SCRIPTURE READINGS: 1 Tm 6:2-12; Ps 48:6-10,17-20; Lk 8:1-3

In the gospel, we read, “Jesus made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God.”  Indeed, this is our calling in life as Christians, which is to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom in words and in deeds.  This evening as we celebrate this memorial mass for the repose of the soul of Fr Arotcarena who passed away in France, we want to give praise and thanks to God for a good priest who took the mission of the gospel seriously.  We have never done this for those equally dedicated priests who served in our diocese and later passed away in their homeland.  This is because I also want to use this occasion to reach out to those who are hurt and wounded in the hope that they can find healing and closure.

During his ministry in our archdiocese, Fr Arotcarena did much for the local church as a missionary priest.  Besides contributing to the spiritual needs of our people, he also attended to the material needs, particularly of the poor, the marginalized, especially those migrant workers who were ill-treated by their bosses or unscrupulous agents who exploited them for money.  In many ways, he was a voice for the voiceless.  Like St Timothy, he fought “the good fight of the faith and win for yourself the eternal life to which you were called when you made your profession and spoke up for the truth in front of many witnesses.”  We praise and thank God for a priest who took the social mission of the gospel seriously.  By so doing, he revealed the compassionate and merciful face of Christ to the world, especially those who were downtrodden.

Many of you, like the women mentioned in today’s gospel “who provided for them out of their own resources”, partnered him in the work of rescuing the exploited workers and those who were in need of assistance. Through your collaboration and close association with his work for the poor and the oppressed, you all have done the Church proud.  Most of all, you gave hope and life to these otherwise abandoned workers in a foreign country, including those who were marginalized.  Without doubt, many of you had sacrificed much of your time and resources with the sincere intention to help the poor and liberate the oppressed in the spirit of the gospel.  The Church is grateful to you all because without your works of charity, the Church would not be Church and the mission of the Church would not have been accomplished.

Yet, at the same time, many of you who worked hard and selflessly for the poor and defended the marginalized were misunderstood.  Many of you feel hurt, wounded, disappointed and angry, not just with the authorities but with the Church for not having stood by you in your hour of need.

The normal and human reaction to the sense of injustice is to seek redress and vindication.  You want the facts to be uncovered.   Whether it is possible at all is debatable.  There are many accounts that surround the infamous Marxist conspiracy event.  Many were involved for different reasons.  We do not have all the facts because events are open to interpretation and we will never know the minds and the real motives of the people who collaborated with him in his works of mercy.  Even if we have the facts, we do not have the circumstances and the real reasons behind these events. Many things cannot be uncovered.

One thing for sure is that we will never know with certainty the motives of those who served and those who acted in the name of national interest and security.  The truth is that few serve God and society with pure motives.  This is true even for priests and religious.   Even in doing good works, people come with all kinds of motives.  We are never too clear about the agenda of every person who volunteers to help us.  This is true in every area of life, religion not exempted.  Why do people donate to the Church or to the poor?  Why do they serve in Church ministry?  What are their real and hidden motives?  That is why, St Paul warned Timothy of the dangers of using religion for selfish motives, whether for power, money or glory.  He wrote, “Religion, of course, does bring large profits, but only those who are content with what they have.  We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it; but as long as we have food and clothing, let us be content with that.  People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction.  ‘The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds.”   Indeed, we know that many people in religion have unfortunately used religion to enrich themselves and indulge in a lavish lifestyle.

But I am not here to judge what actually transpired during that time.    St Paul tells us to leave judgment to the Lord.  We can only judge the actions but not the motives. Take the case of offenders in prison.  Most of them were once victims before they became oppressors.  Many of them acted from desperation and rejection.  What they do is an affront to justice and love, but every prisoner has a story behind his crime.  This is what Jesus meant when He says, “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged; and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”  (Mt 7:1f)   We cannot judge their motives; only God knows.

That is why I urge all to take the path of forgiveness.  Perhaps the authorities acted too harshly for fear of disorder and violence.  Perhaps they were afraid that others were using the Church for their own agenda, personal, political or sectarian; and use their work in fighting for social justice as a cover. Perhaps, those helping to champion the underdogs were blinkered, seeing only one aspect of the bigger picture and the larger national interest.  Quite often, those who fight for a particular cause and are passionate about it tend to forget that there are also other interests that those who are in charge have also to consider.  As bishop, I often receive complaints and suggestions from our laity.  They are valid and good feedback, but often they only see things from their own narrow perspective.  As bishop, I need to balance the larger interests of the Church and that of the individuals and groups.

So the only way to make things right, that is to restore unity and peace, is through forgiveness.  Mahatma Ghandi says, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”  Indeed, the justice of God is His forgiveness.  When we sin against the Lord, He does not take revenge or demand that we be punished for our offences.  Instead He forgives us without conditions, and totally.  In His forbearance and forgiveness, our sins are not taken into account.   Without unconditional forgiveness, the healing can never take place.  The situation in Middle East has been one of retaliation and counter revenge.  The wars will never end till the parties decide to forgive and leave the sad history of the past behind.

As bishop, I understand the complexity of the unhappiness of people who are in conflict.  In my office, I receive countless complaints.  In spite of attempts to mediate between the different parties, I must say that in the end, no one is ever the wiser and no is truly happy with the settlement.  All feel compromised and unjustly treated.  As St Paul says, “All that can come of this is jealousy, contention, abuse and wicked mistrust of one another; and unending disputes by people who are neither rational nor informed and imagine that religion is a way of making a profit.”  In truth, who is satisfied in a court settlement?    No, they continue to remain in animosity and think the judgement was not fair.   Some cry foul, some cry justice, depending on whose favour the judgment was made.   So no judgment of any kind can please or satisfy everyone.

In the final analysis, only God is their judge and history.  This is what the psalmist says.  “Why should I fear in evil days the malice of the foes who surround me, men who trust in their wealth, and boast of the vastness of their riches? For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end, nor avoid coming to the grave. Then do not fear when a man grows rich, when the glory of his house increases. He takes nothing with him when he dies, his glory does not follow him below.”

Furthermore, history is evolving and judgment is never final.  With new developments, we look at the situation differently.   A case in point is the central doctrine of Protestantism, Justification by faith.  As a result of dialogue, we have come to an agreement with the Lutherans, and also the Anglicans and Methodists Communion that we hold the same doctrine of Justification by faith although with different nuances.  This is true for this so-called Marxist conspiracy.  The implications and interpretations of this event continue.

But is this painful period of the Catholic Church’s history a disgrace for the Church, and did those who worked for the poor suffer in vain?   Nay, not all is wasted because there is grace in disgrace.    A greater good will come out of evil as in the case of the tragic crucifixion of Jesus.  St. Paul says “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Rom 12:21)  How should we move forward and transform pain into blessings for everyone?

What can we learn from this whole episode and from history?  

Firstly, the Church’s spiritual mission is also a social mission, or rather, the social mission of the Church must be understood as a spiritual mission.  The fullness of life is not just for this world.  We are not simply to feed the poor but to bring them to God and the fullness of life.  Indeed, the Church is not a mere humanitarian organization like the NGOs.  The mission of the Church is not merely social but at the heart of it, it is spiritual.  It springs from our love of Christ and we want to share this love with others, especially the poor.  Our mission towards the poor is not just to give them material comfort but to give them the fullness of life, which includes their spiritual need for God.  Our ultimate goal is not just to give them fullness of life on earth but fullness of life in heaven. Our life is beyond this earth because we believe in eternal life in Christ after death.

Therefore, the mission to the poor goes beyond the materially poor.  We reach out to all, even those spiritually poor and in a special way, to our enemies, those who hate us.  We want to save all souls for Christ and win over our perceived enemies and those who hurt us.  Jesus did not come only for the materially poor but to save all souls, regardless of the kind of poverty we are in.  

Secondly, we are reminded that Truth and love must go together.  Truth and love are two aspects of the Church’s mission.  It is not enough to proclaim the truth in words or in doctrines but we need to translate this truth into loving actions.  But without proclamation of the truth, there is no authentic love.  Accordingly, the Church seeks to proclaim the truth about God, humanity, about love and life.  At the same time, the Church lives out this truth in her daily life in acts of compassion and charity.  The Church always breathes with two lungs, the lung of truth, that is, right doctrines, and the lung of charity, that is, righteous living.

Hence, it is critical that in carrying out the social mission of the Church, we need to keep the sound doctrines of the Church, as St Paul advised Timothy. “This is what you are to teach the brothers to believe and persuade them to do.  Anyone who teaches anything different, and does not keep to the sound teaching which is that of our Lord Jesus Christ, the doctrine which is in accordance with true religion, is simply ignorant and must be full of self-conceit – with a craze for questioning everything and arguing about words.”   Indeed, unless the works we do are guided by the truth, the Word of God, we will destroy the very works we are doing. Otherwise, we can be misled and be deceived.  No one can presume to have the truth but we are all growing in the truth in Christ.  Hence, we need to pray and search the scriptures.  As St Paul warns us that often religion can be used for profit, money, power, political and personal revenge and for fame.  We need to search our motives and purify them.

Thirdly, we need to be reminded of the distinctive roles of the Church and the state.  It is not the task of the Church to preserve social order and justice in the country.  The pursuit of a just social order is the work of the State.  The Church does not interfere with the way the Government manages the economy and the governance of the country.  The task of the Church is to be a moral spokesman. We are called to enlighten the state in the understanding of justice based on reason and natural law purified through the eyes of faith.  The Church therefore should never take over the functions of the state.  The Church collaborates with the State to safeguard the common good of the people. “This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”  (God is Love, No. 28)  Regardless, “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”  (God is love, No. 28)

Fourthly, when there is disagreement, the path to be taken is never that of agitation, demonstration, violence and attempts to pressurize the authorities but it must be by way of dialogue.  Unless we are dealing with a very corrupt and authoritarian regime, such methods are counterproductive.  If the state were to bend to any group that demonstrates, it will lose its credibility because other groups will do the same to put pressure on the government. The government will be in chaos if it tries to please every pressure group.   In the end, each group championing its own cause will organize their own rally which can lead to clashes.  In the same way too, the Church will not bow to threats and demonstrations or external pressures.  The Church does not respond to social pressure to change her doctrines to suit the world, e.g. abortion, same sex union, divorce, etc.  Extreme situations of demonstration can lead to civil disorder, violence and killing.  It is a dangerous approach. Demonstrations are always the last resort and very rarely used except when all dialogue has broken down and we are dealing with an authoritarian and evil regime that abuses its power absolutely.

We must engage the authorities in dialogue.  This is best done behind closed doors, like family quarrels and misunderstandings.  Do we publicize our family conflicts to the whole world?  Democracy must be respected.   All the popes have always called for dialogue with authorities, even in war torn countries.   War and violence will do no one any good as we see in in Middle East.  Patient dialogue and, most of all, prayers change minds and hearts.

Dialogue takes time, as in the doctrine of Justification by faith alone.  It took 500 years for the Catholic Church to come to agreement with the Lutheran, Methodist and Anglican communions that we hold the same doctrine of justification; not withstanding that there are different nuances.  But what is important is that we all agree that we are justified by faith alone through grace and that good works do not save us as such but are the signs of having been saved and justified in Christ through grace.

In the final analysis, we must never take actions into our own hands.  Otherwise, faith becomes an ideology like all the class struggles in the world.  This is what the psalmist invites us.  “How happy are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Why should I fear in evil days the malice of the foes who surround me, men who trust in their wealth, and boast of the vastness of their riches?  For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end, nor avoid coming to the grave.”  Let us trust in God’s judgement and mercy.  Let us not in the process of fighting for justice end up by making God our enemy because He seems not to be on our side.

What will transform lives is not fighting for justice and vindication.  It is to suffer innocently like Christ.  The greatness of a Christian lies in forgiveness, not seeking justice.  Did Christ seek justice?  No, He sought forgiveness of all those who have hurt Him.  “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”   St Peter tells us, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.  If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”  (1 Pt 2:18-24)  Again, he wrote to the Romans, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’”  (Rom 12:19-20)  Jesus was a revolutionary but He did not take up arms struggle or violence but through innocent suffering, He brought sinners to repentance.

Consequently, we must go beyond dialogue to walk the talk by our way of life.   We need to be people of integrity.  St Paul exhorts Timothy,But, as a man dedicated to God, you must avoid all that.  You must aim to be saintly and religious, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle.”   We must be exemplars of Christian compassion, not just for the poor and the marginalized but for those who have hurt us.  We must offer forgiveness and compassion for our enemies and, like Jesus, pray for them and make excuses for them. This is what it means to be a true Christian and a man of compassion.   We must be exemplars of love.  We cannot preach justice when we live unjust life.   We cannot preach about helping the poor when we live lavishly.  Indeed, only righteous living, compassion and forgiveness can reveal God’s mercy and face to all.  With Fr Arotcarena, let us live our lives in such a way that we glorify Him.

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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