homilies

Feast of St Ignatius
Tridium, 30th July 2004

Matthew 28: 18-20

Homily by Bishop Paul Tan, SJ, DD
given at Church of St Ignatius, Singapore

Since this is a tridium Mass, I can presume on your indulgence and preach longer than my usual homily of maximum 10 minutes.

The readings today focus on the duty to evangelize.

The readings of today all focus on the duty to evangelize or using St. Ignatius’ term, mission.

For years, perhaps even now, many Catholics have been or are complacent, practicing their faith by going to Sunday Mass and holy Days of Obligation and saying some prayers now and then. Looking at them, you hardly know that they are Christians until by chance you bump into them in a Church. If this is what it means to be a Christian, then, no wonder, people who meet them do not want to be Christians.

But you are different. You are here on a day which is not a day of obligation. You must have something more that being, what is termed, nominal Catholics. You are good Catholics. You live your Christianity by your words and by your lives; hence, witnessing to or proclaiming Jesus Christ. This was what St. Ignatius of Loyola wanted to do. His whole life and spirituality were centred on mission – witnessing to Christ Jesus by carrying out with Christ His mission on earth – in other words, evangelization.

But how can you witness to J. Christ to persons, who do not know or have not come to accept Him, if you do not know these persons with whom you are communicating – if you do not know their religious background?

Living in a multi-religious society, have you ever asked yourselves what makes you, Christians, different from people of other faiths, e.g., from the Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and Muslims? Comparison, as is commonly said, is odious or offensive. It is offensive only when your aim is to put someone down and to raise yourself up as better than others. It is not odious if you want only to know who you are in relation to others, as they are, different from you. In fact, it is in comparing yourself with others that you know more precisely and clearly who you are. I do not have a high huge nose but a rather small nose because I am a Chinese and not a European. I respect and obey my elders more than the Europeans who care more for their individual freedom. By this, I am not degrading the Europeans or looking down on myself. It helps me see myself clearer. It is like placing a rather dark picture against a white background. The dark picture becomes clearer and more beautiful. Hence, I will compare what it is to be a Christian with people of other religions so that we may appreciate more being Christians and may be able to present Jesus Christ more effectively to people who have not yet come to accept Him.

By telling a non Christian who I am, a Catholic-Christian, and why I believe in what I believe does not imply that I want to make him or her to be like me. Not at all. I accept their freedom to choose what they want to believe in. But, if he or she accepts what I believe in and joins us, I rejoice and thank God for it. So, let me share with you who Christians are in relation with people of other faiths in order that we may more effectively bear witness to Jesus Christ.

First of all, Christians believe in a God who is very involved in their history, their lives of sorrows and joys on earth to a point that HE came down to be like us in all things except committing a sin. God became Man in the person of Jesus who suffered, died, buried and rose from the dead to save us, and for us Catholics, He continuously gives His life to us as food in the Eucharist to strengthen us to live a life more like Him – fully human, fully divine. Having Jesus Christ and living in Him here and now is what makes us different from people of other religions.

Most Chinese who are not Christians believe in a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and Chinese folk religion of spirits.
Buddhism teaches that in each person there is a “Buddha” in him. So, he does not have to rely on God but only on himself to attain to “enlightenment” which is “nirvana” or, in Christian terminoloty, “heaven.” Christians differ radically from this teaching. Christianity teaches that we rely completely on God, especially on Jesus Christ, without whom we cannot attain to salvation. For Buddhists, they try to get into themselves where they touch the Buddha in them from which they radiate compassion, goodness, kindness, etc. For Christians, it is getting out of ourselves and going to God, who is Love (1 Jn 4: 8, 16), that we receive an abundance of grace to reach out to others in loving service of them. Through this, we are fulfilled and saved. Hence, Jesus said, “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 6:25) We have just to look about and at ourselves to realize how weak and poor human beings are. The hatred, the jealousies, the cut-throat competition, the corruption , the killings and mass murders surely will convince us that human beings by themselves cannot bring salvation. We need God; for us Christians, Jesus Christ, God and Man.

Confucius said that if we cannot even understand ourselves and others and how to relate with them properly, how can we know God. So, leave God alone and let us concentrate on proper human relations. This is because Confucius did not have the revelation of God in Christ Jesus who tells us who God is and how we are to relate to Him and to our neighbours. Christ teaches us that because God is love, if we love others, God lives in us (1 Jn 4: 13 ). Love, says St. Paul in his letter to the Romans chapter13 verse10, is the fulfillment of all laws. This is how we are different from those who follow Confucianism.

Chinese people who practice Chinese folk religions try to appease all the different spirits so that they will not harm them, and pray to them for favours. Although Christians believe in spirits, they know that Jesus Christ is above all of them and hence there is no need to appease these spirits out of fear or ask them for favours. We go straight to Christ, who is more powerful than all spirits. Many Chinese converts tell me that the greatest joy they have when they are baptized is that they are freed from fears.

We have Muslims in our society. They believe that Allah is transcendent, i.e., above all completely beyond creatures and, hence, before Him, all must bow down in total submission and obedience. This is in fact the meaning of “Islam.” Therefore, obedience to the law of God is essential to Islam. The Koran, believed by the great majority of Muslims as word for word revealed by God through Achangel Gabriel to Mohammad, is central to obedience to God’s law. We can understand why Muslims try to implement the “Shariah,” or Islamic Law everywhere.

Christians have also this concept of God as transcendent. He is God the Father, creator of all things, the Almighty. But the Transcendent is revealed to us by God Himself as love manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, His Son. So, God is transcendent, yes. But He is also love. Thus, for Christians, if a law does not enhance and enrich love in us and for others, then, the law is of no use, at least, defective. Legalism in any form is not in tune with true Christianity.

Jesus Christ, the infinite love of God made manifest, is for us what the Koran is for the Muslims. The latter is a book of laws to be followed; the latter is a person with unconditional love to give us life and life to the full (Jn 10:10)

You have also Hindus in Singapore . Their religion is in complete contrast to Islam. The Hindus believe in the immanent presence of God. He is in everything to such an extent that the Almighty Immanence is in the heart of everything. A Hindu mystic can say: “I am God” because his soul is identical with God or in their own language, “Atman (soul) is equal to Brahman (God).” This is why Hindus can worship a tree or a snake because they are really worshiping the Immanent Almighty manifested in a man or a tree or a snake. The appearance of the Immanent Almighty in a human person is called “avatar.” So, you have Sai Baba claiming to be god.

Christians have also the concept of God as being immanent. He is in everything in the sense that without Him everything will disappear into nothingness. But this immanence does not make Him a tree or a man or a snake. A Christian mystic in complete union with God will never say that he or she is God. There is always a distinction between God and creature even a Christian mystic is in full union with God. For Christians, this Immanent God is the Holy Spirit who is in everything and continuously works in them.

As you can see, this is why I am proud to be a Catholic-Christian. Not that I am better than people of other religious beliefs. But because I have a loving God who is Almighty and above all things (Transcendent), [the belief of the Jews and the Muslims] who is in all things (Immanent) [the belief of the Hindus] and who is with us as human beings in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sharing everything in our lives except sin. Our understanding of and sharing in the life of God is indeed great! His love is unlimited and unconditional. When you have something wonderful, you want to share it with others. So, SHARE your faith with others by your life and words!

Bishop Paul Tan, S.J. & D.D.