To speak of fear of God in terms of hellfire is against the Gospel

November 26, 2017

As we are coming to the end of another Liturgical Year and as we hear calls to hear more about purgatory and hell, I like to reproduce an article written by Ron Rolheiser OMI in the Prairie Messenger of Oct. 11, 2017. Unfortunately, like other Catholic publications which contain articles which are thought-provoking and nourishing intellectually, the  Prairie Messenger is slated to cease publication next year and we will miss Ron Rolheiser !  To speak of fear of God in terms of hellfire is against the Gospel, by Ron Rolheiser, OMI “As a theologian, priest, and preacher, I often get asked: “Why isn’t the church preaching more fear of God anymore? Why aren’t we preaching more about the dangers of going to hell? Why aren’t we preaching more about God’s anger and hellfire?” It’s not hard to answer that. We aren’t preaching a lot about fear because, to do so, unless we are extremely careful in our message, is simply wrong. Admittedly fear can cause people to change their behaviour, but so can intimidation and brainwashing. Just because something is effective doesn’t mean it is right. Fear of God may only be preached within a context of love. Scripture itself seemingly gives us a mixed message. On the one hand, it tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” even as it tells us that virtually every time God  appears in human history, the first words from God are always: “Don’t be afraid!” That phrase, coming from the mouth of God or from the mouth of God’s messenger, appears more than 300 times in Scripture. The first words we will hear every time God appears in our lives are: “Don’t be afraid!” So we must be careful when we preach fear of God. Fear of punishment is not the real message we hear when God enters our lives. Then how is fear of God the beginning of wisdom? In our relationship with God, just as in our relationships with each other, there are both healthy and un - healthy fears. What’s a healthy fear? Healthy fear is love’s fear: When we love someone our love will contain a number of healthy fears, a number of areas within which we will be healthily cautious and reticent. We will fear being disrespectful, fear despoiling the gift, fear being selfish, fear being irreverent. All healthy love contains the fear of not letting the other person be fully free. Reverence, awe, and respect are a form of fear. But that kind of fear is not to be confused with being frightened, intimidated, or dreading some kind of punishment. Metaphorically, love’s fear is the fear that God challenges Moses with before the burning bush: Take off your shoes because the ground you are standing on is holy ground! How are we to understand fear of God as the beginning of wisdom? We are wise and on the right path when we stand before the mystery of God (and of love) with our shoes off, namely, in reverence, in awe, in respect, in unknowing, without undue pride, humble before an infinity that dwarfs us, and open to let that great mystery shape us for its own eternal purposes. But that is far different, almost the antithesis, of the fear we experience when we are frightened of someone or something that threatens us because the person or thing is perceived as being mercilessly exacting or as being arbitrary and punitive. There is too a healthy fear of God that’s felt in our fear of violating what’s good, true, and beautiful in this world. Some religions call this a fear before the “law of karma.” Jesus, for his part, invites us to this kind of holy fear when he warns us that the measure we measure out is the measure that will be given back to us. There’s a moral structure inherent in the universe, within life, and within each of us. Everything has a moral contour that needs to be respected. It’s healthy to be afraid of violating any goodness, truth, or beauty. We need to preach this kind of healthy fear rather than that God needs to be feared because of the punishment God might eventually deal out in some legalistic and exacting fashion. Whenever we preach this kind of fear, of a God who deals out hellfire, we are almost always also preaching a God who isn’t very intelligent, compassionate, understanding, or forgiving. A God who is to be feared for his punitive threats is a God with whom we will never find a warm intimacy. Threat has no place within love, except if it is a holy fear of doing something that will disrespect and despoil. To preach hellfire may be effective as a tactic to help change behaviour, but it is wrong in terms of the Gospel. Fear is a gift. It is also one of the deepest, life-preserving instincts within you. Without fear, you won’t live very long. But fear is a complex, multi-faced phenomenon. Some fears help you stay alive, while others deform and imprison you. There are things in life that you need to fear. A playground bully or the arbitrary tyrant can kill you, even if they are all wrong. Lots of things can kill you, and they merit fear. But God is not one of those things. God is neither a playground bully nor an arbitrary tyrant. God is love and a perpetual invitation to intimacy. There is a lot to be feared in this, but nothing of which to be afraid.”

More on MAID (“Medical Assistance in Dying”)

November 12, 2017

In the past few years I devoted several pastor’s corners to the topic of euthanasia, assisted suicide or MAID, the term being used at the moment. It is obvious that there continues to exist among Christians and others a great deal of confusion around this very important issue. MAID is another word for euthanasia which is (and all the words are important) an act or omission of an act that is done to directly and intentionally cause the death of another person or to end suffering.  It is a form of homicide that is usually done by lethal injection. Some people continue to equate MAID/ euthanasia with withholding or withdrawing medical treatment. They say that when a doctor withholds or withdraws treatment and the person dies, that is the same as MAID. That is not the case! People have a right to refuse medical treatment and when the person then dies, it is because of their medical condition, not because of an act by another person, a doctor or a nurse. There is a very clear difference between killing a person directly and intentionally and allowing death to occur. In one case, the person is intentionally killed; in the other, the person may die but the intention is to allow death to occur naturally, not to hasten death. In moral theology this is called the principle of double effect: an action is permitted, such as withdrawing treatment or relieving a patient’s pain, even if it may shorten life. # 2278 of our Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate: it is the refusal of “overzealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it, is merely accepted.”  Providing large doses to control pain or manage symptoms or the proper use of sedation techniques, these are not euthanasia, but good medical care. The doctor intends to kill the pain, not the person. Our respect for the human person demands that we take care of the sick but it also demands that we avoid imposing treatments that are overly burdensome, unnecessary and futile; it ultimately demands that we let go. As Christians we believe that God’s love is at the source of creation and of all living things and beings. Life is God’s gift to us and we live our life accompanied by God and by our loved ones and by the community which surrounds us. Caring for and comforting the sick and the dying has always been an essential element of living the Gospel. Jesus gave us the example: he reached out to the sick, the lonely, the abandoned, the persons who felt the loss of their basic dignity as human beings and he tried to tell and show them by example that God cared for them, that God journeyed with them in life, that they did not need to be afraid, that God wished them to live because he was the God of life, not of death. Each time he healed or comforted a person he healed them not just physically but especially spiritually and socially because he restored them to the dignity as a human and social being, loved and cared for by their loved ones and by the community as a whole. Jesus also showed by the acceptance of his own suffering and dying that we can be a source of hope, of renewed life for others even beyond death. Jesus showed us that we can be in support of the common good, voluntary pain bearers. Jesus showed us that good can come from the evil which is suffering and death. That is the redemptive value of suffering and of the cross in human life. For us Christians the cross is a symbol of the triumph of the love and faithfulness of God in Jesus, the triumph of Christ over evil and sin. Our own crosses can move us beyond bitterness and anger so as to become truly life-giving.  Unfortunately, in our modern world we are so enamoured by so preoccupied with the technological/medical advances that we forget that death is part of life. We even think that we can control and overcome all suffering and that we can avoid death. No, suffering and death are part of nature, are part of life, are part of all life and can be life-giving. So, as Christians, we accept the human process of dying including the dependence and the loss of control, the pain and suffering and loneliness and questions which go with it. That is why it is so important that we accompany the dying person and their loved ones by our compassionate presence, by our stories and prayers and gestures and music and laughter; and yes, by alleviating the suffering and pain wherever possible but also by respecting nature, by respecting that we are not in control. True palliative care, whether at home or in an institution or in a hospital, has always been seen as doing just that and many nurses, care-givers, volunteers and pastoral workers wish to make sure that it will continue to do so. Let us also continue to support it !

Culture and Priesthood

October 29, 2017

It takes a lot of courage to decide to leave one’s home, one’s country and one’s culture and to basically start a new life. It is happening a great deal in our globalized world: some do so out of necessity because forced out by violence and hatred or because they see no future for themselves or for their families; others do so out of choice because of employment opportunities and other reasons, or because of a calling to reach out to others in ministry.  I did so some thirty years ago when I left municipal politics in Ottawa to start a new Dominican community in eastern Indonesia on the islands of Timor, Flores and Sulawesi. As a white member of a RC religious community you come face to face with suddenly being a fragile minority from a racial, cultural, linguistic & religious point of view in a country 85% Muslim and where you are not allowed to minister in the traditional RC way: no celebration of the sacraments, no preaching and that for a member of the Order of Preachers ! Yes, a cultural shock not just for a few weeks on an exciting tourist trip but a shock to your whole system for three and half years. And then, of course, there are the other elements of change and adaptation: density of the population, transportation difficulties, food, climate, people from many different cultures and languages, etc. And then when you are just on the verge of having reached a reasonable level of adaptation, you have to leave again ! Well, Father Thomas, this past May had the courage to take up the challenge (thank you, Fr. Thomas) by moving from Mysore, Southern India, to Vancouver Island: a cultural shock in the other direction. Here he finds himself in the minority in a foreign country without his first language, a cold climate, driving on the wrong side of the road (!) and with oh so few people! Southern India has a long RC tradition dating back to the first centuries of Christianity in a culture where religious practices and devotions have always been experienced as an essential part of daily life. Coming from an area with millions of people where families with children fill large churches he comes to a place with a mostly greying congregation with an increasing number of other Asian peoples.  And then he is being asked to minister to First Nations people who have mostly abandoned Christian religious practices in order to return to traditional ways of honoring the Creator. Yes, more than two years ago our Bishop Gary asked our Parish to take up the challenge of being a missionary community and reach out to the First Nations of the Pauqu’achin, theTsartlip, the Tsaw’out, and the Tseycum. Not that the Parish was not already reaching out to them but rather to put this missionary ministry front and center of our outreach. We responded by being willing to tighten our belts even further so as to welcome another priest and give him the prime responsibility to carry out this mission. Because of my previous experience as Pastor I am acutely aware of the daunting task this represents for Fr. Thomas. Asking him to only minister on the reserves would constitute an overwhelming culture shock; a more a gradual adjustment is needed. We were blessed by the fact that, when Fr. Thomas arrived here in the Parish in June, it just happened that I was presiding at one of the few RC weddings of First Nations people at a packed St. Elizabeth’s followed a week later by a symbol-filled funeral mass of a beloved member. Fr. Thomas was present at these beautiful inculturated celebrations filled with story-telling, drums, songs and community support. Unfortunately, I know that these celebrations are going to be few and far between. As a priest he wishes to live his priesthood on a regular and ongoing basis: yes, by visiting people on the reserves, but also by celebrating the sacraments and other celebrations with our faith community here in Saanich Peninsula Parish. That is why I have invited him to celebrate the Eucharist during the week most of the time and to preside and preach often on the weekend, while continuing to do whatever he can to become known to people of the above First Nations. This does not mean that I will disappear. Even if you do not see me around at mass I continue to serve in & to our faith community preaching when I can, while also serving in French the community of St. Jean-Baptiste in Victoria. I have been blessed with relative good health; I can still function quite well I think ! I love being a Dominican priest living my priesthood and “preaching” in a variety, often non-religious, ways. As a young Dominican I was blessed by Dominican mentors such as Dominique Chenu, George-Henri Levesque, Louis-Joseph Lebret & the worker priest movement in France, and especially by a renewed Vatican theology in order to see Church and my religious vows & priesthood not just in sacramental ministry but in whatever so-called secular ministry I was undertaking at the time, whether it was in social justice ministry as a street-worker with youths, on protest lines, as an elected politician trying to change laws to protect the poor & vulnerable and to promote social housing, as a father/parent in my home trying to juggle responsibilities while guiding a dozen or so confused youths to adulthood, as a “silenced” explorer in dictator-led Indonesia and occupied East Timor (now independent Timor Leste), or in the ordinary daily mundane human & religious tasks which are part of human living. Our journeys continue and we can be sure that God accompanies us towards the future and God’s reign of justice and peace!          Shalom