July 16, 2018

Archbishop Fisher: Be a light to your neighbours

Archbishop Anthony Fisher and Daceyville Parish Priest Fr Moses Kim with the oldest and youngest members of the parish, 93 year-old Norma Cook and two month old Marlee Sarmiento. PHOTO: Patrick J Lee

“Blind faith” is the name of an English blues band whose only album was also called Blind Faith (1969). There was also an album of that name by British rock band Walk on Fire (1989), and a third album of the same name by the Christian rock band Legend Seven (1993). Songs of that name were recorded by at least seven other bands (Levellers 1990; Warrant 1991; Poison 1993; Dream Theater 2002; Quiet Riot 2006; Chase & Status 2011; and Jonny Manuel 2017). Add the Marvel Comics character of that name (a mutant priest in Communist Russia!), the crime novel by Joe McGinniss (1989) and subsequent TV miniseries (1990), the film starring Courtney Vance and Charles Dutton (1998) and the dystopian novel by Ben Elton (2007), and it’s pretty clear that popular culture conceives of faith as belief without warrant. Jesus seems to encourage this with His last beatitude today: “Thomas, you believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Yet I’ve often thought St Thomas’ bad rap from his brother apostle John in today’s Gospel passage is rather unfair (Jn 20:19-31): after all, he was perfectly right to be sceptical about talk of ghosts or zombies, and the other disciples were every bit as incredulous as him, only believing the reports from the women when they had seen the Risen Christ for themselves. John finishes his Gospel by explaining that his purpose is so that we might see what they had seen, hear what they had heard, have the evidence of their testimony, so we might believe also. So much for ‘blind faith’…

To have faith or confidence in a cause, a religion, an institution, above all in the person of Jesus Christ, is not, of course to have faith without questions or evidence. If someone tells you a deceased friend is back walking around and passing through locked doors you’d rightly have your questions: in fact, you’d probably be concerned about their mental state! As children we accept what our parents and teachers tell us more or less blindly – though even children can often distinguish fairy tales from supernatural faith, and supernatural faith from natural science. As we get older, we develop our critical faculties and make our own judgments on the evidence. We also come to appreciate that there are different senses in which a fairytale may be true (its core message), a historical record may be true (by testifying to some fact, though such records still require proof of reliability and still need interpretation), and a Gospel story may be true (it describes facts that come with core messages attached and is the most reliable of all testimony because of its author).

Even Mary asked her questions when the angel told her God’s plan for her (Lk 1:23-38). But why, then, does Christ seem to chastise Thomas? Because Thomas had more than enough evidence already. He had travelled around Galilee and Judea with Jesus through His public ministry; he’d seen Him raise people from the dead, cure lepers, cast out demons; he’d heard Him preach and teach with authority; he’d learnt this Son of Man was Son of God. Still he refused to believe. It wasn’t his faith that was blind – it was his eyes, mind, heart, as if no end of evidence would ever convince him. From his story we learn that of our senses must seek out evidence and our minds sift it critically, in matters of faith as of politics, science, relationships, business. But we need to remain open to being surprised, to learning new things, to having our perception, imagination and reason expanded. Thomas’ problem was not that he questioned, it was that, having questioned and received the most conclusive of answers, he still wouldn’t trust and wouldn’t commit. His fault was that he wouldn’t ‘let go and let God’…

In Paradise Lost we are told the story of another character, an angel, who despite every evidence of God’s goodness and power, refused to surrender to Him. And so, the story goes, a war broke out in heaven, as “with ambitious aim/ Against the throne and monarchy of God/ [Satan] raised impious war in heaven and battle proud/ With vain attempt”. But the one who stood up against this falling angel was “Michael of celestial armies Prince” who led thousands and millions in the fight against “that godless crew”. He is patron of this church and parish.

You can read Milton’s epic poem for yourself. Apart from the long-running battle with Satan and his armies, St Michael’s duties include rescuing the faithful from the power of evil and bringing the souls of the dead to judgment. That might all seem rather distant and apocalyptic, but we all know there is a spiritual struggle in life, that there are forces out there drawing us hither and thither, that we all must decide who we will serve and how we will influence others. Some are more willing to serve God, serve truth, beauty and goodness, and others more willing to serve themselves, and something darker. “Who can overcome the world?” John asks in our epistle today, and his answer is straightforward: “Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God”. The Apostle Thomas, by God’s grace, overcame his diffidence, his endless search for an impossible certainty, and was able to profess on our behalf “My Lord and my God”. He ended up giving his life to Christ as the apostle to India, so that even today that ancient Church are known as “Thomas Christians”.

Most of us are not called into direct contest with Satan, as St Michael was and is, nor called to give our lives as martyrs in Chennai as St Thomas was. People will know we are Christians more by our pattern of life according to the first reading today: “The whole body of the faithful was united, heart and soul, sharing all they had… testifying to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power… caring for all those in need” (Acts 4:32-35). Thus this parish has active ministries of worship and catechesis, and to the sick and aged, veterans, youth and the poor. We give thanks to Almighty God and to generous parishioners for this. But there’s no cause for complacency. Since my episcopal visitation of this parish back in 2005, Mass attendance has declined to only one in eight on Sunday. Even as we overflow with golden jubilee joy, we recognise that seven out of eight Catholics in the area are not with us at Mass on Sunday and we ache for their presence with us. And so the challenge I set you for the next 50 years is this: not to remain locked up in a room like those frightened first disciples, but to reach out to the unchurched in your community as they did after the first Pentecost. Bring those neighbours in to meet the One you hail as “My Lord and my God” and to experience His divine mercy. By the time of that centenary, I hope you’ll have had to build an even bigger church to accommodate all comers!

But in the meantime, happy birthday St Michael’s! Thanks be to God for you. Ad multos annos!

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