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Three inseparable truths about life issues and abortion

A homily by Fr Stephen Wang. [YouTube audio here and text below.]

 

[30th Sunday of Year A, 29 October 2017, Newman House Catholic Chaplaincy]

In the Exodus reading today the Lord singles out three categories of person who need special protection in Jewish society: The stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Why these three in particular? Because they are the most vulnerable. The foreigner who comes to live among the Jews has no clan, no tribe, and therefore no legal belonging. The widow, in a patriarchal society, loses her status and security when she loses her husband. The orphan, with both parents gone, is utterly helpless. In a society where your very identity depends on ties of kinship, the orphan – with no identity – is often forgotten and abandoned.

The stranger, the widow, and the orphan. It’s like a refrain running through the Old Testament. God’s special care for the most vulnerable members of society, because they are the ones society is most likely to forget.

It’s exactly fifty years since the 1967 Abortion Act was written into UK law. In that time nearly nine million unborn babies have lost their lives in this country, millions of women have been scarred by the hidden trauma of abortion, millions of fathers and grandparents and siblings have lost a relation without ever knowing them, and our whole culture has become complicit in denying the most fundamental right of every human being, on which every other human right depends – the right to life.

This heart-breaking anniversary makes us think of the terrible vulnerability of women who have to face a difficult pregnancy, in circumstances that sometimes seem impossible, and who feel that abortion is the only way out. It makes us think of the even greater vulnerability of unborn children, who in practice have no rights and no protection, and whose lives can be terminated at the consent of their mother and two doctors. And it makes us think of the ongoing suffering, often hidden or unacknowledged, experienced by those who have had an abortion or been affected by one.

I’m hesitant to speak about these extremely sensitive issues. But I believe that to not speak about them at this particular moment would be wrong. I know that some people feel that a man has no right to speak about abortion when the experience of an unwanted pregnancy is so far outside his comprehension. I know that many feel a Catholic priest should not speak about abortion, as if he were trying to impose Catholic dogma onto a secular society.

But I’m speaking, first of all, simply as a human being. Perhaps it was possible, fifty years ago, to think that a foetus of 8 or 10 or 12 weeks was some kind of pre-human life-form, or an appendage of the woman’s body that would later form into the tiny child. But with the remarkable advances in ultrasound and 3D imaging, and with the most basic knowledge of human developmental biology, it’s impossible, today, to think that abortion is anything less than the taking of innocent human life. A human being, in its early stages of life, is being killed.

In the Gospel today Jesus says you must love your neighbour as yourself. Your neighbour is both the woman facing a difficult pregnancy, and the innocent child in her womb. We are called to love them both. Everyone, no matter how vulnerable they are, deserves love and protection. To sacrifice the life of one for the sake of another is a terrible wrong. That is not just a Christian conviction; it’s enshrined in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. It’s not the rights of the child versus the rights of the mother; it’s the rights of both, and our duty as a society to defend both.

But I am also speaking as a Catholic priest, and I want you to know, without any doubt, what we truly believe as Catholics about life issues. And I’m going to make three points, and I cannot emphasise enough that if you separate these three points or forget any one of them then you are absolutely betraying the Catholic position.

(1) The first point: the inalienable dignity of every human being, from conception to natural death, and therefore the right to life of the unborn child. For this reason “procured abortion”, defined as the deliberate and direct killing of the human being in the womb, by whatever means, is always gravely wrong. The unborn child is an innocent, defenceless human being and needs our protection.

There is a tragic contradiction at the heart of our culture. We speak so much about human rights and equality, we stand up for the poor and the marginalised,  we advocate for the disabled, we abhor every form of child abuse, but we don’t apply this to the child in the womb. The poorest of the poor, the one without any voice at all, the unborn baby, is abandoned. This contradiction is felt most keenly in our health service. Those who dedicate their lives to helping others find themselves complicit in a system that takes the lives of the most vulnerable.

St John Paul II wrote: “How is it still poss ible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practised: [where] some individuals are held to be deserving of defence and others are denied that dignity?”

Many of you know the proverb “Qui tacet consentire videtur” – “silence means consent”. The silence in our society about abortion is deafening. Yesterday in Oxford we saw a play about Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the turning point in his life came when he realised he could no longer remain silent about the terrible injustices that were taking place in El Salvador. I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels between the suffering of the Salvadorian poor in his time and of the unborn today.

(2) The second point, and it is absolutely inseparable from the first: the right of mothers and fathers to receive every possible support to help them through difficult pregnancies.

As individuals, as a Church, and as a society, we should recognise more honestly the sometimes overwhelming difficulties faced by pregnant women, and we should do everything possible to help them find a way through these difficulties that will avoid the tragedy of abortion. The reality is that we don’t do enough, and abortion can seem like the only option for some.

So many women, when they learn they are pregnant, are frightened. There are so many anxieties and pressures, even from those they love. Every pregnancy turns a woman’s life upside down. An unwanted pregnancy can feel like an attack on a woman’s freedom, on her very life as she understands it, and abortion can sometimes seem like a necessary act of self-defence.

Why, as individuals, as a Church, as a society, are we not recognising this more, and doing so much more to help people know that there is another way, and actually to provide the means of finding that other way?

(3) The third point: that God’s mercy is infinite and unbounded, and that no-one, whatever they have been through, is separated from the love of Christ or from the love of his Church. Jesus said: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”.

The double tragedy of abortion is that it makes so many women feel cut off from God or from their faith, when it is actually the time when God’s love and healing are most needed. The Church is here to be a place of understanding, compassion, forgiveness and healing – not judgment. If your life has been touched in any way by abortion, know that are loved by God. You are his beloved daughter or son. He longs for you to know his healing and mercy, and the love of his Church.

In a strange way, it’s the fact that the Church speaks so seriously about abortion that allows her to have such compassion, because she understands what women have truly been through. Pope Francis has written: “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father”. The sin cries out for mercy, but the mercy isn’t real without acknowledgement of the sin.

I saw this myself a few years ago when I acted as a chaplain at a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat for post-abortive women. For many of them, it was the first time they had been able to express their grief at the loss of their child, and the agonising sorrow they had carried around for so many years because of what had happened. It was because the Church took their sorrow so seriously, through the retreat leaders and their fellow participants, that they were finally able to hand it over to God and find healing. They could accept their child was now safe in God’s hands because they could accept that they had actually conceived a child. They could stop pretending that it didn’t really matter. They were given permission to acknowledge that they were a mother and that they had carried a child.

There is so much more to think about. How should we be reaching out to help people? What kind of legislation should we be campaigning for? How can we help to create a culture of life more effectively? These are incredibly complex questions, and sincere Catholics might disagree about the best way forward and the most appropriate strategies. This is natural.

But what we can’t disagree about, if we are trying to be faithful to Christ and to his Church, are those three truths: the dignity of every person and right to life of every unborn child, whatever the circumstances; the right of every mother to receive support and genuine life-giving options when facing a difficult pregnancy; and the mercy and healing that God wants to offer every soul through Christ and through his Church.

I’m not telling you how to speak. You must find your own way. But there will be moments when your conscience tells you that you have a duty to speak. As long as you speak truthfully, with kindness and compassion.

I’m not telling you how to speak, but I guess I am telling you who to love. To love the unborn child. To love the women you know who are facing difficult pregnancies. And to love the many, many people around you, women and men, who have been affected by the tragedy of abortion.

If you are always trying to love, and only trying to love, then you will find the right words.

[For more information about Rachel’s Vineyard retreats visit: http://www.rachelsvineyard.org.uk/ ]

 

Conversational strategy for Catholics: Do you talk, hide, obfuscate, witness, fight or run away. Part of the “Catholic Apologetics” series. A talk by Fr Stephen Wang

Living for Justice, Truth and the Common Good: The Radical Message of Catholic Social Teaching

[A homily by Fr Stephen Wang, 22 Oct 2017, 29th Sunday of Year A, Newman House]

Video above. Text below.

Jesus is holding a coin. The image on the front is the head of the Emperor Tiberius. And the inscription round the edge reads: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”.

Do you see why this was problematic for a devout first century Jew? First, it’s blasphemous: to claim that the Emperor Augustus was divine. Second, the very existence of the coin symbolises Roman occupation. The Jews are forced to use the coinage of a foreign power.

The Pharisees try to trap Jesus, and ask him whether it’s permissible to pay Roman taxes. If he says “Yes”, he is a collaborator. If he says “No”, he becomes a revolutionary. So he replies with one of the most famous lines in the bible: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”.

What does this mean? Is he saying: It’s OK to keep your public life and your religious practice completely separate? Or is he saying, in a radical way: Have nothing to do with Roman money, it belongs to Caesar, and completely withdraw from public life into religious isolation? Or maybe he is saying: Pay your taxes and be loyal citizens; but public authority is not divine, and you must measure the laws of the land against the rule of natural justice and the law of God, and keep your deepest allegiance to him.

This last option is how the Catholic Church has traditionally understood Jesus’s teaching. To have a qualified respect for public authority and the norms of civil society; but to judge that society against the norms of goodness, truth, and justice. As St Thomas More said just before his martyrdom: I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.

All of this comes under the heading of Catholic Social Teaching, which is such a rich part of our tradition. It means that as Christians we don’t withdraw from society into a holy bubble. We are called to transform society, to make the world a better place. Jesus says elsewhere that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Catholic Social Teaching has some core principles that give a foundation to Christian social activity, and a guarantee that this activity is truly serving the common good and not just one sector of society. The common good, in this understanding, is not just a society with lots of good things, or a society where people get what they want. It is, to quote St John XXIII, “The sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily”. A good society is one that helps people to be happy and to be good, and ultimately to be holy.

I’m simply going to list twelve principles of Catholic Society Teaching. As I speak, see if any of them are new to you, or if anything in particular strikes you. They are kind of in pairs:

  1. The inalienable dignity of every human being from conception to natural death
  2. Marriage and family life as the bedrock of society, as the fundamental social unit that allows individuals to grow and flourish
  3. Respect for legitimate authority and the rule of law, and the duty of participating in civic life, in actively working for justice and equity in law, politics, economics and society
  4. The right and sometimes the duty of conscientious objection when you believe a law to be unjust
  5. The right to private property, as a way of protecting the rights of the person
  6. The “the universal destination of goods”, which is the conviction that everything in creation exists for the good of all and not just for the private benefit of individuals
  7. The dignity of work, so the economy serves the people and not the other way round, and where workers have rights of association and to just wages and humane working conditions
  8. Religious freedom
  9. The duty to care for creation and the development of an integrated, holistic ecology
  10. What’s called in Catholic tradition “a preferential option for the poor”, where we put the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable at the centre of our concerns
  11. Solidarity, which refers to our interdependence, our need to belong, and the importance of having institutions and obligations and customs that bind us together.
  12. Subsidiarity, a strange word, which refers to the importance of localism against the danger of excessive centralisation; authority needs to be dispersed; small is beautiful; local communities often do things better.

I’ve given a long list. I’m aware that this sounds like a lecture rather than a homily. But it’s important you know this. The gospel is not just a vague exhortation to say your prayers and be nice to people. It is a passionate defence of the human person and what it means to build a just society where all persons can flourish. And it involves some concrete values that form the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. You are called to live these values. But to live them you need to know them first. They can inspire you to do great things. They can challenge you to discern what is truly worthwhile.

Do you see that this is not to do with being left wing or right wing, pro-Brexit or pro-Remain, royalist or republican. You can have two faithful Catholics sincerely disagreeing about politics or policy, as long as their core values are founded on an authentic vision of the common good that we discover in the teaching of Christ and his Church.

And do you see how rich this teaching is. It takes away the idea that to do good you have to work for a charity or an NGO. If you want to work for a charity or an NGO – wonderful! Go for it. But you might equally decide to work for the public sector or in business or industry or academia or education; you might want to dedicate time to bringing up your children or caring for sick relatives. There are a thousand different ways of working for the common good; you have to find what is right for you.

Much of this is just ordinary Christian life. In your daily life you are trying to be kind, honest, truthful, generous, fair, forgiving. You help to build a good society first of all by just being a good person. You are just living your faith in the world, and your values are shaping the different communities in which you live.

But there are moments when building a good society requires you to step out and take a stand. Your conscience moves you to speak up about something important, to join a campaign, to promote something on Facebook, to volunteer, to give to a good cause, to run for public office. Catholic Social Teaching is usually implicit, but sometimes it becomes explicit in your life and you need to say: this is what I believe; and this is why it’s important.

And sometimes, your conscience will cause you to stand against some injustice in society that many others, perhaps, cannot see, or they ignore it or willingly collude with it. This is hard. We need wisdom to know when it is necessary to take a stand, or when it is sometimes better to wait or work within the system. But when we do, in conscience, need to take a stand, we need real courage.

I already quoted St Thomas More, who stood against the injustice of King Henry’s adultery and of his attack on the unity of the Church. Let me finish with Blessed Oscar Romero, who was the subject of the UCL talk on Monday. As a priest and a young bishop in El Salvador he had a great love for Christ and great dedication to the poor. Through the 1970s he became more and more aware that the hardship of the poor was not an accident of fate but a consequence of the way society was structured and above all of the murderous repression of the government security forces. He couldn’t remain silent.

Let me read from the account given by the Romero Trust:

“In February 1977 he was the surprising choice to be the new Archbishop of San Salvador. Over the next three years the social and political conflict in El Salvador intensified with electoral fraud blocking change, and peaceful protest being met with massacres and death squad killings.

“From his Cathedral pulpit Archbishop Romero became the voice of the voiceless poor. There, in a society of cover-up and lies, he spoke the truth of what was happening in the countryside; he denounced the killings, the torture and the disappearances of community leaders; he demanded justice and recompense for the atrocities committed by the army and police and he set up legal aid projects and pastoral programmes to support the victims of the violence.

“With the emergence of armed guerrilla groups on the far left, civil war loomed. Archbishop Romero, rejecting the violence perpetrated by the left as well as the right, strained every nerve to promote peaceful solutions to his nation’s crisis. He was vilified in the press, attacked and denounced to Rome by Catholics of the wealthy classes, harassed by the security forces and publically opposed by several episcopal colleagues.

“The death threats multiplied; the atmosphere was charged. Archbishop Romero realised he was going to be killed. And he came to accept it. At 6.26pm on March 24th 1980, with a single marksman’s bullet, he fell at the foot of a huge crucifix.  He died a Eucharistic martyr, a martyr to the option for the poor, a martyr to the Magisterium of the Church – and now recognised as Blessed Oscar Romero”.

I pray that you will never have to face the horror that Oscar Romero faced. But I also pray that you will have the same love that motivated him; the same passion for truth and justice; the same clarity of vision that allowed him to discern what needed to be done; and the same willingness, when the moment comes, to stand up for what you believe to be right.

 

Addictive habits, unfulfilled happiness, and the peace that comes through Confession. A homily by Fr Stephen Wang

[I have copied below the “How to go to confession” handout that I mention in the homily]

 

HOW TO GO TO CONFESSION:

THE BASICS

There are variations in the way different priests celebrate the sacrament of confession, and they will sometimes introduce different prayers and scripture readings. Here is the traditional way of making a confession, which has the very basics of what we need to know and say. If you want to know more about the kind of life we should be living as Christians, and what sins we should be avoiding, see the ‘Examination of Conscience’ below.

 

General advice

  • Sometimes we get nervous about going to confession. But don’t let nerves or fear hold you back. However long it has been, however bad the sin, however embarrassed you feel – don’t let anything stop you from going to confession.
  • Remember that it is the Lord we meet in confession. Priests are all different; and some we like more than others. But what matters is the presence of Jesus in our life through the ministry of the priest, and not the personality of the priest. Christ touches our life through each priest, whoever he is; and every priest will keep your confession absolutely secret for the rest of his life.
  • Your local parish should have confessions at least once a week. It is also useful to know the times of confession at other churches nearby, or at churches near where you work or study. The diocesan Cathedral is often a good place to go to confession, with plenty of different times.
  • You have the right as a Catholic to go to confession ‘anonymously’, in a confessional where the priest cannot identify you. If your local parish does not have this, then if you prefer you can try and find confession at another parish that does.
  • Try to go regularly, perhaps every month.
  • Briefly examine your conscience at the end of each day, and make an act of contrition. In this way you will become more sensitive to what is really happening in your own life, and you will be more prepared and more honest as you come to confession.

 

Before confession

  • Spend a few minutes before your confession: Pray for God’s help and guidance; examine your conscience; remember any sins you have committed (write them down if it helps); pray for God’s forgiveness. But don’t spend forever trying to remember every little sin (this can become an obsession that is called ‘scruples’) – ten minutes is probably a good amount of time; an hour is too long.
  • It is our duty to mention in confession all our serious (or ‘mortal’) sins; and we are encouraged to mention some of our other smaller (or ‘venial’) sins and everyday faults, but we don’t need to list every minor failure. Remember that all our venial sins are forgiven and forgotten whenever we pray for God’s forgiveness, and whenever we receive Holy Communion.
  • If you are not sure what to say or do, don’t worry – tell the priest, and ask him to help you as you begin.

 

In confession

  • Begin by saying: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Then add: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It is [state the length of time] since my last confession”. Then tell him very briefly what your ‘state of life’ is, to help him understand your situation; e.g. “I am a student at university” or “I am married with children” etc.
  • Now confess your sins. Be simple and straightforward. Just put into words what you have done wrong since you last went to confession. Don’t make excuses; but if it helps, say a little bit about what happened and why. When you have finished, say: “I am sorry for these sins and all the sins of my past life”.
  • The priest might then talk to you and give you some advice. He will give you a penance to do (a prayer or action that expresses your sorrow and your desire to put things right and live a new life).
  • The priest will then ask you to make an Act of Contrition. You can say one you know, or use this:

O my God, because you are so good, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you; and I promise that with the help of your grace, I will not sin again. Amen.”

  • The priest then says the prayer of absolution, which is the moment when God forgives your sins. He may add some other prayers as well.

 

After confession

  • If it is possible now, do your penance in the church before you leave; e.g. if you have been asked to say a certain prayer, kneel down and say it now.
  • Pray for a moment in thanksgiving for the forgiveness you have received in this sacrament; and pray for God’s help to live a new life.
  • You might feel relieved and peaceful and full of joy. Or you might feel dry and empty. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we have been forgiven and been given new life. The Lord has touched us – even if we do not feel it. That knowledge should give us a kind of inner peace and joy, even if we don’t feel it.
  • If you forgot to mention something small, don’t get all worried. As long as we make an honest examination of conscience and do not deliberately conceal anything from the priest, we can trust in God’s forgiveness. If we remember, later on, any mortal sins from earlier in our life, we can bring them to our next confession.

 

AN EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE

An Examination of Conscience is simply a list of some of the ways that we can love God and our neighbour, and some of the ways we can fail to love through sin. Reflecting on an Examination of Conscience helps us to be honest with ourselves and honest with God. It is not meant to be a burden. It helps us to examine our lives, and to make a good confession, so that we can be at peace with Christ and with one another. The important thing, of course, is to love, and to live our Catholic faith with our whole heart. But now and then it is useful to spell out what this really means, and to make sure that we are not kidding ourselves.

This Examination of Conscience is not to be used every day, or even at every confession – we do not need to go through a checklist every time. It is here for us to look at every now and then. It is based around the Ten Commandments. As we reflect on it, we can ask the Lord to shine his light into our hearts.

Some things will not apply to us; but if something in particular touches our conscience, then we can bring it to confession. Above all, let us remember God’s mercy and his love for us. His love never fails or changes. He loves us passionately, with infinite kindness and tenderness. The only reason we remember our sins is so that we can turn to him and receive his forgiveness, and learn to love him in a new and deeper way.

[1st Commandment] I am the Lord your God. You shall not have strange gods before me. [2nd Commandment] You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

  • Do I seek to love God with all my heart?
  • Do I stay faithful to Jesus, even when I have difficulties or doubts?
  • Do I make at least some time for prayer every day?
  • Do I hold on to the practice of my Catholic faith, or have I turned away from it, or spoken against the teachings of the Church?
  • Have I been involved with the occult, e.g., with ouija boards, séances, tarot cards, fortune telling, or the like? Have I put faith in horoscopes?
  • Have I received Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin?
  • Have I lied to the priest in confession or deliberately not confessed a mortal sin?
  • Have I used God’s holy name irreverently?
  • When things are difficult, do I hope in God, or do I give in to self-pity and despair? Do I get angry and resentful with him?

[3rd Commandment] Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.

  • Have I deliberately missed Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation?
  • Do I make a sincere effort to come to Mass on time, and to listen and pray during the Mass? Do I fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion (apart from water and medicine)? Am I reverent in church?
  • Do I try to keep Sunday as a day of prayer, rest and relaxation, avoiding unnecessary work?

[4th Commandment] Honour your father and your mother.

  • Do I honour and respect my parents? Do I show kindness to my brothers and sisters?
  • Do I treat my children with love and respect? Do I carry out my family duties?
  • Do I support and care for the well-being of all family members, especially the elderly and the sick?
  • Do I honour and obey my lawful superiors, and follow the just laws of my country?

[5th Commandment] You shall not kill.

  • Do I love my neighbour as myself? Do I try to be kind and generous with everyone I meet? Do I help those in need?
  • Do I harbour hatred or anger against anyone?
  • Do I try to forgive those who have hurt me? Do I pray for my enemies?
  • Have I deliberately tried to hurt anyone – physically or emotionally?
  • Have I had an abortion or encouraged another to have an abortion?
  • Have I attempted suicide?
  • Have I abused alcohol or used illegal drugs?
  • Have I led anyone to sin through bad example or through direct encouragement?
  • Do I care for my own physical, emotional, and spiritual health?

[6th Commandment] You shall not commit adultery. [9th Commandment] You shall not desire your neighbour’s wife.

  • Am I faithful to my husband or wife, in my actions, my words, and my thoughts?
  • As a Catholic, was I married outside the Church?
  • Has our marriage been open to new life, or have I used contraception, or been sterilized?
  • Have I engaged in sexual activity before marriage or outside of marriage?
  • Do I look at pornography?
  • Have I masturbated?
  • Have I used impure language or told impure jokes?
  • Do I dress and behave modestly? Am I respectful and chaste in my relationships?
  • Do I try to turn away from impure thoughts and temptations?

[7th Commandment] You shall not steal.

  • Have I stolen or accepted stolen goods?
  • Have I cheated anyone of what I owe them?
  • Am I lazy? Do I waste time at work or at school or college?
  • Do I gamble excessively?
  • Do I share what I have with the poor and with the Church according to my means?
  • Have I copied or used pirated material or illegal downloads: videos, music, software?

[8th Commandment] You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

  • Do I tell the truth, even if it is inconvenient? Or do I lie or mislead people?
  • Am I a trustworthy and sincere person? Do I keep my word and my promises, and keep confidential things confidential?
  • Have I cheated in exams or been dishonest in any way in my studies?
  • Have I gossiped or spread rumours or spoken badly about people in any way? Have I ridiculed or humiliated anyone?

[10th Commandment] You shall not desire your neighbour’s goods.

  • Am I grateful for the things I have and for the blessings God has given me? Or am I always complaining?
  • Am I jealous of other people: jealous of their possessions, talents, beauty, success or relationships?
  • Am I greedy or selfish? Am I too caught up with material things?

(Text by Fr Stephen Wang, adapted from the booklet “A Way of Life for Young Catholics”, published by the Catholic Truth Society)

 

10 principles of good communication – for Catholics who wish to share their faith with others. A talk by Fr Stephen Wang

Are Catholics just stupid or are there good reasons to believe the Christian message?

A homily by Fr Stephen Wang: 26th Sunday of Year A, 1st October 2017, Newman House Catholic Chaplaincy.

We had a great freshers’ party on Friday evening. Food, drink, conversation, games. I got completely wiped out at Texas Hold ‘Em – thank goodness we were not playing for real money. The student who won (she will remain anonymous) has now been moved to the bar duty team, so unfortunately she won’t be able to play next time…

In the middle of the evening, I had an amazing discussion about faith. I won’t say what the other person said, because of course it was confidential. But he was asking me about my own conversion, and what changed me from being a hardened atheist at 16 to becoming a Catholic three years later just before I went off to university myself.

Well it wasn’t one thing, and that’s the main point I was trying to get across. It was reading Shakespeare and Yeats Eliot and Larkin and having the horizons of my teenage imagination expanded. It was asking hard philosophical questions about the meaning of life and the origin of the universe. It was listening to the Bible readings in my school assembly, I remember the Prologue of St John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word” – and wondering if this Word were perhaps something real and alive and personal.

It was walking in the park near our school and hearing a silence within the rustle of the leaves that was more than just an absence of sound. It was wandering into a Catholic Church on a Sunday evening, seeing the congregation kneel in adoration, and knowing that they were seeing something I couldn’t yet see. It was a friend, offering to pray for me, and then – as if that wasn’t scary enough – offering to pray with me, right there, right then…

It was all of this together that changed me – gradually seeing the world in a new way, as a place that came from God, and as a place where God could be found; glimpsing something of his goodness and truth and beauty, and ultimately, coming to see him in the face of Christ.

I say all this because the Gospel reading today hangs on a Greek single word: metamelomai. It means to change your mind. The first son in the parable does not want to work in the vineyard for his father. He goes away. But something happens; he comes back; and he enters the vineyard. Metamelomai – he changes his mind, he changes his heart – it’s a subtle word in Greek, it literally means to change the things you care about.

This is a story about moral conversion. But it’s also a story about someone taking a step of faith. And it begs the question: Why did he change his mind? Were there good reasons for his decision?

Many people today think that religious faith can have no rational foundation. It’s a matter of personal taste, like preferring KFC to McDonalds. Or it’s something you just inherit, like your surname or your ethnicity. Or it’s a lifestyle choice you buy into because of the benefits it brings like status or identity or community or cake. And even if you seem to have rational, objective reasons, many have stopped believing in the idea of truth itself; everything is relative, and your objective arguments are just another form of subjective preference.

As Catholics, as biblical Christians, we have two fundamental convictions about faith, and it’s worth spelling them out.

On the one hand, we believe that faith is beyond reason, it’s a supernatural gift. It’s something we can pray for, and indeed we should. Just to say: Lord, give me faith. Lord, help me to believe. And it’s something we can be open to – searching, listening, asking questions. It’s something we need to say Yes to: It requires both assent and action. This is what the second son in the parable lacked. To believe is a verb not a noun. But it’s always a gift. There is a sense of wonder and even surprise. Why me? I don’t deserve this.

It can come suddenly, in a dramatic conversion; or over many years, like a landscape slowly changing or a child growing to maturity.

Faith is a new way of understanding and seeing. It helps us to grasp things that are completely beyond reason, like the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass into the Body and Blood of Christ. You can appreciate these mysteries and see them with the eyes of faith, but you can never fully understand or explain them. God gives us a share in his own knowing, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and this divine knowledge is so dazzling that it can sometimes seem like utter darkness to us.

Faith is a gift. OK.

On the other hand, there are very good reasons to believe. We are not “fideists”. A fideist – from the Latin word for faith – is someone who thinks faith is completely blind, a step in the dark; you just have to accept everything uncritically and without any rational foundation. You switch off the brain. I’m giving a talk at King’s on Thursday, and the title is simply: “Are Christians just stupid?” The sad thing is, if you admit you are Catholic, some people – you can see it in their eyes – will actually assume that you are stupid, that you have no brain.

For Catholics, faith is reasonable, even if it takes us further than reason. There are good reasons to believe. I wouldn’t call this proof, like 2+2=4. I prefer to use the word evidence, that helps you piece together a clearer picture of the truth over time. In a court of law you can hear enough evidence to reach a conclusion that is beyond reasonable doubt.

There is so much evidence out there – about the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the power of prayer, the holiness of the saints – that it should make a rational person stop and think and at least be open to the possibility that this is true. The Church speaks about the credibility of Christian faith. Faith is believable, credible. And the New Testament often speaks about signs and seeing: people see the miracles that Jesus performed, they are astonished by his teaching, his love, and his kindness and beauty. These people are not stupid – there are sound reasons for their belief. And in the Gospel today Jesus criticises those who see the signs yet refuse to believe.

This is so important for you as young Catholic students. Don’t switch your brain off when it comes to questions of faith. You are studying subjects of such complexity, at some of the finest universities in the world. You need to bring the same intelligence to your Catholic faith that you bring to your studies. You need to know, first of all, what we actually believe as Catholics, and sort out the rumours and myths from the reality. You need to know why we believe what we believe – there are good reasons! You need to bring your hard questions and doubts to a place where they can be explored and hopefully answered, over time. Never be afraid of asking honest questions. If your questions are sincere, and if the Catholic faith is true – which it is – then eventually you will find a way to bring your life and faith together, without betraying one or the other. And if that takes time, don’t give up; be patient; be humble; trust in God and in his Church.

You do all this for yourself – you deserve some clear thinking. But you also do it for others: your friends need you to have some solid answers for them when they ask you questions. You may not be Einstein or Thomas Aquinas, but you are an ordinary intelligent person who needs to have ordinary intelligent answers. In his first letter St Peter says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”. St Peter doesn’t say that we have to prove that our Christian faith is true; we just have to say why we believe, and to show that we have good reasons for our faith, even if they don’t convince the other person.

Do you know what really freaks people out? It’s when they meet a normal, happy, intelligent young Catholic. That’s it. Last week we had the “hello challenge” – you had to say hello to as many people as possible, with a big reward for the winner. This week we have the “normal, happy, intelligent Catholic” challenge – for the student who manages to be normal, happy, and intelligently Catholic for seven consecutive days. This is difficult. Normal, mmm… that’s going to be a struggle for most of you. Happy – well that comes and goes. But intelligently Catholic – we can work on that.

I’m going to finish with a practical suggestion. How can you grow in your faith this year? Well as you know we have a big programme of prayer [click here] and activities [click here] taking place at the Chaplaincy this semester.

But in particular we have five courses running this semester as part of the Newman House formation programme. My suggestion is that you choose one of them as a way of deepening your faith, and really commit to it. The programme is carefully designed so that there is something for everyone.

Tuesday at 6pm – Catholic Apologetics [click here]: How to understand your faith and explain it to others, in 59 minutes. Tuesday at 7.30pm – Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible [click here], a wonderful 8 week course that opens up the meaning of the whole Bible. Wednesday at 6pm – A Faith Sharing Group [click here], where you can talk about your own faith, your own experiences, in a supportive and prayerful group, to grow in friendship and faith together. Wednesday at 7.30pm – Ways of Praying [click here], a very practical course, every two weeks, about different methods of praying. Often we want to pray but we simply don’t know how; no-one has taught us. This will fill the gap. Thursday at 7pm, starting on 26th October, the Alpha Course [click here] – the very basics of the Christian faith, what we believe and why; for you as a refresher course, or for your friends who are just exploring.

Those are the options. What do you need most? What would you enjoy most? Apologetics, Bible, Faith Sharing, Prayer, the Basics of Christianity. Think about it, and see if you can commit to one. And if you are not sure, you can go all in (that’s a poker term that has a particularly painful resonance for me after last night’s game): you can come to all five this courses this week and make a decision at the end. There will be another prize for anyone who manages that.

“Because you’re worth it”. But are you worth it? From L’Oréal to the Gospel. A homily by Fr Stephen Wang.

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