Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Translation of St Dominic - 24 May

The feast of St Dominic is kept on 8 August but in many parts of the Order today is also an important liturgical celebration in his honour. This memorial celebrates the first translation of the remains of St Dominic who had been buried in the church of St Nicholas of the Vineyards in Bologna. Many people were healed at his tomb and yet his brethren were reluctant to acknowledge these miracles. Finally, at the urging of Pope Gregory IX, Dominic's remains were removed to a marble sepulchre. This translation took place on Pentecost Tuesday, 24 May 1233, and marked the beginning of the canonization process. When that process was completed the same Gregory IX canonized Dominic on 3 July 1234. In 1267 Dominic's remains were moved again, to his present tomb in the same church that was eventually re-named San Domenico di Bologna.

You will find homilies for the feast of St Dominic here and here.

Easter Week 6 Wednesday

Readings: Acts 17:15, 22-18:1; Psalm 148; John 16:12-15

Acts 17 shows us Paul preaching the resurrection of Christ to the Jews at Thessalonica and Beroea (17:1-15) and to the Gentiles at Athens (17:16-34). His arguments with the Jews are, not surprisingly, from the scriptures (17:2-3, 11) and his arguments with the Gentiles are more philosophical (17:17-18, 22-31). It is often said that his reception at the hands of the philosophers of Athens helps to explain Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians about arguments drawn from philosophy, as if he had received a bloody nose from the philosophers of Athens, but this speech is neither more nor less successful than others he gave (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; see Acts 18:1 and Romans 1:18-32). 

The sermon preached on the Areopagus is a rich and significant text. It shows us Paul engaging with the ‘intelligentsia’ of his day, the philosophers of Athens, and trying to present the gospel message to them in a way that would link with their way of approaching knowledge and truth.

The background to the speech is his experience of seeing the city full of idols, a fact which ‘provoked his spirit within him’ (17:16). He argued with anyone who happened to be there, including the philosophers and the cosmopolitan residents of Athens generally. They ‘spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new’ while at the same time, Paul says, being ‘exceptionally religious’ (17:19-22). For them Paul is a ‘babbler’ (literally a ‘seed picker’ or, as we would say, a ‘nit picker’) and a ‘preacher of foreign divinities’. But they were interested in anything that was new or strange, so they gave him a hearing.

The themes of Paul’s speech are central to the theological vision of the later father of the Church known as ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’. He was a 5th century Syrian monk who published his writings under the name ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’, one of the people who was converted by Paul’s preaching at Athens. The later Dionysius had huge influence in Christian theology and spirituality right through the middle ages, and especially in the Latin West once his works had been translated.

So what are the themes of ‘Dionysian’ theology as Saint Paul presents it? One is the ‘unknown God’. ‘What you worship as unknown’, he says, ‘this I proclaim to you’ (Acts 17:23).  Thomas Aquinas, profoundly influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, will later say that in this present life we are united with God as with one unknown. But this unknown God – the God of negative theology – is the creator of all things who made the world and everything in it. It is this God, says Paul, who gives to human beings life, breath and everything. God made all nations from one (literally ‘from one man’), determining the historical periods allotted to these nations as well as the boundaries of their habitations.

God placed in all human beings a ‘natural desire’ for God (though Paul does not use that precise phrase) since the Creator is to be sought in the hope of being felt after and found. It is a good description of any human searching for God, a searching that is perfectly understandable since God ‘is not far from any of us because it is in God that we live and move and have our being’. We are in fact God’s offspring, Paul says, quoting the Greek poet Aratus, and, at the same time, the works of human art and imagination cannot represent God. On the one hand Paul dismisses all idols that might be thought to represent God and on the other reminds his hearers that the only real image of God within the creation is the human being.

The unknown God will always be foreign, new, and young, a transcendent ‘God of surprises’, who cannot and will not be pinned down by the art, imagination or intelligence of human beings. ‘God does not live in shrines made by man nor is he served by human hands’ (Acts 17:23-24). Those who preach this God – God who is living and true, the unknown yet sought after Creator – will be breakers of idols, whether these are idols made by human craftsmanship from gold or silver or stone, or intellectual, artistic or spiritual constructions made by human reasoning and with which we would attempt to have and to hold God (images, ideas, experiences that we might be tempted to regard as naming or identifying or containing God).

Paul continues saying that the time of ‘unknowing’ is overlooked by God who now calls all to repentance in Christ, the one whom God has appointed to be the judge of the world. His audience becomes uneasy at this turn in the discourse – repentance? judgement? a single individual with a divine mission? And then Paul’s preaching breaks down completely at the next step: God has given assurance of this mission of Christ by raising him from the dead.

Inevitably the preaching of the gospel ‘breaks down’ as it comes up against the things that make faith difficult. Such things are many and varied. Some of Paul’s hearers in Athens had heard enough at this point: it was too foreign to their ways of thinking which might have considered the immortality of the soul but certainly not the resurrection of the body. Some promised to hear Paul again about his beliefs – a kind of damning with faint praise – and a few came to believe, notably a woman called Damaris and Dionysius the Areopagite. 

Paul’s speech at Athens is a wonderful example of how to preach to an educated and cultured audience. On the one hand build connections with their ways of knowing and thinking, travel the intellectual road together as far as possible. On the other hand be ready for the point of breakdown, a point that is inevitable, because the gospel calls all to conversion, to metanoia, to a renewal in our ways of thinking. This conversion is not just moral or religious but will always be intellectual as well.

At a time when many feel the weight of intellectual arguments against Christian faith – questions coming from science and philosophy particularly – Paul’s speech remains of great value as a first encounter between ‘faith and reason’. But its value is to be found not just in the success of his philosophical engagement in the early part of his discourse but also in the failure of the later part where the scandal of incarnation and resurrection provokes and troubles established ways of thinking.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Easter Week 6 Tuesday

John Lonergan was governor of Mountjoy, Ireland’s largest prison, for almost a quarter of a century. His account of his life in the prison service, The Governor, is a very interesting read. It seems that many of the good initiatives he took to promote the rehabilitation of prisoners were later reversed. The reason given was the shortage of funding in economically difficult times but one cannot help feeling that another reason motivating it was the view (surprisingly expressed to Lonergan by young people visiting the prison) that the things he was doing were ‘too good’ for prisoners. It seems as if society wants its prison walls large and secure, and does not much care what goes on inside them as long as it is not ‘too good’ for prisoners.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that punishment has three purposes: to protect society from people who are dangerous, to re-establish a balance of justice that has been disturbed, and to re-habilitate criminals so that they can return to living in the community.

Today’s readings invite a reflection on prisons and on the administration of justice. Paul and Silas, like Peter before them, end up in prison and are miraculously freed. One of the works of the Messiah is to set captives free and to lead out from the darkness of the dungeon those who languish there (Isaiah 42:7; 61:1-2). One of the ways in which human beings serve the Messiah is by visiting those who are in prison (Matthew 25:39,44). Peter’s  miraculous liberation recounted in Acts 12, and that of Paul and Silas recounted in today’s first reading (Acts 16), are thus signs that the messianic age has arrived. Along with the other wonderful works the Messiah does is the freeing of prisoners, and here it is, happening before our eyes.

There is a poignancy earlier on when the imprisoned John the Baptist asks about Jesus and is told that he is doing all those things foretold of the Messiah – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them (Matthew 11:5). The striking omission from this list, which clearly echoes the texts of Isaiah referred to above, is the liberation of those in prison. It seems cruel, to say to the Baptist that the Messiah is carrying out everything foretold of him except the one thing in which John has the deepest personal interest. It gives added weight to Jesus’ concluding statement: ‘blessed is he who takes no offence at me’ (Matthew 11:6).

What might be going on here? The liberations of Peter, and of Paul and Silas, are presented as participations in the resurrection. Although not physically dead, the apostles are confined in places of darkness, removed from life, paralysed and held in chains. It seems that it is only after the Son of Man has himself been imprisoned, done to death, sent to the place of darkness, removed from life, paralysed, and has risen to glory from that place, that the full liberating power of the Messianic kingdom is unleashed on the world. Now the places of deepest darkness can also be visited and healed (he went to preach to the spirits in prison, we are told in 1 Peter 3:19).

In the freeing of Peter, and of Paul and Silas, we see dramatic  displays of power – foundations shaking, chains falling off, doors being thrown open. But it is a power that is only constructive, leading to reconciliation, freedom, and faith. Those who work with prisoners seek to establish the same things for them and in them. This is not to be naïve about crime or its consequences but simply to recognize that nobody falls outside the reach of God’s saving care.

The gospel reading today teaches us that the Advocate Jesus will send, the Spirit of Truth, is as much a counselor for the prosecution as he is for the defence. He will convict the world in regard to sin, righteousness and condemnation. He will establish justice, in other words. Only on such a basis – on the basis of truth – can human community flourish and progress. Faith and hope and love strengthen us in relation to Truth, convincing us of its supreme power, and re-assuring us that it illuminates even the darkest of prisons.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Easter Week 6 Monday

Readings: Acts 16:11-15; Psalm 149; John 15:26-16:4

The book that we call 'Acts of the Apostles' could just as truthfully be called 'Acts of the Spirit'. The journeys and miracles, the speeches and debates, the twists and turns that accompany the preaching mission of the apostles, clearly happen on a human level. But it is clear that they are also events to be interpreted on a divine level. If it is true, as it is, that the apostles become agents of evangelization in the days and months and years after the Resurrection of Jesus, it is equally true that the Holy Spirit is, first and last, the agent of evangelization.

So we read today that Lydia hears Paul speaking but it is the Lord who opens her heart. The apostles are, as Jesus said they would be, witnesses to the gospel in Jerusalem, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. But their preaching mission would have borne no fruit had it not been initiated and sustained by the Witness, the Holy Spirit, who is working in them, speaking with them, and acting powerfully through them.

We read in the First Letter of John about the three witnesses that confirm the preaching of the Gospel, the water, the blood and the Spirit, in other words baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of faith and charity, but always also the Spirit. In today's gospel Jesus says that the apostles will testify but that the Spirit of Truth too will testify. It is a joint enterprise, a work undertaken together: 'it seems good to ourselves and to the Holy Spirit' (Acts 15:28), Stephen is a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5), Simon wants to buy it when he sees the Spirit working through the Apostles (Acts 8:18).

With our ears we hear the teaching of the Lord's witnesses but it is only the Spirit working in our hearts who enables us to taste and embrace the truth of that teaching. With our eyes we see the good works of Christ's followers and the joy of their life together, but it is only the Spirit working in our hearts who enables us to understand and experience the divine origin of the love they share.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Easter Week 6 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

The prophet Isaiah says that the Messiah will be anointed with the Spirit and will have the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, the knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11.2). For Christians Jesus is this promised messiah and those who belong to him through faith and baptism are members of the messianic people. They share in these same gifts of the Spirit.

In writing to the Galatians Saint Paul speaks about ‘fruits’ rather than ‘gifts’ of the Spirit but the idea is the same: that those who live ‘according to the Spirit’ will lead lives characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23).

If we want to see the Holy Spirit at work, then, we must look out for individuals and communities whose lives are characterised by these gifts and fruits. In today’s first reading, for example, the preaching of Philip unites the people of a Samaritan town just as the miracles worked through him fill them with joy (Acts 8.5-8). A community which is not united and which lacks joy is clearly not a place of the Spirit. Of course there are struggles to be fought and unity is sometimes not easily won. Likewise some forms of supposedly religious joy can be off-putting rather than helpful. But a community which, long term, cannot find unity or whose life is without joy does not show much sign of being a place of the Holy Spirit.

In the gospel reading Jesus speaks of the Spirit as the ‘spirit of truth’ who will be with the disciples and will be in them (John 14.17). He will enable them to live according to the way of Jesus, to understand what he has taught them and to love him in the way he asks. We can say then that fear of truth, or a culture of lies, or indifference to Jesus Christ, or the refusal to love, are all incompatible with the Spirit at work.

The Holy Spirit reveals his presence in these gifts and fruits. But we are taught something else about the presence of the Spirit in today’s first reading. Following the preaching of Philip, the apostles travel from Jerusalem to Samaria to pray for the newly baptised Christians. They pray for them to receive the Spirit and when the apostles lay their hands on them they do receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8.14-17).

Sometimes people contrast ‘institutional’ religion with ‘spiritual’ religion as if these two are necessarily opposed. But this text from the Acts of the Apostles teaches that this is not so and that the work of the Church in the world is the work of the Spirit. At Confirmation when we receive the gift of the Spirit it is through contact with the bishop, successor of the apostles, who prays for us to receive the Spirit and lays his hands on us to that same end.

So the Spirit is at work not only in the virtuous and spiritual lives of Christians but in the preaching and sacraments of the Church. The sacrament of Confirmation gives each adult Christian a mission on behalf of the Church, to live as a witness or ‘soldier’ of Christ, bearing witness to his goodness and love in the midst of the temptations and difficulties of life in the world. Through the Church’s ministry the Spirit is at work in every faithful Christian encouraging justice, integrity, right living, kindness: all that goes with a life founded on truth and goodness. Of course we cannot restrict the work of the Spirit to the confines of the visible Church. But we can be sure of His presence there.

It can happen that we are presented with very clear evidence of the Spirit’s work, for example in the lives of holy people, in the heroism of prophets and martyrs, in the faithfulness of the elderly, in the courage and enthusiasm of the young – all kinds of ways in which the gifts and fruits of the Spirit work for the building up of the community and for the healing of the world.

But it must also be that much of the work of the Spirit remains hidden and unsung. The prayer and suffering of countless people down the ages is a spiritual reservoir at the heart of our world. One of the joys of the eternal kingdom will be learning how the Spirit has been at work in creation and its history.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Easter Week 5 Saturday

Readings: Acts 16:1-10; Psalm 100; John 15:18-21

The Spirit works always through human experiences: political, quasi-mystical, social, personal. We see it happening through all of these things in today's readings.

Paul's 'political' decision to have Timothy circumcised is puzzling. At the same time as he is communicating to the churches the decision of the meeting in Jerusalem that non-Jews becoming Christians would not be obliged to be circumcised, he arranges for Timothy to be circumcised. Although he is the son of a Greek father, Timothy is Jewish, taking his ethnic identity from his mother. With an eye to the Jewish party, Paul has him circumcised.

In other contexts, as well as in many of his letters (especially Galatians and 2 Corinthians), Paul speaks vehemently against the judaizers. He criticises Peter for giving in to them whereas here he ensures that the requirements of the law are fulfilled in the case of a Jewish man who has become a Christian.

Perhaps it is unfair to call his decision 'political' but how else are we to understand it? Coming from one who elsewhere describes circumcision as nothing, that it implies the observance of the whole law, and that it has now been replaced by a circumcision of the heart - well it can only be the overall good of his mission that moves him to do this, a decision that can only be called 'political'.

The unfolding of the mission is guided by the Holy Spirit, referred to here also as 'the Spirit of Jesus'. They were prevented or forbidden by the Holy Spirit from preaching in Asia which is why they went through Phrygia and Galatia. They journeyed towards Bithynia but turned away because 'the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them'. What is going on? At the end of Acts 15 we hear that Paul and Barnabas disagree about whether or not John Mark should travel with them this time (he had abandoned them during the first missionary journey). Paul and Barnabas have a serious falling out with each other and go their separate ways. We know from Paul's letters that there were other individuals and groups of 'apostles' preaching in the same places as he was preaching, sometimes trying to undermine what Paul was doing.

There is clearly another 'political' aspect to what is going on. We might be tempted to reduce the unfolding of Paul's mission to this horizontal, political level. Clashes of personality, disagreements about strategy, different emphases in the doctrine being taught: all of this is emerging, and emerging so quickly. But through it all the author of Acts - in this clearly following Paul himself - sees the Holy Spirit at work, the Spirit of Jesus, the primary evangelizer who is the real manager of the mission.

In a quasi-mystical experience a man from Macedonia appears to Paul in a dream and like the Irishman who asked St Patrick to come and walk once more among them, this Macedonian asks Paul to come and preach the gospel to them. This is the key to what is happening through the political, social, and personal disagreements. The apostles and the other preachers of the Gospel are merely instruments of the mission of Jesus. Their thoughts and struggles, desires and decisions, even their arguments and separations, are the physical realities through which God works out His purpose. So Paul moves across into Europe to preach the gospel there.

Even the negative reactions of the 'world', in hatred and persecution, are woven into the tapestry of the Church's mission. So they treat me, Jesus says in today's gospel, do not be surprised if you receive similar treatment. It can only happen in the world since the mission is for the world and the preachers live in the world. But the mission is not simply identified with worldly things - political, quasi-mystical, social, personal. Through all of those things something that is not of the world is being brought to bear on it. Something that does not belong to this world is given to the world and made present within it. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. In many different ways and in countless varied circumstances God continues to call preachers and apostles to strengthen those who believe and to preach the Good News to those who do not yet believe.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Easter Week 5 Thursday

Readings: Acts15:7-21; Psalm 96; John 15:9-11

Jesus Christ wanted his apostles to become responsible leaders of the community of believers. He did not, however, leave them a blueprint for every possible situation and circumstance. As free, responsible, thinking and choosing men and women the first Christian leaders had to decide how to go about their work for Christ, how to organize the community, how to express the teaching of Jesus in different languages and thought-forms, and how to respond to opposition, persecution and distorted presentations of the gospel of Jesus.

The early Church believed that the Holy Spirit was with them and they believed that Peter had been given a special role in the leadership of the community. So from the earliest times they met frequently in 'councils' or gatherings of Christian leaders. Meeting together, discussing, reporting, sharing experiences, deciding together what ought to be done or said: this is how human beings have always carried on their business.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts many such meetings of Christian leaders: when they decided to appoint 'deacons'; when they wondered whether to trust Paul after his conversion; when the leaders at Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey; when Paul met with the leaders of the Christian communities at Ephesus.

A controversy arose in the early Church about how much Jewish law the new converts from Judaism should be required to observe. As a result, a meeting was called in Jerusalem to sort out the problem. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul all spoke. So did James, the leader of the original community at Jerusalem. As a result of this 'council' of 'the apostles and the elders, with the whole church', the unity of the Christian community was preserved, its understanding of the gospel was broadened, its policy was clarified, and its mission was extended. The story of the so-called ‘council of Jerusalem’ is told in Acts 15.

Since that time, many Councils have been held by the church. Basically, these are councils of bishops, even though other church leaders and members are involved also. There have been local councils to deal with local problems. There have been general, universal or, as they are called, ecumenical councils to deal with questions affecting the whole church.

Many of these ecumenical councils have been concerned with aspects of Christian doctrine. The Council of Chalcedon (451) succeeded in expressing the doctrine of Christ as ‘truly God and truly man’ in a way that did justice to the church's faith. Other councils were more concerned with the day-to-day running of the church, while the Council of Trent (1545-1553) responded to the Protestant reformation by introducing an extensive reform.

More recently there have been developments in the type of councils occurring in the church. Vatican II (1962-1965) was basically a 'pastoral' council concerned with bringing up-to-date the church's ways of living and preaching the gospel. It involved a huge number of bishops as well as theologians, lay people and non-Catholic observers.

A Synod of Bishops takes place every few years. It is a representative group of the bishops and others and it concerns itself with pressing issues in the church's life: for example, justice in the world (1971), the family (1980), the laity (1987) or religious life (1994), more recently the Eucharist (2005), the Word of God (2008) and the new evangelization (2012).

National conferences of bishops, priests and laity have taken place in many countries and some of these have produced important documents and made important decisions. In the current reflection on the government of the Church sparked by Benedict's resignation and Francis' election many people believe that the best way forward is a strengthening of local government in the Church, giving more autonomy and responsibility to local colleges and synods of bishops. The experience of the Irish Church, for example, shows that synods of bishops were important in re-establishing Church life in the country after the centuries of persecution.

So councils continue in the church in various forms, and the central role of the Pope in them is clear. An ecumenical council, or a synod of bishops, only takes place when convoked by the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter. Local synods become authoritative for the Church when their decisions have been accepted and approved by the Pope. A time of ‘council’ is still regarded as a time for urgent prayer to the Holy Spirit who guides the church on its way. Even though the Spirit sometimes works through individual, prophetic, figures, the Church believes that the Spirit works also, and normally, through the dialogue, discussion, reflection and decisions of groups of Christian leaders gathered in council.