Given at the Venerable English College, Rome, on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 21st October 2018.
Each day this week we have been presented with an example of radical discipleship. During the week there has been a wonderful parade of saints from the first to the seventeenth centuries: St Luke, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Teresa of Avila, St John Brebeuf and companions, St Margaret Mary Alacoque and St Philip Howard, whose martyrdom began at the age of 28.
In these last weeks in the Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment we have been reminded of the youthfulness of so many who give their lives for Christ. Since the year 2000, over 84 missionaries under the age of 35 have been killed; and the Congregation for the Saints is today studying the causes of outstanding holiness for over 150 young women and men. The Church is young! The Church is vibrantly alive. This is a message from this Synod. Jesus powerfully touches and transforms young lives all over the world.
We listened to Bishop Barwa from the Odisha region of India. He told us of a young Christian Dalit boy, accosted on a bus by a group of radical Islamic youths. They challenged the boy to say if he was a Christian. He said nothing. They searched his bag and found his Bible and prayer book. ‘Now,’ they said to him, ‘you must give up your Jesus!’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I will not.’ ‘You must give him up, or you will face the music!’ ‘No, I will not, whatever you do.’ Then they took the boy off the bus and threw him into a ditch. There they buried him in mud, up to his neck. Then, holding a boulder over his head they said: ‘This is your last chance: You must give up your Jesus, or you die!’ Looking at them, looking up at the stone, the boy closed his eyes and said: ‘No, I will not give up my Jesus.’ The stone was hurled down and he died.
Here is a martyr, a young and courageous witness, one who has been formed in the image of the servant of Isaiah, who offered his life in the obedience of faith.
Here we see the very heart of the calling of each one of us: to become the intimate friend of Jesus and to live with him as the centre of who we are and of what we do, so that we too will never give up our Jesus.
The Gospel passage speaks of the cup and baptism that the disciples of Jesus are to share. The cup is the cup handed out by the king to his guests at his banquet. It is the cup of life that God has given to each one of us: a cup sometimes of great joy, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of aloneness, sometimes of suffering. And the baptism, a word which means ‘being submerged’ in an experience, here the experience of the cross, of the pain of rejection, suffering and death.
We, each of us, are to be the soul friends of Jesus, to drink the cup we are given and to share in his cross. That is the heart of our calling.
One Cardinal, this week, said that when he started his seminary training he was a good Catholic but, at that time, he did not know Jesus. Another reminded us that we learn how to pray in order to be close to Jesus; we learn the Gospels and the Biblical texts in order to see his face; we learn to meet him in the poor; to know him in the Eucharist and in Reconciliation; we come to meet him with Mary, who never fails to bring us to her Son.
Without this personal love of the Lord, a friendship which shapes all other loves in our lives, we are just gongs and empty words. This is our calling: to know him, and love him and let his face be seen in us.
Today we can apply this central truth to our lives in this question: What is it in my life that disfigures the face of Jesus in me?
We can all answer that question, and, no doubt, the older we get the more the answers come thick and fast. But here is one.
To my mind one thing that disfigures the face of Christ in us today, in the Church today, is the outpouring of bitterness, tittle-tattle, hostility and false witness that floods the digital world. People, including priests, are regularly subjected to character assassination on the internet. And among those who contribute are priests and deacons. How easily the internet reduces us to digital tribes, engaged in a kind of bitter conflict which somehow seems acceptable because it is ‘out there’ somewhere. Even if we do not contribute, and sometimes we are worse than others, far too easily we amuse ourselves at the discomfort of others.
I notice the number of circles of blue light appearing round the College. Greater connectivity. Very useful indeed. But you know and I know how easily we can be drawn into these addictive behaviours. These things are a true disfigurement of the face of Jesus, the face of compassion and mercy, and should have no place in our lives.
Bishop Barwa, continuing his story, told us that some years later, men from the tribe of those who had killed the boy came to his village to apologise for what had happened. The boy’s parents forgave them, saying that this is what their Jesus taught them to do and they must do it. In contrast, deep-seated grudges, lying low in our hearts, unforgiving offences breeding resentment, give rise to the corrupting desire to exercise power over others, in sharp contradiction to the commandment of the Gospel, that we are here to serve. Throwing our weight around, under the guise of position or under cover of the internet, distorts the face of the Master who came not to be served but to serve. That is the beauty of his face we are to show.
The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us to approach the throne of grace confidently ‘that we may have mercy from him’. And that is what we do now, making our own the prayer of the Mass: ‘Almighty God, grant that we may always conform our will to yours and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart.’ Amen.