choose to reject God's love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No 1033,  says:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: 'He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.' Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'.

Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 [Wikipedia]

And in a homily on 25 March 2007 in the Roman parish of St Felicity and her Children, Martyrs, where there are many Filipino parishioners as he noted, Pope Benedict, preaching on the gospel of the woman caught in adultery, said: 

Jesus does not enter into a theoretical discussion with his interlocutors on this section of Mosaic Law; he is not concerned with winning an academic dispute about an interpretation of Mosaic Law, but his goal is to save a soul and reveal that salvation is only found in God's love. This is why he came down to the earth, this is why he was to die on the Cross and why the Father was to raise him on the third day. Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in Paradise and that hell, about which little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love.

Pope Benedict added:  Dear brothers and sisters, on the Lenten journey we are taking, which is rapidly reaching its end, we are accompanied by the certainty that God never abandons us and that his love is a source of joy and peace; it is a powerful force that impels us on the path of holiness, if necessary even to martyrdom. This is what happened to the children and then to their brave mother, Felicity, the patron Saints of your Parish.

May we never take God's love for granted but may we never lose hope in his unconditional love for each of us.

A postscript 

Downtown Mount Vernon, Kentucky [Wikipedia]

The church in Mount Vernon was still very new when I went there. In earlier years Mass had been celebrated in the home of Mom and Pop Reynolds. At the time there was only a handful of Catholics in the area and many people had strange ideas about them. When I arrived in Holy Week 1970 I discovered that Mom Reynolds, an elderly woman, had been bedridden for months due to a broken hip.  She hadn't received the Sacrament of the Sick and I asked her if she would like to. She was delighted. Her husband was present and looked as fit as the proverbial fiddle. I brought Holy Communion almost every day to Mrs Reynolds.

On Friday of Easter Week as I was having lunch just before we were to drive back to New York Mom Reynolds phoned to tell me that her husband had been taken to hospital and asked me if I could give him the last rites. I went immediately. He was in a coma and I anointed him. When I came back the following summer to Mount Vernon I went to the home of the Reynolds couple, but only Mom was there. She told me that her husband had died shortly after I had left for New York. She also told me that he had felt 'left out' when I had anointed her during Holy Week! I was a young priest at the time and it was still very soon after Vatican II and the notion that the Sacrament of the Sick was only for the dying was still prevalent, as I learned from 95-year-old Mrs Murphy in the same parish. She was housebound but when I suggested the Sacrament of the Sick she nearly threw me out! However, she was very happy to receive Holy Communion almost every day while I was there.

God showed his love to Pop Reynolds in a very 'thoughtful' way at the end of his life. And this gave great consolation to his wife. Both of them had been faithful Catholics all their years and, in a very real way, missionaries by their faithfulness and by making their home available for Mass in a community that to some extent was hostile to Catholics. (By the time I was there that hostility had nearly disappeared.)

Introit (Ps 25:15-16)

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum,
My eyes are always on the Lord,
quia ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos:
for he rescues my feet from the snare.
respice in me, et miserere mei, 
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
quoniam unicus et pauper sum ego
for I am alone and poor.

Ad te, Domine, levavi animam meam: 
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
Deus meus, in te confido, non erubescam.
O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame.
Gloria Patri et Filii et Spiritui sancto
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper 
As it was in the beginning, is now
Et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
And will be for ever. Amen.

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum,
My eyes are always on the Lord,
quia ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos:
for he rescues my feet from the snare.
respice in me, et miserere mei, 
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
quoniam unicus et pauper sum ego. 
for I am alone and poor.

The video has the longer version of the Introit as used in the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, often referred to as 'The Traditional Latin Mass' or 'TLM'. The text used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass is in bold, in Latin and in English.   

17 February 2016

'This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!' Sunday Reflections, 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C

TransfigurationFra Angelico, 1440-42
Convento di San Marco, Florence [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Black Rock Desert, Nevada [Wikipedia]

[The LORD] brought [Abram] outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." ( From First Reading, Gen 15:5, NRSVCE).

Musem of Modern Art, New York City [Web Gallery of Art]


By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

The deacon or priest says these words quietly as he pours wine and a little water into the chalice during the Offertory of the Mass. In today's gospel Jesus, who humbled himself to share in our humanity, allowed Peter, James and John to get a glimpse of his divinity. Moses and Elijah spoke of what Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. That was not only his death but his Resurrection and glorification.

Jesus calls us to share in his Resurrection and glorification, to share in the divinity that is his.

We don't share in the Resurrection, glorification and divinity of Jesus Christ only after death but also, as Peter, James and John did in the Transfiguration, in this life when we experience the gift of God's love in events that can transform us here and now.

My Australian fellow Columban, Fr Warren Kinne, who worked in Mindanao, Philippines, for many years and is now in China, tells the story of Xiao Ai, who was in her early days a 'non-person'. But through the love and care of strangers, Chinese and foreign, she now has possibilities open to her that she never could have imagined. And Father Warren, who has some Chinese ancestry, sees her story as encapsulating in some ways the meaning of Lent and Easter. Here's how he tells it. It's taken from the January-February 2013  issue of MISYONonline.com, the Columban online magazine I edit in the Philippines.

Courage to live a Lent

by Fr Warren Kinne

Xiao Ai

Before the great Feast of Easter when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Church goes through a period of preparation by prayer and fasting. We call this Lent. In the northern hemisphere, where Christianity started, it was celebrated in spring and slowly, throughout that time, the dead of winter burst forth into the luxuriance of new growth, signifying life and the resurrection.

Xiao Ai is a young friend of mine. She was left at the steps of a convent about 2004 or 2005 in a remote village of Shan Xi Province, China. She was born with clubbed feet and abandoned. Xiao was brought to Shanghai where a group of foreigners provided money and logistical support for multiple operations.
During that period she was taken in by a family who took great care of her and eventually wanted to adopt her as their own. However there were many hurdles to be overcome. Xiao Ai did not have any identification as the convent was not a registered orphanage and so was not in a position to register her.
Indeed people could only guess at her actual birth date. She was really a ‘non-person’.
After years of effort Xiao Ai has had all her paperwork completed and she now has a Chinese passport that will allow her to travel with her adopted family to Singapore. What happiness followed the long and anxious wait where a wonderful outcome was hoped for rather than expected.
Xiao Ai and Fr Warren Kinne
For the Lord takes delight in his people 
(Psalm 149:4, Grail translation)

Xiao’s struggle to me is a Lenten story that has become an Easter story; a fast that turned into a feast; a long journey in a desert that ended in freedom; a near death that heralded a resurrection, a new life.
Shanghai is a city of tinsel and glitter. Most people recognize the image of its iconic buildings and towering structures along the Huang Pu River. There are myriad neon signs and a ‘yuppie’ lifestyle for many expatriates who ride the wave of economic frenzy. But it has its under-belly.
The construction of this city has been done on the backs of migrant workers - currently seven million - who have travelled to the city to find work. They left their villages and often their families in order to make a little money on construction sites and in restaurants and factories.
These people do not have residency permits in Shanghai and so they cannot settle down where they work. Often they leave their children back in the village in the care of grandparents and may only get home once a year – during the Chinese New Year – to see how the family is going.
Children can resent their absence and may not appreciate the sacrifice of the parent or parents in order to better the whole family economically.
In the cities where they work they do not have equal access to medical and educational opportunities that are open to the local population.
Their sacrifice is a sort of ‘Lent’ lived in the hope of a better future for their family. Like Xiao Ai’s adopting parents or the migrant parents, they in fact live the admonition of God in Isaiah 58: 6-7: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him’.
God brought the slaves out of the land of Egypt where they had made bricks for the ostentatious buildings of the Pharaohs. This same God made a covenant with them and subsequently with us that we might treat each other differently because in one way or another we have all been freed. The worship of the market and the God of money has caused many to suffer. May we all have the courage to live a Lent that will usher in true life for the world.

A recent photo of Xiao Ai and Father Warren

A younger Xiao Ai with a song of greeting for the Lunar/Chinese New Year.
Gong Xi Fa Cai
Although the Lunar New Year celebration is over I don't think it inappropriate to include the song here. What comes to my mind each time I look at the photo of Xiao Ai with Father Warren and when I watch the video of this young girl born a 'non-person' is the truth of Genesis 1: 26, Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness' (RSVCE).

11 February 2016

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ Sunday Reflections, 1st Sunday of Lent, Year C

Sistine Chapel, Vatican [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil  led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Kyrie eleison, and Intercessions in different languages
Taizé - Pilgrimage of Trust in Rome
Prayer presided by Holy Father Benedict XVI
St Peter's Square, 29 December 2012

I first posted this reflection on 14 February 2013 just after Pope Benedict had announced that he was stepping down.

I can't help reflecting on this gospel in the light of Pope Benedict's announcement last Monday when he said, Well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome.

When the devil tempts Jesus with the promise of glory and power Jesus quotes from Scripture, You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.

Tomb of St Gregory the Great, St Peter's, Rome [Wikipedia]

In an audience in 2008 speaking about St Gregory the Great, who reluctantly had become Pope Gregory I, Pope Benedict said, Recognizing the will of God in what had happened, the new Pontiff immediately and enthusiastically set to work. From the beginning he showed a singular enlightened vision of the reality with which he had to deal, an extraordinary capacity for work confronting both ecclesial and civil affairs, a constant and even balance in making decisions, at times with courage, imposed on him by his office.

The following day Pope Benedict said, Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and therefore was decidedly opposed to great titles.  He wanted to be—and this is his expression—servus servorum Dei. Coined by him, this phrase was not just a pious formula on his lips but a true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our servant. He washed and washes our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a Bishop, above all, should imitate this humility of God and follow Christ in this way.  His desire was to live truly as a monk, in permanent contact with the Word of God, but for love of God he knew how to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to make himself the “servant of the servants.”  Precisely because he was this, he is great and also shows us the measure of true greatness.

Pope Benedict, Zagreb, Croatia, June 2011 [Wikipedia]

Pope Benedict points out that it was his reluctant predecessor who coined the phrase that has become one of the titles that goes with the papacy, Servus servorum Dei, 'Servant of the servants of God'.

The call to be pope is a call to serve. Canon law, No 332, allows for the possibility of a pope to step down. But until now no pope has taken that step for 598 years and the previous few instances of it happening have been surrounded by controversy.

Blessed John Paul II wrote a letter of resignation in 1989 to be implemented in very specific situations that might arise. But he chose to remain pope until his death, despite his increasing incapacity in the last couple of years. Many of us were moved by his last public appearance on Easter Sunday 2005, six days before his death, when this once very athletic man with a powerful voice could only stand at his window and give a wordless blessing. Was his temptation to leave office, a temptation that with God's grace he didn't yield to?

Was the temptation of Pope Benedict to cling on to his office of service when he judged that he wasn't capable of doing so? Did he, with God's grace, refuse to yield to that temptation?

None of us can ever fully  know the depths of another person. But we can be touched by the actions of others.

Was it part of Blessed John Paul's vocation to teach us the value of suffering in old age, the value of accepting infirmity and disability, to refuse to yield to the temptation not to serve any more? 

Is it part of Pope Benedict's vocation to teach us the value of letting go of authority in order to allow another to exercise that same God-given authority in serving the Church and the world?

Many adult children and their parents are faced with choices such as Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have faced. It can be a source of great anguish when it is clear that an older parent needs full-time care, the kind of care that their adult children cannot give, the kind of care that means their leaving home. I have never been faced with this situation as my mother died suddenly at 55 and my father at 74. But friends have told me of their suffering in this situation.

Fr Gabriel Harty OP (above), known as the Irish Rosary Priest and now over 90, wrote in Pioneer magazine in November 2012:

As National Director of the rosary apostolate for almost sixty years, I realise that I had made a name for myself in certain quarters and that I had, as it were, built up a little kingdom of my own. Then one day I heard the news, that I was no longer to be in control. A big white van came down from the North to clear everything out of what was once my office, my home, my sanctuary to establish the Rosary Centre elsewhere. I confess that I felt angry. Like so many at this time of recession who find themselves redundant, or like those who have to move aside to let the young take over, I went through a process of grieving. I confess that I failed to recognise the times, or come to terms with my own declining years.

In the midst of a time of darkness, it was the Lord's own prayer that helped me. Unable to run around the country anymore preaching to the crowds, I took time to walk up and down the Gethsemane back-garden of a dear friend who understood my predicament. As I would begin the Our Father, it would slowly dawn on me, that it was not my name that mattered or my kingdom that had to be preserved . . .

We will be without a Holy Father for some weeks because at 8pm Roman time on 28 February Pope Benedict XVI will renounce the papacy. Before Easter, God willing, we will have a new Holy Father. [Pope Francis was elected on 13 March 2013.]

Lent is a time of prayer, penance and renewal for the whole Church and for each member, a time to prepare to celebrate the great Feast of Easter, the Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict's decision 'sharpens' all of this for us. A time of renewal is also a time of gratitude. We can thank God for Pope Benedict's gentle ministry, one in which he kept reminding us that our faith is in a Person, Jesus Christ, God who became Man.

This Lent is a time for earnest prayer that each of the cardinals who will assemble in March in Rome to elect a new pope will desire to be fully open to the Holy Spirit so that the one they choose will be the one whom God wills to be our new Holy Father. Let us pray that they will not be tempted to see the election as anything other than a searching for God's will as to who should be the next Servus servorum Dei, 'Servant of the servants of God'.

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, 2014 [Wikipedia]


(12-18 FEBRUARY 2016)

Visit to Ciudad Juárez, Wednesday 17 February

Columban Fr Kevin Mullins, Ciudad Juárez

Fr Kevin Mullins is a Columban from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, who has worked in Chile and in Britain. For the past seventeen years he has been in Corpus Christi Parish, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, USA. The parish, along with a presence in El Paso, is part of the Columban Border Ministries of the Region of the United States. Sainiana Tamatawale, a Columban Lay Missionary from Fiji is also in Corpus Christi Parish. Monika Lewatikana, another Fijian Columban Lay Missionary, worked in the parish for some years but is now on the Columban Border Ministries team in El Paso.

On Wednesday 17 February Pope Francis will visit Ciudad Juárez and celebrate Mass near its border with the USA. 

A news report about Fr Kevin Mullins on 7 News, Australia, 2012

Fr Mullins has written about his experience in the March-April 2014 issue of MISYONonline.com. Read Tears and Light in Juarez. He also had an article in the July-August 2012 issue: Executions - a Common Event.