In today’s Gospel Jesus is reminding His disciples “not to be troubled or afraid” when He dies, because He says, “I shall return”. Moreover, Jesus added, “when I die, I will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you . . . and give you the Peace that the world cannot give.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we reflect on our human existence and experiences, we will realise that, regardless of who we are, our lives are constantly filled with insecurities and anxieties. This is clearly because we are merely finite, weak and sinful creatures. And, one of the most basic truth about our finite nature is that we have no control over when and how you and I will one day die. Regardless of our age, we could be here today, but dead tomorrow . . . we could die in our sleep through a massive heart attack or a tragic accident or we could live even up to 95 years old . . . Thus, the surest thing in life is to know that we do NOT know how much time we have left in this world.
While this is a reality, I wonder how many of us here listening to this truth about our lives, do actually accept this truth and live in this truth. I believe it is fair for me to say that most people do not want to face the truth that we can die anytime, but instead prefer to live on the assumption that we will live to 80 or 90 years of age or longer. And with such false assumptions, we live as though we can enjoy our lives, our family, our material wealth for the next 20, 30 or 50 years of our lives and not have to bother with what will happen to us or what account we have to give to God when they die . . . In saying all these, we are not trying to instil fear in our lives, but instead appealing to each of us to affirm the reality of our human finite nature.
To turn away from the reality of our lives and live with false assumptions works for a while until one day, we fall ill . . . and have to face the reality of our medical doctor telling us the bad news that we have cancer, or our arteries are clogged up or we have Parkinson’s disease . . . and the like.
The expected reactions for most people in such cases are generally one of the denial of the truth that we are dying. However, when the illness gets more serious, we have no choice but to face the truth . . . and when this happens, the expected reaction of many of us is that we will be filled with anxieties, fear, hanging on to dear life with bitterness about life and in depression . . . and if things do not turn around, we will sink more deeply; we will find ourselves in an abyss of darkness and helplessness . . . and become even more bitter and angry with life, with everything and persons . . . including God.
Is there a way of reversing this downward spiral? Yes, certainly there is . . . this way is precisely found in today’s Gospel where Jesus tells you and me, “If you love me, My Father and I will make a home in you . . . the Holy Spirit will give you the Peace that the world cannot give . . . and this is My Gift to you.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus is asking you and I today, “Do you want this gift of lasting Peace?” To this, all of us would naturally, say, “Yes, Lord, give me that Peace”. If we truly mean what we say, then we will hear Jesus saying to us in words like, “If you truly want this Peace . . . then, do not wait till you are on your dying bed to ask for this Peace. This Peace is available to you even now, if you wish to have it.”
To this, many of us would respond, “But, Jesus, how are we to receive this Peace that the world cannot give?” To this, Jesus would most probably answer, “My friend, you are too attached to too many unimportant things in this world, including wanting to live a long life. You should instead, focus your attention and energy on loving Me more wholeheartedly every day. . . When you do this, you will surely experience the Peace that I am promising . . . and you will no longer fear the reality of when you have to face death. This is because you will know and believe that there is an Eternal Home that awaits you when you die. To know and live in this Truth, is to live in the Wisdom of having Me as your true and lasting security and thus, divine Peace in your life.
Many years ago, a friend asked me to speak to her dying Catholic friend, “Joyce” (not her real name) who has been very angry with the Church. So, I phoned Joyce and mentioned to her that her friend had asked me to visit her and speak to her. Joyce’s reply was, “Father, I must tell you that I have been very angry with the Catholic Church for more than 20 years, and I caution you that you may be disappointed if you want me to change. But, it is okay if you wish to come.” After I put the phone down, I prayed to Our Lady to intercede for the desperate needs of Joyce. After my short prayer, I was sure that Joyce will return to the Church; so, I prepared myself to administer Joyce with the Sacrament of the Sick and Holy Communion.
To make a long story short, Joyce’s anger with the Catholic Church was that the priest, who was a close friend of hers did not turn up to bless her father before he died; even though her father was not a Christian. Joyce said, “I have been very supportive and generous with the Church. How can a priest turn me down when my father who was dying needed him most? If this is how the Church is, I want to have nothing to do with the Church. I was so angry that I left the church.
When I asked Joyce for more details, I realised that the priest that she was referring to was my former Novice Director, Fr Geoffrey Murphy. I told Joyce, “Joyce, it is possible that in Fr Murphy’s busyness, he had overlooked your phone call. Moreover, did you know that at the time you phoned him, we was himself suffering from cancer?
I then added, “Joyce, actually, the reason why you were so angry with the Church for letting you down is because you love both your father and your Catholic faith very much. And so, when your father was dying, you wanted to give him the best, which to you is the blessings of a priest before he died. If you did not love either your father or your Catholic faith deeply, you would not have felt so angry for so long. And so, in all these years, it was not so much that you were unfaithful in any way for leaving the Church, but at a deeper level, it was the two deep loves of your life; your father and your faith that caused you so much pain.
To this, Joyce suddenly felt a deep peace and after a short pause said, “Father, it is true that even as I had wandered into different religions when I left the Catholic Church, deep in my heart I felt that my real home is still the Catholic Church. Joyce then paused for a few moments and then she asked me, “Father, would you hear my Confession now?” Sure, I said. After her Confession, I asked Joyce, “Do you wish to receive the Sacrament of the Sick and Holy Communion”? “Yes, Joyce replied instantly. I then called the family into the bedroom and administered the Sacraments to her.
In fact, after receiving the Sacraments, to the great surprise of Joyce’s family, she regained her strength, got out of her bed and even served me some tea and fruits. After I left Joyce’s home, Joyce’s friend told me that Joyce regained so much of her strength that she began to invite her family, relatives and friends to her home to visit her. They were all absolutely surprised at not only Joyce’s recovery, but more strikingly in the transformation that they found in her.
In the past years, Joyce had been a very critical and angry person; she was known for her short tempers and frequent outbursts. However, after receiving the Sacraments, Joyce was filled with the deep peace and joy, that Jesus in today’s Gospel says, “a Peace that the world cannot give.” In fact, Joyce even told her family, friends and relatives that now that she is at “Peace” with God, she is ready to die and return to Him. Two weeks later, Joyce passed away peacefully, and returned to her true and everlasting Home; with God.
My sisters and brother in Christ, there is much to learn from today’s Gospel, and this true story of Joyce that illustrates very well what Jesus is trying to proclaim to you and me in today. So, I would like to conclude by saying that first, today’s Gospel and homily, is not so much a focus on about “death”, but on “eternal life.”
Second, Jesus assures us that we will not be troubled in our lives and we will never live in fear, if we keep His Word in loving Him daily. In so living, the Holy Spirit will give us the divine “Peace” that the world do not and cannot give. If Joyce in our true story can experience this Peace in her deep conversion, this same Holy Spirit can do the same to each of us, and give us that same divine Peace.And so, “Do you want this gift of lasting Peace of the Holy Spirit?” If so, then Jesus would say to us, “Do NOT live by the false attachments of the secular world that will cause you to live in the fears of death and the insecurities of life. Instead, build your life on the true security of My Love.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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