THE SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE

(Homily delivered at a Wedding Mass celebrated on December 2, 2013 in Boracay Church)

My dear friends,

Advice concerning the nitty-gritty of married life is of course something that you should get from the experts–namely your parents and married friends who love you. What I can share is my reflection on the sacrament of marriage and its role in the fulfillment of our lives.

I believe that there is one very fundamental task that each of us have in life, and that is: to grow to the fullness of life, to develop as fully as we can all the potentials that lie within each of us. Recall the joy and sense of fulfillment the first time one learned to drive; or when one succeeds in a business venture; or when one performs a difficult feat. One finds great joy in these achievements because in a real sense one has created them through one’s own work and in doing so, has created something of one’s self.

At the same time, I also believe that we cannot grow to the fullness of life or fully develop our potentials unless we are first loved. Someone has first to love me before  I can become aware of the value that is “me”;  and in the spontaneous impulse to respond to that love, one finds the motivation and the courage to tap into one’s talents and potentials,  to go out of one’s self and create. A baby finds the courage to take his first faltering steps in response to a mother’s loving beckoning arms.

It is being in loved that we find our self-worth, and gain the confidence to love in return;  and in going out of ourselves to reach out to another in love,  we grow and develop. To be known by another, to be accepted by another, to be appreciated by another–in short, to be loved by another is that which gives us a truly human life, beyond the merely biological life we share with brute animals. Practically the first act that we make when we leave the womb of our mothers is an instinctive cry for attention, a wailing that announces: “I am here, someone please cuddle me!” .

There was a popular book by the psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott-Peck entitled, “People of the Lie”, where he tries to find the reasons why there are in our society such individuals who are simply amoral. They are full of anger and hate, they destroy and wreak havoc, and through it all they feel no sense of guilt or compunction. His conclusion is that these people have never really experienced the care and love of anyone,  and therefore they don’t feel they owe anything to anyone. Often these people have no families to speak of, or have had to survive on their own,  and have been victims of all sorts of abuses. We are not often aware of it, but the love that surrounds us from our parents and families and friends as we are growing up, cumulatively build up our sense of self-worth and gives us the confidence and strength to grow. And our successful achievements of course bring forth the fruits of success: wealth, honor, and power.

But here is where the confusion sets in. What we desire deeply is to be loved and to have the courage to love in return. But one can forget that  the love that another  person gives to us is an act of free choice. One cannot force another person to love. But so strong is that need to be loved that unless one is careful, one can begin to use wealth, or honor, or power, to force and extract that acceptance and love from others. And of course, it does not work. As the saying goes, “you cannot buy love.”

And one cannot buy love because at some point one realizes that the need is not just for some kind of passing love (“here today and gone tomorrow”);  not just the superficial love of fans no matter how big a multitude;   not just the partial love for some aspect of me—for my looks, or my talents, or my possessions;  but the total, abiding love that accepts the totality of who I am, with my successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, good points and bad points. And more importantly, it is a love that  accepts the totality of me not only as I am now, or have been the in the past, but also the totality of me as I will be in the future.

Now that is a very tall order. The past perhaps one can manage, because one  knows what is past, and that is over and done with and cannot be changed. But the future? That is a great unknown, for who knows what will happen in the future? But that is precisely what is needed. Unless I can be assured that I am lovable, not because someone says so, but because someone actually loves me; and unless I can be assured that whatever I may become I am still lovable, because someone continues  to  love me, there will always be a part of me that is empty, there will always be a longing, an unhappiness that never totally disappears.

The message of the Gospel,  of course,  is God’s unconditional love, so powerfully shown in God’s own Son giving His life for love of me. The gospels are called the “good news”  because they proclaim that whatever we are or have been or will be, God loves us and forgives us.

But no one has ever seen God; and Jesus’ love becomes a reality only in faith, and to arouse the life of faith, there must be reminders, assurances, little hints here and there, that help us believe that God is our Father and that he loves us. And that is what a sacrament is: it is a visible sign of the invisible reality of God’s love. Religious try to find this continuing reminder of God’s love  through the “style” of life they live. They  take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and they bond together in a religious congregation  to help remind each other of God’s love. But by no means is one assured of success, for we all live in faith. Nor is the religious life the only way to find a reminder of God’s love for us. The more common way for the generality of mankind is through marriage and the family.

And that is the sacrament of marriage. The essence of the sacrament is given in the first reading and gospel of the Mass: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother,  and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  And this is made even more specific in the marriage vows: “Grant us, O Lord, to be of one heart and one soul, from this day forward, for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer;  in sickness and in health;  until death do us part.”

Love is a free choice. Through this marriage ceremony, you, . . .  freely choose to commit yourselves to one another: Whatever happens in the future, you are now making a deliberate decision, that you [the groom] will be for [your bride] the sign, the reminder, that she is lovable because you love her, and that no matter what she does, you will continue to love her. Similarly, you, [the bride] are now making a deliberate decision, that you will be for [your groom] the sign, the reminder, that he is lovable because you love him, and that no matter what he does, you will continue to love him.

The price for living up to that commitment, of course, will often be the sacrifice of one’s self. And that is the meaning of the cross on which hangs the Son of God. In this world where none of us are perfect, when we all fail every now and then, when we can be worse than what we would desire to be, Someone loves us–always. But at the same time, in this world, we cannot see that unconditional love of God, because we do not see God. That love we can only see  “through a glass darkly,”  through the love that others have for us. And so you, then, . . . , will be for each other the sign, the reminder of that abiding love,  through the faithful and forgiving love you give each other. And we, who love you and wish the best for you, will always be there to help in every way we can.

God bless you both.

THE SAVING GOD IN OUR MIDST

(Some months after the common Golden Jubilee celebration in Manila, Sr. Guia Jambalos shared her Golden Jubilee with her community, friends, and associates in Davao City, where she has been working these past many years. This is the homily for the Jubilee Mass celebrated on November 24, 2013, at the Rivier Retreat House,  Catalunan Grande, Davao City.)

In preparing for this homily, I asked Sr. Guia what was uppermost in her mind as she celebrates her Golden Jubilee as a sister of the Cenacle. There were two things she mentioned, for both of which she was very grateful:

First, (this was just after typhoon Yolanda struck) she felt strong oneness with the victims of the typhoon and deep compassion for them; and second, she felt grateful,  privileged, and humbled by the realization that so many have welcomed her into the privacy of their lives and have allowed her, in her words. “to journey with them”.

As I reflected on her response, I began to realize how great these blessings were that she mentioned, and for which she had every reason to be grateful.  I would like to share this realization with you, so that with her we may appreciate the meaning of this Jubilee Celebration.

We must begin with the work and charism of the Society of Our Lady of the Cenacle, because Sr. Guia credits the formation she has received from the Cenacle for making her the person that she has become.

The Cenacle started in 1826, in La Louvesc, France, near the tomb of a holy Jesuit, St. John Francis Regis. For a time the Cenacle was under the direction of the Jesuits. The co-foundress, Marie-Victoire-Therese Couderc, who was 20 years old at that time, desired to increase, and to attract the pilgrims to St. Francis Regis’ tomb to make the spiritural retreat of St. Ignatius. Before long, Cenacle Retreat Houses multiplied. The first house in the US was founded in 1892 in New York, and the first house in the Philippines was founded in 1968 of which I was priveleged to play a small part, and where I met Sr. Guia for the first time.  From its earliest beginnings, then, the Cenacle was focused on the work of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

All of us here have some familiarity with the Spiritual Exercises, and most if not all, have made it in one form or another. It is a very focused and precise undertaking. The retreatant separates himself from the normal routine of his life—physically if possible, but certainly psychologically. All the senses (what one sees, hears, tastes, and so on),  all imagination and its accompanying emotions, all thinking and deciding are directed to one single objective: namely, that the person may strip himself of all that is not the core of himself, and thus stand before God as he truly is. And if one cuts through into the bare reality of who he really is, he realizes how puny, insignificant, and empty one really is. And yet, as one stands  thus naked before God, what he discovers is not rejection but , God’s constant,  overwhelming, and forgiving love so forcefully shown in the person of His Son, Jesus.

To bring a person to that realization that what he is in himself, in his innermost self –and not his riches, talents or achievements–is unconditinally loved by God; and  that not even his mistakes, failures and sins can destroy that love, is the goal of the Spiritual Exercises: and from that realization is born a life-direction of returning God’s love in the service of others in imitation and union with Christ.

To help a person come to this realization is what Sr. Guia means by “journeying with a person”, and one can see what a momentous achievement that is, and what a great gift it is to be an instrument in achieving it.

For we not only jealously guard that innermost part of ourselves, but also, we ourselves are sometimes even afraid to enter it. We are understandably “busy with our lives”:  we earn a living, care for our children and families, plan for the future, learn skills, develop contacts, build up resources to carry out our plans, rejoice in our successes, and regret our failures.  But what is of lasting value  in all this hustle and bustle,  in all this “getting and spending” as the poet says?  For certainly, after our all-too-short allotment of years on this earth, we will leave behind all these things, and even sooner than that, our children will leave us behind to lead their own lives! Where is the lasting value?

The lasting value is in the inner self—that core of ourselves that is shaped and formed by the decisions and actions that make up our daily lives. That self was not there when we were born, but that self is not something we will leave behind with everything else, rather  it is that one thing which we will certainly take with us—because that is who we have become. That is of our own creation, and that is our lasting achievement. We are often forgetful of that inner self and even at times avoid it.  And yet,  that inner self is who we truly are, and that is the self that is totally loved by God.

On the one hand, then,  how foolish, and how deceptive the thinking that holds us back from seeing and accepting who we truly are. In traditional theology, that would be a tell tale sign of the reality of sin.  On the other hand, however, how special is the gift for a person who becomes an instrument by which another is able to enter into himself and discover God’s love for him!

The traditional term for this personal encounter of the self with the reality of God  is “salvation,” but the experience itself is a deep sense of wholeness and peace, of hope and abiding joy, of an enthusiasm for life and a reaching out to others in love. It is, in short,  in the words of St. Paul, the experience of a “new creation!”

No wonder Sr. Guia feels so privileged and blessed because she has been able to journey with so many of us. And no wonder, also, that after a lifetime of dealing with the inner lives of people, and seeing the commonality of our humanity when stripped of all its trappings, her own sensitivities spontaneously reach out to the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Because her lifetime work has formed who she is today.

To be so accepted by another as to be allowed to enter into his inner self; to be a guide that can discern  between truth and the appearance of truth; to be a support that offers encouragement and hope to a soul in search of itself—all this is not possible without the personal experience of the realities one is talking about. The guide herself must have made and, in fact, must continue to make her own journey to enter into herself  and thus keep discovering God’s saving love. And if at one time she was blind and now can see and guide another, if at one time she was weak but is now a support for another, and if she can be so faithful that now she is trusted by another—all that, in turn,  is the work not of one’s self, but of God’s grace.  Like the figures in the gospels, God continues to touch her eyes that she may see, to heal her limbs that she may be strong, to be so loved and forgiven that she cannot but be faithful. And that continuing work of God’s grace is what, in the end, we proclaim in this Jubilee Celebratons—God’s saving work alive in our midst.

And so to Sr. Guia, after fifty years of being a Cenacle sister,  we can all say:  We, in turn, are very privileged and grateful that you have journeyed with us and have shared God’s saving grace with us.

THE SPIRIT WITHIN US

(Homily for Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013, Asian Institute of Management Chapel)

Reading 2. 1 Cor 12:3B-7, 12-13

Brothers and sisters: No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. As a body is one though it has many parts,and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

Gospel: Jn 20:19-23

On the evening of that first day of the week,when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Today is Pentecost Sunday—literally the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of our Lord. On this feast we commemorate the imparting of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and their commissioning to spread the good news to all men. Therefore, the feast is also traditionally seen as commemorating the birth of the Church. At the center of this feast is the Holy Spirit.

There are three topics that I feel we can profitably reflect upon on this feast of Pentecost:

1. The Reality of Spirit

2. The Spirit within us and personal transformation

3. The Spirit in the Church and the transformation of the world.

The Holy Spirit is God, and the only way we can gain some kind of an inkling of what the Holy Spirit is like is through our experience of the reality of spirit. Now when we talk of “spirit”, as for example, we talk of our souls as “spirits”—one is liable to imagine some kind of a nebulous cloud, as in the TV series of the Ghostbusters. And if one is told that spirit is nothing material at all, then because one cannot see, or touch, or taste, or hear it, then it is not real. But because it is mentioned often in the bible,  one may just take it on faith that there is such a reality as “spirit”although one has no notion whatever of what it might be.

But spirit is real. In the material world, there are things we cannot see or touch or feel,  and yet are real. Scientists use sophisticated instruments to expand the reach of our senses—like the electron microscope, or the Hubble space telescope, or the huge particle accelerators of CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research. And what they see are data,  like streaks on a photographic paper,  from which they conclude to some underlying reality like the so-called God particle or  a black hole.  Similarly, we need the appropriate instrument to discover the data of spirit—and that instrument is self-awareness. Indeed, the term “instrument” in this case is a misnomer because the very act of self-awareness itself is already the experience of spirit.

What is self-awareness? It is not looking into one’s self, because the one who is looking is the one who is self-aware. If, for example, one is worried about something as he is listening to me speak, even while he listens to me, at that very same time he is self-aware that he is worried. And these are some of the tell-tale signs of spirit: having hope or burdened by despair, being at peace or disturbed, being happy or sad, and so on (see Gal.5:22-23). Like streaks on a photographic paper experiences of such states of soul reveal the reality of spirit, But what is needed for us to experience such states is to be self-aware, or reflective, or introspective in the sense of becoming aware of what is going on in our psyche.

Now to enter into the realm of the spirit—to be self-aware in a sustained continuing way—can be uninviting. Indeed, mental illnesses have been traced to the unhealthy refusal to become self-aware of unwanted portions of consciousness. And the reason one may wish to avoid being self-aware is because spirit is not bound by time—one can remember the bullying one received in the grade school as clearly as one can bring up one’s dreams for the future. Nor is it bound by place, for example, one may still remember the squalor of the neighborhood one may have grown up in. Nor is there any hiding from it or fooling it. When I lie, even if the whole world believes what I say, I am still self-aware that I am not telling the truth. And like the “cloud” of the computing world, one’s spirit saves all experiences;  but unlike the cloud, one cannot delete what has been saved.

And so, my consciousness, even more than my body, defines who I am. Once I appear to lose self-consciousness in a body that is still functioning,  doctors will describe me as a vegetable—I seem to be no longer there. And so, in my self-consciousness I carry myself: I can recall my successes, as well as my failures; there are happy moments, but also very sad ones; there are wonderful experiences, but also frightening ones, there are friends, but also foes; faithfulness but also infidelities, honesty and integrity, as well as dishonesty and deception—both of others and of myself, and so on.

And as I become aware of all these experiences, my intelligent self-consciousness kicks in and asks all sorts of unsettling questions and arrive at some hard realizations. I have been betrayed or rejected or forgotten . Am I really worth anything? The whole thing will end in death: what’s the value of all these strivings? Am I indeed lovable, or is it just me puffing up my chest in self-delusion? Such are the states of the human spirit. And when we talk of being saved by Jesus Christ, it is not some floating polluted cloud that somehow gets cleaned up: it is my spirit that is saved, and I become aware of it in my self-consciousness. “My peace I give to you: not as the world gives do I give it to you.” And how does my spirit find such peace? It  finds such peace in the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul says,  “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15);

Love, St. Paul says again, has been poured out into our hearts through the HolySpirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5).  In the Holy Spirit whom we have received, and who reminds us of all that Jesus has taught, we are assured that the Father loves us—and even while we were yet sinners, He gave his own son for our sakes. Because God is the creator of all, when we can call him Father, after we have done what we can, we can leave all our concerns and worries in His hands—He will take care as He takes care of the birds of the air and the lillies  of the fields. Because we are one with Christ, just as He raised Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up our mortal bodies. When accept God’s love and forgiveness for us, we are able to accept ourselves as we truly are, greater and greater transparency becomes possible and there are less and less skeletons in the closets of our souls which more and more  opens up in self-awareness. And being at home in the self-consciousness of ourselves,  we find  peace—which is  the Holy Spirit within us.

Finally, such love of God for us that is poured into our hearts, such trust in a Father who always looks to our welfare is a very expansive force. It not only liberates us from out fears and pettiness, but also impels us to share that peace and joy with others.

Now all love and goodness come from the Father, and all love and goodness operative  in human history comes from the Son of God made man. And there is only one source of peace and joy—and that is the Holy Spirit that affirms us as we share God’s  goodness and love with others.

There is much evil in the world, true, but also there is much good. There are a lot of angry quarrelsome people, but also many persons of peace—if not all the time, at least at some times. Now this multitude of the followers of Jesus is the Church as the union of hearts and minds with Christ. It is a leaven that is operative in the world, even as the world groans. It would be a mistake to simply equate this union with Christ with the organizational Church, for as St. Paul says in the second reading:

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;

there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.

And we should recall the words of Jesus Himself to the Samaritan woman:

“Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ..the  time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)

Reality is far more than what we can see in CNN or read in the papers or in the internet. The feast of Pentecost reminds us that there is the world of the spirit—indeed the human world is basically a world of the human spirit operative in the world. Our world—particularly our little corner of the world in the Philippines—is not hopeless despite what others may say about our last elections. There’s  a lot of work to be done, and it cannot be done overnight. There are many things to learn, and the Filipino seems to be taking his time learning them. But things are not hopeless, because operative in all the unfolding of human history is the silent but pervasive work of the Holy Spirit in each of us, restoring all things to Christ.  As the Spirit transforms the individual, so also the individual in turn, in union with Jesus and following the mission of Jesus, transforms the world around him.

And so, despite setbacks and difficulties, we can resonate with the vision of the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89):

“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things/…Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast,  and with ah! bright wings.”

THE CHANGING AND THE UNCHANGING IN THE CHURCH

(Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2013, Asian Institute of Management Chapel)

Reading: Acts 15:1-2. 22-29

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.

The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers.This is the letter delivered by them:

“The apostles and the elders, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings.Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth: ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols,from blood, from meats of strangled animals,and from unlawful marriage.If you keep free of these,you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’

The Gospel: Jn 14:23-29

Jesus said to his disciples:“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.

“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.Not as the world gives do I give it to you.Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me,you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.And now I have told you this before it happens,so that when it happens you may believe.”

The readings for this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C, afford us the opportunity to gain some understanding about the Church, the emergence of  its doctrines, and the life of faith that underlies both.

First about the Church. Let us recall how Paul, in being rejected by the Jews, went off to preach the gospel to the non-Jews in his first missionary journey and was met with great success: gentiles were now believing in Jesus. A party of Jewish Christians, mostly former pharisees, insisted that to become a Christian, one must be circumcized. The issue was not a trivial one, because the practice of circumcision could be traced to the very origins of the Jewish nation itself when God made a covenant Abraham.  God had promised Abraham that Abraham would be the father of a host of nations, He would give Canaan (roughly today’s Palestine) to be their possession forever, He would be their God, and they would be His people forever. And these are God’s own words in Genesis  (17:10ff):

“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you that you must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. Circumcize the the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me, Thoughout all the ages, every male among you, when he is eight years old, shall be circumcized ,,,If a male is uncircumcized, that is, if the flesh of his foreskin has not been cut away, such a one shall be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant.”

The issue was pivotal. The way it was resolved is quite instructive: “it was arranged that Paul and Barnabas and others of the Church should go up to Jerusalem and discuss the problem with the apostles and the elders.” And the decision of this so-called first ecumenical council, the council of Jerusalem was this:

“It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond thses essentials: you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from fornication. Avoid thes and you wil do what is right. Farewell.”

And so we witness here something very interesting.

Firstly, the decision of the council is a clear break from the practice of Judaism and from the words ascribe to God Himself in the book of Genesis!

Secondly, because it is a decision of the very first ecumenical council, one may conclude that this ruling,  in overriding the past, sets a new  law for the future. But aside from the prescription from fornication, the prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols and from the blood of strangled animals hardly make any sense today! And so, we note the adaptability of the Church in resolving issues in faith and morals according to the changing historical circumstances.

Thirdly, the manner in which the decision was reached is itself very revealing: the decision makers were “the apostles and elders, your brothers”: it was a collegial decision, not the decision of Peter alone or of James alone, but of the “apostles and elders”. It is this sense of collegiality that I believe Pope Francis today seeks to re-establish in riding the bus with the cardinals rather than using the Papal limousine, or in mingling with them as one of them, rather than sitting on  a throne, or in not dressing up in a way that sets him apart from the others.

That is a glimpse of the Church in its earliest formative stage.

The Gospel now gives us a glimpse of the Church in the earliest formation of its doctrines,

The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, that God is three persons in one God, is quite cental to the Christian faith. And many have asked, where did that come from? What’s the big deal about it?

If you read the Profession of Faith printed in the missalette in your hands and compare it with the version that we used to recite from memory before the reintroduction of the pre-Vatican II formulas of the Mass, you can clearly see where the doctrine on the trinity comes from. The version we used to recite was the Apostle’s Creed—much simpler and shorter: I believe in God, the father almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son…I believe in the Holy Spirit. The version we now recite states the same truth, but with all the qualifications that were born of the centruries’ long controversies about the nature of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Was the man, Jesus, God? Was the Holy Spirit God?

Now remember, the Jews were fiercely monotheists—only one God! And if you think that is a blah statement, see how the Moslems—of middle eastern heritage like the Jews– declare that there is only one Allah and you better not insult Allah, or his word in the Koran, or his messenger Mohammed! And so, when the followers of Christ declared that Jesus was God, and the Holy Spirit was God, it was a really big deal—and the controversies were marred with violence! The final judgment of the Church were made in the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea and Constantinople in the 4th and 5th Centuries—and that is what we have in the missalette today, the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Profession of Faith. Behind each word, like a lawyers’ document, are technical qualifications born of controversies: Jesus Christ is not only the Father’s only Son, he is eternally begotten, God from God, light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father. He is God!! OK? and the same with the Holy Spirit—he was not “begotten”, he “proceeds” from the Father and the Son.” But with the Father and the Son, he is worshipped and glorified. So he also is God!

Thus,  controversies spawned all these elaborations. But what was the foundation of all these elaborations of the Church about the nature of God? Where did it all come from? They all came directly from the words of Jesus, of which we have a sampling in today’s gospel: Jesus talks of a Father who sent him and of an Advocate, the Holy Spirit,  whom the Father will send in his  name.” And that’s it: the Father is not the Son, and the Holy Spirit is neither the father nor the son, and yet each one of them is intimately involved in  man’s salvation which alone is the work of God.  And using the language and concepts available at that time, the Church elaborated on these simple statements of Jesus that there are three and yet are one in the work of salvation.

Now, if our faith were based purely on the decisions of the hierarchical Church (the equivalent today of “the apostles and the elders,” of the first reading, namely, the Pope, the cardinals, the Roman Curia, the presidents of the conference of bishops, the Archbishops, the bishops, the monsignori, the priests) or on the pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils —then you can just imagine how topsy-turvy our faith would be, and how nauseating with controversies!  And you can see such un-ending debates, with some “religious” people.

But in fact, the reality of our faith—in contrast to the explanation of our faith which is theology—is the reality of the life of God himself in us. “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him, amd make our home with him!” These are not empty words—they speak of a kind of life that is real. The old catechism talked of “sanctifying grace” as the indwelling of God’s life in us. But as with other old categories, one is liable to think of “sanctifying grace” as some other “thing” that somehow one carries in the pocket of one’s soul! But sanctifying grace is living the life of God. And what does it mean for us to be alive?  It is to be self-consciously aware of being alive! It’s making a big decision and being aware of the risks and possible consequences of that decision, of being anxious yet hopeful, of not being fully sure but still decisive. To be alive is to be self-conscious of our living–like lying on the beach under a shade with a cool breeze and clear blue skies, with no phones or appointments, and no care in the world! And one says to one’s self: “it’s good to be alive!.

If we are living God’s life, what are we conscious of? Jesus describes it in terms of peace: “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give this is my gift to you.”  It is to be self-consciously aware of an underlying hope as one faces setbacks and challenges, because I am certainly worth more than many sparrows. It is to be aware of myself as truly saved, because the Son loses no one entrusted to His care. It is to be aware that one can accept the betrayal and the malice of others, and know that one is not diminished by them. Rather, such malice may reveal the fear or the blindness or the desperate need that results in evil, and that one can forgive because they know not what they do. It is, very simply, to be consciously aware that I am loved by God who is my Father.

The life of faith is the life of God in us. It is real. It can be experienced as a quality of our awareness: the qualities described by St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”(Gal. 5:22-23)

And it is this life  of God—vibrant in the individual lives of the members of the Body of Christ–  that remains forever constant and true in the midst of the changing decisions and doctrines of the Church.

LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU

(Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2013, Asian Institute of Management Chapel).

The Gospel: Jn 13:31-36
When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself,
and God will glorify him at once.
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”

“I give  you a new commandment: love one another….This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love fro one another.”

To love is so central in the message and life of Jesus that it really is the only true measure of what it means to be a Christian, And indeed, because Jesus, in his life, reveals the greatness of what a human being can be, love becomes the true measure of what it means to be fully human. St. Paul, as usual, is sharply emphatic: one can predict the future, perform healing and do wonders, give up one’s wealth for the poor, even suffer imprisonment and martyrdom for the faith—but if one does not have love, it is all for nothing. (1 Cor 13). And of course, there is the well-known quote from St. Augustine: “Love and do what you will.” And so, it will benefit us to try to get a clearer understanding of what is meant by Jesus’ command to love.

Books have been written and philsophies developed around the theme of love. But if we want to find out what Jesus means by the word, then what he give us is not a definition that people can debate about. What he gives is an example, a deed, a reality that one cannot dispute: “As I  have loved you, so you also should love one another.”

And so, to  understand the commandment of love, we have to try to understand the person of Jesus. How did he love his disciples?

Now we don’t know much about the disciples. We know something about the impulsive Peter: so we can deduce how patient Jesus must have been with him! We know that Matthew was a tax collector—a despised profession in the closely-knit Jewish communty, so we can surmise how understanding and accepting Jesus must have been with him! But the amazing thing about the disciples of Jesus is how ordinary they were! If one contrasts this nondescript group with the person of Jesus Himself, then we may get some insight on what he means by loving one another.

For the Gospels reveal that Jesus was aware that the whole history of the Jews was but a preparation for his coming: In the synagogue, in his first public preaching, he declares of the prophet Isaiah: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

We also see that he was always conscious that he was one with the Father: “I and the Father are one;” and that he had the knowledge and the power of God Himself. “Put your sword back in the scabbard,” he chastises Peter in the garden of Gethsemani; “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Mt. 26:53). He was aware that his mission was as momentous as the initial creation itself, for it was the salvation of all mankind and the fulfillment of the whole creation.

And yet, this Jesus,  having spent his whole life preparing for the mission that he would carry out in his public life, took as an important focus of  those three precious years, the formation of these very ordinary people. But how effective that formation was can be seen in its effects: each of these very ordinary persons, with the exception of John, gladly gave his life in martyrdom for Jesus, and changed, and continue to change the world, The testimony of their lives became a first link in the continuous chain of  generations of life-testimonies that continue to our day. Can you imagine what those disciples must have felt once they saw Jesus risen from the dead, truly divine, and they recalled how He had spent all those three years just trying to get them to see the point?

And what was the point? That God is Father, and that he loves and forgives us! And therefore, be at peace! And because the Father loves us and cares for us, the whole point of living is to love and care for one another.

And so, we can briefly summarize some of the features of what Jesus means by love.

1. Love—and therefore the dedication and focus of one’s life– is directed towards persons—not things or ideas, not ideologies or systems. Our work and activities will always involve ideas and things (like money, or business, or careers), but they are just the setting for loving persons—just as the Roman empire or the Jewish law were but the given contexts for Jesus’ love for his disciples and his flock. Ideas and things, systems and ideologies are relative: what is of absolute value are persons. And this notion runs directly counter to the pragmatic principle that families, or friends, or employees can be sacrificed so that one can move forward in one’s career or the bottom line may be fattened.

2. If the commandment is to love persons, then one can almost say that the only way that command can be effectively given is by God himself becoming man! We have often heard people say: “I love mankind, it’s people I hate!” Or “I love the Philippines; it’s Filipinos that I can’t stand.” And sometimes we ourselves can feel that way. And the reason is because an abstraction like “mankind” or  “the Philippines” does not have what a living person can have: the smell and bad breath, the awkwardness and stupidity, and the sometimes downright malice.  In such an instance, it is not easy to love. And yet, we are asked to love such a person, And the only reason we can even hope to do so, and why we try, and at times even succeed, is because Jesus did it: “So love as I have loved you.”

3. Similarly, because it is the person that is absolute, then the packaging  (so to speak) of the person is of relative importance. Spontaneously, it is easy to be attracted—and be drawn to love—a person of beauty, or brains, or power or wealth. And so, for example, even parents can fall into the error of having favorites with their children, or bosses with their subordinates. It is as though Jesus was driving home a point when he chose very ordinary people for his tremendous mission.

4. Because we live in an imperfect world, and we ourselves are imperfect, there can arise the situation where there seems to be a conflict between our christian faith and Jesus’ command to love. Thus elders are liable to worry about the faith of the young, particularly of their children or grandchildren, and for the sake of passing on the faith to the young one can be mistakenly convinced that one just has to be persistent, even naggingly persistent.  But in such a situation of seeming conflict, following the insight of St. Paul, one would be well advised to choose the demands of love over the demands of faith. To put St. Paul’s words in today’s language: love always trumps faith. And the reason is because the expression of faith (rather than the act of faith) is usually what is  involved when we worry about the faith of the young: they don’t make novenas, they don’t go to mass, they don’t say the rosary, and so on. Now, expressions of faith can change from one generation to the next, and changes in expressions of faith can be mistaken for loss of the act of faith. The authenticity of love, however, no matter the situation, is more easily detected particularly when there is forgiveness involved. And when one gives true love, one need not fear that one is failing in faith in God.

Finally,  love is the only reality that lasts.

First of all, love is the only reality which we ourselves truly create. Oftentimes we give ourselves credit for a great number of things: like creating a successful  business, or having a dazzling career, or making piles of money, or becoming a celebrity, and so on. But if one fully reflects on these these achievements, one soon realizes that they are indeed the result of our choices and risk-taking, true; but they are choices made possible and conditioned by whole sets and series of variables over which we had no control and which we certainly did not create! But to love—that is an act that is purely mine to give or to not give; and to love in a sustained determined pattern, as in a marriage, for example, or with a friend over a lifetime, or consistently with people one deals with—that is truly a personal achievement that depends on nothing else but my free choice. For indeed, again particularly when forgiveness is involved, our choice to forgive and to love even flies in the face of circumstances that call for revenge, and even of common sense itself!

Secondly, and paradoxically, although love is a personal act of my free choice, still, even when I am gone, the reality endures. And the proof is obvious. You and I are here, alive, because others in one form or another, to a lesser or greater degree, have loved us and love us. Just imagine how suicidal the despair must be, if one were truly convinced that one is totally unloved. And the reason love endures is because it is creative of life itself! Just as I continue to live because others love me, so the love I share gives life to others, who in turn, having been loved,  find the model and the strength to love others. And this is how the Body of Christ is built up, and this is how all creation is being drawn, being pulled together towards the center point, being brought to the unity of all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Eph.1:10)

TRADITIONS AND RITUALS IN THE CHURCH

(Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013, Asian Institute of Management Chapel).

First,  an overview of the liturgical context we are in. We are into the fourth Sunday of Easter, and Easter is the time we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.  But Jesus’ resurrection is linked up not only to his passion and death, therefore to the season of Lent and the Holy Week, but also to his return to the Father, and the sending out of his disciples to continue his work, and therefore to his Ascension and Pentecost. Thus, during the 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, the liturgical themes center on the risen life of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the sending out of the disciples that marks not only the spread of belief in the words and deeds of Jesus, but also the establishment an organizational Church. And so, in terms of the scriptural readings, the first 3 Sundays of Easter recount the appearances of the risen Christ, with the fourth Sunday reserved for the theme Christ as the Good Shepherd, while the 4th to the 7th Sundays are excerpts from the prayer and discourse of the Last Supper. Throughout the easter Season, in all the three cycles—A, B, and C– of the liturgical year, the readings are the from the acts of the Apostles that recount the spread, and life of the primitive Church.

And it is on this theme of the  Church that we reflect upon a little in today’s Mass.

The election of our new Pope, Francis, is a momentous event in the life of the Church, an occasion for great celebration. But it is also an occasion that highlights what—for some Catholics—may be disturbing, or at least, unsettling, realities—before the election, in the course of the election, and even now after the election of the new Pope.

Before the elections, there was the scandal of priests and religious, and Church institutions, accused of sexually abusing minors. These are criminal actions that affect not only individual priests or religious, but the very authority structure of the Church itself, for bishops, the local CEOs of the Church, are involved and one is left to conjecture how high up the hierarchy of the Church the wrong principle is held that in order to preserve the dignity of the Church or its officials, one can violate the laws of the land and the rights of defenseless victims. Then, given the global and instantaneous communication of the digital age, one became aware of the “politics” of electing a Pope: the home advantage of the Italian block, the solid numbers of the English speaking block, the growing influence of the third world block. And now, as anecdotes are broadcast about the simplicity, humaniity, and ordinariness of Pope Francis—eschewing the  Papal limousine, paying his own hotel bills, giving a chair to his Swiss Guard, washing and kissing the feet of women—one is confronted with the news that there are sectors in the Church that do not look too kindly on such behavior that they believe are unbecoming of the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and one becomes aware of an even more fundamental disharmony in the Church—that all these efforts to restore tradition that we ourselves are experiencing in the Philippines in reverting back to the old liturgical format of the Mass are but a manifestation of an underlying effort on the part of some sector in the Church to “reform” what they feel was the erroneus reformation of Vatican II.

Because these facts can rattle deeply held convictions about the Church, it is not surprizing that some may be tempted to simply explain these facts by saying that “the Church is only human,” set them aside, and get on with one’s life.  But if these facts seem to challenge deeply held beliefs, and these beliefs are of real importance to us, then perhaps we should not be too easily dismissive of them. We owe it to ourselves to be intelligent and reasonable about our faith in God and in the Church, otherwise our faith becomes less than human.

Let me share some reflections with you on these matters, but because of the limited time, I can just state general principles and leave the fuller explanation of them perhaps at some later occasion in the course of the year.

Firstly, these events help to highlight the very important distinction that can be traced from the earliest beginning of the Church between the Church as an organization with its hierarchy, its rules and regulations, its practices and customs, and the Church as the union of hearts and minds of believers with the heart and mind of Christ. It is not possible to have one without the other, but the one is not to be identified with the other. And so, one can be a bishop, even a Pope, and still not be united with the mind and heart of Christ. Conversely, one can have the mind and heart of Christ, and yet not belong to the organizational Church.

Secondly, because we are conditioned historical human beings, we develop habits, customs, practices, traditions, rituals, accepted modes not only of behavior but also of thinking and attitudes. It is important to become aware that our faith in God as revealed by the life and teaching of Jesus is not to be simply identified with such practices and traditions. Jesus himself accused the Jews of perverting God’s will by clinging to their traditions; and the first ecumenical council of the Church, held by the apostles in Jerusalem,  concerned the issue of tradition versus faith in Christ. For the Jews, circumcision is the mark of belonging to the people of God. Question: Do non-Jews have to be circumcized to belong to Christ? The vehemence of this conflict can be discerned in the letter of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. And the answer of the council is: “No, one does not have to be circumcized to belong to Christ.” So, in our day, the same tendency to cling to tradition and identify the life of faith with “accepted” practices and rituals, is to fall into the same error challenged by Jesus himself and rejected by the early Church.

Thirdly, the reason why tradition and practices cannot be absolute is because they are just our limited, conditioned, human means by which we try to connect with God who is so real that if He were not there we would not be here;  and yet who is so totally unlike us that he is a mystery. These rituals are but our feeble human ways by which we try to get in touch with a reality we cannot even begin to comprehend! And so what is vital is not the rituals, but getting in touch with the mystery of God through these rituals. And so, the life of the spirit is what counts, and when rituals no longer arouse, nourish, and sustain that life, then they have outlived their usefulness.

Fourthly, and finally (for now): our life of faith is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. No amount of malice or sin or stupidity of others or of the world can kill that spirit within us. It is only we, ourselves, through the stubborn misuse of freedom that can reject that life of faith. And if we believe the words of Jesus that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. Then, that’s the truth. And if one were to say, But the Church is dying! Churches are empty in Europe, the young no longer go to Church, and so on, and so on, . . . then, it is good to recall that one’s understanding of a “successful Church” — rich and awesome Church buildings, great numbers, strong political clout, dominant position in society, and so on — may not have quite the right criteria. God is mystery, He loves us, He will always be with us, but His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. The best we can do, then, is to try to live our lives and follow as faithfully and as generously as we can the guidance of the spirit within us. And after we have done what we can, if things still happen in ways we did not think should happen, then rather than questioning God, we should really question ourselves—for God certainly knows what he is doing, and we really just have limited, tentative, and perhaps even erroneous expectations of what should happen. In other words, God is in charge, not us, and if history develops in a way that surprises us, then our task is not to question Him (as Job did), but to try to understand what God seems to be saying through these events, and how we can best cooperate with Him according to the guidance of the Spirit within us

THE GLORY OF GOD IN US

(Homily for the Golden Jubilee Mass of Srs. Emma Garcia, r.c., Joyce Kemp, r.c.,  and Guia N. Jambalos, r.c., celebrated at Cenacle Retreat House, Nicanor Reyes St., Q.C., on March 3, 2013, 4pm. I had helped the Cenacle Sisters set up when they first came to the Philippines in 1968. At the present time, Sr. Guia Jambalos assists Ingenium School  as Formation Resource person, conducting workshops and seminars for the parents and faculty of Ingenium.)

We come together this afternoon  to celebrate the glory of God in His handiwork in the lives of our three friends: Sr. Emma Garcia, Sr. Joyce Kemp, and Sr.Guia Jambalos. To talk of the glory of God in this way  may seem inappropriate,  for the word  “glory” evokes brilliant dazzling pageantry—which we do not have—and it recalls the famous words of St. Irenaeus, that “the glory of God is a man fully alive”. And certainly  common wisdom looks upon the age of 70-plus years  as past  being “fully alive”.

But a Golden Jubilee affords a  vantage point of a lifetime, as from a mountaintop, and from this mountaintop perspective of 50 years, perhaps one can see reality more clearly. We can join our jubilarian friends on this mountaintop and, as we talk about them, keep a sidelong glance at our own lives, to appreciate the significance of the lives they have lived.

What is  the glory of God? Like God’s name, His glory is a mystery. But like all mysteries concerning God, it is not totally unknowable.(Vat. I)

From the mountain top of 50 years,  the goals and ambitions of youth are but specks on the horizon—they are still visible and can still be remembered, but so much have come and gone since those early years when one first embarked on life’s pilgrimage. Similarly,  the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the rough trails and the smooth, that were part of one’s journey  are past and gone. And what remains/ as one stands on this mountaintop of 50 years?

There is just the pilgrim,  one’s self.

What we have lived is always a part of us: to have enjoyed success and survived failures,  to have relished applause and suffered ridicule, to have loved and be loved in return—all that  will always be a part of us. But the perspective of 50 years  reveals this unmistakable reality: everything that I have said and done, won and lost,  suffered and enjoyed  are just a part of me—they are not me. Who, then, am I? Just as God gave his name as He is who he is, so also I, and each one of us, in the uniqueness that is our individuality, can say: I am who I am. There is no substitute for who I am.

And if one were to  probe deeper and ask, “What is it  that makes me to be  who I  am?”,  then reviewing the timeline of one’s life,  one can arrive at this startling realization: I am  what I  have created myself to be. God, the Creator,  created me to his own image.  I, in turn,  may have done a lot of things in my 50 years, but the only reality that I can truly claim to have created, for which I alone am responsible, and for which I alone can claim credit or blame is myself. For I have created myself piece by piece, facet by facet, through the whole interconnected and cumulative sequence of choices and decisions that is my life. Success and failures are not me, honor and dishonor  are not me, but I  was creating myself to be  who I am  through the choices and decisions I made   in connection with those successes and failures, those moments of honor and dishonor.  And while those events and circumstances are long gone, there still remains myself  and what  I  have created myself to be  through them. Who I am is the cumulative result of the choices and decisions of my life.

However, to decide and to choose—to will—may not be as simple as the advertisements of Nike shoes make it out to be: “Just do it”. Before one can will, there must be the prior willingness to will. How often one resolves to lose weight, and yet fail. Because unless there is the prior willingness to lose weight, there is plenty of wishing, but the decision—to will to lose weight –does not happen. Now in a life that seeks to pattern itself to the life of Jesus, the willing is not a matter of what clothes to wear or what jobs to take: the willing involves something as radical and sweeping as it is counter-intuitive: it is–not to live for one’s self, but to live for the neighbor. It is, as St. Paul says in the reading, “to be formed in the pattern of his death”: the self-sacrifiiciing love that transforms evil into good, the love that is patient and kind;  the love that is not jealous, that does not put on airs, that is not snobbish; that is never rude; the love that is not self-seeking, that is not prone to anger, that does not brood over injuries; the love that does not rejoice in what is wrong, but rejoices with the truth.(1 Cor. 13:4-6).  One knows the words, one gets the idea, but unless there is the prior willingness to do so,  one does not do it.

Where does this prior willingness to choose and decide in the pattern of the cross come from? It comes, as St. Paul says,  through faith in Christ. “It has its origin in God and is based on faith.” And when you think about it, it cannot be otherwise.

We often talk of God’s will: how “I am doing God’s will”–as though it is the most obvious thing to know God’s will who, just to remind ourselves, none of us have ever seen! For unfortunately, whatever we conceive as God’s will is always our version of God’s will. Worse than a color-blind patient who cannot faithfully perceive color, our version of His will is endemically prone to bias, to self-deception, to rationalizaiton; for, as St. Paul says, we have all sinned (Rom. 3:23).  Just quickly recall how much evil has been foisted on the neighbor / all in the name of God’s will!

No, any capacity we may have  to love the neighbor  to the forgetfulness of self  comes   not from us or our cleverness,   but from faith. Over the lifetime of a person  seeking God,   in differing  times and circumstances, the words of St. Peter keep getting repeated: “We have labored all night and caught nothing. But at your word, I will lower the net.” In other words, “I don’t see the point, what you say does not make any sense, but because you say so, yes, I will do it.”

Now if we view this Jubilee Celebration in this context: that we are creators in the image of God, that our one true creation that endures is ourselves, that we create ourselves by our decisions and choices, and that the decision and choice to follow Christ in self-sacrificing love comes only from God, then we can begin to catch a glimpse of the glory of God in our jubilarians.

Looking back on the 50 years, one realizes how  matter-of-factly God insinuates himself into our lives. Like Moses,  we had that moment in our lives when some casual thing caught our attention that,  in the end, led us to God: “What a remarkable sight: a burning bush that is not consumed!” For Sr. Joyce it was a retreat she was prodded into attending; for Sr. Emma it was through another retreat during her US sojourn for graduate studies in English; for Sr Guia, it was the fascination of a pharmacist being very useful to others through the preparation of medicines. Each one of them, in a most natural way, God lured to Himself. And if one looks back  on those 50 years, one will be amazed  at how humbly, how respectfully, God draws a person to Himself: He is so unobtrusive that, often, one does not even advert  to His presence in one’s  life! And how non-threateningly He makes one gradually aware  of  one’s blind spots and biases, one’s rationalizations and  proclivities to selfishness.  How lovingly He reveals a person to herself;  how persistently  He affirms how truly lovable we are   because He always loves us. And in building up,  by His love,,  our sense of dignity and self-worth, our sense of being specially chosen and protected, He  gives us the courage, the confidence  and the generosity  to be loving and forgiving of others in turn.

The fifty years we are celebrating are not fifty years of sheer endurance—although at times it may seem that way because to the end, it seems, there remains in us pockets of resistance to God’s will. But on the whole, they are fifty years of a basic willingness to put one’s self in the hands of God, to be gradually formed by Him to the image of his Son.

Now, after fifty years, what next? God’s handiwork still remains to be completed.

Common wisdom can sometimes be dead wrong. Not only does it look at a golden jubilarian as being past her prime;  worse, it also assumes that all is downhill from hereon in: “Pack up your bags, find a niche in a retirement home, try to keep healthy, and wait for the end.” That may be true for a life that sees nothing farther than the grave, but it is the exact opposite of a life “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).

For what 50 years can give  that may not be given to a novice, is the realization with St. Paul: “Those things I used to consider gain I have now reappraised as loss in the light of Christ.” What 50 years can give  is the stronger confidence in God’s love—I have done  the worst that I can do, and still He loves me. What 50 years  can give is a more profound sense of shame and repentance: “All these years God has loved me; is it not about time for me to love him in return? not because of fear or praise, or because of pressure to conform,  but simply because He deserves to be loved in return?”

At this final stage, more clearly perhaps than in the past, love reveals itself as a decision—a matter of choice–my choice to love or not love.

And so, the twilight years of one’s life, I believe, can be a most privileged period in one’s relationship with God. For one thing, life is stripped to its bare essentials: the hustle and bustle, the lights and distractions, the noise and confusion of active life are all so wonderfully filtered out by age.  With greater clarity,  one can grasp the issue at stake: it is I and God, it is  my will confronting His will. With the greater self-knowledge born of 50 years, one can uncover  all those nooks and crannies in one’s personality where selfishness continues to lurk.  With a keener  sense of responsibility for others, and a deeper appreciation of one’s unique role in the evolution of the Church and creation, one can strive to make one’s waning life to be a living testimony to the joy and beauty of a life hidden with Christ in God—for peace and joy are the unmistakable signs of God’s presence.  And finally, with greater trust born of the realization that everything, after all,  is from God, one can accept with equanimity and peace the cellular senescence of the body organism  as God’s creation moves forward, and the old gives way to the new.

And so, in the end, the mountain top of 50 years is but a way-station, a look-out, a rest stop.  There still lies a road ahead, a goal that St. Paul says he is racing to reach. And the supreme consolation  of this final challenge  is that one cannot fail: because, as St. Paul says, “I have been grasped by Christ Jesus.” As one is emptied of one’s self, it is no longer I but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20). And with Christ living in me, when the final end comes, death will seem a most natural passage  from having fallen asleep to waking up to a life that one was already becoming familiar with. And, I believe,  it will also be breathtaking surprise: not only will we no longer see God through a glass darkly, but instead see Him as He is;  but also we will see ourselves as God sees us, with a vision no longer distorted by the myopia of sin,  and we will rejoice to see how so truly lovable we are  that he died for us  even while we were yet sinners! And then, the glory of God,  now seen through a glass darkly, merely glimpsed in the lives  hidden with Christ in God,  will burst into the full splendor of a life where “Christ is all in all” (Col 3:11).

Our sincerest congratulations to our Jubilarians!

ALL IS GRACE

(Response in the Naming Ceremony of the Ateneo de Davao University Sports Center, delivered on March 11, 2011, at the Matina Campus, Davao City.)

It is with a deep sense of gratitude that I make this response.

For really, it is only with gratitude that one can possibly respond to the magnanimity of heart that is manifested by this gesture of naming this sports complex in my honor. And so, I would like to thank the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Paul Dominguez, the members of the Board of Trustees, the Jesuit community of Davao, the Ateneo community and, above all, Fr. Antonio Samson, the President,  for this distinct honor. It is truly satisfying that the ideals of youth that Fr. Samson and I shared when we were both young high school and college students at the Ateneo de Manila should be reaffirmed more than fifty years afterwards in this meaningful way. Your mom and my mom would be particularly pleased.

You honor me as a way of thanking me for the contributions I made to the Ateneo de Davao University during my years as President, and it would not be true to say they were not significant contributions. But it would be a short-sighted and superficial person that would make those achievements as entirely his own.

In the book. The Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos, there is a favorite quote of Fr. Ben Nebres, a short and simple pregnant sentence that reads: “All is grace.”  Those achievements that occasion this naming ceremony are just that—grace, something underserved, and totally gratuitous. One can take the most visible aspect of those achievements: the concrete buildings. Well, I can give you the names of those who actually built these buildings: Arch Rolly Mercado, Engr. Henry Omolida, who are both here with us this morning;  Mam Odette, my assistant, the late Mr. Barlis, the treasurer at that time,  Linda Arreola and Tita Jaca, Venus and Nits, Steve Fundador, to name only the more obvious ones. Then there are the administrators and faculty and staff, both in this Matina campus and in Jacinto, not to mention the lay people both members and non-members of the Board. If I mentioned all their names, it would take some time.  I do not mean to say that I just had a small role in all of this. After all, I was the Chief Operating Officer. But if you were to credit me with management skills, then I can tell you that I owe that to a Fr . Wally Campbell who mentored me when I was editor of the college yearbook, to a Fr. Jim Donelan who was President when I was regent at the Ateneo de Manila University, to a Fr. Joe Cruz who took me in as school administrator, to my peers and fellow-Jesuits, alumni and friends, as we interacted and dealt with the concerns of the various Ateneos. And if you were to credit me with some capacity for critical thinking, sound judgment, and effective communication, the list gets even bigger, for it now involves the whole range of training and resources of the Society of Jesus—not only in the Ateneo or the Loyola School of Studies, but also in Oxford, Innsbruck, Toronto, and Cambridge. There are names and faces associated with all these places and phases of training, some now dead, all quite real.  Finally, as against a background that makes all this visible and possible, there is the presence, often unadverted to but always there, of the silent abiding love of my family and friends. They just let me be, and watched supportively from the sidelines, so to speak. It would indeed be foolish if I were to claim the achievements for which you honor me today as my own, All is grace, and the grace is the love and care I have received so constantly and generously from others.

I am likely to be accused of painting too rosy a picture in all this, for in fact, human relationships are not always smooth; at times they are stormy. But just as success cannot be taken in isolation from the total reality of which it is a part, so also conflicts and failures are not isolated events, but part of a bigger picture. Limited human beings that we are, there is the tendency to see things in the limited—even selfish–perspective of our likes and concerns. And so we can be lifted up in pride by our success or drowned in despair by our failures, complacent in good times and stressed in bad times.  But if we can see the bigger picture, not only success and smooth sailing, but also setbacks and rough sailings, are like shadows and textures that are part of the total picture. Just as seeing the total picture prevents one from the pride of claiming success as one’s own, so also the bigger picture allows one to see setbacks and rough times as part of a wise and provident unfolding of life.

To see the bigger picture is to try to see things not from one’s limited, even selfish, perspective, but to see them from the perspective of God. God is the creator of heaven and earth, the Lord of history.  It was not by chance nor without purpose that the first Jesuits, led by Fr. Bove, came to Davao and began his missionary work. It was not by chance or without purpose that the Jesuits were invited in 1948 and Fr. Daigler took over the parochial school that became the Ateneo de Davao. It was not by chance or without purpose that I was assigned to Davao and now celebrate this event with you. Everything that transpired in Davao transpired in exactly the way they did for a purpose in God’s providence. And if we can accept that purpose in the obedience of faith, we can bless the Lord in good times and in bad.

Scripture compares man’s life to the flower of grass, that is here today and gone tomorrow.  But the amazing thing—the amazing grace—is that brief and passing as our work and lives may be, we have been given the privilege to truly play a role in the bigger task that will surely succeed and that will surely last. In the words of scripture, the task is “the creation of a new heaven and a new earth”, the establishment of “the kingdom of God,” “the building up of the Body of Christ, that is the Church.” These realities we can only see dimly in faith, just as Fr. Bove in the 19th century could only see dimly, if at all, what the Jesuit presence in Davao might be like in his future. But now we see his future more clearly, and what we see and celebrate today would never have been were it not for Fr. Bove’s work and that of his original 18 Jesuit companions. We all move on, and in time become forgotten.  We do our work which others may continue or still others may undo. But that passing life that we lived and that passing work that we did is a sharing in the work of Christ, and in Christ they have lasting significance. To share in the work of Christ, as we care for the students of our school– that is the meaning of our work, that is our achievement that continues beyond our lifetimes, and that is our glory that no one can take away. And that we should be invited to share in that work of Jesus Christ is pure grace—a pure gift.

Once again, I thank you.