13 October 2013

In All Things Give Thanks

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time - C

The Gospel passage this Sunday is about Jesus healing ten lepers and how only one went back to Him to give thanks. This prompted Jesus to observe: "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" 

It has parallels with another healing-from-leprosy story in the First Reading. The Syrian general Naaman sought Elisha the prophet, and upon the latter's instruction, he plunged into the Jordan River seven times and was healed.

If faith is two-fold - God's gift and man's response - then the stories from the First and Gospel Readings imply that gratitude is the first step we take in our faith response. What is this virtue about, and what role does it play in our relationship with God? To answer these questions, I would like to propose that we look at gratitude on three levels.

First, there is a polite gratitude. It is the kind expected by convention and taught by parents to their children. It is borne out of an appreciation for a kindness done, a small gesture of acknowledgment for a good deed. Many of us say "thank you" out of habit, whether it be for those who have done us a favor, or delivered a service paid for. People who tend to forget to say their thank yous are thought of as snobs.

Gratitude in this level functions as a positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior. This may be one of those values that makes interaction within society smoother, a starting point for the habit of being concerned for others. But this is not yet the spirit of gratitude prescribed by the Gospel.

Then there is a humble gratitude, a deeper level of thanksgiving whereby our reflection of a kindness done leads to a realization of the limits of our capacities and merits. We can neither survive nor attain success by ourselves alone. We need others to help us. Indeed our life so far has been sustained by the kindness of family, friends, and even strangers. And we are humbled by this insight even as we are led to see something more.

The humility of Naaman the Syrian and the one Samaritan out of the ten healed lepers helped them see the hand of God moving in their lives. In contrast, the Israelites, perhaps out of a sense of exclusive entitlement to God's grace, failed to recognize the great presence of God happening right before their eyes, both in the times of Elisha and of Jesus.

The poet John Milton writes: "Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world." Ever so humbly, just before Communion, we utter the words: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed".

Finally, there is an inspired gratitude. Just like faith that cannot remain merely as an enlightened mind or a trustful heart, gratitude at its deepest level cannot but express itself in generosity and seek to bear fruit. It is inspired in the sense that our recognition of a "debt of gratitude" breathes into us a spirit that seeks to repay the debt, or better yet, pay it forward. Thus, kindness begets kindness, love begets love.

It is the kind of gratitude that makes St. Paul testify as in the Second Reading: "Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 2:10). That he has been loved, forgiven, and chosen, made St. Paul all the more inspired to preach the Good News of salvation even in the midst of difficulties and persecution.

This is what being grateful does to us: it enables us to see God's grace working in our life, helps us acquire a more balanced and grounded view of ourselves, and moves us to play our part in God's greater scheme of things.

St. Paul teaches us: “In all things give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:18). Thus, we pray that we be able to see clearly the things we need to thank God for.  And in doing so, let us not just utter polite appreciation, but approach Him in humble worship, and seek to love others just as He has loved us.

01 September 2013

A Lesson in Humility

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 1 September 2013

Readings: Sir 3,17-18,20,28-29; Ps 68,4-5,6-7,10-11; Heb 12,18-19,22-24a; Mt 11,29ab

Our First Reading this Sunday from the Book of Sirach begins with these words: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” In the Gospel reading, Jesus used the occasion of a banquet and the way guests were behaving, choosing for themselves places of honor at the table, to drive home a lesson in humility.

What does it mean to be humble, and how important is this virtue in Christian life?

1. To be humble means to keep ourselves grounded.

The root of the word comes from the Latin humus, which means soil. What the virtue of humility develops in us is how to keep our feet firmly on the ground, that is how to be secure in our self-identity and authentic in our self-expressions. 

My professor in moral theology, Fr. James Keenan, SJ, in his book "Virtues for Ordinary Christians", defines it this way: “Humility acknowledges the truth about oneself; it is not about lying or denial, but rather about the ability to determine whether what others say about oneself is true or not. As a matter of virtue, humility is the mean between two vices. Humility is found between pride, where one thinks oneself greater than one really is, and self-pity, where one thinks oneself worse.”

When Jesus cautioned his audience about reserving for themselves places of honor at the banquet table, he was not merely taking about table etiquette. He was talking about staying grounded, keeping it real, not thinking too highly about oneself. C.S. Lewis famously stated: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

Today, we may think most of us have already come to accept this practical advice. Some have even mastered the practice. Public figures, especially, would want to show that they are in solidarity with the masses. Coming from humble origins and rising from the ranks has become a badge of honor. People reward with approval those who visit and support orphanages and homes for the aged, those who are respectful and humble in their use of words, and appreciate those who use self-depreciating humor.

However, we also have to be wary about mistaking mere political correctness or good PR for true humility. For even now, society has its own “places of honor”: the discreet yet distinctive power table at parties, VIP rooms, and exclusive enclaves. These may also manifest even in our choice of conversations or company that excludes certain people in our workplaces, schools, and communities.

2. To be humble is the first step in walking with God.

Micah 6:8 reminds us what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with God. Before we can talk about committing to righteousness and justice, the first disposition a disciple needs to learn is humility – which means accepting first the truth of ourselves: our giftedness and weakness, our strengths and inadequacies.

The great Greek philosopher Socrates would usually initiate his new students into his teaching style by asking them to define something, and then keep asking them more probing questions until they finally say they really don’t know at all. Then he would say, now we can begin learning for “true wisdom is in knowing that you don’t know.”

In Mt 9,13, Jesus says: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners”. Who are the righteous? They are the ones who feel self-satisfied with their moral and spiritual state, and feel no more need for conversion. Now, who are the sinners? They are the ones who recognize their faults and failures, and acknowledge their sinfulness. In the same verse, Jesus also says: “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice.” Between the two, who is most receptive to the grace that Jesus offers? The humble sinner recognizes his need for God’s mercy, while the self-righteous feels secure in the merits of his own sacrifice.

3. To be humble is to be exalted.

Jesus teaches us in the Gospel reading today that “every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The First Reading also has this to say: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

To understand these statements, it may be helpful to look at an example of how to fall from God’s favor. But first I have to ask: “What do you think was the first sin committed in all of creation?” The answer: it is not the sin of Adam and Eve, rather it is that of their tempter – the sin of pride. Satan, the deceiver, started as an angel, and one of the more favored ones too. His name, Lucifer, means “bearer of light”. But he became so full of himself, and too proud to serve humanity in God’s behalf, that when given a choice he decided to choose himself over God’s will. And so he has fallen from grace, and has made it his mission since then to lure humanity into thinking they have no need of God’s grace as well.

That is why, when Jesus came to save us, He chose the way that is most opposite to pride: humility. The Letter to the Philippians (2,6-9) sums up profoundly this way of heroic humility: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him.”

Why do we need to practice humility? Because as Christians, we follow the way of Christ, and His way begins with first possessing humility. To love and serve humbly is to be exalted by God, for by doing so, we reflect the light of Christ to others, we become witnesses to the kind of life God has prepared for His people – authentic and free, and meaningfully happy. To be exalted is to be able to let others see God’s love and joy through us.

24 August 2013

Pork and the Narrow Gate

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 25 August 2013

Readings: Is 66:18-21; Ps. 117:1, 2; Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Lk 13:22-30

What does our faith tell us about pork? We are not referring to the meat, but to what’s hot right now in Philippine politics, which is the pork barrel scam. Not much, at least directly. However, our readings this Sunday speak precisely against the kind of corruption exhibited by the pork barrel as an institution and the outrageous lengths that it has been abused.

Ostensibly, the fund is supposed to promote development: deliver services to the poor, construct and maintain needed infrastructure, support education and healthcare, etc. That is why in its present form it is called PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund). However, it is designed from the start to promote the politics of patronage. The president decides which lawmakers get the fund and how much, and lawmakers influence how projects are implemented and which contractors get projects, all the while using taxpayers' money in order to maintain a flawed system of political dependency and loyalty. And then comes evidence of ghost projects which are non-existent projects funded by the pork barrel of senators and congress representatives. Where do the funds go? Where else but to lawmakers who allowed their PDAF to be used that way, to professional swindlers, and other parties involved in the whole operation.

In a recent press conference, Cardinal Chito was moved to tears when referring to the scam. He lamented that it was supposed to be money spent for the poor, but stolen from them by people who have lost the sense of the poor’s suffering.

As we work for genuine progress and development in this country, we are reminded that the path (daang matuwid) leading to it must pass through the narrow gate. What is this narrow gate?

This refers to Lk 13,24 which says: “"Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Now, what does it mean to enter through the narrow gate? I would like to propose two senses.

1. We remember that following God means following His Way, not our way.

We don't ask God to conform to us, it is us who have to conform to God. We need to recognize that following God’s will is following His best-laid plan for us as individuals and as a people. When we turn away from it, we set ourselves on a road to destruction. 

In 1996, the Rev. Joe Wright led this opening prayer at the Kansas House of Congress: “Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done.

We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
We have killed our unborn and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem.
We have abused power and called it politics.
We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.
We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment...”

His opening prayer made a stir in Congress that day. One legislator walked out, and some criticized the pastor. But when the media aired the story, the response from the public, including those from other countries, was overwhelmingly supportive of Reverend Wright.

Entering through the narrow gate means it is our values that need to adjust, not the reality of what is truly right and just. It means divesting ourselves of our burdens of personal convenience, self-interest, and prejudices, since they hold us back from passing through the gate. After all, it is God’s will that we seek, not our will; it is God’s way that we strive to follow, not our way.

2. We relearn the values of discipline and commitment.

Heb 12,11 says: "At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it."

Can you imagine parents not teaching their kids discipline and expect them to succeed later in life? Can you imagine a teacher advising students that in order to graduate all they have to do is just browse through their books and attend classes only when they feel like it? Can you imagine a music teacher telling his young ward that the surefire way to becoming a great concert artist is simply to love music and practice only when he is in the mood? Can you imagine a coach devising a plan to win championships that does not involve his players' commitment to regular practice sessions and taking care of their health? They are hard to imagine and simply ridiculous.

Can you imagine being elected as a public servant and not exercising the disciplines of integrity and putting the people’s interest first before that of the self, one’s family, and party? Unfortunately, we can, and the pork barrel scam tells us it has been happening for decades.

Now can you imagine yourself as a citizen, and being party as well to this web of corruption? Unfortunately, we also can, either by resigned acceptance of corruption as a way of life, or by actual collusion. Even as we decry the pork barrel itself and its abuses, let us also discern how we too, as individuals and as a Church, may have enabled the culture of corruption and patronage politics. In a way, a Church protesting against the pork barrel is like holding a mirror to ourselves and asking if we too in the Church could pass the test of integrity using current standards of transparency and accountability. It is also a call to action for reforms in this regard within the Church as an institution.

If discipline is important in parenting, education, arts, and sports, why not in citizenship, and why not in our life of faith as well? Yet today we hear of so many people resisting the discipline of faith, interpreting Scriptures according to their needs, and following only Church teachings that best fit their lifestyle. And then they’ll say: “Why be so hard on yourself? After all, God is love.”

Remember Heb 12,6: "for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines". And then Mt 7,21 says: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Not everyone who invokes “God is love” will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Our Gospel this Sunday is a timely reminder of just what we need to do to enter the Kingdom, and help build It on earth through inclusive growth and genuine development for our people. Passing through the narrow gate is the test that determines whether our personal, ecclesial, and national striving are truly in the right path (daang matuwid). The choice before us may not be simple, but it is clear: pass through the narrow gate, or wait until we find ourselves forever barred from entering it.

09 August 2013

My Public Narrative

"I will give you shepherds after my own heart" (Jer 3,15).

The Story of I.  The calling to the priesthood came to me, I think, already during childhood. I practically grew up breathing Catholic – my parents taught me the basic prayers, we went to Church on Sundays as a family, I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten to graduate school. We were not rich or even lower middle-class, my father just had a high regard for Catholic education, and he struggled to send all of his four children to Catholic schools.

My initial motivations then were the high regard our large extended family accorded to priests and the way he commanded attention from everyone at Mass on Sundays. A wizened spiritual director in later years would tell us, we all start with impure motivations – the important thing is how we let grace purify our hearts in the end.

It came as no surprise to almost everybody who knew me then when I entered the seminary at the age of 12, a series of institutions that would be my home for the next 13 years, excluding two years off after college. To tell the story of those years would take much time, and so I would gloss over the adventures and experiences, the lessons learned and friendships bonded, by describing seminary formation as integral, that is, it is focused on developing well-rounded persons (or at least, our formators tried to do so). To put it simply, it is designed to make us first connect with our true selves, so we can have a meaningful relationship with God as a person, and also with the realities of society and the Church. To put it with even greater simplicity, formation was about getting us fall in love.

The Jesuit Pedro Arrupe said it most succinctly: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”

The Story of Us. As celibates, it is most important that we don’t lose our romanticism. And so I fell in love with God and His people, this “living, pulsing, sinning people of God”. Why? To use the words of another Jesuit, Walter Burghardt, because: “For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body.  In an age so inhuman, I touch here the tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and laughter. In the midst of death I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ."

I was doing my studies in theology while the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the West raged on. Like many people, my generation of seminarians asked how those Church leaders involved were able to live with themselves knowing that they let those abuses happen, and chose to protect the Church as an institution first before the little ones who consider the Church a home. In this country at that time, we were dismayed by the way some of our bishops allowed themselves to be co-opted and corrupted by a widely mistrusted political leadership.

Yet when we went to our apostolate areas, to the slums of the city where the urban poor lived, we saw the faces of the great Body of Christ and experienced how relevant the faith and the faith-community meant to them. When I got back to my provincial diocese, I was struck by the dedication and humble service of so many fellow priests and lay leaders, kindred spirits – many of them committed, hardworking, and palpably holy.

I am not saying these things as a way to differentiate the good and the bad within the Church, much less to set myself apart. For even in the most well-intentioned priest or lay faithful among us, the seeds of hypocrisy and clericalism can grow, the corruption of pride and entitlement can happen. I feel a close affinity to Pope Francis' description of himself as "a sinner on whom the Lord has turned His gaze".

The Story of Now. Today, under the pastoral leadership and witness of this same Pope, I sense the Spirit of hope breathing much needed change throughout the Church. Yet there is much work to be done. And it is not about redeeming an institution or making faith more relevant. These are not our unique value propositions. It is about doing our perennial mission, the one given to the Church as a gift, which is also a task: preaching the Good News of salvation. It is communicating to the world the powerful message that there is a God who loves them, and that this love is especially directed to the last, the least, and the lost. And the manner of delivery is two-fold, best summed-up by a master communicator during his time, St. Francis of Assisi: “At all times preach the Gospel, sometimes with words.”

It is for this purpose that I came to AIM, to study Development Management in order to learn new tools of the trade and apply them to ministry. I like to think of what I'm doing as getting involved in the great and noble project of developing further the technology of evangelization. A priest-friend once told me sagely, “When you introduce something new, your community may either see you as an innovator or an anomaly. If you are seen as an innovator, it means they accept the change that you bring; if you are regarded as an anomaly, brace yourself for some challenging times ahead.”

I’m not sure whether I would like to be branded as an innovator, much less an anomaly. I don’t want to be tagged as a reformer or a technocrat either. Like most priests, I just want to witness to a life of faithful service. It may just happen that sometimes such a witnessing may take the form of introducing technology and innovation, or advocating for greater lay participation in Church leadership, more transparency in finances, and a stronger sense of accountability.

Another wise and holy man of this age, Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, in his book, Secularity and the Gospel, wrote about what the Church (and the world) needs today: “We are not lacking for solid ideas. What we are lacking however, is fire, romance, aesthetics, as these pertain to our faith and ecclesial lives. What needs to be inflamed today inside religion is its romantic imagination. Solid ideas and solid programs alone are not enough. We need someone to re-inflame the romantic imagination of Christianity, a new Francis, a new Clare, a new Augustine, a new Thomas More, a new Ignatius, a new Therese of Lisieux.”

I’m not talking about me now. This call is about you. In fact, this is about everyone of us. Maybe some of you are being called to the priesthood, or to the religious life. Maybe some of you are called to the great vocation of parenthood, which is about reflecting God’s love to your children. Maybe you are called to bring Christ’s presence to your office or place of business, Christ’s wisdom to your boardroom or classroom, Christ’s care to the ER or to the grassroots. Maybe you are called to win the marketplace for Christ. Whatever calling you feel will bring a deeper meaning and profound joy to your life – will you let the Spirit inflame you with His romantic imagination, so through you and each one of us, the world may also catch the fire of God’s love?

This is originally written as a requirement for the Bridging Leadership class for the Master in Development Management 2013 course at Asian Institute of Management - Center for Development Management (AIM-CDM), Makati City. I may also use this as a testimony in the context of a small faith community or for an audience of seekers, discerning whether they are called to the priesthood, the religious life, or lay ministry within the Church.

04 August 2013

The Worldly Christian

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 4 August 2013

Readings: Ecc 1:2, 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-4,5-6,12-13,14,17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Lk12:13-21

The Gospel reading this Sunday opens with a man from the crowd asking Jesus to mediate between him and his brother on the sharing of family property. It was customary for rabbis to be called upon to mediate disputes, but Jesus used the request to drive home a lesson on dealing with worldly riches.  It is also the theme of the other two readings this Sunday. I would like to sum up their message in three points:

1. We should not make riches our master.

This seems straightforward and sensible enough. St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises speaks of a choice we need to make: whether to follow the standard of Christ or the standard of Satan. And he cautions against taking the lure of Satan lightly for that is what makes him all the more effective. After all, the word Satan means the “deceiver”.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis said that it saddens him to see priests and religious use expensive cars and the latest gadgets, when the money could have been used for better purposes such as helping the poor. Many people – within and without the Church – resonated with the Pope’s call to simplicity, and prompted a good amount of discernment on many of us priests.

Worse, when we let ourselves be deceived, we cause harm to others. Cardinal Chito Tagle, in his speech during the International Congress on the Eucharist in Quebec, Canada, in 2008, says that people who have exchanged the true God for idols like profit, prestige, pleasure, and control, also dedicate their lives to them – and sacrifice others to sustain the worship of their false gods. He asks: “How many factory workers are being denied the right wages for the god of profit? How many women are being sacrificed to the god of domination? How many children are being sacrificed to the god of lust? How many trees, rivers, hills are being sacrificed to the god of ‘progress’? How many poor people are being sacrificed to the god of greed? How many defenseless people are being sacrificed to the god of national security?”

Qoheleth the wise (in the First Reading) says: “Vanity of vanities!” All our toil is pointless. When our lives are mainly centered on working or gaining profit, ironically our toil is reduced to pointless vanity. This is not how God meant us to live.

2. We do not view riches as inherently evil either.

The readings this Sunday don’t say that it is wrong to acquire material possessions or dream of improving our lot. But haven’t we heard it said many times that money is the root of all evil? The text comes from 1 Tim 6,10, which actually says: “The love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.”

It is not riches in themselves that bring people to ruin. It is the inordinate attachment to them. How do we make the distinction between a healthy regard for riches and an inordinate attachment to them? St. Ignatius has a helpful phrase we can remember: “tantum quantum”. A simple translation would be “whatever helps”. He says our purpose in life is to worship and serve God and by doing so find our salvation. All other things in the world are created and made available to us in order to achieve this purpose. Thus, concerning material wealth and such other things as knowledge or good health, for as long as they bring us closer to God, we use them. If they don’t, then their usage becomes obstacles to achieving our true purpose.

3. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

The point comes from Christ’s reminder in Mt. 6,19: "store up treasures in heavens, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal".  The message is related to this Sunday’s parable about the rich man who thinks he can simply hoard all his harvest in a bigger barn and live the life he wanted (eat, drink, and be merry), and why Jesus calls him a fool.

The Fathers of the Church have generally interpreted this parable to mean our social obligation not to abandon the poor and the needy. Their position is well summed up by Venerable Bede: “The reason the Lord reproved the man who tore down his barns in order to build bigger ones was not that he cultivated the earth and collected its fruits into his barns, but that he did not divide with the poor what went beyond his needs–in which case he wouldn’t need larger barns–but instead built larger barns in which to keep them for himself.”

And don’t think the message is only for the materially rich. One can be poor and be inordinately attached to money. Another extreme that a Christian needs to avoid is romanticizing poverty. Renowned lay preacher Bo Sanchez narrates his conversion from this particular point of view in his book “8 Secrets of the Truly Rich”. He said an incident has become chiseled in his memory, and he was never the same again after it happened.

After one prayer meeting, a woman with her small daughter approached him and asked, “Bo, can you pray over me?” “Of course”, he smiled, “what can I pray for?” “Tomorrow is the last day for my daughter’s enrollment and I have no money…” She quietly sobbed, clutching her daughter to her waist. She explained that she’s been praying to God but it seems as though nothing was happening. “Bo, please pray over me that God will increase my faith.”

He became curious. “How much money do you need exactly?”, he asked. “P700”, she said. “P700? P700 only?” He couldn’t believe his ears. “It’s a monthly instalment thing”, she explained. At that precise moment, he wanted to pull out his wallet and give her the 700 bucks. He wanted to say, “Look sister, I don’t have to pray over you. Here’s the money and go home!” But he couldn’t. No matter how much he wanted to. Because as he stood there in front of her, he knew that he only had P20 in his wallet. P20!

So what did he do? He prayed over her. After he laid his hands over her, she thanked him and bid farewell. He said: “Believe me, I’ve done a lot of difficult things in my life. But one of the most difficult was watching this lady and her daughter walk out of the room empty-handed.”

When they disappeared through the door, he sat down on a chair and felt a deep pain inside. A prayer formed in his heart: “Lord I don’t want his to ever happen again. Oh, to have money to help others! Help me help them.”

Fast forward a few years later. Bo Sanchez now earns enough to send a few children to school. And he says the feeling is incredible. 

Material wealth, physical beauty, good health – all these things pass away, some even before we reach the grave. The beauty about storing treasures in heaven is that it doesn’t just prepare us for the life hereafter, it also paves the way for a meaningfully happy way of life even now.

Adapted from my homily on the same theme and readings three years ago.

16 June 2013

From Guilt to Grace

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 16 June 2013

Readings: 2 Sam 12:7-10, 13; Ps 32:1-2, 5, 7,11; Gal 2:16, 19-21; Lk 7:36-8:3

Do you remember the last time you felt guilty over some wrongdoing? I doubt if anyone of us enjoys feeling guilty over something. It is an unpleasant feeling to say the least. Guilt prevents us from living life fully, and taken to extremes, it can make some people dysfunctional and immoblized.

That is why it is understandable that most of us try to avoid the feeling of guilt or shame. We devise coping mechanisms to get around it: denial, passing the blame, outright lie. In pathological cases, there are therapies devised just to handle and overcome guilt.

In our haste to eliminate uncomfortable guilt, some of us are led to think that when we rid ourselves of it, we can move on and lead happy lives. Not so fast. Guilt is also a natural human response. And there is such a thing as legitimate guilt.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls it “existential guilt”, which “occurs when someone injures an order of the human world whose foundations he or she knows and recognizes as those of his or her own existence and of all common human existence”.

When hurt is done or wrongdoing is committed, whether by malice or insensitivity, the one wronged feels his or her world is damaged, and so the victim becomes more cautious in making similar choices, less trusting with people, less optimistic about life. It is not only the wronged party who gets affected, but the wrongdoer as well. Something also becomes off in his or her world, and this manifests in guilt.

The prophet Nathan, in the First reading, was sent on a mission to show King David his existential guilt. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and sent her husband, a loyal general, to die in the battlefield to cover up their sin. David might have thought he got away with it. Nathan was sent so he won't get the wrong idea.

Guilt is our conscience tugging at us, an indicator that something is amiss in our moral compass. In the Gospel Reading, Jesus showed Simon the Pharisee how much his moral compass was amiss. He failed to see how he was rather dismissive of his guest, and scornful of the sinful woman. Jesus taught him that between his scorn for the sinful woman and the woman’s bizarre behaviour, it was the woman who has her priorities right.

1. Guilt is present not to make us feel miserable, but to help us seek forgiveness.

Once again from Martin Buber: “Humans are those beings who are capable of becoming guilty and are capable of illuminating their guilt.”

David, upon hearing Nathan’s indictment, felt remorse and said: ““I have sinned against the Lord.” As if to echo David’s remorse, the response to the Psalm this Sunday says: “Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.”

We Catholics are blessed to have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to satisfy our need for forgiveness. When was the last time you went to confession and beg God to forgive your sins? How regularly do you go to confession? Do you even consider the Sacrament important at all or it is just one of those quaint family traditions that you have to go through during Holy Week?

When we don’t satisfy our longing for forgiveness, our guilt will gnaw and nag at us. But it is not the worst thing that could happen. Worse is when our guilt disappears. When it happens, it means we have become desensitized to the sin we have done, and most likely, are still doing. And when the sense of guilt is gone, the next to go is the sense of God.

2. The point of forgiveness is not to assuage our guilt but to lead us to order our life for the better.

There is an oft-quoted prayer made by a young and newly-converted St. Augustine, at that time still recovering from the old habits of his former sinful lifestyle: "Lord, give me chastity, but not yet."

Sometimes we find it rather easy to ask for forgiveness but are not quite ready to put proper order in our lives just yet. There are also those who treat the Sacrament of Reconciliation as if it were some sort of spiritual washing machine.

God’s forgiveness – especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation – is never about tolerating wrongdoing, nor is it a mere washing of dirty linens, or whitewashing old sins. Rather it helps us to rediscover the true purpose and meaning of our lives. In the Gospel accounts, when Jesus tells the sick and the sinners, "your sins are forgiven", He is giving them a new lease on life, or more precisely, He is leading them to a new life.

3. A decision to order our life for the better means welcoming God’s grace to enter our life and transform us.

Mahatma Gandhi tells this personal story: “When I was 15 years-old, I stole something. Because I was in debt, I stole a golden bracelet that belonged to my father. But I could not stand the burden of my guilt. So I went to him. But as I stood there, I was so ashamed that I could not open my mouth. So I wrote my confession down on a piece of paper. And while I was handling it to him, my whole body trembled. My father read the note, closed his eyes and then tore it to pieces. All he said was: ‘Think nothing of it.’ Then he took me in his arms, and from that moment on I began to love my father more than I had ever done before.”

Similarly, God forgives not so much because we are deserving or that we have done something good, but because it is in His nature to love us no matter what.

The sinful woman in the Gospel passage came to Jesus, weeping, anointing his feet with fragrant ointment, showing prodigious amount of love because even before Jesus articulated her being forgiven, she knew and felt that she was welcomed, accepted and loved by Him. This is the sense by which St. Paul proclaims in Gal 2,16: “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Ultimately what is being revealed here is an image of God: ready to forgive and reconcile with us, poised to give us His grace, intending to share with us His very life. What are we to do with a God like this?

One last story…

A missionary once observed a Sunday Mass in Bolivia. His curiosity was piqued by the offertory procession of four teenage boys. Aside from the offering of candle, bread and cruets (water and wine), one of them held a rather large stone in his hands. When they reached the foot of the altar, they turned around and lifted up the offertory gifts for all to see. Only one of them speaks: the youth holding the stone. He prays:

“Father in heaven, this stone is also a gift from us. It represents us and our hearts. Enkindle in us a warmth for one another and never allow us to become or remain hard like this stone. On the contrary, may we continue to spread light and life. As we lay it on the altar, may our hearts be transformed just as the bread and wine will be. Amen.”

My suggestion for a fitting response to a God like this: follow Heb 3,7-8: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts”.

06 April 2013

God's Mercy

2nd Sunday of Easter - 7 April 2013

Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13; Rev 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; Jn 20:19-31

During the Jubilee Year 2000, at the canonization rites of St. Faustina, Blessed Pope John Paul II declared the Second Sunday of Easter to be celebrated in the universal Church as "Divine Mercy Sunday". Many speculate that the Pope did so because he was Polish and the devotion to the Divine Mercy was, and still is, very strong in Poland and originated with St. Faustina herself.

A more likely explanation is that the Pope truly believed that the world needs to believe and feel God's mercy. And he explained his interest in spreading the message of mercy in great depth and detail in his 1980 encyclical Dives in Miserecordia - referring to God who is "rich in mercy".

The title of the letter is taken from Eph 2,4-5: "But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he has for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ, by grace you have been saved."

The text paved way to the Holy Father's two very important statements about mercy. First, that "mercy is love's second name". Secondly, that mercy is "the greatest attribute of God".

Mercy is an expression of God's grace. What is grace but love that is undeserved, unmerited but freely given. And mercy is its inverse expression: it is about us sinners not getting what we deserve. But there is more to mercy than just punishment withheld. There are many aspects and elements of God's mercy, I would like to share three of them: identification with suffering, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

1. Identification with suffering.

In the Latin tradition, the principal word for mercy is misericordia, which means, literally miserable heart. Fr. George Kosicki, CSB, the great Divine Mercy evangelist, once summed up the meaning of this Latin word as follows: misericordia means "having a pain in your heart for the pains of another, and taking pains to do something about their pain"

In the same encyclical, Blessed John Paul writes that mercy was at the heart of the public ministry of Jesus:  "Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live.... This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering."

2. Forgiveness.

The most concrete expression of mercy is, of course, forgiveness. Last Good Friday, we meditated on Jesus' seven last words, among them: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." In many miracle stories, Jesus would not just say, "be healed", or "stand up and walk", but "you're sins are forgiven" - a constant source of perplexity for his enemies. And even they grasped the implication of forgiveness: "How can he forgive? Only God can forgive. Does he make himself God?"

3. Reconciliation.

Reconciliation means repairing a broken relationship, and especially when it refers to the relationship between God and man - it inevitably results to restoring the broken self to its graced dignity. The message of Jesus to his disciples in this Sunday's Gospel is peace.

You died Jesus, but the source of life flowed out for souls and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world. O Fountain of Life, immeasurable Divine Mercy, cover the whole world and empty Yourself out upon us.O Blood and Water which flowed out from the Heart of Jesus as a Fountain of Mercy for us, I trust in You.

Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and the whole world.

28 February 2013

Leadership Lessons from N.R. Narayana Murthy

N. R. Narayana Murthy, Indian businessman and co-founder of Infosys (third largest IT company in the world) delivered a talk at AIM last February 21. He impressed upon his audience some valuable lessons on being a successful entrepreneur and leader of industry. So what makes a great leader? Here is my personal integration on how N.R. Narayana Murthy counts the ways.

Character. Good leaders have a clear grasp of what they wish to achieve (their vision), who they are, and what they can offer. Murthy sums this up in a concept: a clear and concise differentiated value proposition, i.e, what an individual or organization can offer that sets it apart from the rest. Add to it a firm commitment to hard work and integrity, and a capacity to sacrifice personal interest for the good of the organization or society. When people see these traits in leaders, they tend to be more attracted to the vision they share, for they lead by example.

A properly-formed character is also the best safeguard against the debilitating effects of mindsets, which come from the data base of our experiences that coagulate into supposedly proven ways of doing things that lull us to complacency and encourage mediocrity. A good leader committed to change is able to recognize innovative ideas and liberate them from mindsets.

Courage. Murthy actually identifies courage as the most important attribute of a good leader. This means the courage to dream big, take moral decisions, implement strategy, go against conventional wisdom, and travel roads less travelled, or in some cases untraveled. If entrepreneurship is about transforming ideas into wealth, of making the implausibly impossible possible, then courage is indeed the defining trait of the entrepreneur. It is also about knowing that subscribing to a value system entails cost. Taking a risk because one’s value system demands it is the true test of courage.

Creativity. Murthy calls it the drive for innovation. A good leader should know how to dream, and be able to convince others that his dream is worth taking – but he should also be open to new ideas. The best way to generate new ideas is to work in improving competence, gaining crucial experience and knowledge in the process. 

For the entrepreneur, creativity may mean the constant search for that which will make his products or services better, faster, cheaper. This is also a good rule for development work. The conviction that there ought to be a better way of delivering services, recognizing rights, or empowering people is the starting point in the journey of transforming inequality to equity.
Care for Persons. Murthy jokingly talks about his transformation from a confused socialist to a compassionate capitalist (as some have described him), but he does walk his talk when it comes to his concern for people. He calls it generosity. At the outset, it makes good business sense to care of people – clients, partners, and employees alike. It ensures repeat business, investor confidence and employee loyalty. More than these however, values such as fairness and transparency, courtesy and humility, and generosity of heart (“praise in public, prescribe in private, take blame for failures”) builds people’s trust in the leader and self-esteem and confidence in themselves. 

At the crucial nexus between having the vision to effect change and other people’s willingness to follow or, better yet, take such vision as their own, lies the trust that they have on the one carrying the message. The truism “the medium is the message” may already be a cliché but still rings ever true today: people will accept and carry the message for as long its messenger proves himself genuinely trustworthy and his message empowering.

19 February 2013

Our Father

Tuesday, 1st Week of Lent
Gospel Reading: Mt 6, 7-15

Jesus said to his disciples: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This is how you are to pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

“If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”


Our short Gospel passage describes to us the nature of Christian prayer.

1. It is not about the multiplicity of words or length of time spent as about the authenticity of relationship we built.

Prayer is basically communication, and communication builds relationship. The special thing with prayer is that it is our relationship with God that it builds. Does it mean that we are better off without our rosaries and lengthy prayers? Not really. It's just that now we know these prayers spring from our relationship with, or to use the language of prayer, our devotion to, God.

2. It is about putting God first.

Even when we approach God bringing ourselves and our pressing concerns, still we begin our prayer by acknowledging God's reign over us, or as He would like us to know Him, His being our Father. Because God is our Father, He knows our needs and cares for us more than we can take care of ourselves. Thus, we pray primarily to worship God, to seek His Kingdom and His will. And because we have a loving Father, we can approach Him and beg for our daily bread and many other needs.

3.  It is about being transformed by our prayer.

When we pray we become closer to God, and the closer we are to Him, the more we hear His invitation to share His life with us. Meaning, the more we pray and build our relationship with God, the more we are transformed according to His image and likeness. In simple terms, we ask ourselves: are we becoming more loving as we pray? A basic expression of this love is our capacity to forgive. Why forgiveness? When we forgive, we bring the love of God to those who have sinned against us, to those who least deserve it, or to put it another way - we bring God's love to those who need it most.

This is how Jesus taught us to pray.

16 February 2013

The Nature of Temptations

1st Sunday of Lent (C) – 17 February 2013

Readings: Dt 26:4-10; Ps 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Rom 10:8-13; Lk 4:1-13

The Gospel story on this First Sunday of Lent is the temptation of Jesus by Satan. After His baptism, Jesus went to the desert to fast and pray in order to prepare for pubic ministry. And there Satan tempted Him three times, and three times Satan was rebuffed.

The Temptations of Jesus. A short review of these temptations also reveals how Jesus intends to do His mission to the world.

1. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

By rejecting this seemingly innocuous dare, Jesus tells Satan that man does not live merely to acquire material goods. And in Mt 4,4 the line is added: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He also sends the message that His mission is not to become a generous patron who offers instant gratification or overnight solutions to hunger, poverty, injustice, and all other problems of humanity.

2. “All these (kingdoms of the world) will be yours, if you worship me.”

By rejecting this more brazen offer, Jesus tells Satan that all the power and glory in the world is not worth it, especially when it means selling your soul to the devil. He also sends the message that He will not be an earthly power, no matter how benevolent, who demands the command of armies or the subjugation of peoples under his rule in order to bring about peace and prosperity.

3. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

By rejecting this rather desperate challenge, Jesus puts Satan in his proper place and reminded him that he is talking to the Son of God Himself – and one “does not put the Lord God to the test”. He also sends the message that He does not intend to be a populist ruler who moves supporters and fans with showbiz eloquence and miracles.

Instead Jesus will model compassion, gentleness and humility. He will be a faithful prophet who will meet death like all true prophets before and after him. He will be a servant king who eats with sinners and washes His disciples’ feet. He will be a priest who turns Himself into the ultimate offering so His friends may live.

Heb 4,15 says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” As Jesus was tempted in every way, so will it be with us His disciples. As He was strengthened and informed by His triumph over temptations, so will it be with us.

The Nature of Temptations. Temptations are basically deceptions. Satan – whose name means “the deceiver” – wishes to distract us from our mission, confuse our idea of true happiness or true love – thus, hinder us from finding it, stop us from discovering our real self, and draw us away from the source of life.

To be effective, a deception has to be clever. Think of the way scammers, say the Budol-Budol Gang, rob their victims blind. The devil does not ask us outright to do evil things – not many of us would be fooled that easily. Rather he persuades us to see a semblance of good in the things he tempt us with. It’s not about Adam and Eve disobeying God, it’s about their becoming like God. It’s not about Jesus getting distracted from His mission, it’s about Him doing an innocuously simple thing: turning stone to bread. After all he would be turning water into wine in a little while.

The problem with making “small” moral concessions “for a greater good” is that it makes the heart and mind comfortable with falling into little temptations, and paves the way for even bigger transgressions.

It’s the classic frog in a boiling water analogy. Drop a frog in boiling water and it will immediately react to save itself. Drop a frog in normal water, slowly heat it, and the frog won’t know it is being cooked till it is too helpless to save itself. This is how temptation works.

Let us identify some of the more common deceptions that we face today.

1. The temptation to choose the good over the better.

People faced with moral dilemmas most often don’t face a choice of good versus evil, but between or among a variety of goods. When we choose the lesser good we fall into the trap of choosing the easier way over the right way. It is so tempting to choose the easy way and fall for the fake sense of contentment brought by blissful mediocrity. Mediocrity in spirit is the one great obstacle to being formed according to the image of God.

2. The temptation not to risk loving again.

Everybody wants to love and be loved. Who are those who find it hard to love? Those who have loved and been hurt, those who have dreamed and failed. Because loving again opens them to the risk getting hurt again, and dreaming once more exposes them to failure and disappointment yet again, some people chose instead to simply stop loving. Apathy and simply living in the moment (forget about tomorrow!) seem to be the easier ways to go. Then again, there is no other path to happiness but to love truthfully. You cannot truly love unless you are willing to take the risk of getting hurt.

3. The temptation to eschew balance in our lives.

Sometimes success blinds us and makes us only see the good that we do, and not the things we need to avoid doing. History and literature is replete with lessons on how unbridled power corrupts the best of intentions. A modern management dictum says: “Systems of accountability are in place to keep honest people remain honest.”

Sometimes too our devotion to duty or dedication to a goal makes us so focused as to be insensitive to the plight of persons and values that get in the way. Remember the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats: in the end, God will not judge us by how much we have achieved, but by how much we have loved.

4. The temptation to equate happiness with having lots of choices.

It is not so much the availability of choices that leads to true happiness, it is rather the freedom to make a commitment. Choosing from a selection of options is just the first step. Committing to something or someone is the real work, for by doing so we immerse ourselves in the full reality of freedom.

Yet there is something that makes many of us cringe at the mere thought of making a commitment: the fear of being limited. Perhaps this springs from our fixation with an idea of freedom as being able to do what we want when we want to. Many link their happiness to the achievement of this ideal, and resent any authority – government, religion, even God – who sets limits on what they can and cannot do. Sadly, they will only be disappointed. There is no absolute freedom in the first place. It is part of our nature to be limited, weak, and prone to overstep boundaries especially when there are no clear markers in sight. Ironically, there is a sense of liberation in accepting our limits. After all, it is our weak and limited nature that God assumed in order to save us.

5. The temptation to carve God in our own image.

Today the cult of the self has grown even stronger. Industries have been built to satisfy every imaginable vanity and desires of the flesh. The idea of God is accepted and tolerated for as long as it promotes the well-being of the self. There are those who think they can be simply “spiritual” or “saved” without belonging to the community of believers. There are those who think they can be moral while choosing only the precepts that are convenient to them. They carve an idol according to their own image and call him God.

6. The temptation to rely solely on our own strength.

This is the devil’s favorite. By perpetuating a culture that glorifies the self-made, self-sufficient person, we are lulled into assuming we can combat temptation by ourselves, or deal with our addictions our way, or change for the better by sheer willpower. It is when we think we are strong on our own accord that we are most vulnerable.

The whole season of Lent is a graced time to look inwards, examine our relationship with God, and review our lives in the light of the Gospel. As we reflect upon our inner demons may we also rediscover our graced self, the one redeemed by Christ, the one who longed to live in the life of God.

Heb 2,18 says: “Because Jesus himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

As we battle our temptations, we know that we are not alone. We have Christ with us. To the many trials that come his way, St. Paul defiantly cries out in Phil 4,13: “I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me!”