Monday, February 15, 2010

Lent 2010 – Love your neighbor

Let's adopt humility and forgiveness in dealing with our neighbourr

The Penang Diocese Lenten campaign theme for this year is “Love your neighbor”, a theme that is very appropriate in a world that is ruled by hate especially for those of a different race and creed. In the world today there are clashes between people of different ethnicity, color and creed, which has resulted in the wars in many parts of the world; in the Middle-East, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ireland and many others. Then there are the violence and killings by suicide bombers and the gruesome slaughter of those taken hostage by religious militants. It appears that the world is taken over by those with hate and vengeance and killings perpetrated in the name of God and religion.

The violence continues with no end in sight. Politicians and others including religious leaders in power and entrusted to bring peace are themselves guilty of abuses and are scandal-ridden with immoral deeds. Where are we heading to as a human race?

On the home front we too are witnessing such acts of hate among the various races although not as serious as in other countries. The recent dispute over the word ‘Allah’ almost took our nation to the brink of religious riots, being saved by the moderate Muslim majority who rose up to the occasion to stop the violence and offered their goodwill in the form various conciliatory gestures. The Christians on the other hand for once followed Jesus in adopting the virtue of forgiveness and offered the other cheek when struck on one.

The court may have ruled in our favor but the issue of Allah is far from over. There is still a lot of inter-racial and inter-religious tensions that need to be relieved by the concerted action of all peace-loving Malaysians. On our part let us do the little we can to bring peace to our neighbor.

As we set foot into the season of Lent, it may be the right time for us to adopt the virtues that Jesus demonstrated during his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the washing of the feet and the subsequent Passion and death on the cross.

His entry into Jerusalem indicated the willingness of Jesus to stand up for the truth despite knowing well that it is going to cost Him his life. How do we measure up to Jesus when we are asked to stand up for truth many times in our own lives? Do we take the easy way out and follow the masses or stand up to be counted knowing that by doing so we may be penalized? In times of trouble do we abandon those under our care for fear of reprisal?

The washing of the feet of his apostles was an act of extreme humility that Jesus wants us to emulate in our own lives. “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each others feet”(John13:14). In the Passion and death he demonstrated his forgiveness towards even those who insulted and persecuted him in the cruelest form.They stripped him off even the last bit of his undergarments before his death on the cross. Instead of retaliating with anger and vengeance as all of us would, he reacted with love and forgiveness saying, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing”(Luke 23:34).

Most of us will not be able to do what he did but that is what we must try to do to be worthy to be called his followers.

Very often we consider only the poor as our neighbor but we forget everyone in our midst is also our neighbor including our adversaries. Today we are confronted by some of our fellow Muslims who are misled into wanting to deny our rights to worship, threaten our peace and security, ridicule our believes, using scare tactics to make us submit and provoking us to react with anger.

As humans, we are angry, frustrated and tempted to react with anger and hate. But they are our neighbors and Jesus had commanded that we should love them not hate them. This is the time to remember what Jesus had taught us – to uphold humility, forgiveness and love even towards those who may harm us in one way or another. His commandment “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”(Luke 6:27) should make us different from all others.

As a demonstration of these virtues exalted by Jesus, it may be wise for us to give up something, which may be rightly ours for the sake of peace, unity, goodwill, and above all love for our Muslim brethren. This will be in keeping with our Lenten theme of “Love your neighbor”. This theme does not come from the bishop, priest or the Church but from the commandment that Jesus himself gave us, “You must love your neighbor as yourself”(Mark12:31)

Let us be humble to refrain from using the word “Allah” for the time being until they are ready to accept without fear or suspicion. We have nothing to lose but all to gain by helping them to overcome their fears and anxiety over the use of Allah. After all aren't we, Muslims and Christians alike,the children of the one same God, whatever name we may choose to call Him?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reflections for Ash Wednesday

Mortal bodies in God's Kingdom

In less than a week we will be observing Ash Wednesday, a day of fast, abstinence and prayer. It is day when we are reminded of our mortal bodies which will perish one day.

We still remember the words the priest uttered when imposing the ashes on our foreheads when we were children – “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return”. These words of our priest, though very meaningful did not mean much to us at that tender age. When we were young, we were full of strength, energy and vitality. Death appeared alien to us. We considered ourselves to be strong and invincible and we continue to enjoy life to the fullest.

Today being much older, inflicted with so many ailments and our vitality is rapidly draining away, we realize that death is something a real and imminent. We have already witnessed the death of many of our friends and relatives, some of whom were very dear to us. Today what our priest proclaimed on every Ash Wednesday has become more significant.

The imposition of ashes reminds us, despite our social status and glamor, that we are all mere mortals and our physical bodies, however strong and beautiful, would perish one day. Today we may be alive with great power, wealth, beauty and strength but tomorrow our bodies may be reduced to nothing but dust. Reflecting on those words of the priest makes should make us realize that greed for material comforts of our mortal bodies is indeed foolish. In fact it is more important to cultivate the love of Christ that is within each and every one of us, which will bring everlasting rewards from God.

Today we take leave from our jobs to fast, abstain and receive the ashes without fail, but has the significance of the act really touched us in the way it should? Many of us don’t even know what the priest is saying or doing. We receive the ashes because it is a trend which we have to follow like we did as children.

This is the reality of the fast moving world today, to follow the trend in order to be accepted into the system. The trend involves rampant breaches of God’s laws – greed, lust, cheating, corruption, adultery, hate and violence; in fact the list is endless. The sad thing is that we are slowly but surely beginning to accept these “sins” as norms with total disregard for the teachings of Jesus but still claim to be his followers. We are tempted to follow the trend as if we don’t we’ll be left behind in this keenly competitive world.

Life has become a keenly contested race which we have to win at all times and at all costs to protect and safeguard our mortal bodies. We are least perturbed that by our win someone else more deserving may have lost, which does not seem to bother us. The real test of our faith is whether we can go against the trend to be magnanimous to allow someone more deserving than us to win at times.

As Christians can we say “NO” to this worldly trend and follow that set by Christ? Let’s pause to reflect on the true meaning of the words that we will once again hear this Ash Wednesday as we receive the ashes on our foreheads, “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return”.

Let this Ash Wednesday be a reminder that our mortal bodies are not going to take us far in the Kingdom of God. May those words give us some strength and courage to say “NO” to the material trend that is fashionable today. May they give us some meaning in the direction we are heading in our own lives.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Prayer and fasting

Tools to prepare oneself to sacrifice

I received a sms from a friend urging us to continue praying for the Appeals Court to uphold the verdict of the High Court to allow Herald to use the world “Allah” in its publication. In the message he says that the best approach to the “Allah” issue is the way of Jesus – pray and fast.

Yes we are all praying that the verdict will be in our favor. Who does not want to win anyway? Here we should pause and ponder on what Jesus himself did when he was brought to be tried for blasphemy. Did Jesus pray and fast to win his case? He did pray and fast not for winning his case but to prepare himself for the ultimate sacrifice for us, the death on the cross. He knew he is going to be humiliated, tortured and crucified and he needed all the strength and courage to accept that unjust verdict without a fight. He knew he had to go through the harshest punishment without anger or hatred but only forgiveness and love for his “enemies”.

Today we are faced with a similar predicament in the dispute over the word “Allah”. We are asked to give up the word, not our lives unlike in the case of Jesus, for the comfort of our neighbor but we are unwilling for many reasons. Now we are asked to pray and fast to gain victory but will prayer and fasting per se bring us the victory we all long for?

Prayer and fasting to obtain what we want, to my mind, does not seem logical and sound. It would be acts of selfishness if we do that for such purposes. Instead praying and fasting should be means to prepare ourselves mentally and physically to sacrifice something that we treasure for the sake our love for our neighbor, who could even be our enemy.

Following Christ is not keeping our gains to ourselves but to give up some of our victories to our neighbor in move to allay his fears and anxieties. Being Christ-like is to adopt the humane values of peaceful coexistence with our neighbors and even our enemies.

Our Muslim neighbors, especially those from PAS have acknowledged our right to use “Allah”. All they ask for is time for many among them to fully understand that our demands are not sinister.Will it be too much for us to give in to their requests for lasting peace and harmony?

Our nation is going through some really difficult times and we must do everything possible to ensure peace and harmony is maintained at all costs. Let us pray and fast if necessary that God will give us the wisdom, strength and courage to sacrifice something we treasure badly, the word Allah in this case, as a gesture of love to our neighbor which is what this year’s Lent in particular and Christianity in general is all about.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Understanding the complexity of NBVM

Building God's Kingdom together

Many people including past parish priests and parishioners regard NBVM as a notorious parish with many people out to cause trouble and problems for the parish priests who have worked there. In fact since I came here 17 years ago an unusually large number of priests (six to eight I guess) have come and gone and yet there is still no stability in the administration of the parish. Even at present there is a lot of unhappiness among the people with the new parish priest who has been here just over 6 months now.The question is who is wrong, the priests or the people?

NBVM is a large parish with approximately 8,000 parishioners but it is poorly developed physically, spiritually and intellectually. Many blame the priests for being incompetent, others certain long-serving individuals with ulterior motives who wrongly influence the priest to take sides and there are those contribute their failure to the people of Butterworth who are generally considered to be trouble makers.

The majority of parishioners agree that the parish needs revamp to keep with the rapidly changing society. Instead of blaming any individual or groups for the mess we are in, as that would only cause more ill feelings and hatred, it would be better for us to understand why our parish does not seem to move forward like others. The tremendous social and demographic changes that have taken place over the last 2 decades or so on mainland Penang especially in Butterworth has resulted in a very diverse population with regards to socio-economic status, literacy rate and standard of living.

Butterworth has become a complex regional industrial centre with the people coming from all walks of life – manual workers, unskilled and skilled factory workers, executives and professionals. To add to the complexity there has been an influx of large numbers of foreign workers into our factories and plantations who are aliens to our culture, language and norms. With these changes it is only natural for the NBVM parish in Butterworth to reflect the extreme variation of the population demography on mainland Penang.

Twenty years ago Butterworth was considered a “cowboy town”. The population then comprised mainly of factory workers but today there are many officers from the administrative, executive and professional groups as well. Many of us including the parish priests of NBVM underestimate the demands of this increasing maturity and literate class of parishioners.

In many of the other urban and rural parishes the population is more homogenous socioeconomically, with either the lower, middle or upper social class predominating. However in Butterworth the population is widely heterogeneous with a mixture of all three groups. Furthermore there is a large ethnic and language diversity. The expectations of each group are very different from another. This wide variation in the population makes it difficult to manage as it would be impossible to please all groups at the same time. Managing a community comprising diverse socioeconomic, language and ethnic groups of people demands additional experience and skills than managing a more homogenous group.

I am afraid that our priests especially the younger ones are not equipped with the special skills to handle this diverse crowd. What is most frustrating is that many of them are so impatient and arrogant and refuse to listen to the people who are older, wiser and more experienced in life. There is little or no respect for the elders in the parish which is indeed very very sad.

Quoting from the medical profession to which I belong, a doctor is trained to consider his patients as most important and never to blame them for his mistakes however difficult and troublesome the patients may be. Similarly if our priests regard the parishioners as most important then a lot of the problems would have never arisen in the first place. The biggest setback is our priests tend to alienate themselves from the very people whom they are supposed to guide and serve. They adopt a confrontational attitude towards the people who dissent and ‘rebel’ which is never the way to deal with fellow humans. What is needed is a conciliatory environment for dialogue, discussion and even debate to solve the problems that are bound to surface from time to time.

The way out of our problems in NBVM is to revamp the system of administration. The priest is the undisputed head of the parish but the PPC must be given greater independence and power to manage finance and the day to day running of the parish. Gone are the days when the priest can manage the parish single-handedly. Today society is more sophisticated and complex, so are its problems, to be handled by the priest alone. He must delegate the non-spiritual work to the PPC which must be independent and more professionally run.

The PPC like in the old days when it was called the Parish Council must be duly elected by the people at the Parish Assembly. Its chairman and other main office bearers must be people of high calibre, integrity and well qualified. At present the PPC is powerless and ineffective to handle the various problems. The role of the PPC should not be restricted to organising feast days, anniversaries, parties, family day and other such “entertainment” events. It must cater for an overall development on the spiritual and intellectual aspects of the people to meet the many new challenges that face us as Christians living among a larger non-Christian community.
We should be addressing more important issues like declining Christian education, declining morality, increasing divorce and breakup of family units, declining influence of the Church in the lives of the people and so on.

We should formulate programmes to help those in need in our parish like those with spiritual, medical, financial, marital, social and psychological problems. In short we must, as the Church, identify with the problems of the people and not alienate ourselves from their plight. To do this we must have a parish council which is dynamic, capable and fully independent working hand in hand with the parish priest who should be able to advice and guide the council and not dictate policies according to his whims and fancy.

Today the reputation of the Church and our faith is being challenged by the people of the world. We are being challenged by non-Christians, other Christian denominations, non-believers, new scientific discoveries and of late by atheists. If we continue to be obsessed with the rituals of the past without accommodating the new technological and scientific advancements there is no way we are going to stop the exodus of our people as our religion would be then become more and more irrelevant to them. Christianity is not a historical religion which just commemorates events of the past but a dynamic faith that is relevant to the lives of the people now and for ages to come.

In short we, the clergy and laity, should put our minds and hearts together, pool our resources and energy and explore ways to bring Christ into the lives of people and not drive Him away by our un-Christ-like attitude and behaviour that is unfortunately becoming more prevalent in our Catholic communities all over.

Dr.Chris Anthony