“Do Whatever He Tells You”

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and nd to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:28)

ACCEPTING a new appointment and coming to a new parish community will always be a challenge to any minister of the Church, whether a bishop, a priest or a deacon–especially a deacon. Unlike a bishop or a priest, who comes to a new community with powers and prerogatives given to them by the Church to exercise their ministry effectively, deacons come to a new parish with none of these. And after establishing ministerial routines, habits and attitudes, a deacon needs to realise that when arriving at a new parish he needs to reevaluate and even put those habits, and attitudes aside and be prepared to adjust.

Depending on how a deacon’s ability to cope and adapt, changing parishes could be very stressful. And if the deacon is not mindful of his role in the church, this period of adjustment could very well set the tone for his ministry in his new community. Given this reality, what could a deacon do to be able to fulfil his diaconal ministry and truly be the sign of Christ who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28)?”

Deacons are “associates” of the bishop rather than co-workers

When I first heard our then newly installed archbishop say that we, deacons, are his “associates” rather than co-workers, I immediately looked for the etymology of the word. It strikes me to find the word to mean “to join with”, “to combine intimately”, “unite with”, “companion”, and “an ally.”

I am aware that some have the opinion that being merely associates seem to have a pejorative denotation. But reflecting on it, I find it more in accord with the nature or essence of a deacon. A deacon is an icon of Christ the servant. Jesus himself says, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (cf. Jn 5:20). I am not sure what the archbishop means by this term applied to deacons, but for me, it is both a description of an intimate relationship with him and a reminder of humility in carrying out our diaconal ministry. On a diocesan level, yes, I only do what my bishop tells me to do. But to do this, therefore, I need to know my bishop’s vision and hope for the local church.

I take the term associate as a call as a deacon to be my bishop’s eyes, ears, hands and feet to whatever parish I serve. Since my ministry is to serve and be the extension of the ministry of the bishop in looking after the faithful as priest, prophet and king. It is also a source of comfort for me, especially during this period when resistance to the vocation of the deacon is still alive. No one can accuse us of being “too prominent, too aggressive” or “too out there” (oh wait somebody did accuse me of this… Hahaha.) because deacons can always say (and it did help me) “I am just doing what my Archbishop set me to do”. In cases like this, it is helpful to be able to say: “Just following orders, mate!”

This term “associate”—this intimate relationship, this constant reminder of humility—juxtapose with the term “co-worker”, which for me indicates certain freedom, on doing something based on one’s choosing, is preferable because of the danger of turning onto oneself. Pride, putting oneself at the centre—my style, my understanding, my preference—instead of the Traditions and teachings of the Church, is constantly hovering over the heads of those in authority. In the parish, the deacon follows the lead of his parish priest—good or bad—because he is given the office to lead the community. The parish priest is the centre of the community while the deacon is the boundary rider, ensuring that everyone is included in the love of God. This too is applying the term associate to the ministry of deacons.

Cana, Mary and the Deacon

Turning to the Gospel, I find the story of the wedding feast of Cana (Jn 2:1-12) very helpful in reminding me about diaconal friendship with the Lord. Those who are waiting at tables at the wedding feast were in a terrible bind. They fully know the consequence of running out of wine for the couple’s reputation in the community. But what can they do?

The wedding feast at Cana

Reading and reflecting on this passage, especially focusing on the waiters at the Cana feast who served Jesus, gives also illuminating insight into the deacon’s role in service not just to our Master but also to the community. In his book, “A New Friendship: The Spirituality and Ministry of the Deacon,” Monsignor Edward Buelt described the waiters as men of blind faith. Because of this, they were able to do exactly what Jesus told them to do, with the reassurance of Mary that they would be okay if they obeyed our Lord’s command. Buelt adds that the waiters were obedient; they “did not hesitate or place limits on or exceptions to their obedience to Christ.” Because of their faith, which the mother of Jesus elicited from them, they were able to take great risks to their livelihood, their social standing and their relationships with others.

Although blind faith may be attributed to the waiters at the wedding feast at Cana. The same cannot be attributed to deacons. But the call to obedience is applicable. To obey is to give an ear to, to listen and listen attentively. A deacon’s obedience is not simply the submission of one’s will to the dictates of another. The deacon’s obedience should always come from the sincere acceptance of another’s will for the sake of a greater good. And in a parish or community context, obedience should always be at the service of charity. As the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once said, obedience in the Church is “nothing other than love.” Obedience for the deacon establishes a loving relationship between him, the icon of Christ the servant, and his bishop, who is the overseer, and his co-worker, the priests for the sake of Christ, the church whom they all love.

I said earlier that a deacon’s faith cannot be called blind faith. And yet deacons may, indeed, operate in a sense of blind faith. We may be often called to muster blind faith and to serve to others what we might think illogical, even contradictory to our formation and training. But just like the waiters in the gospel, the deacon may not know or understand what “good” a particular directive or practice will do, we still are called to nonetheless hear, heed and obey whether it be our bishop or our parish priest so as to enter in a loving relationship with them so that Christ and the Church might be served.

The more I think about it, the more I come to the realisation that the deacon’s ministerial objective is not success but fidelity. We serve not to be the centre of attention but to be the centre of service and of charity. Our place is not alongside men and women of power but with the powerless. Yes, a deacon is first and foremost a man of faith and one who trusts in the Lord. Like the waiters at Cana, we might be called to risk much, even all, to do whatever our Lord tells us. But then again, like the waiters at Cana, deacons may also have that privileged position to be the first to see the glory of the Lord. For this, let me be always reminded of the words of our Lady, “Do Whatever He Tells You!”

The Reality of the Resurrection!

3rd Sunday of Easter (B)

Acts 3:13-15. 17-19 | Ps 4:2. 4. 7. 9. R. v.7 | 1 Jn 2:1-5 | Lk 24:35-48


A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke

The disciples told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised Jesus at the breaking of bread.

They were still talking about all this when Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you!’ In a state of alarm and fright, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said, ‘Why are you so agitated, and why are these doubts rising in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet; yes, it is I indeed. Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost has no flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this he showed them his hands and feet. Their joy was so great that they could not believe it, and they stood dumbfounded; so he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ And they offered him a piece of grilled fish, which he took and ate before their eyes.

Then he told them, ‘This is what I meant when I said, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms, has to be fulfilled.’ He then opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.’

THE trouble of Christianity nowadays is that we, the believers, have domesticated our faith; turned it into a private thing. We are contented to just wearing its symbols as a fashion statement. We prefer to regard our celebrations as benign occasions to express good feelings if not commercial opportunities. Take Easter for example. Most of us, outside the Church, would readily associate Easter with the cute little bunny and egg-shaped chocolates. I, myself brought a bag-full on Easter Sunday to give to parishioners. In reflection, I may be as guilty as anybody for domesticating Easter if not dumbing down our faith’s most central belief.

The point is that our faith should not be domesticated. Our faith is not a private thing. Easter should not be domesticated. Easter is an explosive feast! Easter is an explosive reality! Our reading this 3rd Sunday of Easter reminds us of this. In our gospel reading, certain great notes of our Christian faith are resonantly struck.

Firstly, the gospel stresses the reality of the resurrection. The thing about Easter is it really happened. Way too many people today regard Easter as a “nice story”, a great myth even like many other myths found in many cultures. But the resurrection is not a myth. It is not some story the just express universal truth but not grounded in history. The resurrection story does not begin with a line: “Long, long time ago”, or “Once upon a time,” or if you want the modern version, “In a galaxy far, far away…” No, instead we heard from the Acts of the Apostles on Easter Sunday, St Peter said, “‘You must have heard about the recent happenings in Judaea; about Jesus of Nazareth…” and this Sunday we hear him again saying, “the same Jesus you handed over and then disowned in the presence of Pilate after Pilate had decided to release him.” Jesus was real. Jesus indeed died a human death and was buried. The same Jesus who the apostles testified of seeing again. In the apostles’ time after the resurrection, nobody would think that what they are saying is just a nice, mythic story. Christianity is not founded on the dreams of disordered minds, of delusions, but one who in actual historical fact faced, fought and conquered death.

The sanctuary of St Catherine of Siena Church, Catholic Parish Melton, MELTON Victoria

The second thing our gospel stresses is the necessity of the cross. Many seem to like to skip the cross and go straight to the resurrection. The cross is not an emergency measure when all things failed and when the scheme of things had gone wrong. The cross is part of God’s plan. Our church reminds us of this whenever we celebrate Sunday Mass. Just look at the figure of Jesus. It depicts that movement from the cross to the resurrection. The cross is the one place on earth, in a moment in history, where we can all see clearly the measure of God’s eternal love.

Lastly, the gospel stresses the necessity of our task. I said earlier, we tend to make the symbols of our faith as a fashion statement. This is especially true with the cross. Oh, we just have them around our necks—those little crosses. But the cross is not meant to be a fashion statement. The Romans used up to 10-meter-tall crosses to punish their enemies. And they usually set them up near the gates of the city to remind everybody that if you cross the Roman empire—pun intended; this will happen to you. For us Christians, the cross is a radical taunt, a battle cry! Because for the early Christians, it is the total rejection of the ultimate power on earth. Instead of saying Kaîsar Kyrios—”Caesar is Lord”, they proclaimed Christos Kyrios— “Christ is Lord!” The martyrs proclaimed a radical and subversive battle cry, “Caesar is not the lord. Caesar put Jesus to death with the most humiliating and most excruciating means—the cross. But now, we use the very same symbol as the victory of God. The cross is still a taunt to earthly powers. It is a warning to tyrants that they do not have the last word.

It is also a reminder for us. Because if Jesus is what he said he is. Then there is no other way to live our lives but to conform it to Jesus. And that our task in this life is to help one another to become saints. It is our task to Christify our homes, our neighbourhoods, our society. It is our task, brothers and sisters, not to domesticate the resurrection but to proclaim it boldly. Christos Kyrios! Christ is risen! Christ lives! Christ IS the Lord… and “You are witnesses to this.”

God’s Laws: The Ground of Human Freedom

3rd Sunday of Lent (Year B) 2021

Ex 20:1-17; Ps 18:8-11. R. Jn 6:68; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

FIRST READING: A reading from the book of Exodus

God spoke all these words. He said, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall not utter the name of the Lord your God to misuse it, for the Lord will not leave unpunished the man who utters his name to misuse it.
‘Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. ‘Honour your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God has given to you.
‘You shall not kill.
‘You shall not commit adultery.
‘You shall not steal.
‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his servant, man or woman, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is his.’

Photo from Baliyans.com on Human Freedom Index

ONE of the objections of the proponents of New Atheism and to some extent the modern secular society is that to believe in God is to take away human freedom. They tend to think of divine freedom as supreme arbitrariness or capriciousness over the ultimate choice of salvation and damnation. And because of this notion about God, many people in our modern secularist society tend to see the Church and its teachings merely as a means to take away people’s freedom.

The Ten Commandments that we just heard in the First Reading and the other social and moral teachings of the faith and the Church are often regarded as barriers—even a threat—to human flourishing. With regards to the Ten Commandments, more and more people are just hearing the constant refrain of “Thou Shall Not…” without even considering the point of these seeming prohibitions. Hence, more and more we hear the conviction that it might as well be good to get rid ourselves of God. It echoes Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous quote: “A No to God is A Yes to Humanity.”

However, this negative outlook on laws, especially religious laws like the Ten Commandments, is valid only if we have an incomplete or flawed understanding of freedom. The noted moral theologian and Catholic Dominican priest, Servais Pinckaers says there are two types of freedom. There is the Freedom of Indifference on the one hand and the Freedom for Excellence on the other.

The Freedom of Indifference means to have the ability to accept or reject; it’s autonomous self-direction, self-assertion and self-definition. No one can compel me to do something and everything that surrounds me—you, the environment, institutions like government and the Church—are threats to that autonomy. This kind of thinking, in fact, could be at the heart of the debate regarding the two natures of Christ—fully divine and fully human. How can the human will exist alongside the divine will?

On the other hand, freedom for excellence is not so much as a choice but rather to discipline our desires to achieve the good first possible and then effortless. For example, if one wants to be a great AFL or basketball player or a pianist or a dancer, one spends countless hours first knowing all the rules, then internalise them, then training the body to the point that one becomes freer to play the game or the craft how ever he or she wants it. We see this all the time in our sports heroes. We see this in people of great talents. The rules in actuality help these people achieve their goals. To be great AFL, cricket or basketball players, to be a great pianist, dancer, etc.

The first type of freedom sees only the rules and laws as a threat to freedom. For the latter, it is the very ground and matrix of freedom.

The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt.

God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments not to limit their freedom. The Torah did not compel the Jews to observe the 613 laws because it wants to dominate them. The Church’s moral and social teachings are not there because she wants every believer to be miserable and devoid of happiness. Laws, teachings, exhortations are there so that we can train ourselves spiritually so that becoming holy would be possible first, then effortless just like how the saints live out their faith. Human freedom is not in opposition to God’s freedom. This is because our finite freedom finds itself precisely in relation to the infinite ground of being, which is God. And when we find ourselves—our will—in complete synch with divine will, then we find ourselves radiant, fully human, in complete happiness, holy—the ultimate good.

Our authentic human freedom is in fact a participation in God’s act of being. This is the reason why God’s freedom is fully expressed as love, willing the good of the other as others. If we participate in God’s freedom, in God’s love, then we will find our authentic selves, which St Irenaeus pointed out long ago: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!”

NB: Credit to the owners of the photos. I always try my best to cite the sources of the photos I get but not always successful. I am very grateful though as they reinforce the message of each post.

Voices and God’s Last Word

2nd Sunday of Lent (Year B) 2021

Readings: Gen 22:1-2. 9-13. 15-18; Ps 115:10. 15-19. R. 114:9; 
Rom 8:31-34; Mk 9:2-10

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter spoke to Jesus. ‘Rabbi,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.

As they came down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.

SOME people commented that despite the technological advancements in communication–the technologies that are supposed to draw us together and promote understanding, we have become even more fragmented and nowhere near understanding one another. Some attribute this to the rise of social media. We’ve become a society of “experts”—or we think we are experts. We often confuse opinion with facts. We are no longer able to distinguish facts from opinions or crazy imaginations or conspiracy theories. Hence, we do not know how to relate to one another and often we do not know how to navigate our social lives. But who could blame us? There is so many information out there. So many voices. Who to listen to?

Our gospel today seem to give us the answer. Mark, writing for his community, tries to point them in the right direction on who to listen to as they lived out their faith. The story of the transfiguration is not just a story of divine revelation. it is also a story about the mission. The story of the transfiguration recalls to us how God, in human history, speaks to us. He spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai and He spoke to Elijah in Mount Horeb. Both these men of God experienced powerful manifestations of God’s glory on these high mountains. Each time, communicating His will. Each time, telling His chosen ones how to proceed.

And yet, in today’s Gospel, both prophets, as well as Peter, James and John hear the voice of God again on a high mountain, but in a still more powerful and significant way. Here there is no thunder, no lightning, no wind, no fire. Instead, they see Jesus. The glory of God is manifested not in fire and thunder, but in Jesus whose, body and garments are turned dazzling white. At the end of the episode, a cloud appears in Old Testament style, God’s voice coming from it and bears witness to Jesus: ‘This is my beloved Son.’ God—the Old Testament Voice points us to the New Testament Voice that had already been speaking. Jesus, the beloved Son of God, had already been speaking with Moses and Elijah, just as they had conversed with God hundreds of years before but now through the Voice of God’s only Son, the Word incarnate. And in the story of the transfiguration, God makes His last declaration: “Listen to him!”—Listen to the voice of Jesus!

As if to make the point, at the end of the vision Moses and Elijah, the very embodiment of the Old Testament, representing the law and the prophets, just disappear. After this episode, no other account in the Bible where God speaks directly to us. Like what the three disciples noticed after hearing the Voice, we find only Jesus, all alone for us to listen and be obedient to. So the point is clear: Jesus is the Voice of God. From now on, we only have to listen to Jesus.

Now, the challenge for each one of us is how we can make ourselves more open to receiving God’s voice; allowing them to transform us and make us messengers of the Good News. It is not an easy challenge. Even the three disciples were not successful. Even after they had witnessed the transformation of Jesus their minds remained closed. Sometimes, we too, are blinded by the daily routines of our lives, the many voices we hear. We become too familiar and complacent about who we are and about what we have at the moment. This dulls our sense of awe and so we are unable to be open to the wonderful things God is doing for us and through us.

This 2nd Sunday of Lent, the gospel teaches us that to see, we need to look. To hear, we need to listen. To experience, we need to open our minds and hearts to the possibility of God’s voice. We do not need to be on a mountain-top to experience a special meeting with God. All we need to do is to shake off our complacency, to do away with our pride, our self-centeredness, and be ready to receive whatever God wants to offer us. Now, for a moment, close your eyes. Imagine now you are before God and He speaks to you in his glory as He did with the apostles on the mountain. What is his word to you? Do you hear Him? How will that word help you on your spiritual journey this Lent? What will be our response? ###

NB. As I mentioned before, I never claim to always have an original homily and still, maintain that homilies need not be always original because preaching is handing on the Word of God or echoing the great teachings about the faith. Most of the times, I research the works of more capable preachers than I am and in this instance, I want to acknowledge the homily of Fr Simon Gaine, originally published from the Torch, 22 February 2021, parts of it I excerpted here (see: “The Final Word.” Torch. The Dominican Friars – England & Scotland. 22 February. Accessed February 27, 2021. https://www.english.op.org/torch/the-final-word.)

Saying ‘Thank you and Farewell’

Today is officially the day when both my appointments to the Parish Community of Caroline Springs as parish deacon and pastoral associate end. Tomorrow, I am officially the parish deacon of the Catholic Parish of Melton. Last Sunday, 27 December, during the 9:00 am Mass, I delivered the following speech:

A couple of weeks ago Father Richard mentioned when introducing Father Simeon to this parish community, the importance of the first parish to ordained clergy. Speaking from personal experience I can indeed say how fortunate and blessed I am to have St Catherine of Siena Caroline Springs as my first parish.

Six years ago, I was ordained to the ministry of the diaconate by Archbishop Denis Hart at the St Patrick’s Cathedral with two other Filipino men. Our families, communities, a Filipino choir and our brother deacons and priests came to witness and bless our ordination.

Fr John (third from the lest) during my ordination in 2014.

My first mentor and friend, Fr Minh Tran SJ, came to vest me, and in one of his early demonstrations of support for me our first parish priest, Fr John Tollan, also came on that day. It was my first encounters with our parish priest now, Fr Richard, who was then the Master of Ceremonies (we actually met before for the rehearsal), and Tien who was a sacristan, at the Cathedral, who served during that ordination Mass. It was a day of many firsts, and indeed a foreshadowing of things to come. But even before the ordination, Fr John actually initiated our first meeting. He was the one who first called and to inform me that I’ll be going to Caroline Springs. He invited me for a meeting at the presbytery, welcoming me to this parish. Not long after offering me employment, with the question, “Would you like to work for the parish?”

I will forever be grateful to Fr John for this, and for supporting me in my role as deacon not just during the Masses, and other church activities, but also in other ways and circumstance. I remember during one of the clergy meetings, when two of my deacon brothers were acknowledged by the vicar general for their attendance, Fr John’s voice boomed loud from somewhere in the room, saying loudly, “Deacon Chris Creo is also here!” Receiving such visible public support, I felt proud to be his deacon and committed to serving him, even developing a liking for Chelsea, even though I am usually cautious with dogs, having been bitten by one when I was young.

Fr John with the family

The foundation Fr John set for me as a deacon for this parish paved the way for six years of continuous service. I have loved getting to know you, develop friendships, and provide for and moreover receive your care. My family have truly been blessed with your companionship and friendship through the years.

We’ve had a few changing of the guards through the years, and our parish priests have all enriched our life here at the parish. Personally, I consider myself fortunate to have served each and every one of them. Serving under different styles leadership has provided me with an enriching experience and contributed to my spiritual and pastoral growth as a deacon just as meeting and working with different people in the parish also influenced and contributed to that same growth.

I feel more confident through this experience as I humbly accept my next appointment and serve my next parish priest at the Catholic Parish of Melton. God must have listened when I told him that this transition would be difficult, so he didn’t bring me far to another similarly named parish. At Melton, whose main church is called St Catherine of Siena too, I hope to apply what I have learned here and continue the vision of “setting the world ablaze.”

RCIA Rite of Election 2017.

Friends, there is nothing more for me to say except thank you. Thank you, Father Richard, for our shared love for liturgy. I’ve learned much during the three years I have assisted you in Mass and other liturgies. Thank you, Margaret (our sacristan), for your motherly care. My kids and I will surely miss the prawn crackers.

Thank you to the RCIA team—Ronald, Anie, Maureen, Sheeba & Jorge for the support. Thank you, Robert, for the companionship as a colleague and as a friend. I will miss our conversations amid office busyness. Thank you to the people who at times lend their ears and understanding whenever I needed them. I will not mention you by name but you know who you are.

Lastly, thank you, St Catherine of Siena Caroline Springs, for allowing me to serve you as your deacon!

Joyful Sign of the Kingdom

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings: Is 25:6-10; Ps 22; Phil 4:12-14, 19-20; Mt 22:1-14

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next, he sent some more servants. “Tell those who have been invited,” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He dispatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” So these servants went out onto the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

MANY Catholics think that the Church today is at its lowest. According to figures from the 2016 study of National Centre for Pastoral Research, the percentage of the overall Catholic population that attends Mass regularly is at 11.8 per cent. Many have different ideas as to the cause of this apparent decline. Some connect it to the child sex abuse scandal. Some to enduring clericalism and sexism within the Church. Still, some link it to the Church’s inability to adapt to the current culture while at the other end of the spectrum, the blame lies in too much accommodation to the culture.

We can debate the validity of these points. But let us stop for a moment and think. Maybe the reason is actually much nearer. Maybe it is us. If we are to ask someone who is not a Christian to describe us, what words do you think we would hear? Would we hear words like joyful? Good-humoured? Fun to be with? Supportive? Many Christians are probably marked by these things—and I can think of several parishioners even as I speak.

But let’s face it, joyful, good-humoured, fun-to-be-with are not the words that would come to the lips of outsiders to describe us and probably even from Christians themselves. In fact, if Jesus did not describe the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast, then joy, humour, and fun need not be marks of Christians. But Jesus did describe the Kingdom that way. Yes, the world is a place of sin and suffering. But it is also the gateway to the Kingdom of God—the kingdom that Jesus described as a banquet, a feast to which everyone, both good and bad is invited.

In interviews about the popular YouTube mini-series “The Chosen”, the people, especially the youth, were amazed or surprised at the depiction of Jesus as a “fun person” to be with. Most say it was far from their imagination to think that Jesus would crack jokes, smiles a lot, even dance in a wedding feast—having fun with his friends. They thought Jesus was all solemn if not grim. But think about it, who would hang out with a person like that, especially in this era when people decide which group to join not by the logic and truthfulness of their beliefs but by how welcome they feel or how comfortable it is to belong in a particular group or community? Why do we think people were drawn to Jesus? Maybe the depiction of Jesus in “The Chosen” is closer to the truth. Jesus is the visible face of God. If God is life itself; if God is the GOOD itself and the life that God offers—the kingdom—is that of a wedding banquet, where everybody and not just the couple, is happy; everybody having fun, shouldn’t we look more like revellers than anything else?

More of "The Chosen" Coming Soon
Jesus is having fun with his friends, wedding at Cana (The Chosen)

So, yes, we must be joyful people—be determinedly happy people because it is our ‘duty’ to be a sign of the Kingdom. If we do this, maybe other people would see this in us.

Why is it then we seem to be uncomfortable with being happy? Why is it being joyful seems too alien to us? Why we seem to prefer being grim, serious, and all fire and brimstone? Perhaps we are not revelling Christians because we either do not allow the Lord to show us not only what is in store for us, but what we already have. Perhaps we are not revelling Christians because despite the joyous gift God has given us and His generous invitation; an invitation that does not depend on how good or bad we are beforehand, we presume—no, we insist—on entering the banquet on our own terms, without any change at all—just like the person in the gospel who fail to dress appropriately.

This implies that just like the person in the gospel, we, too, cannot see the difference between being outside or inside the wedding hall as honoured guests. Worse, we may be deliberately demeaning the significance of God’s invitation to share eternal life with Him. If this is the case, how can we be joyous?

Scott Hahn quote: A joyless Catholic is the devil's best tool. A joyful...

So how can we be a sign of the joy of the Kingdom? Maybe the first step is to open our eyes to the wonders around us and realise that they are all gifts from a Father who is madly in love with us—and not just the negative things of the world. Next is probably not to try saving the world—or the Church from the forces of evil—by ourselves. This is arrogance and our way of putting ourselves at the centre, controlling everything and not trusting God. Yes, we do our bit—we try to be worthy guests in God’s banquet, but it is still God’s show. And in the end, God has the final word.

Lastly, let us enjoy our time with our fellow Christians and Jesus himself. When we conclude our celebration this morning, why not give each member of our family a big hug, a big kiss and spend some time to enjoy their company as Jesus surely enjoyed the company of his friends! We may as well get used to being joyful since Jesus is inviting us to spend eternity at a joyous banquet with him. So be happy! Be joyful people! And… spread the joy!

Our “Yes”: Appearances vs Living the Faith

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Ps 24; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

JESUS said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ ‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’

IN a conversation with the American bishop, Robert Barron, controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson said that many of his critics usually try to pin him down or discredit him, especially to people of faith, on his belief in God. This is because he refuses to make a categorical answer when asked. According to him, he dislikes the question.

Jordan Peterson and Bishop Barron - Word on Fire

Click on the image to watch the podcast

The reason for this is that he believes that he does not have the moral right to claim belief in God. For him, proclaiming belief in God is not a trivial thing; not merely a matter of stating that he agree semantically with a set of doctrines. For Peterson, to say “I believe”—something we always do in the Mass—is a grave matter. Because this means one has to live by that claim—to commit to living a certain way, to behave in a certain way that is grounded to what one professes, and for him, he finds that claim “I believe” so demanding, stringent and all-consuming.

Unfortunately, much of our lives, behaviour and value system, especially in this era of self-affirmation, run on externals; where the operative but unspoken rule is ‘keeping up appearances,’ as Jesus in our Gospel today reminds us. In the parable, the second son has neither depth of conviction nor any sense of commitment except to himself. So he has no problem either in saying yes to his father or in refusing to follow up on his word, all in the same breath and quite matter-of-factly. He has no problem and even satisfied with doing nothing so long as he appears to comply with his father’s wishes and the artificial appearances of the father-son relationship are safeguarded, even if only superficially.

On the other hand, you have the first son who bluntly rejects the father’s request, maybe because he is not interested in appearances or self-righteousness—like Jordan Peterson—but has a sense of personal responsibility and his depth of commitment to the relationship drives him to repentance and ultimately follows his father’s wishes.

What the Gospel is trying to tell us is that what matters is personal integrity and a deep sense of commitment to our relationship with God. A commitment that translates into actions. This is why Jesus is so critical and reproachful to the religious and political leaders of his time to whom this parable is addressed. In Jesus’ words, prostitutes and tax collectors will be first in the kingdom of God. Despite their presumed unacceptable lifestyle, they do not operate out of pretence or performance but out of honesty—they are aware of their sinful actions but maybe can’t address them due to personal and social circumstances, yet they are always mindful that they need the mercy of God to be better. This is a clear contrast to those who, ignoring mercy, charity, justice, and human dignity, Parable of Pharisee and tax collector teaches us healthy autonomyare content and feel justified with lip service, empty rituals and judgemental self-righteousness.

It is relatively easy to be a yes-person of faith, living one’s claim by external practices—keeping up appearances, satisfied with rituals, self-centred prayer and devotions, but never allowing the depth of faith-relationship to touch us deeply and personally. Like the second son, our claim remains empty words peppering over an empty soul, with neither heart nor action.

On the other hand, to say “I believe” is, indeed, a demanding task, as Peterson puts it. It is painfully challenging to push beyond our “no’s” in life. And knowing fully well our weaknesses and brokenness allows the Father’s call to sink and impregnate our hearts and become actions for good and transformation. When this happens, when we, sinners, as Ezekiel said in the first reading, “renounce sin to become law-abiding and honest” then we truly take priority in God’s eyes ahead of any external, self-righteous “yes”, because the claim of such “no” people is an honest self-appraisal and commitment to a relationship of love.

The challenge is ours, brothers and sisters. As we proclaim publicly “I believe”, are we people who say “yes” to God, but then leave that yes the moment I say “Go” at the end of Mass, satisfied that we have done our part? Is the rest of our week fired by God’s presence or are we so self-righteous as to live merely keeping up appearances? Let us heed the words of St Paul in the second reading: “In your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus.” The same Christ who proves his faith in the Father through obedient actions and not mere promise. For the true mark of a Christian is obedient action graciously and courteously given. ###

NB. I do not claim that my homilies are original. I usually use the many resources our Catholic faith offers to break open the Word of the Lord. Among these resources are the works of scripture scholars and the videos of Bishop Robert Barron. For this particular Sunday, I recommend the works of Fr Peter Verengo, SDB  and the following videos of Bishop Barron that I used in my reflection — Deacon Chris

“As We Forgive those who Trespass Against Us”

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings: Sir 27:30 – 28:7; Ps 102; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

Peter went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

‘And so the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; but he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet. “Give me time,” he said “and I will pay the whole sum.” And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt. Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him. “Pay what you owe me”, he said. His fellow servant fell at his feet and implored him, saying, “Give me time and I will pay you.” But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. His fellow servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. Then the master sent for him. “You wicked servant,” he said. “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’

Forgiveness - Oakhill Drive Public School - A Positive Education SchoolWHAT I like running the RCIA process is that learning something about the faith is not limited to those who are undertaking the spiritual journey of becoming Catholics. As companions to the inquirers and candidates, we too, learn from them. Several years ago, I discussed with a catechumen and his sponsors about the Lord’s Prayer and I was trying to explain to them the meaning and significance of the prayer in our lives as Catholics.

When we came to that line in the Lord’s Prayer that says “… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” one of the participants suddenly exclaimed following with the question: “So will I only be forgiven if I forgive? What if one does not ask for forgiveness or even refuse to acknowledge his or her wrongdoings against me? That would not be fair.”

A valid question. Most of us will probably struggle with this question. Indeed, it is hard to forgive. Because what is involved is not just a notion that something was broken or being betrayed; that something unfair has been committed.

It is not just a “head” thing. More importantly, it is hard to forgive because it involves emotion; feelings of anger and hurt. Oftentimes, it is hard for us to forgive because we are angry and hurt. But maybe our anger and our hurt are also manifestations of our love to that person “who trespass against us.” The more anger, the more hurt we feel may correspond to how we bond with that person. That is why it is harder to forgive those we consider close friends. Even harder with family members. Why? Because we naturally bond closer with our friends; because we love family more than any other person. Indeed, anger and hurt are part of our lives because relationships are part of our existence.

However, forgiveness does not mean we should forget about justice–that sense of fairness or giving “what is due to God and neighbour.” For we are all called “to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good (Catechism, 1807).” True, Jesus told the adulterous woman that she was forgiven in the gospel accounts (Jn 7:53-8:11). But he did not let the woman off the hook either. Instead, he said, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

We are all given the gift of forgiveness but we are also called to make restitution and to conversion. For forgiveness or pardon without repentance or restitution negates the notion of fairness and the very sense of justice. As heard last week, Jesus wants the Church to care about tolerance, unity, and mercy, but he wants to care even more about the truth.

To the question: “Will I only be forgiven if I forgive first?” My answer was that we were already given that gift when Jesus became a man like us, died on the cross and rose from the dead.Wednesday's Encouraging Word - Forgiveness

The thing is, we can only feel that grace if we truly repent for our sins and if we experience how it feels to forgive. Think about the feeling of being forgiven whether after going to the sacrament of reconciliation or after reconciling with somebody. How palpable it is; as if something heavy has been lifted off our shoulders. I know. I feel it every time I receive absolution and it always brings tears of gratitude towards our God and Father.

Yes, it is hard to forgive. And sometimes it takes time. But maybe the first step is to try freeing ourselves of the hurt; let the actions or the event that injured our feelings not hurt us anymore. Then when the hurt is gone, anger will also fade away until such a time that we can open our hearts once again and be ready to forgive when forgiveness is sought to restore harmony and relationships once again.

The lesson of the Good Thief - District of AsiaMay also suggest, that while we are in this process, let us reflect on the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Let us also be constantly reminded of our Lord’s response to Peter when asked: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” NO, Jesus said, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.”

“You! Who do You Say I am?”

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Is 22:15,19-23; Ps 138; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said, ‘the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Ten things you might not know about Mary - Mary MacKillop TodayFOR the last two weeks, the Church has been celebrating the memorials of several saints; from Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Lawrence, Maximilian Kolbe to Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Pius X. All of these saints have one thing in common and that is the single-mindedness of defending the faith.

ST. LAWRENCE - DEACON AND MARTYR: AUGUST 10 - Catholic Fun FactsAll these saints had the clarity of vision not only on what authentic faith is but also on what the Church is all about no matter what the world thought about them. In a way, the question Jesus asked his disciples in the gospel is very significant when applied to these holy men and women, “who do you say I am?” 

Other people’s perception of us is very important, yes. It can help us to remain grounded to reality. But it can also be very destructive, especially in our time of radical political correctness and cancel culture both from the left and right. If one is perceived or categorised, or boxed in a particular way, it could be hard to shake that off and it could determine how people receive what that person says or does.

A good example of this is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger is described by many theologians as one of the best minds after the Second Vatican Council. But I also think he is the most maligned and misunderstood.

Pope Benedict looking like Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars ...Some criticised him for abandoning his progressive stance during the council and going over to the other side. He was often caricatured as the panzer cardinal or God’s rottweiler. After he was elected pope, some even objected for having elected a Nazi pope, although nobody seems to able to articulate the basis of these criticisms or accusations! On the other hand, if one just read Pope Benedict’s writings, one will come to understand the basis of his theology and ecclesiology. One would recognise the key to interpret everything he says and does. And may I suggest that this can be traced to Jesus’ question today: “who do you say I am?” 

St Peter's confession: How the 'rock' of the church got God so wrongOur understanding and expression of authentic faith that the Church professes are ultimately linked to our understanding of who Jesus is. What we say about the Church flows from what is said by Peter about Christ. The Church is only what it is because of its perception of who Jesus is. Everything the Church has to say begins and ends with its God-given knowledge of Jesus, the inexhaustible treasure which it holds in trust for the world. And this is very important for us especially now. Our knowledge of Jesus must be spot on—who he is and what is he on about. We might know every verdict ever passed on Jesus; we might know every Christology that the human minds have ever thought out;  we might be able to give a competent summary of teaching about Jesus of every thinker and theologian – and still not be Christians.

Why? Because Christianity never consists in knowing about Jesus; it always consists in knowing Jesus. As Pope Emeritus Benedict always insisted, our faith is not based on ideas but an encounter with a person—the God made flesh. And our Lord demands a personal verdict. The question he asked the disciples was not just for Peter, he asks every one of us: “YOU! Who do You Say I am?” However, our response should never rely solely on our whim, for our convenience and interest—the wisdom of the world.

For if we do that, there is a real danger of misrepresenting Jesus, misrepresenting faith, and misrepresenting what the Church should be on about. And worse, we might even use Jesus, the faith, and the Church to mislead the world for our selfish interest or convenience. Instead, we should follow Peter. Peter’ confession of faith in today’s gospel was bolstered by grace, not just his own investigating or theorising. God the Father revealed something about his Son in Peter’s response. Therefore, Peter’s faith should be our faith.

Brothers and sisters, who is Christ to you? If our response lacks any element of Peter’s response, it is time to re-examine and deepen our faith. Let us ask the Holy Spirit this week to show us and lead us to authentic knowledge of Christ and the authentic understanding of faith.

NB: I am a subscriber of Bishop Robert Barron’s YouTube channel and Word on Fire. In my reflection of the Gospel, I came across his talk for the 2020 Napa Institute. I also recommend Deacon Bill Ditewig’s latest blog.

Seeking the Quiet

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:9.11-13; Ps 84; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-33

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

JESUS made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he would send the crowds away. After sending the crowds away he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, by now far out on the lake, was battling with a heavy sea, for there was a head-wind. In the fourth watch of the night, he went towards them, walking on the lake, and when the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost’ they said and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying, ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.’ It was Peter who answered. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ ‘Come’ said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord! Save me!’ he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. ‘Man of little faith,’ he said ‘why did you doubt?’ And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. The men in the boat bowed down before him and said, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’

 LAST Tuesday night, after the Mass, I was about to get into my car to go home when I noticed for the first time, there was nobody around. The street and the sports facilities across the church were empty. And the first hint of that was silence. So on this 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, let us reflect on the meaning and place of silence in our spiritual life, especially, during this time of difficulties brought by the Stage 4 restrictions.

I understand, with all the technologies around us, we are so used to the constant chatter. And we are increasingly becoming uncomfortable when suddenly everything is silent—some even having that sense of being oppressed and overwhelmed by the silence to the point we want to shout! And we bring this seeming aversion to silence in our religious or spiritual life.

When I was growing up in our little village in the Philippines, I was already hearing from my parish priest and among parish leaders about the call of Vatican II for the full, conscious, and active participation of the people in the liturgy. And that is good. But you know what? While they advocated this principle of Vatican II, they, at the same time, were comfortable and even cherished silence whenever they enter the house of the Church. For them, silence too is part of being fully engaged, it is part of their conscious and active participation in the Church. And they passed that to us young ones.

However, today, it seems silence is seen as an antithesis to the call for full, conscious, and active participation. It often comes to mean that the laity—you—had to be constantly stimulated into sound and action. The enemy came to be seen as silence because it is almost tantamount to boredom; if there is silence in the liturgy, many would think we have lost the people—like a “dead air” in broadcasting term. And we modern people do not want “dead air”. So we tend to overemphasise fellowship. Do not get me wrong, I am all for fellowship—the theology of Vatican II is a theology of communion, koinonia, of fellowship. But fellowship like silence has its proper place whether in the liturgy, in the space or environment, or the general life of the Church.

If we overemphasise fellowship, there is the danger to lose the sense of the sacred; then we tend to overlook the sacred places where we are supposed to meet, listen and be in communion with God. In our first reading, Elijah came to know that the Lord is not to be found in the earthquake, the fire, or any other pyrotechnics or “special effects” but on the quietest of noises—the Lord was there “in the sound of a gentle breeze.”

When we are faced with turmoil and difficulty—like this COVID-19 pandemic, social restrictions, and isolation, we too need to ignore the pyrotechnics of the situation and seek a moment of quiet. That is where we will find the Lord. It may take time and sacrifice, but the Lord will reveal himself. It is not by chance that in waiting rooms, libraries, and places of worship we are asked to mute or turn off our phones. Not everyone is meant to be a part of the conversation. When we receive a call in a meeting or noisy room, it is pointless to stay inside and try to hear what the caller is saying. We excuse yourselves and go to a quiet spot to continue the conversation. To have a real conversation with Our Lord we have to do the same thing. It requires solitude and silence, especially in the house of the Church.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples were sent by Our Lord into what soon became stormy waters. Peter took a risk and stepped out of the boat and into the storm because he believed Our Lord was there and would help him. But as the wind starts to howl—because of the disquiet around him, he faltered and began to sink. And yet, despite the howling wind, despite the noise, Jesus is there, saying: ‘Courage! Do not be afraid.’

So brothers and sisters, when we face challenges, maybe our first response is not to create more noise or shout back, but to keep quiet. When life seems overwhelming—when we face storms in our lives—that is the time to seek some silence and solitude to help us take shelter from the interior storms as well. Yes, Stage 4 is and will be difficult for all of us. But instead of focusing on the pyrotechnics of the situation, seek the quiet… listen… listen… Do you hear Him? He is saying to you now: ‘Courage! Do not be afraid.’