In today’s Gospel, Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, and believe in the Good News!? The topic of “repentance” is one of the most difficult themes to preach on because you and I are not too keen to hear the word “repentance.” We tend to associate “repentance” with old fashioned theology. So, we want to hear more about God’s Love . . . more about His unconditional and compassionate love that is infinitely patient, non-judgmental of my sins and in-so-far as I believe in Jesus as my Saviour, I will be saved and will go to heaven after I die.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, it is very true that God is infinitely loving and compassionate. However, if we our ears not in tuned and our hearts are less receptive to hearing about our needs for repentance, then perhaps there is something about the Good News that we are missing out on and not facing. In my homily today, perhaps it would be helpful to reflect on our need for Repentance not so much on the committing of wrongdoings, but on the omission of doing the good of living the Good News of Salvation. What is this good that we are fundamentally guilty of not doing . . . and need repentance from God?
In preparing this homily, I came across Archbishop Charles Chaput’s reflection during a Catechetical Congress, on “Repentance and Renewal in the Mission of Catechesis” in 2010, which I think touches a very central meaning of Repentance and also describes well the direction all first world country Churches, including our Church in Singapore may be heading towards. We only have time in this short homily to highlight and adapt the key points of Archbishop Charles’ reflection.
Archbishop Charles uses a story entitled, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson to illustrate what he wants to say about “Repentance” in today’s world. He says, “The Lottery” is a story set on a summer day in a small town in 1940s America. The people are assembling for a very old annual ritual. The ritual has something to do with imploring a good corn harvest – but there’s no mention of any God, and no clergy anywhere in the picture.
“Each person in the village lines up to draw a slip of paper from an old wooden box. Tessie Hutchinson, a young wife and mother, draws a slip with a black mark. From that moment, the story moves quickly to its conclusion. The lottery official gives the word, and the villagers move in on Tessie. And they stone her to death; all for the sake of hoping for a good harvest.
A few years ago, a college writing professor, Kay Haugaard, wrote an essay about her experiences using this story of “The Lottery” as a teaching tool over a period of about twenty years. One of her main conclusions were: She said that in the early 1970s, students who read the story voiced shock and indignation. But, sometime in the mid-1990s, reactions and thinking began to change radically. Haugaard had asked them what they thought about the villagers ritually sacrificing one of their own for the sake of the harvest.
The students in one classroom said that the story was boring. In another classroom one student, argued that many cultures have traditions of human sacrifice. Another said that the stoning might have been part of “a religion of long standing,” and therefore acceptable and understandable. An older student who worked as a nurse, agreed fully. She said that her hospital had made her take training in multicultural sensitivity. The lesson she learned was this: “If it’s a part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge.”
Archbishop Charles reflected on the varied responses of these students and explained that our secular culture today is like water dripping on a stone, eroding people’s moral and religious sensibilities, and leaving a hole where their convictions used to be. It took less than a generation to produce a group of young adults who were unable to take a moral stand against the ritual murder of a young woman. Not because they were cowards. But, because they have lost their moral vocabulary; they have lost their moral sense of what is good and evil.
Haugaard’s students seemingly grew up in a secular culture shaped by practical atheism and moral relativism. In other words, they grew up in an environment that teaches, in many different ways, that God is irrelevant, and that good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood can’t exist in any absolute sense. Similarly, in our present secular world where millions of people have lost their moral sense, “Are we surprised to find that 40 million or more lives are “sacrificed annually in abortion for the sake of having a “better life/harvest”? And yet, this is globally “acceptable” by governments?
Archbishop Charles further comments that such atrocities are happening daily in the world because we have generally done a terrible job of transmitting our faith to our own children and to the culture at large . . . Religious identity and affiliation are softening. More people are claiming that they are “spiritual,” but they have no religion. Religion is fading as a formative influence in developed countries.
However, there is hope; all is not lost; these choices can be unmade. We canrepent. We can renew what our vanity and indifference have diminished. We need to really believe what we claim to believe. But, if we really are Catholic, or at least if we wantto be, then we need to have the obedience, zeal and a fire for Jesus Christ in our hearts.”
Some ten years or so ago, I was attending a seminar in Rome; and I was staying in our Jesuit Curia; i.e. the Jesuit headquarters. At the front entrance was what looked like a eight foot tall statue of St Ignatius of Loyola mounted on what I remember to be a five foot base that has the word, “Set the world on fire with God’s Love.” However, someone had put a fire extinguisher beside the statue.
This sounds amusing, but if we reflect on the meaning of our vocation to “set the world ablaze with God’s Love,” you and I know that this is never easy. It requires courage to dare to speak out and stand up for the truth of the Gospel; it requires patience, perseverance and tenacity to keep the fire of God’s love in our hearts and homes blazing . . . This not easy, because the influences and the demands of the secular world and lifestyles tend to dampen our spirits; they tend to be “the fire extinguishers” of our faith and love for God. And that is why the evil of the sacrifice of a young mother for the sake of a good harvest and the 40 million of abortions in today’s world is not seen a tragic evil and as murder of infants. Instead, many continue to view the story as boring and the accounts of different forms of killing as justifiable.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, our reflection on today’s Gospel reminds us that when Jesus asked that we “repent, and believe in the Good News,” one of our greatest failures in our lives is our sin of taking God and our faith for granted. This indeed is the basic sin that you and I need to be repentant for and need to confess! This is the sin of our omission to nurture our faith in our daily living and our failure to fight against the secular values of society that constantly undermine our faith and the faith of our children, who are so vulnerably exposed.
As I conclude, let us be mindful that our need for repentance for allowing the secular world to draw us away from living the Gospel of Christ is as Archbishop Charles says, “not a “new” story. We find it repeated throughout the Old Testament. It took very little time for the Hebrews to start worshipping a golden calf. Whenever the people of God grew too prosperous or comfortable, they forgot where they came from. They forgot their God, because they no longer thought it was important to teach about Him. Because they failed to catechize, they failed to inoculate themselves against the idolatries in their surrounding secular cultures. Instead of influencing and evangelising the secular world, we have allowed ourselves to be changed bythe secular culture. We have compromised too cheaply.”
Thus, our fundamental sin that needs repentance in today’s world is the sin of the omission to evangelise and make God known in our daily living. This is also a sin of taking God’s Goodness for granted. “In our present secular culture of confusion, the Church is our only reliable guide. So let’s preach and teach our Catholic beliefs with passion. And let’s ask God to make us brave enough and humble enough to follow our faith to its radical conclusions” in our daily living.
In today’s Gospel, after Jesus proclaimed, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” He appointed apostles to proclaim the Good News of Salvation to all peoples. You and I, regardless of whether we are priest, religious or lay persons, are called to be Jesus’ disciples in today’s world. We are called to stand up and speak out and more importantly witness to the Gospel in our daily living, and hand on the our Catholic Christian faith to our children with greater fidelity and commitment.
Yes with God, we can reverse the trend of secularism; and destroy the evils of practical atheism and moral relativism that has pervaded the world and permeated our hearts and homes. With God’s Spirit and power, God will transform all peoples to see and accept the wisdom of the Gospel; the Good News of Salvation through us.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
visitors since 1 February 2015