Friday, December 29, 2006

Then and now

This entry is written as a postscript to "The contraception debate".

When the papal encyclical "Humanae Vitae" was released in the late sixties, a storm of criticisms descended on Pope Paul VI. Many accused him of being a prophet of doom and gloom, and ridiculed his message on the dangers of contraception.

As we near the end of 2006, let's reconsider his warnings in the light of almost forty years of human experience, and see if history has vindicated Paul VI.

The Holy Father warned in his encyclical released in 1968, "Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings - and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation - need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law."

Fast forward to our time, no one denies that for more than 35 years, the world has taken a manic dive into a quagmire of indecency and sexual immorality. Adultery, divorces, abortions, teenage and unwanted pregnancies, venereal diseases and broken families litter our moral landscape like so many corpses dying from a dreaded disease.

The Vicar of Christ also cautioned, "Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."

How alarmingly true of modern relationships, where a woman's body is often treated more as a haven for gratification than a temple of the Holy Spirit. Pornography, sexually explicit corporate advertising and gross indecencies in entertainment arts all reduce the value of a woman's dignity to her sexual attractiveness.

The situation in Japan where individuals and corporations prey on the sexual willingness of schoolgirls who ply sex for material gains or money is but a sad reminder of the great loss of innocence in the world today. And for years, the pornographic industries reap in billions of dollars from eager new "artistes"; women who are constantly transformed into objects of lust by the temptation of money and comfort, while unscrupulous structures in third world countries continue to exploit helpless women sold into slavery to feed a raging appetite of lustful men who come by busloads in organised sex tours.

"Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife. "

Contraception is a dangerous weapon to place in the hands of governments whose agendas are anything but moral. In taking away the children of those who struggle, the rich and powerful often succeed in taking away the hopes and futures of the poor.

All one has to do is look at China with its one child policies where sterilization, contraception and even abortion is encouraged with intimidating social and economic pressures. The 20th century in particular was a sad witness to the population control policies of government agencies who enforced sterilisation and contraception for families struggling with poverty in various parts of Africa, Asia and South America, thereby threatening to wipe-out entire ethnic legacies and villages by robbing them of their young instead of providing infrastructures to help them care for children.

Many educational and health authorities in western countries who advocate contraception as a more realistic alternative to moral formation and chastity, believe that "if we cannot stop teenagers and people with greater HIV risks from having casual sex, the least we can do is to keep them safe by handing out condoms", only to discover that now more than ever, the figures for teenage pregnancies and HIV positive encounters have gone off the scale.

The ironic tragedy in most population control policies is that where they have succeeded, they have succeeded only too well, forcing governments to seek remedies for a rapidly shrinking population with no hopeful signs of growth. Japan, Europe and even Singapore are clear examples of this.

"Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions..." - Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae

It is amazing with what divine accuracy the Pope's predictions have come true in our own age. Cloning, in-vitro fertilisation, test-tube babies, genetic engineering, surrogate motherhood, all of which are a testament to the power that man has usurped to himself in playing God. Only unlike God, he has no complete power over his creations.

For all intents and purposes, it is obvious that the "miracle" of Contraception, although attractively beneficial in theory, is in fact deadly disastrous in practice.

Forty years ago, one man stood against the tide of popular opinion and proclaimed that truth.

Forty years later, are we still deaf to this truth?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The contraception debate

There is little in Catholic teaching that invites more controversy and public outcry than the Church's ban on contraception. Even within the Church, many Catholics fail to comprehend the reasons for this venerable teaching, often choosing instead to ignore the issue altogether by convincing themselves that sexual relations between a married couple is purely a matter of conjugal privacy and that quite frankly, the pope has no business sticking his nose into their bedrooms.

But in truth, why does the Church insist that contraception is a serious sin that brutalises the sanctity of marriage and attacks the very foundation of family and society?

(At this point, it is important to remember that the Church's teaching about contraception is phrased within the context of marriage, so whether contraceptives are licit in sexual relations outside marriage or not is irrelevant, since the very act of a sexual union outside marriage is morally reprehensible in the first place.)

The answer is not one that is likely to move an atheist or convince a pagan, because at the heart of this teaching lies a profession in the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Some Christians seem to think that the power and omniscience of God stops at the foot of their matrimonial bed. It is almost as if God is so busy being God, that sometimes a possible conception can utterly escape His attention. Imagine Our Lord turning to a Christian couple and saying, "Whoa, how did that happened? I didn't see that one coming!"

Indeed, if slipping on a condom or popping a pill is nothing less than responsible parenting, why bow before the majestic power of a Creator who leaves no turning of the planets to chance, no detail of a flower to coincidence, and yet whom we imagine to be so overwhelmed with supervising creation that He needs mankind to resort to artificial means so as to ensure that no child is born through oversight?

Many government agencies claim that the only way to avoid a population explosion, particularly in poorer countries that have so little to feed its people, is to promote the greater use of contraceptives or the greater availability of sterilization and abortion clinics. Imagine yet again, Our Lord commanding Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply and then having second thoughts and adding, "Just don't overdo it because I didn't prepare enough resources on this green earth for everybody. So put a cap on it!"

Nowhere in scripture does Yahweh specify a numerical limit to procreation. Instead, the bible abounds with references to children as a tangible sign of God's approval and blessings. As ecological scientists have long discovered, mother earth has the amazing ability to repair herself to provide for all her citizens. If some do not have enough in this world, it is because the many who have more, refuse to share with the many who have less. After all, almost every population control policy regarding the third world are spearheaded by richer countries who continue to exploit the earth, while at the same time insisting that their poorer neighbours learn to make do with less, especially children.

Interestingly, many developed countries that glorified a contraceptive mentality in the last few decades are ironically reaping the empty harvest of a shrinking population, with the growing elderly now far outnumbering new births in society. Coupled with the rise of promiscuity, marital affairs, teenaged pregnancies, abortions and the epidemic proportions of sexually transmitted diseases that result from casual sex, one can hardly refer to contraception as a successful medium of control when its effects upon society seem anything but controllable.

However, the issue for most Christians is not that God would make a mistake in sending them a child, but rather that they themselves may not be ready to accept such a gift. And so when we talk about an unplanned pregnancy, what we mean is that the pregnancy is unplanned when set against the list of ambitions, professional commitments, social and materialistic aspirations that we have already highlighted for ourselves as priorities. A child at this stage would be a spanner in the wheels of our self-fulfillment, a burden and intrusion more than a gift and blessing. In other words, something to frown upon and sigh about rather than celebrate. And the most likely reason for this is because we have lost sight of our original vocation as Husbands and Wives.

Lactantius, one of the Early Church Fathers living in the 4th century said it best: "Some complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in their power . . . or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich." (Divine Institutes 6:20 [A.D. 307]

Of course, there are legitimate situations and circumstances where a couple may in fact deem it more advisable to avoid having children just then. In this we must be clear that the Catholic Church is not against family planning, which is really an exercise in responsibility and prudence.

What she condemns is artificial birth control, which although touted in the world as being equally responsible and more effective, is nevertheless rejected by the Church as morally destructive and gravely harmful to the welfare of family and society. Despite that, many people will say that the distinction between natural family planning and contraception is imaginary at best, when in actuality, the difference is a blinding contrast between day and night as we shall see later in this discussion.

There are basically three areas we have to explore if we are to have a decent understanding of this controversial church teaching: namely Scriptural, Moral and Practical.

The first gauge for discovering how close we are to the divine will is to compare our perceptions with the vision of God. How we view children and how God sees them are two different spectrums of reality. We have only to scour the scriptures to find out what the celestial vision is like.

Most Christians are somewhat familiar with the creation story of Genesis, where God made the world and everything in it and saw that it was good. At the pinnacle of that creation was humanity, formed and fashioned in the image of God Himself, who breathed His own spirit upon man and gave him a share in the Divine Life. In making them male and female, the Lord God also commanded them to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it". This same command was also given to Noah and his sons in Genesis 9. To be sure, this wasn't just an order to populate an otherwise empty planet at the dawn of creation nor merely an exercise to restore mankind after the flood; this was the bestowal of a godly gift.

Human procreation is quite different from animal reproduction. It isn’t just an exercise in perpetuating the species as many like to believe. Instead, it is the awesome power to generate another living image of God; uniquely glorious and infused with an immortal soul and an everlasting destiny. When we forget our true dignity as living icons of The Almighty, we risk becoming no more than a natural resource for consumption and exploitation, like everything else on this planet.

This gives us an idea of the majestic destiny we possess by simply being born, not just of man and woman but also of God. It is undeniable that only God can truly create, we simply invent and innovate based on existing structures. But in the conception and birth of a child, the forces of the universe cower in embarrassment at the power that is needed to bring forth another human being. And it is this mysterious power that Our Lord shares with feeble humanity; that from the wellsprings of authentic and responsible love, the bonds of affection between two souls might be so strongly infused with divine love that it actually participates in the life of the Holy Trinity and brings forth a third person complete and whole, flesh and blood, body and soul. That is why all family life is merely a call to reflect the love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Sacrament of Matrimony is so mystically powerful that the sacred vows between husband and wife actually draw down supernatural graces from heaven to unite a couple in a way that is otherwise humanly impossible.

"Have you not read that at the beginning, the Creator made them male and female?" asks Jesus in Matt 19, "For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate."

For in the sexual union, something intimately more binding than pleasure transpires between a man and a woman. After all, the physical act of intercourse itself is a uniting action, joining two bodies in one flesh.

When a husband offers his body freely to his wife, he makes a gift of himself to belong to her in a tangible and concrete way. Likewise, when a wife offers her body to her husband, she accepts to receive him into her life as part of her own self and person. But there is more to this unity than a meeting of passions, there is an exchange and fusion of the heart and soul; the undertaking of a covenantal promise so strong that it is recognised and validated by the judgment seat of God. This sacred bond in turn is so powerfully expressed that nine months later; the physical union of this love is incarnated in a new and extraordinary human being.

(It is no wonder then that casual sex and promiscuity leave one feeling used and fragmented, for what kind of unity can be hoped for when you freely share your body and DNA with countless others? There would be bits and pieces of you all over the place, diminishing your self-esteem and shattering the moral integrity of your person, causing you to ever seek out that elusive moment of true commitment by joining yourself again and again with new individuals, hoping to recover wholeness, but only to discover that the original gift of grace is lost.)

Such a thought should sweep us off our feet in awe, and if it doesn't, it is because our modern capacity to appreciate the gift of life has suffered too many assaults in recent years. For far too long, we have been taught to view life as a commodity, a thing to be exploited and at times, even a burden to be terminated, rather than the sacred and inviolable gift of God. Unfortunately, this culture of death continues to make inroads into our societies, our schools, our families and even our churches.

The mind of God concerning children is undeniably expressed in scripture, and indeed, there are far too many biblical references that point to the sanctity of this blessing than can be adequately covered here. But just to enunciate a few, there is God's promise to reward Abraham's faith with more descendants than he could count; Isaac being only the first fruit of Yahweh's covenantal blessing upon the ancient patriarch. One also has to recall the joys of Sarah, the canticle of Zechariah and the gratitude of Elizabeth and her entire household to know how much the ancient peoples treasured the gift of a child. Psalm 127 calls children a bounty from Yahweh for he "rewards with descendants" - "like arrows in a hero's hands are the sons you father when young."

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) chapter 3 says that the Lord "honors the father in his children" and "whoever respects his father will be happy with children of his own, he shall be heard on the day when he prays." Vs 3, 5-6.

As if to prove this, the protagonist in the Book of Job was rewarded with a new family of seven sons and three daughters for remaining faithful throughout his painful ordeals. In addition, the old man lived to see "his children and his children's children up to the fourth generation." Job 42, Vs 16. In fact, scripture clearly identifies the gift of children with the grace of spiritual bounty; which is nothing less than a generous sign of God's favour upon man. Our Blessed Lord Himself in the gospels chided His apostles for turning away children, saying that to such belongs the Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, many young couples today continue to deny the lordship of Jesus Christ in their married lives, fearing instead the "accidental" conception of a child that might disrupt their marital plans and plunge their conjugal bliss into an endless series of parental responsibilities. How the love and blessing of a child can be separated from conjugal bliss is a sign of the times we live in.

Even so, for every couple who fears that dispensing with contraception will most certainly ensure a pregnancy and for every skeptic who thinks that infertility is simply a random fault in biological science, they would do well to recall Leah's story in Genesis 29, "Yahweh saw that Leah was neglected, so he opened her womb, while Rachel remained barren." Envious and frustrated, Rachel turned harshly to Jacob and demanded that he give her a son as well, to which he angrily replied, "Am I to take the place of God? It is for Him to open and close the womb."

We cannot ignore the fact that The Lord of creation is also the Master of life, and it is for Him and through Him alone that conception begins or not at all. If there is one passage in the Bible that clearly condemns the contraceptive mentality, it would be the story of Onan in Genesis 38.

Onan was obliged under Levitical law to provide his brother's widow with children. However, he wasn't too keen to fulfill his brotherly duties by raising up children he could not call his own, so each time that he had intercourse with his brother's widow, he withdrew and "spilled his seed on the ground" as the bible says, "to avoid providing a child for his brother".

By his frequent practice of coitus interruptus, Onan was able to enjoy the pleasures of sex without having to bear the responsibility of the life he could give. But what Onan did was so offensive to Yahweh that he was struck dead by Divine Justice. His "seed" or semen was representative of life and spilling it on barren ground was quite the same thing as ejaculating today into a condom, diaphragm or a pharmaceutically obstructed womb.

Despite this, there are many who argue that Onan's sin was not so much in contracepting as it was in refusing to perform his Levitical duties. This theory however is implausible when we consider what the law itself prescribes as a penalty for anyone refusing to do this. Deuteronomy 25 Vs 9-10 recommends public humiliation and the stigma of being ostracised as proper punishment, yet nowhere does the law insist on the death of the offender.

Onan's case was unique because Yahweh intervened over and above the law by striking the man dead, not because he refused to honour the levitical ruling but because he deliberately chose to frustrate the life-giving aspect of the sexual act.

But if this is true of God's will, then why is it that so many who act thus today remain unscathed by the divine wrath? Indeed, we could ask the same of other grave sins in the world today. After all, why do active homosexual lifestyles and other sexual abominations continue to thrive in modern societies when they were answered with fire and brimstone in the days of Sodom and Gomorra? Why do great sacrileges continue to be offered to the Most Blessed Sacrament in our time when the ancient Israelites were slain by unseen hands for infringes against the Ark of the Covenant? Why do so many adulterous couples sin in plain sight without apparent harm to themselves when Yahweh punished David with the death of his son for stealing another man's wife?

In one word; Jesus, the Son of God who sits at the right hand of the Father interceding for us that we may receive mercy despite our grave sins. If we do not receive our just desserts, it is because the mercy of Christ holds back the justice of God...and gives the sinner time yet to repent. Nevertheless, it is presumptuous to assume that because the penalty for sin is temporarily withheld for the sake of the sinner, the deed is no longer criminal before the courts of heaven.

The second question we must ask ourselves is whether the Church's teaching against contraception is moral. And by "Moral" we do not mean the overwhelming consensus of the majority of people in the world today concerning what is socially or religiously acceptable. Instead, Christian morality must be affirmed and validated by the tradition of apostolic beliefs; what it was from the beginning, what it has been throughout time, and what it continues to be today.

Often, to test the validity of religious claims, one must go back to the beginning. The older, the longer and the more consistent a teaching is among the majority of Christians, the greater the evidence for its authenticity. As such, it always surprises many people to learn that up until 1930, it was not just the Catholic Church that condemned contraception as immoral. Rather, every major Christian denomination believed, taught and preached that contraception was incompatible with Christian living.

That is to say, this traditional teaching was not always exclusive to Catholics, instead there was widespread unanimous agreement among all Christians up until last century that marital contraception was to be opposed as being in conflict with the will of God. But due to political and social pressures, the Anglican Church Of England was the first Christian denomination to abandon its traditional views on this subject, following its majority vote in the Lambeth conference of 1930. Thereafter, the dam burst wide open and one by one, each Protestant denomination followed the Anglican leadership and conveniently forsook what for 1900 years, was the unquestioned doctrinal position in orthodox Christianity.

So in truth, this ancient teaching did not begin with Pope Paul VI and "Humanae Vitae" as some proponents of contraception would like to portray, but rather, this was a Godly teaching taught and upheld by the earliest Christian leaders including St Cyril of Jerusalem, St Augustine, St Jerome, St John Chrysostom and which inspired men like St Clement of Alexandria (202AD) among others to exclaim that "Marriage in itself merits esteem and the highest approval, for the Lord wished men to 'be fruitful and multiply. ' He did not tell them, however, to act like libertines, nor did He intend them to surrender themselves to pleasure as though born only to indulge in sexual relations..... Why, even unreasoning beasts know enough not to mate at certain times. To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom we should take as our instructor."

Once again, there are far too many warnings from the ancient Churches to be properly highlighted here, too many other references to the sin of contraception written by the Early Church Fathers, some of whom were direct disciples of the first Apostles but all of whom taught and defended the Catholic position as expressed today. These people lived in the tradition and shadow of the original deposit of faith. To put it bluntly, this is as close to the horse's mouth as you can get.

Even Protestant Reformers like Luther agreed that contraception was immoral, saying: "Those who have no love for children are swine, stocks, and logs unworthy of being called men or women; for they despise the blessings of God, the Creator and Author of marriage." John Calvin described "spilling the semen outside of intercourse" as "a monstrous thing."

No wonder then that the entire Christian world, including the Post-Reformation Churches who bicker and disagree about every other major tenet of the faith, nevertheless all agree on this one curious point - Contraception assaults the spiritual life, is a grave sin against human nature and is deeply offensive to God.

As such, the joys of sex cannot be separated from the life it can give and the reasons are obvious. Once you separate sexual pleasure from procreation, you make sexual pleasure an object and end in itself. And once you do that, you cannot justify prohibition against homosexual/extramarital/premarital sex, promiscuity, incest, bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia, masturbation, pornography, prostitution etc. since you have agreed that sex purely for pleasure is justifiable and hence morally licit and acceptable.

Finally, there is the practical aspect of this teaching to consider.

No sin however small is personal. It may be hidden behind private walls but its implications extend like a blanket of darkness over life itself. Every sin is social in its effects. Every sin affects one and all, although the visible terror of its influence is not always explicit to all. Just as a humble link is but one part of a greater chain, contraception opens the doorway to harmful attitudes and practices, which can gravely endanger a Christian soul and others.

The word "Contra-ception" or "Contrary to Conception" implies a denial of life. And what is a denial of life if not a welcoming of death, which is always the final destiny of sin? (Incidentally, many couples do not realise that many oral contraceptives today are really abortifacients cleverly disguised as precautionary aids. Frequently, they endanger health and are predominant causes of subsequent infertility and birth deformities.) Used often enough, it cultivates an anti-life and anti-children mentality among unsuspecting couples, to the point that it psychologically and spiritually impairs a genuine Christian appreciation for the grace of parenthood.

Anyone who chooses to contracept has already decided that they want to enjoy the pleasures of sex without the hassles of parenthood. That decision is already made, their mindsets already determined and the lines of demarcation already drawn the moment they reach for a pill or slip on a prophylactic. Any other reasoning is just a desperate attempt to ease troubled consciences.

When someone has already decided to reject a certain result, and in that decision takes every available means to avoid such an occurrence, there is also every likelihood that he will either be alarmed or terribly upset should that occurrence result despite his best efforts to avoid it. Now, if that unacceptable "result" is the life of a child, what do you think the reaction of these unwilling parents will be? After all, as scientists and doctors grudgingly admit, artificial contraception is never 100% foolproof as experience has shown.

As is so often the case in such predicaments, if the convenience of abortion can even cast its evil shadow within Christian marriages where the gift of life is not treasured and accepted, how much more can we expect the same in the case of a frightened teenager, a casual sexual liaison or an embarrassing extramarital affair? What becomes of our lives then when a beautiful child is reduced to being the shameful evidence of a depraved lifestyle that is best forgotten, hidden from public and evidentially destroyed as quickly as possible?

But abortion is not the only evil that can proceed from a contraceptive mentality. Contraception by nature and purpose offers maximum enjoyment with minimum repercussions. Take all the sexual liberties you want, after all there is nothing burdensome like a pregnancy to spoil your enjoyment. Adultery, marital infidelity, casual sex, the weakening of genuine love and respect in the face of lust, the monstrous crimes of incest and rampant fornication, the increased risks of sexual diseases that come from promiscuity, all of which St Paul preached as destroying the sanctity and health of family life, and which in very real ways threaten us with being shut out of the Kingdom of God.

After all, if contraception empowers a married couple to enjoy sex without the responsibility that God intends in the sexual union, why indeed should it be restricted to marriage alone when a plethora of sexual pleasures abound outside it? And in the event that a chosen contraceptive fails in its design, what greater abominations shall follow? Abortion, birth deformities, infectious diseases, AIDS, death? What shall we say of the adulterous or unfaithful Christian who brings a sexual plague back into the sacred hearth of his home, endangering his spouse and children?

In fact, the moment a culture of death is introduced into the human psyche of a person, the moral boundaries blur considerably. For instance, if it is legitimate for a mother to take the life of her unborn, what is to stop communities from advocating euthanasia and ending the lives of the elderly, since justification can always be found to support even murder? And if consenting partners have the right to alter the biochemistry of their bodies with drugs in order to render unnatural infertility, why stop there since our bodies can obviously be exploited for other things like cloning and genetic engineering etc?

The possibilities are endless. To gauge the serious influences of contraception, all one has to do is make this simple exercise. Draw a circle with the word "contraception" in it and with connecting arrows and lines, write down a possible "effect" that can proceed from a contraceptive mentality. Do this with each new word and "effect" and you will soon see that a network of sins (some subtle, some more serious) begins to fill the page. Like many lies, contraception hides under the illusion of perceived good, whilst at the same time weaving a web of destruction that slowly wounds the conscience, transforming this harmless link over the years into a chain that binds the user in deeper and more serious sins, of which he cannot free himself save by the grace and mercy of God.

Nevertheless, despite the great wealth of evidence that supports the Church's teaching on this subject, and despite the prophetic wisdom of Popes, councils and saints, many Catholics still refuse to accept this very scriptural, moral and authentic Christian teaching, citing difficulties in family life and financial means.

Yet, the Church is not against family planning. God's command to us to be fruitful does not enslave us to a life of mindless childbearing. Instead, the Catholic Church exhorts her children to be responsible stewards of this great gift of life, which is why Catholics are encouraged to consider natural family planning (NFP). But how is NFP different from contraception you might ask?

For one thing, NFP requires more effort, more thought, more sensitivity and more commitment between couples than contraception, which takes but a moment of passion to decide. But this isn't why the Church recommends NFP as a moral means of planning for children.

The main reason NFP does not contradict Catholic teaching is that it remains open and obedient to the author of all Life, who is the final arbiter and judge of what is good and holy. A couple who plans for a family through NFP has already submitted to the Lordship of Jesus, trusting that ultimately, God knows what is best for them. And in so believing, they undertake the commitment to welcome a child into their lives should providence bless them with such a joy, knowing that human life must always take precedence over human plans.

Artificial birth control on the other hand closes the door definitively on God altogether, not so much in binding the hands of omnipotence as it were since that is impossible, but rather choosing to reject any possibility that God's original intention for the sexual union should find fulfillment according to nature. To choose to contracept is to choose to reject parenthood at all costs. And in so doing, a couple embraces a mentality and consciousness to keep God and the child He might give out of the picture. It is a deliberate choice to rebel against the divine plan for marriage and procreation.

Is NFP a viable means for planning a family? Medical studies have shown that it is just as reliable if not more so than artificial birth control, although it certainly requires more self-discipline, which in a Christian marriage can only bestow a greater appreciation for each other as persons rather than objects of lust, ennobling couples to share a deeper sense of responsible love.

Still, some bristle, some complain, some quietly ignore this holy commandment and yet consider themselves faithful Catholics. And many more indeed would like the Church to change her teaching.

Paul VI knew what tremendous opposition and slander he would receive for preaching this truth - "It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a "sign of contradiction. She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.” Humanae Vitae 18.

In short, the Church's doctrinal standard for teaching anything is simple. She does not preach God's truths because they are convenient, neither does she correct her children because of some noble ideal and least of all, does she champion a belief because it is practical to do so.

The Church's teaching against contraception proceeds from one motive alone - she is convinced her teaching on this subject expresses the divine will of God, and as His faithful herald, she must without consideration for herself appeal to the conscience of God's children in obedience to that Divine Will. That is her apostolic duty before Christ our Lord. She cannot speak but with His voice.

Truly, Pope Paul VI said it best: "Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter - only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.” Humanae Vitae 22.

As such, for every Catholic who rails and rants against the uncaring, cruel and dictatorial attitude of Rome towards reasonable Christians, they should check under their marital beds to see if there is a pope, bishop or priest hiding beneath, waiting to catch them in the very act of contraceptive sex. I'm fully confident that they will not find any ecclesiastical bogeyman hoping to entrap them.

Rather, in proclaiming the truth, the Church merely echoes the voice of Christ who is forever solicitous and concerned for His children. The rest remains a matter of free choice between the individual and his conscience, as it always has been between humanity and God. It is hoped that people of goodwill may recognise the perennial wisdom behind this teaching and embrace this holy and Godly warning to their hearts. In the end, the soul must give an account of herself before the Divine Judge. Just as the Church must ensure that her children hear and know the voice of the Good Shepherd, no matter how distasteful it may sound to their egos.

Let us praise God and thank Him for the glorious gift of such brave prophets like Paul VI and John Paul II, who championed the Gospel of Life against the culture of death. We should in fact be proud of belonging to a Church that is founded upon the Rock of Peter rather than the shifting sands of relativism, which is all around us.

Truly, may God give us the strength to follow Him in fidelity and humility...especially when our journeys take us before the narrow gates of salvation.

For as always, the way that is wide and easy leads to destruction.

And death.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

All for one, one for all.

Merry Christmas everyone.

The last couple of days have been unusually introspective for me. Normally, the days leading up to Christmas would be filled with lots of distractions and social engagements. This year however, my only party invite seems to come from the Son of God.

Ok, maybe I’ve had a couple of people call me up but it’s hard to turn down a gig from Christ himself, especially since Jesus knows how to throw a really good buffet dinner after each mass. In this case, not only was there food for my tummy but nourishment for my soul.

You see, for the last three days I’ve been attending a Christmas triduum organized by the Opus Dei community here in Singapore. Interestingly, just to mention the words “Opus Dei” is to raise eyebrows among certain Catholics in this diocese, no less among clergy and religious. So you can imagine the lull in conversation when I sometimes extol the virtues of St Josemaria Escriva.

Equally vexing is to mention the benefits of an Indult Latin Mass and be instantly tagged as an incense-loving traditionalist obsessed with turning back the clock. On the other hand, I get death stares for saying I prefer the Novus Ordo mass to the old rite. And let’s not forget all those colorful complaints about crazy emotional Charismatics who can’t keep their hands by their sides.

Without any consideration for accuracy, most of these groups have been reduced to cruel caricatures of themselves. Yet despite being untrue, these labels stick. Why is that?

Sometimes I think it’s plain ignorance. Other times, it’s religious bigotry but mostly it comes down to pure convenience. It’s always easy to package our likes and dislikes under clear definitions and labels.

For instance, I’m in the midst of moving my office and the HR guys have provided me with handy cardboard boxes to dump my precious documents and belongings into. Thereafter, I simply mark the boxes with the right labels and off they go into storage.

How convenient!

Unfortunately, that’s how we deal with people and issues at times. We pack them, label them and stuff them away in neat little definitions that don’t require too much personal attention. And presto, our lives and outlook become a lot less complicated.

In this season of Christmas, we are called to recognize Christ in the humble incarnation of a baby shivering in a manger. But greater still is the invitation to recognize him in the human faces we behold everyday.

As Catholics, we must be careful not to demolish our Christian love for our own brothers and sisters by subscribing to cruel stereotypes that have nothing to do with truth nor charity.

The Pharisees questioned, “What good can come from Nazareth?” because in their self-righteousness, there was no room for any reality apart from their own.

Now we know that labeling and name-calling get us nowhere and only demean the great tenets of the Christian faith. And yet, it is so much easier to do just that, to reduce a living, breathing person to a cold, clinical definition; robbing him of his humanity and imbibing him with every abhorrence and repulsion we associate with that label. Because truth be told, it’s not easy to hate a human person whom we see as one like ourselves; with hopes, dreams, families, hurts and aspirations.

To look into the mirror of our own fragile humanity is to feel compassion for my brother and sister who is but an extension of me; connected as we are in the great fabric of life and eternal destiny.

But oh how easy it is to hate a term, a definition or an idea. Once we channel all our prejudices and assumptions under the banner of a label; a person suddenly becomes a lousy protestant, catholic, liberal, traditionalist, terrorist, anti-semite, dirty muslim…and so becomes despicably associated with an institution, symbol and persuasion, none of which recalls the flesh and blood humanity of the face we spit upon.

Thus when this world wishes to demean and persecute someone, they strip away the very appeal of his humanity to replace his face with a definition or classification, so that from henceforth, he would be known as an unfeeling idea rather than your brother in Christ.

Looking into his eyes, you can no longer see yourself, but only the antithesis of everything you hold dear.

Alas, it is much easier to hate a beast without a shred of humanity since between us, there is a chasm of infinity as wide as heaven is from hell, than it is to hate a fellow human being.

Perhaps that is one reason why gulags, concentration camps and slave traders waste no time in removing every shred of human dignity by replacing the identities of their charges with numbers, labels and false names. All at once, a child of God becomes as dignified as a wooden chair…just another something you term and use.

The U.S. has tragically lost so many young lives in the course of this war on terror. And yet, even before a single bullet was fired, the first casualty of war is always the truth.

There is not only the deformed vestiges of truth truncated by propaganda, but the violence of war also ravages the dignity of human communication, reducing it to a caricature of truth, convincing us with the typical lie during the Vietnam War; “that to save the village from the communist, it became necessary to destroy it.”…together with all its men, women and children.

Truth sets us free. It is lies and prejudices that perpetuate misunderstanding and hatred. And the solemn truth is, most people who feel an affinity for Opus Dei or the indult Tridentine Rite or any other group within the church are neither traditional, conservative nor liberal. They’re just faithful Catholics who want to live an authentic faith in obedience to the precepts of the Church; in the charism most suited to their spiritual growth.

We need to be reminded that these are our own brothers and sisters, not our enemies. The same blood of Christ run through our veins at every Communion, and it is a great injustice to the Body of Christ when we persecute our own.

All of us in one way or another unwittingly allow our values, prejudices and perceptions to influence our Catholic faith, when we should indeed be experiencing the opposite. This is particularly so if our faith remains not so much the witness of martyrs but the popular comfort of culture and tradition; which although beautiful, do not adorn our souls with real holiness.

(The sad irony in our diocese is that while we praise the great importance of ecumenism and religious tolerance for other faith communities, we have little charity or tolerance for our own Catholic diversity; particularly when that diversity is strongly orthodox in their fidelity to Rome)

To end this night’s reflection, let me share a wonderful story about our Christian links to one another.

During the second world war, an American soldier on his tour of duty in France came upon a tiny parish church where mass was about to be celebrated. Taking a break from his platoon nearby, he entered the small rustic church and observed that the celebrant priest was without a server.

Seeing as how he was an altar server in his youth, the grimy G.I. offered to assist the young priest. The good Father was ecstatic to receive the soldier’s assistance, and together (the priest in his vestments, the G.I. in his uniform) they celebrated the holy sacrifice with fervor and devotion.

Since the prayers and responses were in Latin in those days, neither had trouble understanding each other though the ritual. It was only when the mass was finished and both had retired to the sacristy that the American had the shock of his life.

Without any emotion, the young priest stripped off his vestments to reveal a German chaplain’s uniform beneath. He then turned to the surprised G.I. and embraced him warmly, thanking him for his kindness in serving his mass. In a parting gesture of peace, the German priest raised his hands in blessing over the young American soldier before slipping out the back door.

This is a story of two people clearly divided in their loyalties in a time of war and violence, and yet in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, they recognized each other as brothers and were not ashamed to celebrate that eternal truth and love.

So let us pay heed to the apostle Paul who warned the Corinthians to avoid the partisan politics of saying “I am for Paul or I am for Apollos” when in truth, we are all for Christ.

This Christmas, let us look at each other through heaven’s eyes, for only then, can we see the Son of God made man in our brother and sister.

Thank you Jesus for Opus Dei, the Novus Ordo, the Tridentine, the Charismatics and for all the diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit in our Church.

And thank you Jesus for the shepherd’s pie this Christmas, it was simply divine.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Family of saints

It's true that the pagan world is filled with a vast landscape of man-gods, each gifted with a particular power and folklore, each desperate for their own individual cults of worship and allegiance from the faithful. And each no more divine in their Godly attributes than me in my most saintly moments...which is not much to say the least.

The ancient Greeks had their own pantheon of heroes glaring from the heights of Mt Olympus, often none too amicably. Taoism and Hinduism can also boast of a race of semi-human characters and divines that live, govern and rule the universe with a compassion and hostility that borders on schizophrenia sometimes.

So it's understandable that when Protestants see old Catholic women bowing obsequiously before plaster images of the Saints, they recall the same implications in pagan worship, and find no hesitation in condemning this "obviously" satanic corruption of Christianity.

For many Christians, the Catholic teaching on the Communion of Saints is pure sacrilege. For them, there is no scriptural evidence to support this unnatural devotion and to all appearances, Catholics sin in idolatry by honouring the memory of these "dead people" too much.

In reality, there is nothing more natural and praiseworthy than having family members speak to one another, especially when they're fraternally bonded in the love of Christ.

But wait a minute, isn't communicating with the dead bordering on necromancy, which Deuteronomy absolutely forbids under pain of death? How is talking to the saints any different from a "pow wow" session with ghostly spectres through a séance?

For one thing, the saints are not dead; they're gloriously alive in the resurrection of Christ. For another, asking a saint's intercession to draw closer to God is spectacularly different from hob-knobbing with unknown spirits through a pagan medium, whose sole curiosity and desire is to try and harness a supernatural power for personal ends, and which in their very nature rejects the sovereignty and kingship of God.

In order to better understand the Catholic communion of saints, it is first necessary to explore the Catholic ideal of the mystical Body of Christ.

Many Protestants have difficulty grasping this beautiful doctrine and perhaps in some ways, this is due to the lack of corporal unity among the various denominations since the Reformation.

In as much as both Catholics and Protestants agree that the Church is the mystical body of Christ as affirmed by St Paul, protestantism lacks the concrete manifestation of this belief, particularly in their corporal bond to each other since every church is often an authority and independent member unto itself.

The Catholic idea of the Body of Christ, (with one head in Jesus, one heart in communion and one creed in apostolic authority), bears witness to a unity that is so unbreakable, it extends beyond heaven into this world.

In other words, Catholic theology sees this united "Body" as more than just a symbol of our loose connection to each other. Nor is it just a mystical expression of a theological metaphor.

Rather, the Church sees this family unity or communion as concretely visible. She teaches that this bond of fraternal love is so strong, it unites us to one another across time, space and even beyond the shadow of death, in order that the Bride of Christ may continue to bear courageous testimony to the One Triune God, since the unity of the Holy Trinity is what binds the members of Christ's body together as a witness to all generations.

In contrast, Protestant churches who proclaim their testimony as the mystical body of Christ embrace a claim that is not supported by any evidence of that reality. Not only is there no visible unity among its members in the expression of worship (each relying extensively on its own traditions, experimentations or the inspirations of individual pastors), there is no unity in doctrinal belief, despite a loose amalgamation of religious tenets that identify each as somewhat Christian in character.

A federation of Churches sharing a doctrinally diverse confession of Jesus as Lord does not make a Body.

Imagine for a second that even though the members of my body proclaim obedience to my head, I discover one morning that my arms, legs, eyes, tongue, fingers and torso all bicker, disagree and claim to speak authoritatively for me, each exercising their own will without conformity to my own.

In such an existence, my life would be an abomination. I can’t claim to have a body in the normal sense of the word anymore. And although the various parts of my body may still bear some resemblance to me, they no longer function coherently enough for me to live a normal life, since every member is lost in disobedience.

Instead, I would have a mutiny within myself. And as Jesus said, “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand”.

Consequently, a weak concept of the Body of Christ can handicap Protestants in understanding the Catholic Communion of Saints, which is nothing less than the glorious extension of the unity of the Church to include those in heaven and purgatory.

For many Protestant Christians, when someone passes on, they’re with God, separated as it were from the daily grind of human drama, which couldn’t be farther from the gospel truth; as if heaven and redemption exist only above the clouds. There are even those who think of our ancestors in the faith as no longer having any concrete ties to us, except for maybe a vague concern for our welfare.

The glorious truth is, released from their human burdens of imperfections and purified in the fire of God’s love, they now love us and desire our happiness more than they ever did on earth, hence, the natural intercession of the saints for us.

This is our Christian family; a family fully alive in the Church triumphant (heaven), the Church militant (us who are still struggling here on earth) and the Church suffering (purgatory), all of whom are bonded to each other through the Lord Jesus, and who continue to love and care for each other in that special way that family members do.

But caring about our pains, hurts and struggles on earth, and actively interceding for us do not lessen the joy of the saints in heaven. Rather, it increases their joy as the beatific vision always encompasses love for neighbour.

St John called the man who loved God and not his brother a liar. Well, Mary and the saints certainly loved God, so it stands that they must love us exceedingly too, or their presence in paradise would be an affront to God, in whom no selfishness is compatible.

Think about it...

If love is a communication between two parties, then surely, a Christian family that is made up of members who love each other, must obviously find some way to communicate that love?

In fact, I can't think of anyone I know who isn't attached to a cell phone or email facility like it was part of his or her liver. Yet who can blame them?

We all feel an innate desire to connect and remain in communication with each other. To not be able to do so is to risk being cut-off from the rest, to be outside the communion of humanity, isolated, alone and misunderstood.

Now if this reality pervades every level of our existence, it makes sense that some kind of communication must also exist within the realm of the saints, perfectly bonded as they are in the love and unity of the Holy Trinity.

This is what is meant by the Communion of Saints, a fraternal bond that is so strong in the love of God that it transcends and defies death through the resurrection of Christ, and unites us as a living family with our brothers and sisters who are either triumphant in heaven, journeying on earth or anticipating the joys of redemption in purgatory.

Christ our Lord has said, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (Jn 11: 25-26)

Our God is a God of the living and not of the dead. Those who die in the grace of God are born into everlasting life, where death has no power and hell has no hold, so that even when dusk approaches, no one who sleeps in Christ sleeps forever.

Instead, our love for one another is purified in the presence of the living God, stripped as we are of our faults and selfishness. And because we are not separated by death but continue to be a living family, it is necessary that family members must continue to care for one another. And to do that, we need to speak to each other.

A family that doesn’t communicate with each other is a family that strays apart. And yet, remember the old adage: “A family that prays together stays together”?

Well, what is prayer if not the joy and need for spiritual communication?

Still, if 'praying' is an effort to communicate or connect with a spiritual being, are we crossing the line since prayer is traditionally addressed to God? In this, we must not confuse "prayer" with worship which is due only to the dignity of God. Within the judeo-christian tradition, worship with a capital "W" always involves sacrifice which can only be offered to God, and for Orthodox and Catholic Christians, this sacrifice is offered in the ritual of the mass.

Protestant worship however doesn't distinguish between prayer and sacrifice, so it sometimes scandalizes Protestant Christians when they see Catholics doing to the saints what they do to God, which is prayer. Prayer in itself is considered worship in the protestant sense of the word. For Catholics, prayer is simply talking to God and to others within the family of God, and does not necessarily constitute divine worship. We have the Catholic Mass for that.

Now scripture often speaks of prayers being offered up to God with great incense and ceremony, whether it's in describing the priestly functions of Zechariah, the examples of the prophets or the liturgical functions of angels in the Book Of Revelations.

The Archangel Raphael in the Book of Tobit for example not only confesses to being one of the seven Angels (Revelation 8:1-2, Tobit 12:15) permitted to stand before the glory of the Almighty, he claims to have presented the prayers and petitions of Tobit and Sarah before the Lord's throne. (Tobit 12:12)

In other words, it can be surmised that all prayer is ultimately offered and addressed to God and find their fulfillment in God, even though sometimes those prayers may pass through an intermediary like the Angel Raphael.

But there are some who will cautiously ask, “Why do we have to go through the mediation of saints and angels? Isn't there only one true mediator with God who is Christ the Lord”?

Praise Jesus, yes indeed!

It is true that there is only one mediator with the Father who is Christ Our Lord. All graces and blessings come through the merits and sacrifice of Jesus alone.

In his encyclical "Dominus Gesu", Pope John Paul II affirmed that "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

But scripture also teaches that Jesus chooses to work through His Church, and there is no reason to believe that Christians can no longer help and pray for their brothers and sisters on earth once they themselves are in heaven. Based on the perfect mediation of Christ, we are all intercessors with one another.

St Paul certainly encouraged the saints on earth to pray for one another, saying: "On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many." (2 Corinthians 1:10-11)

Does this holy intercession for each other end with death? Of course not, St John saw in Revelation 5:8 that the souls of the righteous continue to fill paradise with their prayers for us: "And when He had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."

Indeed, because of the perfect love, which exists in heaven, the saints would presumably be even more willing and able to intercede for us than they were on earth. But before we go any further, remember that the saints themselves do not and cannot grant us any heavenly favors apart from what God wills for us in the first place. However, they can surely join their prayers to ours by interceding for us before the One Mediator who is Christ Our Lord, petitioning Him for our sakes and joining their holy voices to ours in prayer and solidarity for our needs.

Their humble mediation is subjected to the perfect mediation of Christ Our Redeemer. In remembering us, they offer to join their finite prayers and merits to the infinite prayers and merits of Jesus on the cross for our salvation.

This may seem difficult to grasp at first until we realise that in our daily struggles, we experience this reality more often than we admit.

After all, when we ask our parents, friends and pastors to pray for us, do we not enlist their mediation with Jesus in the hope of obtaining some grace for ourselves? Do we not make of them a co-mediatrix with Christ in asking for their prayers?

Yet, we are not scandalised that they should have the audacity to pray for us. We don't tell a mother who prays for her child to stop it because she is usurping the role of Jesus as sole mediator with the Father. We know that such an act comes naturally as an extension of love, since true love always seeks to imitate Christ.

Let us be conscious that although Jesus IS our sole Mediator with God, scripture also calls us to cooperate with grace and be co-workers with Christ, especially in His great work of redemption.

St Paul, possibly the greatest co-worker of Christ, calls us to pray for one another: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone...This is good, and pleases God our Savior..." (1 Timothy 2:1,3)

Now if we believe that the prayers of a Godly friend or a respected pastor can influence God's will towards us, why should we deny the same to men and women who are even more meritorious in the sight of God, having fought the good fight and won the eternal race as St Paul declared?

Truly, they are champions of our faith whom God has already crowned with the mark of salvation, except unlike worldly champions who cling steadfastly to vain trophies, these Christian heroes fill the sidelines and cheer us on in our own race for the crown, urging us not to give up while strengthening us with their love and prayer.

So even if our own personal journeys leave us tired and bruised, we need only look up from our struggles to see a brother who has been there and triumphed, a sister who has endured that very same difficulty and won, and who now run beside us, cheering us on with unwavering love and support until they see us safely in heaven where we belong.

If James 5:16 says that: "The prayer of a righteous man avails much...", am I then to suppose that when someone asks for my intercession and prayers for a difficult situation, I am more inclined to be heard by God than St Francis of Assisi, or St Maximilian Kolbe or any of the other heroes of our faith?

I can honestly admit that my love for friends and family even at its most inspiring, is but a poor shadow of the love that the saints have for us, they who continually bask in the fiery love of the Lamb Of God and whose merits before Christ are as brilliant to mine as the sun is to the darkest night.

Is it thus not silly to trust in the prayers of sinful humanity and to reject the intercession and love of the saints? After all, what do the saints do with our prayers?

When they are petitions, the saints join these petitions with their own more meritorious prayers and present them before the throne of God just as Raphael does. If they are thanksgiving and praise, the saints likewise pass on these accolades to the Most High, joining them with the thanksgiving and praise of their own untainted hearts for our sakes.

The truth is, we have to stop thinking of the saints as impediments to our relationship with God. They are a gift from the Almighty to aid us on our pilgrimage on earth, so that strengthened by our faith in Jesus and aided by the love and support of our elder brothers and sisters, we too may win the crown of eternal joy someday.

Therefore, let us be careful not to despise the saints because in doing so, we risk despising God. Did not our heavenly Father say to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.” Genesis 12:3 + 27:29. And since God treasures the friendship of the saints, why should we find such displeasure in their intercession?

Truly, it can be said that a parent’s crowning glory is in His child. And no one will deny that the saints are the best of God’s children. Let us confidently ask our brothers and sisters to continue praying for us, so that for the greater glory of God, we too may bear fruits of sanctity and perfect love.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The reason for our joy

Christmas is almost upon us. Last Sunday we lighted the pink advent candle, symbolizing the expectant joy that awaits us next week.

Fr. Gerard, my parish priest, shared with us that in the Latin text of today’s gospel, the word joy is translated as “Gaudete”, which means profound spiritual happiness and fulfillment.

This is no cheap hollow joy the gospel speaks about, no transient satisfaction wrapped in poor tinsel, but the real, deep, abiding joy that comes from possessing God and being possessed by Him. It is the joy of lovers so intently united to each other that their joy transcends all pains and sufferings.

It is this joy, this “Gaudete Sunday” that we celebrated a few days ago! Midway through the season of advent, the purple candles of solemnity we’ve been lighting give way to the pink candle of joy. And flame-by-flame, day-by-day, we begin to feel the growing excitement of welcoming the God-Man.

But the truth is, how many of us are dead to this great feast, having seen it all, having heard it all, having celebrated one too many midnight masses with open yawns?

Every year, the malls swallow and regurgitate crowds of shoppers battling for a bargain, pubs fill with revelers drunk on the lights of the season and couples brave the crush of human traffic just to purchase the joy of that perfect but elusive gift.

The question is; can true joy ever be bought?

If we do not recall the real joy of our celebrations, we shall spend the rest of our days running around in circles, where the déjà vu of our failures to find peace only reminds us of how often we miss the mark. So before we completely forget, let’s listen once again to the angels in Luke’s gospel.

“I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” – Lk 2:10-11

“A great joy for all people – a saviour born to us – Christ the Lord.” This three-part revelation is the secret to our happiness. This is the real “gaudete” of our lives.

More than any king who has ever renounced power, wealth and status for the woman he loves, Jesus has left heaven itself to be with us. If that isn’t the greatest romance ever, I don’t know what is.

Christ our Lord doesn’t just want to give us gifts, he wants to give us himself. And in giving us himself, Christ the king doesn’t merely give us what he owns, but all that he is.

He renders himself so completely ours that from henceforth, we shall no longer be poor, having already possessed the Son of God for our inheritance and joy. This truly is our greatest treasure, and “where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also”.

Common to all our human experiences is the tragedy of suffering in our lives, but think about where we draw our greatest comfort and strength from during such times. Surely it’s not from the endless advice, solutions and answers people try to give, but in those who simply held our hands, cried with us and silently shared our pain.

In the same way God doesn’t give explanations, he gives himself. He is the answer to our questions. Remember Mary and Martha. When they collapsed in tears before the Lord and wondered why their brother Lazarus had to die, Jesus didn’t answer them with lofty theories or deep explanations. Instead he cried with them and shared their sorrow, and in a powerful way, his loving presence and solidarity with their pain gave them hope and courage.

The only real answer to life's many challenges is Christ himself. He is the only authentic meaning and solution to all our problems; not what he does or gives, but he himself.

This is the mystery and joy of the incarnation; that God would leave his throne in heaven to be with us in order to comfort us, share our pain, embrace our crosses and die for us, so that strengthened by his great love, we may live a life undefeated by suffering and pain.

This is our great hope, our immense reason for joy. Every person in this world was born to live, but one person in history was born to die, so that we who are dead in sin may live the supernatural life.

At Christmas we celebrate this greatest of gifts – Christ our Lord and his supreme love for us. With many busy inns during this time of the year, I hope that your hearts will spare a manger to warm and shelter our God this Christmas.

My dear friends, have a blessed and holy feast. And God love you.

Monday, December 11, 2006

With this ring I thee wed

A buddy was lamenting the recent divorces of some people we knew, and as the subject revolved around matrimonial vows, I was astonished to discover how many of my own friends took their sacred oaths with surprising nonchalance.

One couple who has already decided that they don’t want any children, said that it mattered little to them if they were married in Church or merely through the state, and that they opted for the sacramental details only because of the ceremonial pomp and grandeur of a traditional Church wedding.

Another who swears by contraception cited the expectations of family and friends to fulfill, while also admitting that a Church wedding lent an unquestionable air of social respectability to their union.

But hang on, what about the explicit promises attached to the vows?

Were they perhaps ignorant of the fact that their matrimonial oaths obliged them under canon law to remain open to life, to view marriage with a sacramental permanence, and to bring up their children in the dignity of the Catholic faith?

The lady sitting opposite me chuckled in embarrassment and said, “Well, we just say the words but such decisions should be left to individuals.”

In other words, say the vows but in your hearts, think otherwise!

Now in a court of law, a witness who clamps his hand on the bible and swears to tell the truth, but elects in his heart to dismiss the promise of his oath is guilty of perjury, and by law, he can well expect to be rewarded with some hefty penalties.

But in the Sacrament of Matrimony, a Catholic couple take their oaths not just on the written word of God, but upon the testimony of the Church who bears witness to their union, and if they so choose to consciously ignore their obligation to be faithful to those promises, claiming that words not meant are not binding, will they be liable to some kind of spiritual penalty?

After all, what is a Sacramental oath or vow if not words we say to God?

It occurred to me that in any kind of agreement or promise, (and Matrimony is infinitely more than just an agreement, it is a religious covenant), the authenticity and binding strength of such an agreement lies in the full extent of its conditions and clauses, freely promised upon and freely undertaken in full knowledge.

However at the point of making this promise, if one or both parties had intended not to carry through their promises in the first place, does not this charlatan act of goodwill void the original agreement, since its contractual assertions were founded on a web of lies?

We must remember that the Catholic formula for matrimonial vows include a requirement that the couple promise to obey the Church’s teachings regarding the gift of life and the need to educate and form their children in the Catholic faith; even if one party is not a member of the Catholic Church.

In addition, there is also the stern warning that marriage must be entered into with permanence and commitment.

And although these conditions apply equally to both spouses, this canonical ruling is especially pronounced for the Catholic spouse, whose duty it is to ensure that the Christian identity of the Catholic faith is kept alive, and nourished by the sacramental vocation about to be embraced.

This is a very serious commitment that recalls the covenantal promise of God with the people of Israel, and in particular; the faithful and sacrificial love of Jesus for His Bride, the Church.

Now, it is true that many Catholics mouth their marital oaths without any real discernment or worse, with intended disobedience in their hearts.

If so, what shall we say of their dishonest vows? What is the repercussion of such adultery before the altar of God, since true Christian fidelity must not only embrace one’s spouse, but indeed, the very sacred ideals of Christian marriage itself?

If perjury clings to the man who lies under oath in court, does not blasphemy denote the man who lies under oath before the foot of the altar?

At the very least, I am certain that such an approach to the altar robs us of much needed grace and blessings, the very kind that every couple needs so desperately to make marriage a success, and which in very real ways is poured from heaven through the sacramental nature of their vows.

Yet in truth, what is the nature of a sacrament and what conditions are necessary for it to be truly effective and authentic?

Sacraments are powerful channels of living grace established by Our Lord and Redeemer Himself, by which the sublime mysteries of God’s love is externalized and efficaciously applied as a living heritage to those who receive it for the sanctification of their lives and the salvation of their souls.

Each of the seven Sacraments – baptism, penance, holy communion, confirmation, matrimony, anointing of the sick, holy orders - is a divine gift that enables us to enter more deeply into the life of the Holy Trinity, thereby proclaiming our inheritance as sons and daughters.

It is the visible sign of His Love for the soul, the external seal of His grace in the internal dwelling of our hearts.

And Matrimony is not just a social institution…it is a SACRAMENT.

So what makes a Sacrament valid?

I can think of at least three reasons to start with – a proper understanding of what the Sacrament entails, the desire and willingness to receive it, and last but not least, the correct or proper disposition for reception.

Consider this example:

Confession or the Sacrament of Penance as it is called is an indisputable pillar of our spiritual life.
But in order for us to receive the healing graces of this spiritual encounter, and in order for us to merit the absolution that we desire, we must first approach this sacrament with the repentance and contrition that is necessary for our pardon, holding nothing back intentionally as we prostrate ourselves before the Divine Mercy.

In addition, joined to a contrite heart must also be the firm determination to avoid sin, even though we know that future weaknesses may still cause us to stumble in our frailties.

Now supposing a penitent rambles off his sins without any real contrition or repentence but simply to obtain absolution or even just to ridicule the teaching of the Church, will that absolution be valid and will he receive sacramental grace to reconcile him to Almighty God, much less receive spiritual help to strengthen him on this earthly pilgrimage?

Without a doubt, that sacramental encounter would be a mockery and the effects of grace nullified. For apart from certain saints in history, the average priest, not having the supernatural gifts to look into another man’s heart and expose his lies, would not have been able to tell the difference.

The absolution would then indeed be given in good faith, especially if the penitent deserves an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

Nevertheless, that kind of confession will be no more valid than if the penitent had not declared his sins in the first place, since God sees the falsehoods concerning this man.

Truly, we must not take the patience and mercy of God for granted.

Going back to the Sacrament of Matrimony…

Will anyone be the wiser if a couple promises to be open to life and then betrays that promise as soon as the rings are exchanged?

Can the Church be assured that a couple will bring up their children in the patrimony of the Catholic Faith once their vows are sealed before the altar of God?

In fact, does the priest know with certainty that the couple who requests this Sacrament is committed to a lifetime together, or have they privately agreed to give the marriage 5 years before moving on to other people, even as they consciously make their vows upon the Body and Blood of Christ?

It is crucial that young couples understand that in Matrimony, it is the couple themselves who confer the solemnity and grace of this Sacrament on each other, not the priest.

The priest is there to represent the Church and the Hierarchy in witnessing your decisions before God. Likewise, your friends, family and parishioners gathered in the pews that day stand in place of the communion of saints in witnessing your promises.

A solemn vow must need public witnessing, in order for it to be communally recognized and validated.

Hence, can you imagine the implication of an insincere or dishonest vow made in the presence of the whole communion of saints, who stand as witnesses before God as testimony to the “truth” of your promises?

No one but God knows the designs of the human heart. And yet, the decisions of those who have chosen wrongly come back to haunt them with the chaos of life.

After all, even if the validity of your marriage is not called into question, it is indisputable that you shall suffer much from such a blasphemy.

The Catholic Sacrament of Matrimony is so deeply enriched by God that it draws down spiritual favours and graces to transform and unite a couple in a way that is otherwise humanly impossible.

And as anyone who has rung the chimes of wedding bells will tell you, the road to conjugal bliss is paved with many thorns and human obstacles once the initial notes of romance start to fade.

That is why Christ Our Lord elevated marriage to a Sacrament, since it is in the sacraments that He gives Himself to us for nourishment, strength and hope.

In the Sacrament of Marriage, every Catholic has a treasury of supernatural graces to appeal to as they encounter the challenges of their new life together, without which, they cannot fully sustain their love for each other amidst their human struggle against sin and selfishness.

This unique Sacramental Grace is given to every Catholic couple who elects to undertake Matrimony as their vocation to Love, not only because the Lord has seen that it is good and helpful, but because He knows that it is crucial and necessary to their success as a couple, without which a Christian marriage cannot survive the onslaught and values of this secular world.

But if you choose to make a mockery of your sacred vows, turning this great sacrament into a sacrilege by not taking your oaths and promises seriously, then you rob yourself of that sacramental help which you desperately need for happiness and peace.

In truth, what shall be the portion of those who promise to be faithful with sullen lips while their hearts remain cold to the exhortations of the Church, as they pronounce their hidden intentions before the judgement seat of God and the whole communion of saints?

In so doing, they desecrate the very vows meant to sanctify and sustain them. And since the graces given at matrimony are not just for romance, love and holiness, many will also lose out on the blessings of God in terms of their career, health and finances, since these too are essential for the wellbeing of the family life.

Indeed, to paraphrase St Paul, “do you not marry unworthily in this sacrament of grace, and in place of blessings and joys, do you not instead marry judgement on yourself?”

Is it any wonder then that so many Catholic marriages end in divorces and adultery, or struggle with unending stress?

For those of us miserable enough to marry unworthily and who now have to contend with the deficiencies of a marriage robbed of real grace, what does the horizon hold for us?

Is there any hope for reparation and healing?

As surely as the sun rises, there is always hope and grace in Christ Jesus.

No line however crooked cannot be straightened and strengthened by the Lord.

No fault however sorrowful cannot find redemption with contrition and sincerity.

Let us take heart and realize that God is ever ready to forgive and heal us if we only turn to Him in repentance and hope.

But to do that, we must first acknowledge our mistakes both to God and to each other, make a good confession, and then rise with renewed courage to live our wedding vows with a firm conviction in the teachings of the Church.

To quote the Council of Trent: “God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou art able, and to pray for what thou art not able (to do), and aids thee that thou mayest be able.” Sess 6, cap 11

Thus, let us humbly pray for the help we need, since prayer often obtains for us the graces we need to do that which we can’t do save by the grace and mercy of God. And being poor no longer, let us reclaim the sacramental happiness and fullness of our inheritance as Catholics. So that in loving Christ, we may learn to love each other in happiness.

Not just for now…but for all eternity.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Man to men

One of the most painful identity crisis of my generation is that we’ve forgotten how to be men. Perhaps we never knew to begin with. The traditional role of men has suffered so much deconstruction in contemporary society that we spend the rest of our adult lives looking for clues to give meaning and dignity to our existence.

We search everywhere for answers. We invent manly pursuits, make fashionable statements, enjoy risky friendships and risqué entertainment, and forever seek the holy grail of admiration so worshipped by popular culture. Unfortunately, some of us succeed only too well. And little by little, we lose ourselves even more in the lies and delusions that we create.

What does it mean to be a man today? We look into the mirror and see so much of what society has crafted, and behold so little of true dignity in our lifestyles and choices. How many of us have destroyed ourselves and the lives of those we love, because we were too lazy or cowardly to abandon the false idols we serve?

Society tells us we’re made in the image of GQ, Hollywood, Wall Street and stylish success. Scripture tells us we’re made in the image of God. If we are to save ourselves and our manhood from spiraling into hell, some things need to change. But where do we start?

Let’s begin with a basic truth – no man is an island. We're not an army of one. Women often don’t realize how much men need the company of other men to grow. It’s a natural instinct for us to be around our own, to bond and relax and be ourselves in a language that is entirely unique to us.

If you walk down any street from Greece to Hanoi, you’ll find pockets of men sitting around a café drinking, laughing and talking about everything and nothing. From teenagers to octogenarians, many will take time to be around their buddies for a good laugh, a game of football, coffee and cigars or just some easy entertainment. This is good but it is not enough.

As men, we desperately need to invite Christ into our company if we want to save ourselves from the onslaught of darkness. We must redeem our gatherings from a purely social setting and restore Christian dignity to our conversations, activities and entertainment. Above all, we need compatriots to help us, brothers to support and encourage us, friends to pray with us and for us, buddies to watch our backs and keep us honest. For our own sanity, we need to belong to a band of Christian brothers. It’s not easy, but the alternative is to live lives of deception. We cannot compartmentalize our personalities into neat little boxes of behavior; where we are different people to different communities, where we hide dark secrets beneath the light of our respectable facades.

Do we live double lives? Do we lie and scheme without conscience at work while playing the role of a responsible parent at home? Do we feed the lust of pornography in the shadows of our marriages and relationships? Do we flirt dangerously with affairs that threaten our families, or gamble away our lives and our souls in habitual sins?

These inner “demons” and struggles must be exposed to the light of Christian fellowship and prayer, so that stripped of their scandals, they can be cast out with brotherly love and support.

If like me, you’ve found the way to heaven burdened with more failures than success, take heart and realize that you are not alone. Instead, there are countless others like us, and we need to rally around each other under the leadership of Christ our Lord, in whom we find our true dignity and humanity as men. There is no room for judgment or shame among brothers, since we all bear the scars of Adam upon our souls. A leper has no derision to offer another leper, but only the strength and consolation that come from being one in our common weaknesses and struggles.

Hence, if you don’t already belong to a community of Christian men who can journey with you in your struggles, it would be helpful to find one. If none are available in your area, you can organize a group of three to four Christian friends who are committed to living the gospel difference together. As you meet regularly to pray and study the word of God, enquire about each other’s lives with brotherly concern.

Allow me to share a few suggestions from Mario Cappello, the international director for ICPE; a Catholic mission committed to training lay people for world evangelization.

1. Tackle the hard subjects - ask about each other’s prayer life and relationships with families and friends. Discuss our work ethics and commitment to chastity. Affirm each other in our fidelity to Christ, and raise the question of how we view and treat women. Do all this with great charity, but also with a firm determination to keep each other accountable.

(Again, let no man judge his brother or be scandalized by what he hears in sacred trust. Rather, let him love his brother in support and encouragement, and repay that trust with his own confidence.)

2. Be truly committed to share your burdens and struggles, holding nothing back. Realise that if you’re not serious about keeping each other honest and free, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

3. Bring into the light every dark corner of our lives. Be transparent and honest; hold nothing back intentionally. If you do not attend to that small chink in your otherwise perfect armor, the enemy of your soul will use that to destroy you. You might confidently say that ninety-five percent of the time you are righteous and true, but it’s that five percent of darkness that can easily dominate you and ruin everything.

4. Don’t be a spiritual schizophrenic. Don’t compartmentalize your life like you would your wardrobe. Grace and righteousness are not jackets you put on and take off depending on the occasion. By virtue of your baptism, you have put on Christ twenty-four-seven. Be integrated in your spiritual character, allowing no occasions to deprive you of your Christian vocation.

5. Lastly, always look to Christ and his Church for your moral reference, and do not seek the oracles of wisdom that the world offers you. Society will tell you there are no moral absolutes, that everything is relative to a man. But in order for us to choose one set of values over another, there has to be an absolute benchmark to measure our decisions upon, some kind of natural law upon which the drama of human life can depend on for moral certitude.

After all, if darkness is the absence of light and evil the absence of good, then some definitions about the nature of light and goodness must remain firmly established in order for those contrasts to continue existing. Remember that morality can be likened to a compass that shows us where we are, where we've been and more importantly, where we should be going. Otherwise, we should get hopelessly lost.

But like a compass, its usefulness is dependent on an immutable principal. For a compass to work, it needs to have for its reference an unchangeable feature, (in this case, the north pole). If the polar regions of the earth kept switching around, it would be impossible to find your way around since there is no fixed point of reference.

Morality is much the same. Truth is immutable and unchangeable. We are not the benchmarks of morality in our own lives. Christ is! And more than ever, he is calling us to a new manhood and a new dawn in him.

There are good men and there are bad men, and there are men who are so lukewarm that they are neither good nor bad. We know what kind of rewards await the first two groups, but where do men who are lukewarm end up? Revelation 3:16 quotes the Lord as saying, "So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth."

Ouch! Surely such indifference can only rob us of a life of grace.

May God liberate us from every false desire and illusion, and free us to live the truth of our sonship in him, so that through the Son of Man, we may truly regain our dignity and freedom as Sons of God.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Soul mates or cell mates?

In the course of a conversation, I was asked this question by a rather disgruntled person sometime ago, "Why is the Church so rigid and outdated in its views on marriage? It’s cruel to force couples to stay together when things don’t work out. If marriage is an institution, I don’t want to be institutionalized."

Institutionalized? That was the first time I ever heard marriage referred to in that way. It sounded almost like the metal bars of a prison cell shutting close. What is our response to something like that?

Well first of all, the Church does not force anyone to do anything. Faith and love are both actions that are either freely taken and embraced or freely rejected and scorned, in as much as the consequences of our choices do leave their impact on our lives.

Secondly, it isn’t outdated at all to emphasise the traditonal importance of marriage. Too many people undermine its sacred character and deprive themselves of necessary grace to either benefit from its holy effects, or know what a great calling it is to emulate Christ in His love for the Church.

When we sell marriage short as just an human institution, or perhaps just a natural progression of a relationship that has seen the days grow into months and years, then we fail to appreciate and respond to the great power that this Sacrament calls us to embrace.

A Christian marriage should mirror Christ's covenantal love for His Bride, the Church.

If the Body of Christ is not a visible community of believers with one Lord, one faith and one baptism as St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4, but rather a mystical, loosely amalgamated version of different Churches with conflicting beliefs tied together in some generic confession of Jesus as Lord, that would certainly make Christ the mystical spouse of many different brides or Churches, with an army of bickering and disunited children, each laying claim to having been fathered by the same man - which unfortunately is what some Christian Churches resemble today.

In most civil societies, there is a name for someone like that; we call him a creep among other things. Instead, Jesus' fidelity to His one bride; the Church, is unquestioned and true. And his commitment to her is everlasting.

The Catholic Church imitates the example and authenticity of Her Lord and Master when she insists on the indissoluble sanctity of marriage.

After all, which other religion proclaims an unswerving fidelity to Christ’s teaching against divorce and remarriage?

Islam allows up to four wives. There are no distinct religious impediments to polygamy in Hinduism, Taoism or any other mainstream pagan religion. Traditional Buddhism is in itself more of a philosophy than a religion and it too tolerates polygamy in some parts of the world, or at least doesn't oppose it in writing. And who isn’t familiar with Solomon's army of concubines within the history of ancient Judaism?

Truly, western civilization and modern society takes its monogamous tradition from Catholic Christianity.

Even Protestantism doesn’t insist on monogamy when you think about it. Despite the teaching of Jesus, you can have many different wives and husbands. You just have to marry them one at a time, literally churning out serial polygamists through the practice of divorce and remarriage.

Sadly, even many secular Catholics today are jumping on the bandwagon, either going through civil divorces or seeking Church annulments or threatening to leave the practice of the faith if pastors seem insensitive to their longings.

Of course, there are serious reasons why some spouses should not stay together for the safety and health of the individuals or the children, but all in all, marriage has become an institution to be done away with, rather than a sacrament to be faithful to.

Whether it's religious life or marriage, both vocations mirror the commitment and sacrificial love of Jesus for His Church.

In a certain sense, marriage IS religious life!

After all, like all religious professions, we make a solemn and public declaration of our intentions and promises before God and His Church to remain faithful to our witnessing of Christian love and the gospel truth.

We take our vows before the altar as we call on the Holy Spirit to sustain our commitment to die to ourselves so that the other may live.

In the vows we take before the Lord, we promise spiritual "poverty" in our marriage so that the values and ambitions of this world may never supersede the simplicity and reality of what truly matters in life, namely heaven and each other.

We promise spiritual "obedience" so that our marriage may be founded upon the "Rock" of Church teachings and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, no matter how hard.

And we promise "chastity" so that not only will we remain exclusively true to each other in our sexual and emotional bonds, but that we will not reduce each other to objects of lust at the expense of our Christian dignity.

Marriage as an institution divorced from the spiritual and mystical calling of our Christian faith is a highway leading to self-obsession and disappointments.

Likewise, every religious calling to serve as a priest or a nun is a mystical marriage to the human family of God. It’s hard not see God’s beautiful plan in that.

But if Christian marriage embraces such high ideals, who among us can adequately answer that calling with confidence?

A dear friend of mine recently complained about how difficult it was to find a Godly partner in our day, having noticed in her own experience that many Christians, particularly Catholics, lack a deep desire for holiness in marriage.

She shared that even as she drew closer to God, it became increasingly frustrating to find a relevant soul mate to share this earthly pilgrimage with. And in a way, I can understand and empathise with her feelings on this subject, seeing as how many people who fall in love with the Lord, find the challenge of discovering a kindred soul in religion almost insurmountable.

The truth is, she is right in saying that it is hard to find a partner. (Well at least one that rises up to our hopes and dreams). Maybe that's why everyone seems to fall short of our expectations in some critical way.

It is interesting that St Augustine, after having lived a life of licentiousness, worldly ideals and promiscuity, once reflected on the eternal longing in his heart and quipped famously, "Our hearts were made for you O Lord, and we shall not find rest until we rest in You."

As much as most of us do not want to admit it, we unfairly seek divine satisfaction from poor struggling creatures like ourselves, and that can most certainly set us up for disappointment.

Somewhere between our intense passion for our faith and our human longings for love and companionship, the Christian virtues of charity, meekness, compassion and gratitude often get lost in translation.

It is almost as if we seek the perfection that we desire from our union with God in imperfect creatures, who fail miserably to give us that vision for which no man or woman is equipped to give.

There is obviously a reason why providence has arranged that we should never find the perfect partner.

In an ideal or perfect relationship, what need is there for patience, forgiveness, sacrifice and hope since all your personal ideals are happily satisfied? Where then shall we seek the means for purifying our desires and intentions? How then shall we attain holiness and heaven?

Remember that the athlete is made stronger by challenges and obstacles. That is why two people come to live together - to learn to love the right way with Christ as our example and inspiration. And learning suggests differences, disagreements and difficulties, but for those who persevere in Christian hope, the love of Christ will conquer all and seal our hearts in the charity of faith and sacrifice.

When Blessed Damien of Molokai first discovered that he had contracted the painful cross of leprosy, he said, "God knows what is best for my salvation. Fiat voluntas tua."

In the same way, putting aside our ideals for a “perfect” partner, we too should trust that God not only knows what is best for our souls, but also who is best for our salvation.

And it might come as a shock to us that the spouse He intends for us may indeed be lacking in all those things that we have inscribed in our hearts as our shallow formula for marital bliss.

Instead, God knows how best to bring us to the gates of salvation, and who best to help us reach that gate.

Often, it might just be someone with whom we need to labour hard in love, patience, sacrifice and forgiveness in order to win heaven. And although this person may not look anything like whom we imagined and hoped for initially, they may just be the one anointed to purify and teach us about Christian love, and so enable us to win salvation.

Now I am not suggesting we find the most offensively secular and unbearable person to romance but rather, the beauty and attractiveness of the soul may not always be apparent to us at first glance. Because of that, we will need the help of the Holy Spirit to divine for us the wellsprings of living waters in a person's soul, despite initial appearances to the contrary.

We need the grace of divine wisdom to see and appreciate the goodness beneath the surface, which in itself is a challenge since many of us are so conditioned by our mind's eye that more often than not, we can be blind to the vision of grace.

Where we look for angels, Christ our Lord sees our humanity and uses it. With Blessed Damien who saw the beauty of souls in the lepers of Molokai, we can also say with him, "Fiat voluntas tua" - Thy will be done Lord. You know who best to send me, open my heart and my eyes. It is in human beings; with all their grime, failings and poverty, that we will also find redemption and hope, although it make take us years of dedicated work to till this garden of grace, both for ourselves and for those whom God has entrusted to us.

But knowing the temptations of modern society and the frailty of our human nature, how shall we find the strength to commit ourselves to such a grand vocation of love and faithfulness when we are but children of Adam?

The answer lies in what Jesus said to His disciples when they lamented the disadvantage of marriage after learning that divorce was not an option. “With men, it is impossible. With God, all things are possible.”

One is never perfectly ready and sufficient to embrace a great calling.

Instead we can only make the effort to cling to the hand of our Blessed Mother, and ask her to imbue us with the awareness and appreciation of the mystical destiny and dignity that her Son so painfully died to give us.

Otherwise, no one person will ever enter the priesthood or embrace matrimony if they seek the perfect conditions for saying yes. It is the nature of our spiritual life that we shall always remain insufficient in our responses to Grace. All we can do is surrender our weaknesses and insufficiencies to God with love and confidence, trusting in Him whom St Paul says, we can "do all things in Christ who strengthens" us.

But to be aware of these things...(of the immense calling that marriage extends to the human family, to share in the life and love of the Holy Trinity, and to bring forth life in this communion) not just necessary but critical like the air we breathe.

To not be alive in our royal and princely dignity as sons and daughters of God is to exist as a petrified log of wood in a field of flowers. The majestic beauty and wonder of nature would be lost to us, who remain hardened to anything but the horrendous gnawing of insects and bugs beneath our stoic appearances, consuming us from within and painfully reminding us that we are often, more dead than alive.

Unfortunately these days, Christians hardly give a thought to the sacred calling of marriage, partly because this sacrament has been so secularised that people marry for a variety of reasons that are more illusory than real, only to find out later that the commitments and responsibilities that come along are all too realistically harsh.

Truly, can any of us aspire to a love more noble and higher than what secularism offers if not for the participation of the Holy Spirit?

It takes three to make a marriage work, according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen. It is God’s presence and reality in the hearts of a loving couple that binds them in charity and gives them hope and strength over adversity. And in this way, a young couple seeking holiness in love will certainly be better prepared to succeed in marriage than a mature couple steeped in the cynicism of our secular age.

After all, was the boy Samuel ready for God's call for him to be a prophet? Was Moses confident in accepting his role as the deliverer of Israel? Was Joseph ready to become father to the Son of God?

Scripture tells us that they thought otherwise, but God knew better.

Perhaps with most of us, it is the same.

We can only crown our life decisions with an abiding faith in the mercy and love of God and the wisdom of the Church, trusting in the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit in helping us choose wisely and righteously.

Can it be otherwise in our journey to the Promised Land?

All we can do is face our storms together bravely, holding hands, humbly confident in our love for each other...and God's love for us. Because in the end...“with God, all things are possible”.