Some years ago, I lived at Mill Hill in north London, but once a week I would go into downtown London to teach and, on the way, I would usually see several people begging. I had heard stories that some of these were not true beggars and that others were drug addicts and so after thinking about it, I decided that I would not give them money. On one such journey, I remember passing a young man about 20 years old, sitting on the pavement with a handwritten sign saying, “Hungry and homeless”. We made eye contact briefly, as I passed, but I walked on; however, after having turned the corner, I stopped because a thought had come to me: “What if he is genuine – and really hungry and homeless?” So, I turned back to find the young man and give him something, but when I reached the place where he had been sitting – he had gone. I just stood there and in my heart said to the Lord, “Lord, if you want me to help someone, please give me time to prepare – I am not that good at being spontaneous!” He did not answer me – at least not then.
Recently, I was preparing a homily and the memory of that young man came to mind again and also my words to the Lord – namely that he should forewarn me when he wanted me to help someone. However, this time I heard the Lord answer: “But you had already made up your mind to ignore anyone begging, without considering whether that might be me sitting there – so if you choose to live by such blanket rules, please don’t complain if I let you have your way!” I sat there humbled, for it was true, I had already made up my mind that I was not going to give money to anyone begging – and I had not considered the possibility that I might meet a genuine case and it would be the Lord himself sitting there with his hand out.
In one of his sermons, St John Chrysostom, a 4th century bishop in what is now modern-day Turkey, scolded the people of his time, who came to church to worship, but ignored the beggars who sat at the doors of the churches. He said, “How can you worship the Lord Christ at the altar, offering gold chalices and beautiful cloths for his house – and then ignore that same Christ as he sits at the door of the church asking for alms?” His words bring home very powerfully a central truth of Catholic Christianity – Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, but he is equally truly present in his people, especially those in need – as he clearly tells us in Mt 25: 31-46. Then why do we stress the one truth, but tend to pass over the other in comparative silence? This has much to do with what happened at the time of the Reformation.
The Church teaches that Christ really and truly dwells with us in three ways: in the Eucharist, in the listening to the Scriptures and in the community. No one aspect is more important than the others – for all point to the others and imply all the others. However, at the time of the Reformation, the Protestants accepted the presence of Christ in both the community and the Scriptures, but denied his true presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Thus, Catholic catechetics began to stress the true presence in the Blessed Sacrament, because the truth of this teaching was under attack, but spoke only briefly of the presence of Christ in the community and the Scriptures because this was not being challenged. As time passed, the situation normalised and the Protestant threat was not so urgent, but our way of catechetics did not change and so we came to have a rather skewed teaching on the true Presence of Christ, emphasising it in the Blessed Sacrament, but often overlooking it in the Scriptures and the community.
This has begun to be balanced out, as far as the Scriptures are concerned, over the last fifty years, since the Second Vatican Council, and we now have a much great appreciation of the Scriptures and Christ’s saving presence that comes to us through the Scriptures, but we are still some way from showing a real appreciation of his presence in the community. For instance, our Sunday services are supposed to be gatherings of the Family of God, not just my individual attendance at Mass, but our Masses are often rather cold and impersonal occasions, especially if you are a stranger to a parish. Rarely are we welcomed at the door; often we are left to find our own place to sit and the handshake of peace, which once brought in an element of friendship, has, since the bird flu scare, been reduced, in most churches, to an unsmiling nod of the head.
In our teaching, we emphasise strongly that we must fulfil our Sunday obligation by attending Mass – but we do not teach that Christ is standing there among us, waiting for a friendly smile or a kind word, with the result that he often waits in vain! If we truly believe that “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20) – then we must show it. Protestants are often much better at this than we Catholics and I have heard of Catholics, who have visited their churches and having been received with such warmth, never come back to our larger but often much more impersonal gatherings. The real presence of Christ in the community must not remain just a truth, but must become an experience – but this will only happen when each of us make it so.
This brings me back to where I started – to that young man sitting on the London pavement asking for money. If I am to meet my Lord on my journey in the many places where he stands waiting, I cannot live by hard and fast rules of “so-called” Christian behaviour. Christ demands that we be on our guard at all times, ready to greet him (Mk 13:26) ready to reach out to him wherever he appears. So, I need to listen again to St John Chrysostom and take his words to heart – I cannot just recognise Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but then ignore him in the person standing next to me. Moreover, as I discovered on my London journey, Christ will not inform me beforehand where and when he is going to ask for my love – I must stand ready or I will lose a chance to come closer to him, just as I lost the chance with that young man begging on the streets of London.
We are deep into the term at the seminary and this has brought with it extra challenges. We had five new students join us at the beginning of the year and I am having to give them extra classes so they can catch up with what they missed. Then this term, another three students joined us and they also have things in my subject that they have to catch up with. All this has to be done together with me my normal classes – so I am feeling a little bit overworked!
I came back from Sabah by plane last Sunday, after having celebrated a “Sending Mass” for two Mill Hill students who will be going to Africa, and as I boarded I was greeted by the steward – a Catholic, whom I know. He always gives a cheery welcome to the passengers and he did so this time – asking people to raise their hands to indicate whether they were from the State of Sarawak or Sabah. He then announced that the Sarawakians were in the majority! He then proceeded to welcome all to the flight and added, “We are pleased to have Father Terry Burke with us on the flight today – he is our Catholic priest from Kuching” at which I received an applause from the people – for there was a group of Catholics who had been attending a conference in Sabah – and he then added, “Father, I have not been able to get to Sunday Mass today – so I need to go to confession!” At which there was a great cheer from the Catholics aboard – what the others thought of it all I cannot say.