Sixteenth Sunday of the Year Wisdom 12: 13 & 16-19; Romans 8: 26-27; Matthew 13: 24-43
“There is no god, other than You, who cares for everything…. You govern us with great lenience. By acting thus you have taught a lesson to your people, how the virtuous man must be kindly to his fellow men. You have given your children the good hope that after sin you will grant repentance.”
The Book of Wisdom, precisely because it was written in Greek rather than Hebrew, reveals a great deal about the location and circumstances of its origins. Almost certainly it came from one of the many Jewish communities scattered throughout the Graeco-Roman world. They lived as strangers in a culture radically different from that of their homeland.
In many ways, this is the experience of the practising Christian in an increasingly secular society. Here gospel values are marginalised, and frequently dismissed as irrelevant. This was certainly the experience of those scattered Jewish communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. They were marginalised and frequently persecuted.
Today’s passage from the Book of Wisdom is all the more remarkable because it does not call upon God to redress the misfortunes of their displacement. Instead the passage concentrated on God’s forbearance in the face of their own past failings, rejoicing in a judgment that was always ready to forgive. Likewise our own Christian lives are to be measured by an unfettered willingness to forgive.
The parable of the sower gives assurance to those who fear that they cannot forgive as Jesus forgave. We can draw hope from the fact that the seed of forgiveness, and indeed every other virtue, comes not from ourselves, but from the Lord who is the source and strength of all goodness.
In the early chapters of his Letters to the Romans, St Paul humbly acknowledged his inability either to know or live by the will of God. He also came to know that God does not abandon us to an inevitable disillusionment both with ourselves and the world in which we live.
“The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness… for when we cannot pray, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words, and God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows that the prayers of the faithful, expressed by the Spirit, are according to the mind of God.”
May we live our lives in humble surrender to the gentle presence of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
‘I left university feeling I was searching for something – I didn’t even know what – so I went travelling. At the time, during the hippy movement, that was what you did.
“In Spain I saw a sunset and I knew that God existed. That was 1973. I finished my travels and a search began which lasted for 20 years. It was a journey through all sorts of esoteric teachings and psychology. I was saved from getting lost in it, because behind it was a real search for truth.
“St Edith Stein has this phrase, ‘Who searches for truth will find God’. I very much identify with this because I am a searcher for truth, I always have been.
“I kept saying ‘no, no, no’ to all these false teachings for a very long time in my life. But conversion to the true God only happened after my marriage broke down – at the lowest point of my life.
“We separated with three teenage children. Now I know that divorce is a terrible injustice to children and a heavy burden for all their life. Even though I am a child of divorce myself, I was blind to the severe consequences.
“A week after my husband had moved out – it was January 1996 – a young woman came to my door. She lived in a house up the street, and we had just greeted each other. She rang the bell, and she stood at the door with a novena in her hand and said: ‘Pray!’ The novena had the great promises of Jesus, always ending, ‘I am the handmaiden of the Lord, thy will be done’.
“In my despair I prayed the novena in front of a Buddha statue and other things I had collected during these 20 years of searching… and at the end of the novena, I knew beyond any doubt, I would become a Catholic.
“It was really the last thing I was expected to do in my environment, and it meant to lose friends, even family members.
“Despite my feeling of certainty, there was fear, like jumping from a 10-metre board and not knowing if there is any water underneath because I was moving out of this whole frame of mind where I thought I could take my happiness in my own hands. The result was not happiness but the falling apart of my life.
“Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, I am deeply thankful that God opened the door of the Church for me. Despite the deplorable state of the Church, we still have access to the essential nourishment through the sacraments, and the incredible richness of teaching, prayer and the example of the saints and martyrs, to grow in a relationship of love with the living Christ.”
As recorded and edited by Simon Caldwell. Gabriele Kuby is the author of The Global Sexual Revolution, which has been translated into 14 languages
I suspect that the clergy had a fundamentally different experience of the Covid lockdown from the laity. We may speak airily of how “our churches were closed” and how “we” had no access to the sacraments for months, but in reality no priest had to experience months without the Mass or the Blessed Sacrament as their people have done, and I think we would do well to acknowledge this, and the fact that it will have shaped our reactions to the crisis, whatever the dictates of necessity.
The faithful are happy that priests have continued to say Mass, I am sure, but if we want to “smell of the sheep”, in Pope Francis’s phrase, we need to acknowledge and comfort the shock and bereavement many have experienced in the past months. Covid meant priests were unable to minister sacramentally to their people in person. To borrow from St Augustine: for you, the laity, we have been priests but we have not been able to be with you as Christians in your fast. I understand why many people say they have felt abandoned by their pastors. It will not be enough to tell them that they oughtn’t to feel like this.
I was, in a sense, fortunate in that my own routine had already accustomed me to celebrating Mass without a congregation and I have learnt various things from it.
The first is that my primary focus remains exactly the same, whether or not there is a congregation present. The celebration of Mass is directed to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. It is directed towards the invisible, transcendent God through the sacrifice of his Son which is made present and visible on the altar in sacramental sign.
This is much harder to appreciate if I do not face a crucifix or a tabernacle or a liturgical direction which looks beyond. No, it is not the cognitive dissonance that some liturgists claim, to celebrate Mass facing the tabernacle. There is only one sacrifice of the Cross, one bread, one body. I am not confused because Christ is in the tabernacle and present on the altar, because it is the same Christ, perpetuating His one offering until the end of time, not some kind of liturgical spoiler, lessening the meaning or impact of the other. It is only ever in Him who lives always to make intercession for us that I can offer this worship, or rather, be drawn into His offering.
I personally could not celebrate the Mass of the Baptised facing a camera, still less in a church whose pews were lined with photographs, because these depersonalised things would focus me acutely on the lack of anyone present; whereas without them, I can focus on the metaphysical power of the Mass to connect across time and space and hold people present in my heart.
For me, cameras and photos would close an empty circle, emphasising the sociological dimension, whereas by faith I know that one never celebrates Mass “alone” nor indeed merely for the particular group of people pictured in the congregation.
This was the motivation and origin of the tradition of celebrating Mass on the tombs of the martyrs according to Pope Emeritus Benedict. It was an outward, visible sign that we celebrate the Sacrifice of the Lord in the Communion of Saints, a communion which spans all times and ages. We are not somehow bringing Him to life in the liturgy for those assembled. It is the other way round; He is enfolding the world in His sacrificial offering of the Cross.
Last year we finally left the Big Smoke and settled in rural Kent, bringing to an end my many years as a reluctant town mouse. Our village is straight from central casting: it has a 12th-century church next-door to a huge Georgian parsonage; you pass between the churchyard and the latter’s considerable grounds through the traditional cast iron kissing gate. On the other side of the churchyard is the village inn, and across the road from that is the green, on which stands a small wooden pavilion.
Ah yes, cricket. I was looking forward to joining the village team. In a place with a population of about 500, even my leisurely off-breaks and idiosyncratic batting might have been enough to earn me a place, and I am very keen to discover how they manage the complications of a steep hill at deep midwicket. But of course Covid-19 had other plans.
And so my cricket bag remains in the loft, my whites remain neatly folded, and my bat leans dejectedly in a corner. The idyllic summer afternoons in the field, and pleasant evenings in the pub, that I had anticipated so keenly, are on hold.
It’s not just as a player that the coronavirus has stymied my enjoyment. All county fixtures have been scratched until at least August, stymying the domestic season, although there will be some international cricket, with England facing the West Indies and Pakistan.
I had hoped to take my children to the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, one of the oldest first-class cricket venues in England, and to tell them the story of the St Lawrence Lime, an ancient tree standing inside the boundary rope and covered by special laws. Sadly it was blown down in 2005, after 158 years as part of the ground. It is one of those strange quirks that make me love the game.
I am not the kind of fan who could tell you who was the leading wicket-taker in 50-over matches last year. To me, getting to know cricket is like coming across a mildly decayed old mansion that has been in the same family for 500 years, full of curiosities and oddities and funny traditions whose origins no one can quite remember, but which add to the gaiety of the nation.
There’s a timelessness about cricket. The long form of the game in particular has an almost liturgical feel, with its ebbs and flows of momentum and energy, the way in which periods of quiet and calm build to moments of huge drama and import. The familiar rhythms of the thing give you the sense that all this has been going on for a very long time, and will carry on in more or less the same way long after you’ve gone.
With a plop, my bait is swallowed by the murk. This is what I have been missing. This is what no amount of peering into pools and gazing into brooks has been able to replace. No matter that the sound was far too loud, my technique too unpractised and clumsy. The quarry may all have fled, but at least I am finally fishing.
Throughout the lockdown, fishing is what I have missed the most. People who don’t like to fish are prone to question the purpose of disturbing the peace of a river or lake by casting a line into it. Why, they ask, can’t you just look at it? For the past three months I have put this question to the test. Banned from fishing as well as everything else, I have been walking. Often my walks have taken me past ponds and streams, and I spent happy hours plotting and planning where I might fish. But I have been nothing but a spectator, unable to penetrate the sparkling surface and interact with the alien corner of creation that lies beneath.
Today I am a spectator no longer. As the water closes over my lure, my senses descend with it, intruding into a world that is so close yet never seen. The retrieve brings the lure to life, twitching and twirling in mimicry of an injured fish. In my mind I watch as it glides past logs, plunges through reed beds and slips under snaking tendrils of water crowfoot. For a hopeful moment I imagine the scrutiny of a perch, all sergeant-major stripes and prickly fins, as the bait flickers past its lair. In reality, as it nears the bank I spot the lure and nothing but a cloud of tiny minnows following in its wake, perhaps concerned to see one of their fellows in distress. At least I’ve managed to fool them.
Having thrashed the water long enough, I move on. My friend in the neighbouring swim has caught a nice chub, stoking the embers of optimism. We walk on together, always keeping half an eye on the river, hunting out the next likely spot. We see an egret and it sees us, waiting until we are unbearably close before lifting off the river and onto an overhanging ash, from which it urges us to move along. A grass snake, enormous by the standards of its kind, ripples across our path. Do these things usually happen when out for a walk? To me, at any rate, they only happen when I’m out fishing. And there’s the answer to that question: I can’t “just look” at the water, because if I just look, I don’t see nearly so much.
The virtues, which are dispositions to do what is good, have recently enjoyed a remarkable revival as a topic of academic interest, if not necessarily in practice.
This revival has been a response, in part, to a renewed sense that ethics involves more than simply the determination of right actions. We also assess persons ethically in terms of their characteristic dispositions such as being “truthful”, “untrustworthy”, “just”, “unjust”, “generous”, “mean”, “honest”, “dishonest”, and so on. Indeed, knowing a person well is often expressed in terms of knowing that person’s dispositions. We also value ways to form those dispositions – called virtues – and to diminish their opposing vices.
The father of virtue ethics as well as biology in Western culture is the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle (d 322 BC). Aristotle emphasised our need to apply wisdom to cultivate virtue and argued that at least some virtues can be acquired by repeating good actions until they become second nature. At about the time of the Catholic foundation of the University of Oxford, the great Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) transfigured Aristotelian virtue ethics into an account of the Christian life of grace.
Unlike Aristotle, who held that God exists but only remotely, Aquinas gives us an account of virtue founded on Christian revelation, involving new theological and cardinal virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, beatitudes, and fruits of the Spirit. These attributes enable and express an alignment of our lives with the Holy Spirit, the “Paraclete” (meaning “the one called alongside”).
In this relationship, the virtues and gifts dispose us to love with God what God loves, seeing all living human persons, for example, as His potential or actual children. On this account, the path of virtue is one of increasing harmonisation with God, leading to the divine friendship enjoyed by the saints.
Fr Andrew Pinsent is the author of two booklets on the theological virtues and the cardinal virtues, available from CTS
“With deep sorrow, we announce that Bishop Eugenio Scarpellini, Bishop of the diocese of El Alto, died on the morning of Wednesday, July 55, after the contagion from Covid-19”, reports the Bishops’ Conference of Bolivia, recalling that he was a “missionary in Bolivia since 1988, a pastor of the Church who distinguished himself for his dedication to the poorest and his tireless struggle for justice. Monsignor Scarpellini was hospitalized in the Sagrado Corazón hospital in the city of El Alto, and was being treated for Covid-19, today he had two cardiac arrests and the doctors were unable to do anything”.
Born in Verdellino (Italy) on January 8, 1954, ordained a priest on June 17, 1978, and on January 11, 1988, Eugenio Scarpellini arrived in Bolivia as a Fidei donum missionary of the diocese of Bergamo. In the Archdiocese of La Paz he held several positions: parish priest, treasurer, college director. In 2004 Mgr. Scarpellini was appointed National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) in Bolivia and in 2006 Coordinator of the Pontifical Mission Societies of the American continent. On July 15, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of El Alto, in 2012 he was elected Secretary-General of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, and on June 26, 2013, Pope Francis appointed him Bishop of El Alto. Tireless missionary animator, one of his greatest commitments was the celebration of the Fifth American Mission Congress (CAM 5) held in Bolivia, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in 2018.
Mgr. Waldo Barrionuevo, current PMS National Director appointed on 27 February, recalled Mgr. Scarpellini during the celebration of the Eucharist, as “a precious person” and highlighted that we are all called to be instruments in the hands of God: “all of us are missionaries by call and vocation of the Lord, the Lord calls each of us to witness our Father”. Mgr. Scarpellini accompanied the Bolivian Church as Director of the PMS for so many years.