Saturday, April 17, 2010

Answering Scandal with Personal Holiness

The headlines were captured recently by the news that perhaps up to seventy priests in the Archdiocese of Boston have abused young people whom they were consecrated to serve. Today, I'd like to tackle the issue head-on. You have a right to it. We cannot pretend as if it didn't exist. I'd like to discuss what our response should be as faithful Catholics to this terrible scandal.
A homily delivered at Espirito Santo parish in Fall River, MA on the Fourth Sunday of OT, Year A Zeph 2:3, 3:12-13; 1Cor1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12
The headlines this past week did not focus on the Patriots' march to the Super Bowl, or on who would QB, Drew or Tom, or even on the President's state of the union address and his comment that there are many Al-Qaeda operatives in the US like "ticking time-bombs." None of these was the top story.
The headlines were captured by the very sad news that perhaps up to seventy priests in the Archdiocese of Boston have abused young people whom they were consecrated to serve. It's a huge scandal, one that many people who have long disliked the Church because of one of her moral or doctrinal teachings are using as an issue to attack the Church as a whole, trying to imply that they were right all along.
Many people have come up to me to talk about it. Many others have wanted to, but I think out of respect and of not wanting to bring up what they thought might be bad news, have refrained, but it was obvious to me that it was on their mind. And so, today, I'd like to tackle the issue head-on. You have a right to it. We cannot pretend as if it didn't exist. And I'd like to discuss what our response should be as faithful Catholics to this terrible scandal.
The first thing we need to do is to understand it from the point of view of our faith in the Lord. Before he chose his first disciples, Jesus went up the mountain all night to pray. He had at the time many followers. He talked to his Father in prayer about whom he would choose to be his twelve apostles, the twelve he would himself form intimately, the twelve whom he would send out to preach the Good News in His name. He gave them power to cast out demons. He gave them power to cure the sick. They watched him work countless miracles. They themselves in His name worked countless others.
Yet, despite all of that, one of them was a traitor. One, who had followed the Lord, who had had his feet washed by the Lord, who had seen him walk on water, raise people from the dead, and forgive sinners, betrayed the Lord. The Gospel tells us that he allowed Satan to enter into Him and then sold the Lord for 30 pieces of silver, handing him over by faking a gesture of love. "Judas," Jesus said to him in the garden of Gethsemane , "Would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" Jesus didn't choose Judas to betray him. He chose him to be like all the others. But Judas was always free, and he used his freedom to allow Satan to enter into him, and by his betrayal, ended up getting Jesus crucified and executed.
So right from the first twelve that Jesus himself chose, one was a terrible traitor. SOMETIMES GOD'S CHOSEN ONES BETRAY HIM. That's a fact that we have to confront. It's a fact that the early Church confronted. If the scandal caused by Judas was all the members of the early Church focused on, the Church would have been finished before it even started to grow. Instead, the Church recognized that you don't judge something by those who don't live it, but by those who do.
Instead of focusing on the one who betrayed, they focused on the other eleven, on account of whose work, preaching, miracles, and love for Christ, we are here today. It's on account of the other eleven — all of whom except St. John was martyred for Christ and for the Gospel they were willing to give their lives to proclaim to us — that we ever heard the saving word of God, that we ever received the sacraments of eternal life.
We're confronted by the same reality today. We can focus on those who betrayed the Lord, those who abused rather than loved those whom they were called to serve, or we can focus, like the early Church did, on the others, on those who have remained faithful, those priests who are still offering their lives to serve Christ and to serve you out of love. The media almost never focuses on the good "eleven," the ones whom Jesus has chosen who remain faithful, who live lives of quiet holiness. But we, the Church, must keep the terrible scandal that we've witnessed in its true and full perspective. 
Scandal is unfortunately nothing new for the Church. There have been many times in the history of the Church when the Church was much worse off than it is now. The history of the Church is like a cosine curve, with ups and downs throughout the centuries. At each of the times when the Church hit its low point, God raised up tremendous saints to bring the Church back to its real mission. It's almost as if in those times of darkness, the Light of Christ shone ever more brightly. I'd like to focus a little on a couple of saints whom God raised up in these most difficult times, because their wisdom can really guide us during this difficult time.
St. Francis de Sales was one saint God raised up after the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was not principally about theology, about the faith — although theological differences came later — but about morals. There was an Augustinian priest, Martin Luther, who went down to Rome just after the papacy of the most notorious pope in history, Pope Alexander VI.
This pope never taught anything against the faith — the Holy Spirit prevented that — but he was simply a wicked man. He had nine children from six different concubines. He put out contracts against those he considered his enemies. Martin Luther visited Rome just after Alexander VI's papacy and wondered how God could allow such a wicked man to be the visible head of his Church. He went back to Germany and saw all types of moral problems. Priests were living in open relationships with women. Some were trying to profit from selling spiritual goods. There was a terrible immorality among lay Catholics. He was scandalized, as anyone who loved God might have been, by such rampant abuse. So he founded his own Church.
Eventually God raised up many saints to combat this wrong solution and to bring people back to the Church Christ founded. St. Francis de Sales was one of them. At the risk of his life, he went through parts of what is now Switzerland , where the Calvinists were popular, preaching the Gospel with truth and love. Oftentimes he was beaten up on his way and left for dead. Once he was asked to address the situation of the scandal caused by so many of his brother priests. What he said is as important for us today as it was for his listeners then. He didn't pull any punches.
He said, "Those who commit these types of scandals are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder," destroying other people's faith in God by their terrible example. But then he warned his listeners, "But I'm here among you to prevent something far worse for you. While those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who take scandal — who allow scandals to destroy their faith — are guilty of spiritual suicide." They're guilty, he said, of cutting off their life with Christ, abandoning the source of life in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. He went among the people in what is now Switzerland trying to prevent their committing spiritual suicide on account of the scandals. I'm here to preach the same thing to you.
What should our reaction be then? Another great saint who lived in a tremendously difficult time can help us further. The great St. Francis of Assisi lived in the 1200s, which was a time of terrible immorality in central Italy . Priests were setting horrible example. Lay immorality was even worse. St. Francis himself while a young man even gave some scandal to others by his carefree ways. But eventually he was converted back to the Lord, founded the Franciscans, helped God rebuild his Church and became one of the great saints of all time.
Once one of the brothers in the Order of Friars Minor asked him a question. The brother was very sensitive to scandals. "Br. Francis," he said, "What would you do if you knew that the priest celebrating Mass had three concubines on the side?" Francis, without missing a beat, said slowly, "When it came time for Holy Communion, I would go to receive the Sacred Body of my Lord from the priest's anointed hands."
What was Francis getting at? He was getting at a tremendous truth of the faith and a tremendous gift of the Lord. No matter how sinful a priest is, provided that he has the intention to do what the Church does — at Mass, for example, to change bread and wine into Christ's body and blood, or in confession, no matter how sinful he is personally, to forgive the penitent's sins — Christ himself acts through that minister in the sacraments 
Whether Pope John Paul II celebrates the Mass or whether a priest on death row for a felony celebrates Mass, it is Christ who himself acts and gives us His own body and blood. So what Francis was saying in response to the question of his religious brother that he would receive the Sacred Body of His Lord from the priest's anointed hands, is that he was not going to let the wickedness or immorality of the priest lead him to commit spiritual suicide. Christ can still work and does still work even through the most sinful priest. And thank God!
If we were always dependent on the priest's personal holiness, we'd be in trouble. Priests are chosen by God from among men, and they're tempted just like any human being and fall through sin just like any human being. But God knew that from the beginning. Eleven of the first twelve apostles scattered when Christ was arrested, but they came back; one of the twelve sinned in betraying the Lord and sadly never came back. God has essentially made the sacraments "priest-proof," in terms of their personal holiness. No matter how holy they are, or how wicked, provided they have the intention to do what the Church does, then Christ himself acts, just as he acted through Judas when Judas expelled demons and cured the sick.
And so, again, I ask, "What should the response of the Church be to these deeds?" There has been a lot of talk about that in the media. Does the Church have to do a better job in making sure no one with any predisposition toward pedophilia gets ordained? Absolutely. But that would not be enough. Does the Church have to do a better job in handling cases when they are reported? The Church has changed its way of handling these cases, and today they're much better than they were in the 1980s, but they can always be perfected. But even that is not enough. Do we have to do more to support the victims of such abuse? Yes we do, both out of justice and out of love! But not even that is adequate. Cardinal Law has gotten most of the deans of the medical schools in Boston to work on establishing a center for the prevention of child abuse, which is something that we should all support. But not even that is a sufficient response.
The only adequate response to this terrible scandal, the only fully Catholic response to this scandal — as St. Francis of Assisi recognized in the 1200s, as St. Francis de Sales recognized in the 1600s, and as countless other saints have recognized in every century — is HOLINESS! Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial, because it is the real face of the Church.
There are always people — a priest meets them regularly, you probably know several of them — who use excuses for why they don't practice the faith, why they slowly commit spiritual suicide. It can be because a nun was mean to them when they were nine. Or because they don't understand the teaching of the Church on a particular issue. There will doubtless be many people these days — and you will probably meet them — who will say, "Why should I practice the faith, why should I go to Church, since the Church can't be true if God's so-called chosen ones can do the types of things we've been reading about?" This scandal is a huge hanger on which some will try to hang their justification for not practicing the faith. That's why holiness is so important.
They need to find in all of us a reason for faith, a reason for hope, a reason for responding with love to the love of the Lord. The beatitudes which we have in today's Gospel are a recipe for holiness. We all need to live them more. Do priests have to become holier? They sure do. Do religious brothers and sisters have to become holier and give ever greater witness of God and heaven? Absolutely. But all people in the Church do, including lay people! We all have the vocation to be holy and this crisis is a wake-up call.
It's a tough time to be a priest today. It's a tough time to be a Catholic today. But it's also a great time to be a priest and a great time to be a Catholic. Jesus says in the beatitudes we heard today, "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you falsely because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great." I've been experiencing that beatitude first hand, as some priests I know have as well. Earlier this week, when I finished up my exercise at a local gym, I was coming out of the locker room dressed in my black clerical garb. A mother, upon seeing me, immediately and hurriedly moved her children out of the way and shielded them from me as I was passing. She looked at me as I passed and when I had gone far enough along finally relaxed and let her children go — as if I would have attacked her children in the middle of the afternoon at a health club!
But while we all might have to suffer such insults and slander falsely on account of Christ, we should indeed rejoice. It's a great time to be a Christian, because this is a time in which God really needs us to show off his true face. In bygone days in America , the Church was respected. Priests were respected. The Church had a reputation for holiness and goodness. It's not so any more.
One of the greatest Catholic preachers in American history, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, used to say, that he preferred to live in times when the Church has suffered rather than thrived, when the Church had to struggle, when the Church had to go against the culture. It was a time for real men and real women to stand up and be counted. "Even dead bodies can float downstream," he used to say, pointing that many people can coast when the Church is respected, "but it takes a real man, a real woman, to swim against the current."
How true that is! It takes a real man and a real woman to stand up now and swim against the current that is flowing against the Church. It takes a real man and a real woman to recognize that when swimming against the flood of criticism, you're safest when you stay attached to the Rock on whom Christ built his Church. This is one of those times. It's a great time to be a Christian.
Some people are predicting that the Church in this area is in for a rough time, and maybe she is, but the Church will survive, because the Lord will make sure it survives. One of the greatest comeback lines in history happened just about 200 years ago. The French emperor Napoleon was swallowing up countries in Europe with his armies bent on total world domination. He then said to Cardinal Consalvi, "I will destroy your Church." "Je detruirai votre eglise!" The Cardinal said, "No you won't." Napoleon, all 5'2" of him said, "Je detruirai votre eglise!" The Cardinal said with confidence, "No you won't. Not even we have succeeded in doing that!"
If bad popes, immoral priests and thousands of sinners in the Church haven't succeeded in doing so from the inside — he was saying implicitly to the general — how do you think you're going to do it? The Cardinal was pointing to a crucial truth. Christ will never allow his Church to fail. He promised that the gates of hell wouldn't prevail against his Church, that the barque of Peter, the Church sailing through time to its eternal port in heaven, will never capsize, not because those in the boat won't do everything sinfully possible to turn it over, but because Christ, who is in the boat, will never allow it to happen. Christ is still in the boat and he'll never leave it.
The magnitude of this scandal might be such that you may find it difficult to trust priests in the same way you have in the past. That may be so, and that might not be completely a bad thing. But never lose trust in Him! It's His Church. Even if some of those he chose have betrayed him, he will call others who will be faithful, who will serve you with the love with which you deserve to be served, just like after Judas' death, the eleven apostles convened and allowed the Lord to choose someone to take Judas' place, and they chose the man who ended up becoming St. Matthias, who proclaimed the Gospel faithfully until he was martyred for it.
This is a time in which all of us need to focus ever more on holiness. We're called to be saints and how much our society here needs to see this beautiful, radiant face of the Church. You're part of the solution, a crucial part of the solution. And as you come forward today to receive from this priest's anointed hands the sacred Body of your Lord, ask Him to fill you with a real desire for sanctity, a real desire to show off His true face.
One of the reasons why I'm here in front of you as a priest today is because while I younger, I was underimpressed with some of the priests I knew. I would watch them celebrate Mass and almost without any reverence whatsoever drop the Body of the Lord onto the paten, as if they were handling something with little value rather than the Creator and Savior of all, rather than MY Creator and Savior. I remember saying to the Lord, reiterating my desire to be a priest, "Lord, please let me become a priest, so I can treat you like you deserve!" It gave me a great fire to serve the Lord.
Maybe this scandal can allow you to do the same thing. This scandal can be something that can lead you down to the path of spiritual suicide, or it can be something that can inspire you to say, finally, "I want to become a saint, so that I and the Church can give your name the glory it deserves, so that others might find in you the love and the salvation that I have found." Jesus is with us, as he promised, until the end of time. He's still in the boat.
Just as out of Judas' betrayal, he achieved the greatest victory in world history, our salvation through his passion, death and resurrection, so out of this he may bring, and wants to bring, a new rebirth of holiness, a new Acts of the Apostles for the 21st century, with each of us — and that includes YOU — playing a starring role. Now's the time for real men and women of the Church to stand up. Now's the time for saints. How do you respond?
Fr. Roger J. Landry. "Answering Scandal with Personal Holiness." Unpublished homily.
Reprinted with permission of Fr. Roger J. Landry.
Father Roger J. Landry was ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts by Bishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap. in 1999. After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College , Fr. Landry studied for the priesthood in Maryland , Toronto , and for several years in Rome . After his priestly ordination, Father returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. Father Landry is parochial administrator of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford , MA , and executive editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. His homilies are posted each week at

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pray and Work

Most of us are familiar with St. Paul’s injunction to pray “unceasingly” in his first letter to the Thessalonians.

But what does it mean to pray unceasingly? Surely we recognize that prayer is essential to keeping our souls alive in grace, much like the oxygen that feeds our lungs. St. Alphonsus Liguori, the great doctor of the church is often quoted as having said, “He who prays is saved. He who does not pray is lost.”

Some might see that as rather simplistic, but there is an eternal truth behind that simple logic. Anyone who has ever known the power and effects of prayer on a Christian life will also know the seductive havoc that an absence of prayer can wreak on a moral life. We know that from weakness and we know that from experience.

To raise our thoughts and hearts to God, to pray as it were constantly not only sounds daunting, it sounds impractical given the daily challenges and obligations of life.

With only 24 hours a day, most people already feel the stress of being tugged and pulled in all directions by the attention demanded of us in our professional and private lives.

“I don’t even have time for myself” is the refrain often heard on the frustrated lips of people struggling to make a living and upkeep a home.

And yet scripture calls us to pray without ceasing, almost as if God urges us to pray even more when the challenges of life press down on us with greater demands.

But I am not Carthusian monk you say, living the liturgy of the hours. I am not wrapped up in a constant cloud of prayer and living in a monastery equally clouded by the austere heights of quiet mountains and pine trees.

Instead, I work a twelve-hour job, seated behind a desk full of papers, enslaved to a computer, ferrying difficult passengers for hours on end, cramming for exams, cooking and cleaning for a family of five etc. And the list goes on.

Is work really the bane of our spiritual life? Does it obstruct our worship of God or does it in fact ennoble our living hours by offering us divine opportunities to reach heaven that much more easily?

Let’s face it, the ordinary preoccupation for most of our days is the work we do in our offices, in our schools, in our fields, in our barracks and in our homes. We cannot detach ourselves from this necessary part of life. And for good reason – work gives us a purpose, a means to support our loved ones and ourselves, and work allows us to contribute in a meaningful way to society. All of which are good things when done well, all of which can be offered to God as a loving sacrifice of the fruits of our love.

At its core, work is heaven’s gift to us. How well we do it can be a prayer of love to God. And prayer is above all an act of humility and gratitude.

We thank the Lord for the jobs we hold, knowing that it is a gift from Him. We thank the Lord for the salaries we make, and the benefits we enjoy. But we also thank him for the tedium we sometimes face at work, the routine that can numb our days, the office politics, the challenges of a difficult boss and the struggles we encounter in doing our work well.

Why so?

It is because these routine struggles and mundane annoyances hold the key to sanctity and holiness when we embrace them with a supernatural vision.

Many people look for grand signs of God in the extraordinary, when God Himself has come to us in the most ordinary sacrament of a baby born to a poor working family. And it is in the most mundane, most routine and most ordinary demands of life that God calls us to be saints.

As lay people, our cloister is the world. Our mission fields are our offices and our working environments. Our apostolate is our witness to our faith and the reality of God in the midst of our secular activities.

We are contemplatives who point to God in the middle of the world, not away from it. And since we spend more than half our waking lives at work, we need to learn how to turn our work into prayer, to super-naturalize our activities so that they have the power to sanctify, to witness, to praise and to convert.

If we fail to do this, then our worship of God will be reduced to mumbled snatches of “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” just before we fall asleep, much to the spiritual starvation of our souls. And as we pray less and spend less time with God, in time we shall stop praying altogether.

Indeed work is prayer, and prayer can be our work. The motto of the Benedictine Order; “Ora et Labora” means to pray and to work. These two pillars of Benedictine sanctity are not irreconcilable because prayer divinizes our work and makes it holy, while work done in a spirit of prayer is an act of worship to God. These are the oil and wick that keep our spiritual life alight with the life of Christ.

St. Josemaria Escriva, the saint of the ordinary, often reminded Christians that "Work in our hands, as it was in Christ’s, must be turned into prayer to God and service to mankind for the co-redemption of the whole human race."

What does he mean that work in our hands must be turned into prayer? What sacrifices must we make to unlock the spiritual wellspring behind our efforts? It sounds awfully hard and most of us are already chafing under the natural demands of our professions and labors.

But the simple truth is what Blessed Mother Teresa once advocated, “To do small things with great love.”

She also said that we are not called to be successful in life but to be faithful, not that there is anything wrong with success. But when we turn the small nuisances, difficulties and challenges of our daily lives into opportunities for prayer, we change the world as it were by our response to the world.

Are we distracted, bored and tired at work? Let us say to the Lord, “Lord, I give you the next hour of my work as a living sacrifice of praise. I will endeavor to do it well, to do it joyfully and as perfectly as I can. And I offer it as a means of grace for my wife and children.”

Can we barely stand the sight of our boss or colleague? Let us say, “Lord, I will endeavor to smile and be positive in my encounters with them today, though it costs me my pride, and I offer this in union with your most holy passion.”

Are we tempted to skive and do less than our fair share at work? Let us say, “Lord, I shall offer an extra hour of honest work today in thanksgiving for your blessings, and I offer this mortification for the life of the Church.”

In sanctifying your work, you participate in the mystery of Christ’s redemption by sanctifying the world.

If you make your work holy, you learn to become holy. And your relationships with your colleagues and bosses, not to mention the results of your efforts, encourage an atmosphere of grace in the office that glorifies the presence of God. This is how we win the world back to Christ, by beginning where we are, in the ordinary work that we are already doing. Our professional work can indeed be God’s work.

There is no greater mortification than the crunching patience and self-denial that is needed to turn our daily boredom, tiredness, frustrations, laziness, routine and pride into moments of heroic Christian love.

How pleasing it is to the Lord for a wife to beautify herself after a hard day of looking after the kids in preparation for her husband coming home. How pleasing it is to the Lord that a husband should greet his wife with a broad smile, a warm kiss and a bouquet of flowers after a terrible day in the office, and to spend time listening to her despite his own desire for some quiet.

How pleasing it is to the Lord that we practice virtue at work, whether we run for high office or whether we drive a garbage truck, so that we may draw extraordinary fruits from our ordinary work when done well and done with Christian love.

How pleasing it is to the Lord that we begin and end our days by offering to do all things well for the Lord, whatever the circumstances of our work.

As Catholic Christians, all of us share in the common priesthood of Christ the high priest. And just as Abel offered the work of his hands and Melchizedek, the sacrifice of bread and wine, we too can offer God the best fruits of our work that come to us each day.

For the priest, the altar is the table where he celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist. For you and me, our altar is the table in our office, where we offer God the sacrifice of our work and talents.

Whether you are a teacher, a banker, a cleaner, a fireman or a housewife, that is where God has placed you in his great wisdom. And that is where he wishes you to find him, and to make him known to the world. The circumstances of ordinary life are not an obstacle but rather the material and path of sanctification.

Work becomes prayer when we do it to glorify God, when we make our talents, skills and labor an offering of love to the Lord, so that doing our work well with perfection, charity and patience becomes no less meritorious to God than giving our lives in martyrdom.

Indeed, the dying to self required of us to persevere in a spirit of cheerfulness despite difficulties everyday is a bloodless martyrdom that wins for us the crown of eternal life, making us saints through our ordinary duties and work.

It is a fact that God wants to reign in the midst of every human activity, especially the ordinary and mundane, but the temptation to remove God from the world and keep him only in the churches, is the same one that seduces some of us to pray only on Sundays and at mass.

Jesus who taught us the perfect prayer worked and sanctified his days as a carpenter for many years before beginning his public ministry.

St. Paul, the apostle of the gentiles supported his apostolic life by his work as a tent maker and he too asked that we pray unceasingly.

Should we then not believe that this is not only easy and possible but also crucial and necessary? Indeed we must.

We pray not just with our voices and our hearts, but also with our eyes, our hands, our feet and our minds. We pray not just in churches and the quiet of our bedrooms, but in offices, farms, hospitals, and schools and in every place where a Christian heart is ready to turn to God.

When St. Thomas Aquinas was asked what it took for a person to become a saint, he answered simply, “Will it.”

Let us then put aside the excuse of work in saying we have no time to pray, and let us repeat with St. Benedict the holy genius of a good Christian life - “Ora et Labora”.

Let us “pray and work”, for the way to heaven is set before you everyday.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Man and machine

I started my car this afternoon and drove off as I always did down the familiar ramps of my car park and after a couple of turns, I realized strangely that my vehicle was veering off to the left as if drawn by some mysterious force. As I released my steering wheel, I saw it swiveling in the same direction as if turned by a phantom hand. Oh oh, I thought to myself; my steering alignment has gone whacky, which means another costly visit to the workshop.

But when I got out to check the car, I discovered that my left frontal tyre was flat as a doormat. That explains why I had to fight the vehicle’s compulsion to keep running off to the left like a dog pulling against a leash.

The only thing I could do was to bring the errant car back to “port” and fix the tyre. But as I stood there staring at the deflated wheel of my otherwise perfect ride, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated by the inconvenience; especially since I was on my way to keeping an appointment. And then the thought hit me. I remembered driving up a curb a week back and the little bump must’ve inflicted more damage than I expected. Strange that it took so long for the air to slip out.

In the same way, many of us pick up injuries to our souls and our hearts that we often don’t notice or only imagine to be tiny bumps along the way. Months and years later, we suddenly find ourselves broken down on the road of life, stranded, surprised and perhaps even alarmed at the state of our disrepair. And unlike cars, we often hide the bruises and injuries of our accidents far better, so well in fact that some of us spend a lifetime oblivious to the scars, dents and scraped metal we accumulate through days, weeks and months of careless driving.

Yet sooner or later…we all break down when these collective abuses remain ignored and untreated.

Every few thousand miles, we’re told to bring the car in for servicing; to let the professionals do a thorough checkup and fix what needs to be fixed. Ever so often, we need to do the same for our souls and our hearts.

I’m always amazed by people who say, “I have no sin, I have nothing to confess, I don't need to ask forgiveness for anything”, especially since “I haven’t killed, hurt or cheated anybody in a big way.”

That’s like saying I’m not concerned about the state of my car from all the daily grind, stress and speed abuses I put it through because I didn’t try to jump through a ring of fire, or drive it into a wall, or compete in a demolition derby.

The fact is, we do need to be conscious of our thoughts, our moral choices, our attitudes and struggles, and our present state of soul if we want to save ourselves from breakdowns and accidents that are almost always the cumulative fruits of small sins of selfishness and pride.

The Lord tells us that if we are faithful in little things, we will be faithful in big things as well. In the same way, if we neglect to rid ourselves of little faults, they will grow into bigger faults that can one day lock our steering wheel in life, and drive us to the edge of disaster if we do not recognize them for what they are. Even the biggest chains that haul anchor on a ship are made of smaller links bound together. What more the chains of sin and sadness that bind a soul to despair over years of indifference and apathy?

Thankfully, regular maintenance for our soul is cheap and easy. All it takes is some humility and the will to return to Christ amidst all the hard rides and cheap thrills of life.

A few minutes of prayer each day talking to our heavenly father, a short passage of scripture, regular confession or at least an examination of conscience, and the super unleaded fuel of the Eucharist at mass...these are all freebies given to you with unlimited generosity so that you may avail yourself of the best maintenance and repair work for your soul always. Your moral windshields are cleaned so that you may see better the roads you should take, your tyres are inflated so that your journey might be smooth and safer, your engine is finely tuned to give you excellent performance in the race for eternal happiness, and your seatbelts are checked to ensure that you are safely strapped in despite the bumps and obstacles of life.

But some of us might feel that going to church, praying and giving that little more attention to our spiritual lives is unnecessary, boring and tedious. And yet if I told you there really was a car servicing station that offered you all these amazing services for free, you would put the pedal to the metal and be the first to queue in line for the good of your car. Your soul my friend is far more precious than your car.

Indeed, the bad habits we maintain each day can easily damage our steering alignment over time and cause us to keep veering off the right track in life and lead us ever further from happiness and fulfillment. Each one of us has a couple of flat tyres in our lives that need some attention. Make a decision today to get yours fixed before they continue to drive you away from everything that is true and good.

Incidentally, I’ve never actually replaced a flat tyre before. So as I stood staring at the flattened rubber tubing hugging my rim, I was very much tempted to just call for help. It would be a cinch; the guy would come in his tow truck, jack up the car, remove the wounded wheel and replace it with the spare in less time than it would take me to figure out which was the jack in the first place. And I would be $50 poorer of course.

But something told me I had to do this myself, or at least make the effort without being crushed to death under my own ride. And so I rolled up my sleeves (figure of speech of course since I was wearing a t-shirt) and got right down to it. I found the jack, found where to winch it, found the tools to loosen the nuts and bolts, and struggled like the ultimate wimp that I was to unscrew the tortured wheel. But it just wouldn’t budge.

Lots of grunting, groaning and wheezing later, I was ready to give up and call the toll free number for a mechanic. But something stopped me and persuaded me to keep trying despite the stinging sweat in my eyes and “the bolts that would not be turned”. After kicking, stomping and basically trying to do the River Dance on the poor spanner attached to the bolts, they finally gave and started to loosen up. After that it was easy. The bolts came off, the wheel was dragged off, and the spare was replaced with ease and tightened up by another frantic encore of the River Dance.

For someone who has trouble changing a light bulb, I was pretty darn pleased with myself. I had learnt something new about my own capabilities. I could be as manly as any guy, I had hair on my chest, I could change a tyre!!! (Ok the middle part wasn’t true.)

2008 wasn’t really a good year for me. In fact, many things in my life seemed to have a steering alignment problem and kept veering off the road no matter how much I tried keeping my hopes and dreams on course. And often, it was extremely frustrating and discouraging when I didn’t know the reasons why. 

Often too, I was tempted to stop praying; which seemed such an herculean effort when nothing appeared to change and God seemed deaf to my pleas. But now and then, I would be nudged gently by the soft voice of providence to try again, to not give up on the bolts that wouldn't budge, to press my spiritual muscles to the spanner of my hopes because I really can change the flat tyres of my heart. I just need to believe I can, and there's no other way to learn how to do so than by doing it. There's no other way to learn the power of faith and prayer than to believe and pray with perseverance, despite the aching muscles and pouring sweat.

The point of this story is; God often allows difficult things to happen to us because he wishes to draw us out of ourselves. He loves us too much to let us stay in mediocrity, and even though we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the pain, rejections and disappointments of life, God whispers in our ears, “Do not be afraid”. Do not be afraid to hope in God. Do not be afraid to try. Do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid to forgive and let go. Do not be afraid to seek and accept forgiveness. Do not be afraid to dream and hope still. Do not be afraid to open your heart. Do not be afraid to live. Do not be afraid to love. Do not be afraid to trust in God still, for He is with you always.

In the crosses we carry, the burdens we bear, the pains we suffer…sometimes it’s human and natural to doubt, to wonder if God is a mean schoolmaster trying to teach us a lesson. Perhaps he is. Not as a nasty disciplinarian without sympathy, but as a most loving father with deep compassion for our needs. And perhaps…it’s also a lesson we desperately need to learn for our own good, for our own dignity…and for our own happiness.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


For a small country like Singapore, it’s amazing how many traffic lights you have to drive through every few meters or so. And on some days, it feels like you’re wrestling with a dragnet designed to turn red at every street corner. It can be rather frustrating when you’re impatient for time.

The fact is; many of us are so accustomed to speeding along in life that we often react to any delay or obstructions with predictable annoyance. Some drivers weave through traffic in their ridiculously pimped up machines as if the devil was on their tail, or their trunk was on fire. We want to get there first; we want to get there fast, and without any obstacles in our way.

As a driver myself I often notice that when I’m behind the wheel, I tend to look myopically ahead like a horse donning blinkers. I hardly perceive the scenes whisking by. Of course it’s partly out of safety that I keep my eyes to the front, but mostly it’s also because I’m so focused on the road ahead that I often miss the journey entirely. Indeed we can drive for years down the same stretch of road and never really notice the environment around us except for the endless stretch of grey ahead. We don’t notice the view; the flowers, the colors, and the attractions that accompany us on our journey until we let someone else take the wheels of our car. And whenever I’m fortunate enough to sit back as a passenger, I’m surprised to see how beautiful the world is outside.

Why are we so fixated on rushing through life, only to arrive often with disappointment? The time spent getting to our destination is often fraught with anxiety about what we’re going to do when we get there, who we’re going to meet, how we’re going to handle the various situations etc, that we’re almost fearing the arrival as much as we’re anxiously spurred on by an urge to be somewhere, to do something.

There was a time when people drove for the fun of being on the road, of spending time in each other’s company. Now it’s all about getting somewhere quick. In the past, the journey itself was the reward, getting there was just incidental. And people arrived at their destinations with greater satisfactions even though they may arrive later or take detours along the way. In fact, detours were welcomed as an adventure…knowing that as long as they experienced all things in love and companionship…even the difficulties along the way were redeemed as beautiful encounters.

Admittedly, many of us really need to slow down. Perhaps some of us even require emergency brakes to stop short of impending disaster. But when we can’t help ourselves because we’re so used to being the driver of our own destinies, what does God do to help us? I think he turns on the red lights in our lives, he throws up those obstacles and detours that annoy us so much because they delay our plans and disrupt our routes, but which ultimately save us from spiritual death or manslaughter.

Have you ever seen children running gleefully down a hill? In our youth, we ourselves have rolled down more than one slope, scraped more than one knee and sometimes broken more than a few bones. Despite natural feelings of caution that go off in our brains, our egos to compete, our greed for excitement and our pride in not losing out to anyone else effectively drown out whatever warnings our parents might give us.

As adults we continue to run recklessly down the hill of our lives without brakes. And even though God our Father asks us to slow down and to stop running, we don’t listen.

Sometimes he has to forcefully throw obstacles in the path to stop us from hurting others and ourselves. No one likes running into a wall, but sometimes a wall of love is the only buffer that can save us; much like an airbag in a car. Of course, it’s going to be painful. Of course it’s an experience that can be avoided in the first place. But when we get out of control, God has to activate the brakes and airbags in our lives to slow us down, to stop us in our tracks even, so that we may survive our mistakes despite our bruises.

What are the obstacles that have forced you to take a detour in life or to slow down? What are the walls that have been erected in your path, separating you from what you imagine to be your happiness and fulfillment?

Whether it’s the distress of a bad investment, or the cross of a debilitating illness, or the loss of a loved one, or the misunderstandings that lead to the end of a relationship, we’ve all experienced the frustrations of being thwarted in our plans and our hopes. And in the absence of supernatural faith, we can turn bitter with anger against God whom we see as the enemy to our happiness.

The truth is; God allows us to encounter these obstacles because of three things – love, love and love. We are going through our present difficulties because God loves us very much; not because he wishes us ill, but because he alone knows how much good can be born from our patient acceptance of our crosses. It is not good to be sad naturally, but faith in a heart that believes in the fidelity and loving will of God gives every Christian soul the strength, the courage and the supernatural hope to trust that God will bless the broken path that leads to real joy and happiness.

Yes, many of our crosses are of our own making. Many of our crosses could’ve been avoided. And many of our crosses are the direct results of our own bad choices in life…including a sinful life. We have insisted on driving through every red light, we have resisted every call to slow down and avoid running down steep hills for thrills, and we have purchased the pain of our actions through foolish pride and irresponsibility. And now that we are humiliated by our circumstances and our failures, we can finally relinquish our desperate mastership of our destinies to one who truly is King of our lives.

C.S. Lewis says, “Pain is God’s megaphone for rousing a deaf world”. And humility cannot be learnt except through humiliation. Yet it is humility that can begin the long path to healing and redemption; to recognize that we are not God, and in our prayers to let God be God in our lives; instead of taking that divine tone ourselves.

Just two Sundays ago, we celebrated the end of the Church’s liturgical year with the feast of Christ the King. In his time on earth, our Blessed Lord preached unceasingly of the Kingdom of God. But what is essential for a kingdom? Subjects surely, ministers, soldiers and various people with various talents who live their citizenship in this royal domain. But more than anyone else, a kingdom needs a king who is free to exercise his rightful place as sovereign and lord.

The Kingdom of God can be understood as the acceptance of and loving obedience to the kingship or lordship of Jesus in our person and in our lives. In other words, we give ourselves as humble subjects to our Lord, asking him to be master and lord, king and sovereign over our entire lives, and to establish his most holy and loving reign over our souls and our bodies; accepting the good and the bad from his hands, trusting in his divine will which expresses this kingship most clearly.

Know that God’s will is most clearly manifested in the events of our days, the opportunities of our lives, the chance encounters, the tiny crosses, the opened and closed doors, and the friendships, relationships and people who cross our paths…all of which are opportunities for grace and eternal happiness…if we start from today to listen to his voice so that we may see what he sees, hear what he hears, and desire what he desires for us.

But if we continue to cling to this obsession to be behind the wheel of our own lives, to keep in control, to be the master of our destinies when we often don’t even know where we’re going or dread going there if we do, we shall drive ourselves into a ditch of sadness, despair and enduring pain. Not just for ourselves, but also for those we love.

The roads of life are always changing, the maps are constantly evolving and obstacles are ever present. It takes someone with a towering view of things from the air, like a pilot in a helicopter, to be able to tell us what lies ahead, and what to avoid.

Only heaven can guide us to safety. As pilgrims on the road, we can’t see more than 300 meters ahead, and often there are obstructions in the way. Even then, bad weather or the darkness of night can make visibility even worse. But no darkness is as dark as sin, and no obstacle so insurmountable as stubbornness and pride. To continue down this path of neglect for our soul and our dignity is to drive off a cliff one day, dragging others with us.

So in this season of advent, slow down, take stock, stop to think, pray and look around you. Check your moral GPS, see where you are…and if you are lost and confused, come back to the Lord for he is waiting for you…just as the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son stands on the brow of the hill looking out, and waiting for his child to return, so that his joy may be complete in you, and your joy may be real in Him.

Viva Christo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Yesterday, I popped into an old photo studio in my former neighbourhood for a peek.

In an age of digital photography, I was curious about how such an old-time business sustains itself. The owner, who is this wiry old man in his seventies was familiar to me. Uncle Han (in asia, we traditionally address anyone more senior, especially the elderly as uncles and aunties as a mark of respect even though the person could be a total stranger) and I got to talking, sitting down on old rattan chairs and sipping some really potent chinese coffee that was sure to keep me up for weeks. And in the course of our conversation (filled with much nostaligia and reminiscing), we got to talking about love. He got up and reached for an old album which he kept wrapped up in the silky folds of a ladies' scarf, and unbound a lifetime of youthful memories to share with me.

Mostly, it was filled with old pictures of himself as a young man standing next to the love of his life. She was a beautiful girl. They must've both been in their teens when these photos were taken. There is much to be said about subtlety, when so little is physically expressed but so much love, bonding and depth is evident from the simplest gestures and smiles. As uncle Han spoke, I could feel the deep stirrings of his heart for his childhood love. It was a tale of deep and earnest love, in a time when perseverence, forgiveness and commitment meant some things. Unfortunately, this precious love was cut short by the onset of war. With violence, oppression and danger came sickness, poverty and want. (Uncle Han belongs to a generation of old chinese men who still have difficulty forgiving the Japanese for the atrocities of the last century).

Amdist this historical struggle, this man suffered the personal tragedy of losing his love to pneumonia when no medical attention was possible or sufficient. Her parents were fearful of having him over since the Japanese kempetai (or secret police) was always on the lookout for young men to round up and execute. And communications and visits had to be sparse and cautious. Hence he was denied much contact with his love, although letters carried their hearts to each other whenever that was possible. And only after some weeks did he learn that she had passed on in the heart-rending loneliness of calling his name.

That was well over 60 years ago. Han survived the war, survived the difficult years of rebuilding that followed, settled down, got married, survived personal sickness and tragedies, survived his wife, survived the sweeping technologies that swept away a generation, but sitting there right next to me; his eyes brimmed with tears, he never survived the loss of his young love and I suspect he will continue to love her to the end.

There is something beautiful about love that perseveres even in the face of death. Today, we see so many relationships die because people have no idea at all about what it means to know real love and commitment. They're always searching for something grand and smooth that they don't see the extravagance of generosity and love in their difficulties, disagreements and struggles to stay together. Perhaps some will say that Han's longetivity in love is common in the face of love unfulfiled. Because he never had to live with his fiance, marry her, put up with her, quarrel with her and take her nonsense that his idealism remains intact, unsullied by reality and human imperfection. His memories of love in other words have preserved unnaturally his devotion to love.

I don't believe that to be true at all. Rather I believe that to be an excuse for people who lack any idealism, any hope, any true desire for love and commitment; which always comes with pain, sacrifice and above all, personal and lasting choice. I feel in my own heart great love for a relationship that has died and which was wrought with painful and disappointing moments. But I do not wish to turn my back on what is true in my heart, even though that love may not be appreciated nor reciprocated. Choosing to love beyond the transient separates us from beasts of gratification; whose choices are fleeting at best and prisoners to selfish satisfactions that have nothing to do with real love and devotion. We are not such beasts when we love with Christ and in Christ so that our relationships, our hearts and our romances may also be redeemed experiences that lift us up in our human and Christian dignity, not tear us down to vulgar commonality.

In that dingy, tiny photography studio with the blue doors and rattan chairs, I found real respect for the man who continues to develop memories for people when they bring in their own cameras, while cherishing his own memories in a celebration of lasting and faithful love - ever young, ever present, ever faithful, ever real.

And in that great hope of the resurrection, I pray our dear God to grant him the fulfillment of a lifetime and more - to one day finally hold his love in his arms, and to know her love for eternity.

I like this quote from Mother Teresa, and I share it here with you.

"Don't think that love, to be true, has to be extraordinary. What is necessary is to continue to love. How does a lamp burn, if it is not by the continuous feeding of little drops of oil? When there is no oil, there is no light and the bridegroom will say: "I do not know you". Dear friends, what are our drops of oil in our lamps? They are the small things from every day life: the joy, the generosity, the little good things, the humility and the patience. A simple thought for someone else. Our way to be silent, to listen, to forgive, to speak and to act. These are the real drops of oil that make our lamps burn vividly our whole life." – Mother Teresa

Sunday, January 6, 2008

By the light of the silvery moon

Let me share this letter I recently wrote to an overseas friend. Perhaps some of you struggle as we do with faith and hope. And if like me, you're a fellow pilgrim stumbling through your own dark night, let's give each other courage and keep our spirits up...the day is not far from us.

"Sometimes what we want to say, we need to say through a smile. And even though I can't see you in person, can't hear your heart rejoice, weep or sigh with closeness, I know the reality is that ever so often we can move each other to joy, to happiness and courage...and to a smile....even though to all appearances our lives seem so separated by distance - both far and near. For within ourselves we constantly struggle to come closer to meaning, to purpose and to peace. All of which is but a desire to come closer to love.

I know I sometimes come across as being utterly confident in faith and hope. But the opposite is true. Like most people, I walk the shadows of my world more uncertainly, more tepidly than I would like. And there are days when it feels so much easier to lie down among the shrubbery of indifference and despair, and simply recede into the darkness. It's hard to to know where to step in the dark, much less the way to happiness when we feel lost in the jungles of our own failures, weaknesses and pains. But as I lift my weary eyes ever so often to the dark clouds above, I spy the silvery light of the moon that accompanies me with her glow, as if to assure me that behind the blanket of dark clouds, light follows me with a mother's love, peering out ever so often with protective love to remind me that she is there, that I'm not alone, that in her light is the reflection of the sun and the dawn to come.

As children we all look out of a moving car and wonder why the moon seems to follow us on our drive home. And Mary has traditionally been identified with the moon who takes her light from Christ, lighting the way for poor sinners in darkness so that even though they trudge through the tired roads of this earth, their nights may not be without the solace and comfort of her gentle light...promising always the dawn of God's love in the morning.

We often don't see the struggles of the saints. In a society used to exposing the private musings of souls to the bright studio lights of talk shows and scandal, we've become ever more unsophisticated and impotent in understanding the sacred passages of the human heart.

Who alone knows the house we keep but God? Who alone truly understands the language of our human experiences? Even our conscience is a subjective guest in the mansions of our hearts when it is not grown in the gardens of truth and the gospel light.

Frequently we spy the outward happiness, fulfillment and faith of those we admire, and wonder why God has so abundantly shielded them from the dark despairs we encounter. Likewise we also gaze sadly upon the apparent indifference, tepidity and sloth of those we think irreligous and unaccomplished, and not know the house of faith, joy and spiritual wisdom some keep alive at home. As I read the lives of the saints (particularly the later ones whom we have more details about), I'm consoled to know how much alike they seem to us in their doubts, their struggles and temptations to give up.

Mother Teresa showed the world her real face of joy and faith while unknown to the world until now, she also had a real face of doubt, questions and weariness. Both faces were truly and genuinely Mother Teresa, each supporting the other in prayer, in commitment, in hope and faith, and in real fidelity to her humanity in Christ. And even though I personally see my face of despair and tiredness more frequently than my face of love and faith, I know there is yet in me the determination of a traveller, a pilgrim who has not given up on finding his way home even though the journey has been fraught with difficulties. Not because my trust in God is unwavering, but because I know between the night and the light of day, I must continue to hope in the dawn that takes its time to come, however late, even if that hope gives me only enough strength to take a few more steps under the weight of sadness or loneliness. Still, it is a few more steps forward, a few more moments to catch my breath, a few moments to gather courage and strength to move forward from one place to the next, although our human senses may not perceive any difference between where we are now, and where we were a few days ago, or last week, or a few months ago. But look...see how far we've come.

A rolling stone gathers no moss, and we must try and ensure that we are not tangled by the tendrils and moss of apathy, discouragement and despair in our spiritual journey. Let's move courageously onward, let's trudge on through the dryness of prayer, the painful lull of love, the lifting of our hearts to hope against hope, for the night does not last forever.

I'm not sure what difficulties you are encountering, and I'm embarrassed by your impressions of my faithfulness to God. In truth, I am nothing like that - I'm just a man who feels more sadness in my heart now than I have in recent years, but I still know what beauty and truth looks like, and I can still feel the excitement of beholding them. And in speaking of them, I allow the cold, withered members of my soul to warm to their words, to feel once again the fire of Christ melting the frost of my heart; whispering encouragingly...summer is coming.

You too must believe that there is a dawn, there is a summer after this winter night. And already the fires of the first spring have been lit.

Do not let the pains and disappointments of this life distract you from contemplating this tiny spark of joy. It is there in your heart...feed it, contemplate it, feel it...and take that one more step out of the night. And when Mary peeks out from behind the clouds and sends us a friend, a brother or sister, a lover and spouse to keep us company this evening, let us avail ourselves of this support and take courage...that clouds can only hide the light for so long before the winds of change blow them away and wash our tired worlds with the light of the moon...who announces the light of the sun, who announces a new day in creation.

In the end, life is a mystery and God's ways remain a mystery to us. But it is not the kind of mystery deep in deceit and danger like in detective novels, but the kind of mystery that leaves us in wonder and immense gratitude as we behold how the designs of providence make all things well, and is able to write straight with the crooked lines of our lives. And boy, do some of us have illegibly crooked lines...which gives us greater claim on the mystery of his love and goodness. Let us be thankful for this mystery in our lives now; that even though we don't know when, how, why or what....we know the mystery of God is a miracle waiting to come alive in our lives.

Let's try and keep hope alive shall we? For you and for me."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Breaking free of chains

‘If you love Jesus, send this to 20 people’ - I often see this at the end of an email carrying a Christian message. Also, what is the deal with duplicating St Jude pamphlets and leaving them in Church?

It is unfortunate that many good Christians find themselves in this awkward dilemma. Yet as much as some of these emails can be inspiring to read, there is really no need to suffer any scruples over them. Too frequently, these writings not only cause unnecessary guilt but they also invite superstition. Usually, they also insinuate that if you love Jesus, you will have the good sense to share it with so many others, if you don't, then obviously you won't. In this aspect, they are no different from chain letters that promise some retribution or at the very least, the deprivation and loss of some blessing if a reader fails to pass them on.

In reality, authors who pen these things are presumptuous in describing the love of God in such terms.

If we do love God, there are certainly changes in our lives we should hasten to embrace to ensure that holiness and sincerity reign in all our thoughts and actions, since only in the truth of the Gospels is there any hope for happiness and peace in our lives.

Discipleship does not consist in merely forwarding an inspiring email to a certain number of people and then feeling like we've done our part for evangelising.

As such, I can't help wondering how different folks who rally around such minimalist approaches to religion are, as opposed to people who similarly build their faith around endless novenas and St Jude prayers and the recitation of a certain number of prayers on certain days.

Such an attitude towards faith and salvation is totally unchristian and founded instead on the magical assumption that we can control and dominate God by fulfilling a certain set of devotions.

The pagan spiritual world of magic and religion almost always consists of formulas to follow in order to obtain spiritual help. And in many ways, they also come equipped with the understanding that dark days will come upon him who fails to observe these practices.

A religion based on instilling fear of spiritual backlash is not a true religion.

Rather, the fear and reverence of God prescribed by the Old Testament is an allusion to a different kind of fear.

There is Holy Fear, which does not grip the soul in panic but rather imbues it with a humbling sense of tremendous wonder and awe, which is not only natural but also bound up with our duty and reverence towards God as our Creator. And then there is superstitious fear, the kind that is bound up with the same anxieties associated with darkness, snakes and evil that we find so common in our human psyche.

That is the kind of fear and relationship with God that the enemy seeks to introduce into our lives under the masks of "authentic" devotions.

But as you well know, there can be no authentic relationship where love is transplanted with formulaic transactions and where our spiritual health depends only upon so many emails we send to so many people, before slipping back to our morally complacent lives with an eased conscience.

We should remember that darkness often seeks to sow superstition in the heart of real religion.

When I do come across something inspiring and feel inclined to pass it on to individuals I think would benefit from its messages, I do forward the mail, but only after I delete the ridiculous portion crying.."If you love Jesus, send this to so many people etc."

That is an example of corrupting the Christian message of love as well as using the Lord's name in vain.

The idea that we can pry open a treasury of grace by following an exterior set of "magical" formulas is silly. That is also why whenever we come across stacks of chain letters to St Jude where the petition carries with it the obligation to reproduce these letters and leave them in church, we should promptly throw them in the trash, for that is our Christian duty before God and the Magisterial Church.

However, there will always be those who prefer this kind of sentimental faith, the same kind that appeals to Christians who claim to tell fortunes through tarot cards and read your palms while invoking the name of St Anthony or some other saint, as if by that safeguard, they somehow legitimise their superstition as falling within the realm of approved religion.

Why do so many prefer it?

Because it costs less in terms of the repentance and conversion that is needed in real faith.

That's almost similar to the Pharisees and scribes who go through the motions of offering a couple of sheep and goats as token worship to Yahweh, but whose lives largely never change.

Many people who go to novena services often do so because they want something, and that something they want is more often than not, NOT a conversion of their lives.

Indeed, formulas deprived of their original intention give many of us an excuse to do the barest minimum for Christ, and still expect to be blessed with material rewards. Hence the popularity of chain letters that come hidden under the guise of genuine devotions.

After all, doesn't Christian tradition describe how Satan often takes on the appearance of an angel of light?

Now you might ask, what about services or devotions like Triduums and Novenas or even the traditional practice of saying 3 Hail Marys through the day? And let us not forget the 5 decades of the Rosary. How are these different?

Well to start with, the incidental number of days or prayers connected with these devotions are just that...incidental. They don't have any magical powers associated with them. If you don't complete 9 days in a novena, it doesn't mean that you offend heaven or commit a sin.

Secondly, there is no compulsion to perform them. You are not a bad Catholic if you do not believe in their efficacy or practice. The worst you can be accused of is a lack of charity and appreciation for such ancient devotions that have brought blessings and consolations to so many generations.

But to each his own. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is essential to our salvation, all others simply aid us towards that.

The word "Novena" is Latin for 9 days at a time when early Christians performed acts of charity or held certain days of prayer vigils to commemorate and honour a certain aspect of the Gospel. The length of these devotions are set so as to impress upon the penitents a sense of pilgrimage, as they journey through the different meditations and arrive at a destination in their prayer which usually culminates in benediction or a celebration of the Mass.

Having a certain number of devotional days to celebrate is much akin to the ancient wedding and religious feasts of those days. Weddings in the time of Christ for instance went on for weeks like in the Gospel story of Cana. The feast of the tabernacles or Passover was also a celebration that went on for a good number of days.

Novena services simply honour that tradition of a family celebration, where we journey as pilgrims together on the move, from one theme or day of prayer to the next, recalling the reasons for our redemption and so forth.

They are undertaken so as to draw closer to God, and to afford a greater union to His love by taking special time to meet Him in our busy schedule.

This is the same rationale behind things like Tridiums (3 days), the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius (30 days retreat), LENT (40days)...all of which are just invitations to set aside time for God and commit ourselves to meeting him everyday for a determined period.

The number of days are not important.

It's almost like a man saying, "I have been so busy recently that I rarely give time to my family apart from those sporadic moments after work each evening. But despite my busy schedule, perhaps I can commit myself to spend the next 10 days in really giving myself to my wife and children, and recalling my vocation as a Christian husband and father. Hopefully that will help me to grow deeper in my love and appreciation for them. Even though my work will not ease up, I make this commitment because I know how important they are to me."

The same principle applies. The numbers are not magical. 40 days of Lent commemorate the 40 days of Jesus in the desert and the 40 years of Israel wandering in the desert in anticipation of God's promise. 9 days in a Novena (although a Novena can be made with any number of days that you personally determine) simply evolved from the ancient Roman custom of those days, when pagan Rome had a traditional 9-day devotion to appease their Gods by offering sacrifice and prayer.

As Rome became Christianised, the early Christians replaced the Roman practice of sacrificing to their Gods with 9 days of vigils and prayers in honour of Christ and His saints instead, to signify that Jesus had conquered, overcome and replaced the old pagan religions and customs with the Gospel light of Himself.

That was a symbolic act to say that the old had passed away and the new was here to stay.

Some traditions however attribute this popular vigil to the 9 days that the apostles were believed to have spent in prayer before the descent of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost.

The novena prayers to St Jude work on the same basis. The numbers of days simply connote a sense of commitment and sincerity in following something through. They are not magical. For people who believe otherwise, they get terribly upset whenever their prayers are not answered after completing this routine, as if we can make God a prisoner by forcing Him to uphold His part of the bargain since we are fulfilling the formula.

God is not a genie living in a lamp whom we rub 3 times and utter some incantation. Why should St Jude bother with someone whose sole purpose in performing some religious devotion is to gain temporal favours? It's his role and special interest to intercede for us that we might become better disciples and be saved. And if part of that in God’s plans means having our prayers granted, then that is up to God. It is not a condition for faith or even a road map to happiness.

These devotions we must remember, are meant to bring the person into closer union with God. They are spiritual exercises meant to strengthen faith and charity. They are NOT activities that unfailingly promise favours, which is mostly why people perform them; to seek gifts apart from the giver, as if by our very attendance to these things, we are doing God a favour and therefore He should show us His gratitude by answering our prayers. If not, we'll just hop onto the next passing wagon of cheap rituals that promise something else.

These prayers and practices are intended to help Christians find the strength to carry their crosses, not remove them. For without the cross, how can we ever be lifted up to the heavens? Without Good Friday, how can there be any Easter Sundays in our lives? And without Calvary, will we ever see the Resurrection?

By the way, the Novena, (private or public) is not an official part of the Church's liturgy despite being widely popular among the faithful for ages.

So back to the issue of these inspirational chain letters, don't feel too badly if you choose to ignore them. In as much as we can evangelise through these things, I hardly think that this constitutes spreading the Good News. If we were to content ourselves to merely this as disciples, we should really re-look our motivations and generosity in making Jesus known and loved.

After all, this requires no sacrifice save the effort of your finger upon the keyboard.

But we are asked to do more, much more.

So if you come across something you'd like to pass on, by all means. But delete the bit that sounds like a chain mail. It’s an insult to Christianity. Let it be your personal intention and even then, only send it to people whom you want to say something to. Then follow up on this with real efforts to spread the Good News in your life.

The only multiplication we need in our religious duties is the increase of grace in our lives, without which all is vanity.